As the old adage goes: if you love something, set it free. And as Nick Hakim has realized, that also applies to your art.
Hakim, a D.C. native with a velvety, enveloping voice reminiscent of the great soul singers of the past, is in his home in the Ridgewood area of Queens, New York – a new neighborhood in a city he has called home for the last few years. And although the living quarters are different, the old lessons still remain: you can’t try to control what people think or say about your work – all you can do is make it your best.
“That’s a rule that’s important to understand or else it’ll drive you crazy,” he says with a knowing laugh. Now in his mid twenties and a whole lot wiser, Hakim’s star has been burning increasingly brightly year over year thanks to his genre-bending style, soothing voice, and achingly emotional guitar playing. His first two EPs, Where Will We Go, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2 were extremely well-received, and by the time he released his debut full-length Green Twins this past Spring, his work could be heard from NPR to Pitchfork to HBO – and not always in the context it was written in.
“There was a song used of mine in a TV show during an online sex scene. And that song is really, really not about sex.” Hakim laughs, before letting out a deep, slightly bemused sigh over the phone.
“But you can’t always try to control the narrative, you know?”
Brightest Young Things: When we spoke a few years ago, you talked about the need to “unlearn” things you had been taught at Berkeley. How far along that process are you now?
Hakim: I don’t know. It’s funny – it’s interesting because I feel like you kind of go through phases and I don’t know if it’s self-conscious or so, you know what I mean? I think this applies especially for any kind of institutionalized learning. When you step out of a safe environment like being in school you kind of have to learn things the hard way or however you do learn them and I think that there’s no real rules.
It’s funny that you asked that question because I’m actually going through all of my old notebooks, because I tend to like write stuff down and never look back on them. I have like 15 notebooks since 2009 that I’ve been looking through all this week.
BYT: Wow. Do you write stuff out in words in your notebooks, or are you more of a visualizer?
Hakim: I do a lot of doodles, and I don’t know – I kind of have a lot of different things. A lot of like lists and weird drawings between the lists and strange illustrations within there. [Laughs]
BYT: I ask because a lot of your lyrics paint pretty vivid pictures. The songs you create have sonic and lyrical atmospheres, with a lived-in world full of characters. So I figured that you drew some shit just because of the way that the songs play out.
Hakim: Before I got into music I was really, really, really into visual arts. That was kind of my thing in high school and middle school, so I’ve always kind of been interested in and expressed myself visually. I’ve always drawn a lot.
BYT: On a related note, what was the inspiration behind the cover art for Green Twins? People say that the eyes are the window to the soul, and in this image you’ve got an eye staring at its own reflection in a mirror. Can you talk a little more about that?
Hakim: So the guy that actually made the art work – we had a bunch of conversations about what I was envisioning, and I had a mood board that I had created for it. It was a lot of that; a lot of him listening to me and creating something based off of our conversations. That’s what we came up with. I didn’t really have to direct him too much, you know? We had a conversation and then that’s what he created. And the coloring was like something where he showed me ten different versions of the cover in terms of shading and the color and texture and all you know it went through a lot of different iterations.
You played an early version of “Green Twins” at your Sofar Sounds show as far back as 2014. It’s the title and opening track of your debut album, released just a few months ago, in 2017. Why did you hold onto this specific song so long?
Hakim: Well yeah, yeah – that kind of has everything to do with the fact that there’s things you have that you’ve written and worked on for a long time. I think a lot of other musicians and creative people can attest to this. Sometimes people write faster than I do, but my process has been very sporadic for the Green Twins record. You know. I wrote that song soon after I moved to New York, which was in 2013. It’s like saying anything else – it’s just kind of like it just was part of a body of work that I was working on.
BYT: Do you feel like that song in a way informed the rest of the record? Obviously the title to some degree would indicate as much – or is it just more a collection of different songs?
Hakim: A little bit of both. I mean they all kind of fall under a specific theme where they’re all based on an expansion of what was going on in my life, you know. In that sense, it’s cohesive – it’s not super conceptual in the sense like this second of the song reflects on this part of the other song or the like.
Obviously, there are parts where I definitely intended to make things sound cohesive and to make things sound like a little we created – our own little world.
