Tomo: Songwriting, Doubts and Inspiration

Tomo Nakayama of Grand Hallway

by Rasmus Rasmussen on July 13, 2010

I almost never met Tomo Nakayama. When I was supposed to, his quiet demeanor fooled me into not recognizing the Japanese born singer and songwriter. He is the front man in Seattle based indie band, Grand Hallway, whose recent album “Promenade” has been getting some well-deserved attention and airplay. Luckily, he recognized my ugly mug, and we had a great conversation about inspiration and creativity.

Grand Hallway is an eight-man orchestra with an enormous landscape of sound. In the middle is Tomo, like a humble host who invites you along on a musical journey. The music is complex and honest at the same time, which is pretty much the feeling you get around Tomo. The band’s latest release is a DVD shot at The Triple Door, where Grand Hallway got to work with the Seattle Rock Orchestra and the Perkins School Children’s Choir, and their music is a perfect match for such a large production – close to 50 performers on stage at the same time.

Make sure you check out the music video to the track “Blessed Be, Honey Bee”, embedded in the sidebar of this post.

AP: As a song-writer, how much of the creative process do you do on your own, and how much is shared in the band? What does the creative process look like?

TN: The writing process is very much a dialogue between myself and the band. Often, I will bring in half-written melodies and lyrical ideas just to see what kind of response I get from the band. This results in an extended improvisation that sounds like a traffic jam, but someone usually comes up with two or three melodic or rhythmic ideas that pushes the song into a new direction. What often ends up happening is I will then scrap the initial idea and write something else entirely, beginning to end, and those are the songs that end up sticking. So looking at the end product from an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that I am writing alone, but without that initial spark of inspiration and collaboration from my bandmates, it would not be possible. Once the song is “written”, that is to say, structured so that it would stand on its own with a single guitar and voice, we begin the process of arranging. This is where everyone in the band contributes to write parts that fit together as a whole. That’s about as specific as I can get without overexplaining the process, because I don’t really understand it completely either.

AP: How do you overcome your inner critic? What is your internal process like?

TN: I recently read an interview with Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, who described feeling overcome with self-doubt and depression in a season in which he was hitting .342, because he felt he could do better. That’s an extraordinarily high average for any other hitter, but he was not satisfied until he reached his own personal standard of excellence. Though I’m nowhere near the level of Ichiro in my field, I can understand his mindset. That kind of pursuit of perfection can be maddening, because on one hand you do not want to be arrogant nor play down your past accomplishments, but in order to reach one’s own standard of excellence you must always strive for more. The only thing I know how to do, and the only way I know I am successful in what I do, is to stay absolutely true to who I am, and to remember that can be a struggle sometimes.

AP: Your latest release is a live performance DVD from Seattle’s Triple Door, where you worked with the Seattle Rock Orchestra and Perkins School Children’s Choir. How did that come about?

TN: That concert at the Triple Door and the prior concert at the Fremont Abbey were the product of sheer luck and synchronicity. We were lucky enough to meet the people in charge of both groups, right around the time of our record release, so that gave the show a lot of momentum. It took a lot of planning and orchestration, but it was worth the hard work. Just a complete dream come true for all of us, I think. There is nothing that compares with the sheer joy and energy of 50 people all working together to perform the same song.

AP: You are doing pretty well without the backing of a major label, both in terms of getting press, airplay and performing at some top venues. How do you handle promotion and marketing?

TN: This past year and half has been a huge learning experience, and I am grateful for the amount of success the record has achieved. It just requires a whole lot of hard work, patience, and diligence. I’ve been surprised to learn just how much of the music business a band is able to handle on their own these days, with the help of the internet and listeners who are much more tuned into the independent scene than, say, even 5 or 10 years ago. That being said, there are still advantages to having a respected record label vouching for and promoting your music, and we still hope to have that someday. But until we find the scenario which is right for us and right for our music, we will continue to do what we can, on our own.

AP: You’ve toured in vans, slept on people’s floors and seem to enjoy every minute of it. What is it about touring and playing live that makes it worth all the hard work?

TN: As much fun as writing and recording music is, I feel like the process of creation is not complete until the song is delivered to the listener, in flesh and blood. The most gratifying feeling is playing our songs for people, looking them in the eyes and knowing that they’ve chosen to spend a couple hours of their lives to come listen to us. That connection is something that you can’t get from a video or an mp3, or a blog or even a direct message on Twitter. And that connection also extends to my bandmates. Playing in our basement is fun, but to live and breathe music with the same 8 people for weeks at a time, you get to a whole different level of communication and that in turn is reflected in the music, I think. I also really enjoy seeing different parts of the country. I don’t think I can say that it makes me want to live anywhere other than Seattle, but it’s a nice way to see the world outside one’s immediate neighborhood. It reminds you that there are good people wherever you go.

AP: You’ve said elsewhere, that you hope people walk away from your concerts feeling inspired to pursue some artistic endeavor of their own. Of all the things you could hope for, why this?

TN: I have friends who are chefs, carpenters, teachers, computer engineers, film makers, ghost hunters, parents… Whatever walks of life, and however obscure their interests, I am constantly inspired whenever I hear them talk about the things they are passionate about. There is a certain way a person’s eyes light up when they talk about something they genuinely love. Their voice becomes clearer, more certain and animated. It is real and it is undeniable. And seeing their passion makes me want to work harder on my own art, which just happens to be music. I think that is the purpose of art, isn’t it? To share with others our existence, to revel in our wonderment and awe and love and loneliness and hope and despair and all the things that make life worth living. And I hope my music can convey that to our listeners.

For more about Grand Hallway and Tomo Nakayama, visit the band’s website. They are also on Facebook and MySpace.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joel Bagby July 13, 2010 at 9:47 am

Rasmus,
Thank you again for inviting us along when you go visiting. Tomo, thank you for your inspired thoughts on the process of becoming, it is not only our work that becomes art, but we ourselves become more “art-like”. Soul food for sure.
-Joel

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