Tomo Nakayama: From Grand Hallway to Seattle’s Great Hall

By Signe Predmore
Northwest Asian Weekly

These days, you might catch snatches of guitar and piano melodies in odd corners of Town Hall at all hours, not only during their music programming.  

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Tomo Nakayama fills the Great Hall inside Seattle’s Town Hall with piano music. (Photo by Sue Misao/NWAW)

“We’ll be taking a meeting in the lobby and hear this beautiful music coming down the hall because he’s composing on the piano,” said Stesha Brandon, Town Hall’s program director. The source of that music is Tomo Nakayama, Town Hall’s current artist-in-residence.

Nakayama, originally from Kochi, Japan, has been a fixture of the Seattle arts scene for years.  While he’s played with several local bands, including Sera Cahoone and the Maldives, he’s probably best known for Grand Hallway, the chamber pop music project he led from 2005 to 2013.

The influence of the Northwest environment resonates through the band’s delicate, theatrical songs, which have titles like “Seward Park,” “Raindrops,” and “North Cascades.”

Tomo is also known for his acting debut in Seattle director Lynn Shelton’s film, “Touchy Feely,” which was nominated for a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year. In the movie, Nakayama plays a love-struck barista, a role that was inspired by his actual circumstances at the time.

Since dissolving Grand Hallway last year, Nakayama has been working on a solo album that he hopes to release this autumn.

“I’m interested in a more minimalist approach this time around, focusing on the most essential elements to convey the idea of the song,” he said of his latest work. “I’m self-recording everything as I write in order to capture each idea in its most immediate form.”

Tomo wrote and recorded songs in state parks over the winter, including Cama Beach and Wallace Falls.  Just as he was looking for his next site, the residency invitation from Town Hall appeared.

“The timing was perfect,” said Nakayama. “It’s been interesting going from the really pastoral, bucolic setting of a state park to an urban, historic setting like Town Hall and seeing how that change in scenery informs the songwriting.”

Tomo has apparently taken well to the new environment. He says that he’s written more songs there in the past two months than in the previous year.

“Just having access to such a beautiful building and their Steinway pianos, and having the time to really focus on my music has been a tremendous gift,” Nakayama said.

The residency program at Town Hall began in the fall of 2012. Two sets of artists- and scholars-in-residency are chosen each year, in the fall and spring. The scholar-in-residence this spring is the Rainier Scholars, a nonprofit that helps high-achieving students of color make it to college.

Brandon said the residencies are part of the institution’s general effort “to subvert the normal performance paradigm, where people sit passively in the audience to watch a performance or lecture.” Artists-in-residence are encouraged to attend Town Hall programs as audience members, particularly those outside their own genre or interests, but also to publicly present their own work and their “findings” from their time in residence.

Residents are chosen by a team of Town Hall administrators who look at up-and-coming artists doing interesting work, especially those that could benefit from a little support.

“Tomo has been an ideal resident,” said Brandon. “Each artist makes it their own, and the program is open-ended for just that sort of thing, but he has really taken it to heart. He’s been in the building at all times of day, to attend programming, but also to work here.”

At the start of the residency, Tomo was given a set of keys and a schedule of events, so he knows when the various rooms will be in use. Other than that, he can come and go as he pleases to write and record his songs.

Aside from using the building as a workspace, Nakayama has found inspiration in the cultural programming he’s attended. For instance, fiction writer George Saunders’ thoughts on the process of finding one’s creative voice resonated strongly with Tomo.

“I could relate with the peculiar feeling of discovery, of realizing that the thing that makes you most unique are often right in front of your face, and not that remarkable in your own eyes,” Nakayama writes in his blog.

He also found relatable aspects of the Urban Poverty Forum and Supreme Court Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s presentation, as well as a program on the life of Kurt Cobain.

“By listening to each other’s stories, we find common hopes and struggles that make us human,” Nakayama writes.

“George Saunders had a great quote on this, “Reading softens the borders between ‘you’ and ‘me.’” This softening of the borders, and development of empathy towards others, seems to be the common thread in the programs I’ve attended so far at Town Hall.”

On Tuesday, April 29, Nakayama will take the stage at Town Hall himself. He’s hosting a Scratch Night, where he will debut some of the songs he’s been working on, and also hold a discussion on songwriting with three of his favorite local musicians — Kevin Murphy of The Moondoggies, Hanna Benn of Pollens, and Grant Olsen of Gold Leaves and Arthur&Yu. Afterwards, the party will move to Capitol Hill Cider for an interactive open mic night. Tomo says he hopes the evening will be “a fun, informative, and free-flowing event” that will “demystify the [songwriting] process a little bit for people.” (end)

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