BYT: Some songs are definitely in conversation with each other.
Hakim: For sure – there’s definitely a good concept for that. But the lyrical content is all over the place, although most of them have to do with reflecting, you know? They’re kind of like about dreams I had, or about the self-conscious kind of things that we sometimes forget if we don’t think about it too much.
BYT: It’s always interesting to interview an artist at different points in their career, and I’m lucky to have spoken to you and a few other people as they have evolved as musicians. At the time of our last interview, your EP had just come out and you were about to play your first major hometown show at U Street Music Hall. Now you’re playing major festivals and just did a Pitchfork livecast. How are you handling the increased fame? How do you feel about it?
Hakim: [Laughs] I mean, I’m fine – I’m just honestly trying to work on other songs and doing kind of what I’ve always been doing. You know, it’s really amazing that things have been going really well; I have no complaints to be honest. I’m living how I want to be living, based around expressing myself. I’m absolutely blessed to sit here and talk to you about my decisions. [Laughs incredulously] You know – I’m not like living glamorously, but I’m able to work for myself. I’m not like, making a shit load of money right now, but I definitely can pay my rent and it feels good to be able to do whatever I want creatively and like to just… my whole mantra is to explore. To think about what I can do creatively with the tools I have around me.
I feel like I have a real responsibility with that. I don’t want to waste any energy or time it’s like you know I just want to keep doing what I’ve been doing. I kind of feel like this is just what, this is what I need to be doing. It feels good. It feels good, man. Maybe if you hit me up in like a few months, shit will have hit the fan. I don’t know. [Laughs]
BYT: You have met a few other like-minded creatives in New York. You put on a show with Phony Ppl and Princess Nokia – awesome artists, and all people of color. Do you feel like it’s particularly important for artists of color to band together? Or are you just friends with them because they’re making rad shit and it doesn’t matter? Are there political undertones to this?
Hakim: Yeah, a little bit of both. I think that in New York there’s just a real energy that people who live here feed into. It’s not necessarily not like they don’t have banners or protests signs, but their music is really fucking politically charged without it even being intentionally so, maybe. I don’t know; maybe it is intentional for some of this music, but I don’t know.
It is important for people of color to band together but I also feel like it’s just as important for everyone to have a safe space if they want to be a part of a safe space. It’s also important to correct people in certain situations – in the sense of like if you see somebody doing something fucked up or if you hear somebody saying something that you don’t agree with, or that’s like low-key offensive or racist. Correct them. Just fucking tell them, you know?
You know it’s interesting, man. It’s an interesting climate. I think New York though – it’s just like the energy here, I think there’s a lot of music that kind of just has that undertone with it without it even like saying that it’s political. Like just Nokia rapping about all the shit she talks about is political within itself. I know that she gets a lot of backlash too at the same time, but I think that’s also part of when people don’t get. [laughing] I don’t know. I’ve also heard different things.
I’m not trying to talk shit, so. I’m just saying like I just heard people also on the other side say about her appropriating certain cultures and I was like “oh shit”. But I’m not necessarily trying to emphasize that because I think she’s a young chick from New York and she’s just doing her, she’s just expressing herself.
BYT: Yeah, yeah. I’m Dominican, and Afro-Caribbean myself, and I think she’s doing some dope-ass Afro-Caribbean witch shit, you know? I fuck with it. I respect her for putting it on the map.
Hakim: That’s that’s the whole thing that I think some people get offended by it. I think some people are actually just looking for reasons to complain.
BYT: Yeah. [Laughing]
Hakim: But I don’t know. I think that at the same time this is a moment to talk about these things and not bash anybody if they’re politically incorrect. However a lot of people should spend the time educating themselves on everything that’s going on and just being aware of what’s happening. I think that’s important. It’s kind of hard sometimes to be completely aware of everything because it’s so depressing – between what happens in D.C. and the political climate overall.
But that’s definitely feeding a lot of people though to express themselves in a certain way, and I really enjoy it. I think there are certain artists that don’t need to necessarily write a politically charged song, but them just writing songs about love or songs about whatever they want to talk about can be political in its own right. There’s just so many avenues that can be categorized as political.
This interview originally ran October 4, 2017