Living his dream, Japanese American singer makes screen debut

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

Tomo Nakayama (center) with his band Grand Hallway

I met Tomo Nakayama shortly after 9/11 at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre where I was reviewing a movie and he was letting the critics in. Since then, he’s proved to be a globetrotting man of many talents, releasing three full-lenth albums with his band. He’s preparing to make his motion picture debut in “Touchy Feely,” from Seattle director Lynn Shelton, due in theaters on Sept. 6.

The film, which was screened at Sundance Film Festival, was nominated for the grand jury prize.

Born in the Japan, Nakayama came to the United States at a young age but never felt out of place.

Tomo Nakayama makes his film debut this September in “Touchy Feely.”

“I was born in Kochi, Japan,” Tomo said, “and lived in a suburb of Tokyo called Machida until the age of 8, when I moved to Seattle with my family. My father had family here, and my mother was an English major in college, so it was both of their dreams to live and raise their kids in the U.S. I didn’t speak any English when I moved here, but there’s such a strong Asian community in Seattle that I never felt out of place.”

“I always loved music growing up,” he continued.  “I started on viola in elementary school orchestra, then eventually took up guitar and started writing songs. I taught myself how to play the piano, drums, and bass, just to add parts to my own demo recordings.”

And while Nakayama may be Japanese American, but he hasn’t let that define him.

“I’m not sure that my identity affected my outlook so much as it’s affected other people’s outlook of who I am and what my music should sound like,” he said. “But I’ve learned it’s really fun to subvert those expectations and open people’s minds through music.”

Tomo studied film at the University of Washington — “It made me think of music in more visual terms, and I think that comes out in my songs” — but never forgot music.  His first band was called Asahi, formed with a few friends from college. “Our first show was at a friend’s birthday party where there were maybe five people watching,” Tomo said. “Nonetheless, it was so much fun playing music with other people, and I knew from that point on that it was what I wanted to do with my life.”

“None of us had any experience playing and touring, so it was definitely a trial by error,” he continued. “Those were formative years and I definitely learned some very important lessons about how to record and release music, and to book shows and perform on stage.”

The musician and film-lover stumbled sideways into acting. “I played drums for a country rock band called The Maldives,” he recalled, “and they were featured a few years ago in an MTV webseries called ‘$5 Cover,’ which Lynn [Shelton] directed. We became acquainted through that, and one day she came to a concert where I sang a Judy Garland song with no instrumental accompaniment.”

“And every time I saw Lynn after that, she kept mentioning that performance and how it affected her,” he continued. “Then one day she called me out of the blue and told me she’d written a part for me in her new script and asked if I would consider singing and acting in her movie. I admired her work from ‘Humpday’ and ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ so of course I said yes.”

“I was completely amazed and humbled to be part of such a great cast, and they were all very down to earth and supportive of each other,” he continued. “My character, Henry, is someone who has been unable to sing because of a chronic jaw condition, and because of it I think he feels a little lost in life. I could relate to that feeling from different points in my own life when I didn’t have a band or an avenue to express myself. So it was a very cathartic process in a way to be able to play this person who overcomes his problems and rediscovers what he loves to do most in his life. Lynn creates such a relaxed, creative environment on her sets that it wasn’t as scary or intimidating as it could have been. Still it was a completely surreal experience.”

“I’d always played music just because it was what I love to do,” Nakayama said.  “I’d never imagined that I’d be able to do it for a living, or that I’d have the opportunities that I’ve had over the years in both music and film. It feels like little by little it’s becoming a reality and I feel really grateful for that.” (end)

For more information on Tomo Nakayama’s current musical projects, visit

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at

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