“The Simplicity of Just Trying To Be Kind”: An Interview With Nick Hakim

Ross Olson connects with Nick Hakim to talk about about collaboration, reflecting on early creative works, being inspired by dreams, and his latest album, 'Cometa.'
By    January 11, 2023

Image via Jack McKain

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Dr. Jerome Motto was an American psychiatrist known for his influential work in the field of suicide prevention. In the late 1960s, alongside his colleague and statistician Alan Bolstrom, Motto founded what’s known as the Care Letter system, which consisted of sending brief, typewritten notes to patients recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital and believed to be at-risk of suicide. The letters were designed to alleviate social isolation and initiate basic human connection, but at its core, they served as gentle reminders that someone cared about their well-being. The system proved effective. Over the next two years, patients who were sent the letters committed suicide about half the time compared with those in the control group who didn’t receive any correspondence.

For Motto, working with that many suicidal individuals throughout his career meant that he developed a sort of emotional immunity to the tragedies, but there was one self-inflicted death he still couldn’t shake. The psychiatrist was searching the home of a man who jumped off the Golden Gate bridge in the 1970s, and came across a note left behind on his dresser that contained a harrowing admission. The man would not have jumped had someone bothered to smile at him on his walk over to the bridge. 

This uniquely-American brand of acute human indifference comes to mind when watching the music video for “Happen,” the first single from Nick Hakim’s latest album, Cometa. The video, which was shot at director Roy Andersson’s Studio 42 in Stockholm, depicts the many anonymous faces that often make up daily public transit. Directed by Johan Carlsson, the camera pans across individual faces on a train car displaying various levels of expression, from stoic and contemplative to animated and full-of-life. The video ends with Hakim sporting a shaved head and staring solemnly into the camera, as if beckoning the viewer to consider the way we think about, and treat, the everyday people we encounter.

The deeply humane undertones of the “Happen” video are commonplace throughout Hakim’s catalog. Since the late 2010s, Hakim has forged a brand of sprawling psychedelic soul that pulls on heartstrings and captures the most volatile elements of the human condition. Song topics range from the frightening vulnerability of falling in love to profound loss and the aching grief that follows. Hakim’s gentle crooning registers barely above a whisper at times, and serves as delicate brush strokes on vibrant canvases that blurs the lines of R&B, jazz, funk, and psych rock.

Hakim grew up in Washington, DC to parents of Chilean and Peruvian descent. Eclectic sounds often filled the air in his childhood home, from the timeless soul music of the 60s and 70s to hardcore, go-go and reggae. Taking in these wide-ranging styles and influences, Hakim’s early forays into music entailed teaching himself piano as a teenager and recording tracks with his brother who contributed on guitar. 

The music programs at Hakim’s local high school served as a creative safe haven for the young musician, who struggled with formal academics and often felt intellectually deficient to that of his classmates. Hakim credits his music teachers as instrumental in contributing to his growth and recognizing the deep devotion he exhibited toward his craft, which culminated in attending Berklee College of Music, initially as a music therapy major. The renowned music institution provided a communal forum for Hakim, who forged valuable friendships and connections that still persist to this day, including with Adrienne Lenker of Big Thief. Hakim released his first two projects while still at Berklee, the EP series Where We Will Go Pt. 1 & 2, in 2014. But it was the release of his proper debut, Green Twins, in 2017 that showcased a prodigal talent with a penchant for swooning melodies and a falsetto capable of causing the most emotionally-hardened person to forfeit their protective walls. From the atmospheric textures of “Bet She Looks Like You” to the slow-burning wail of “Needy Bees,” the album is sensual in nature, exploring feelings of desire and longing for true interpersonal connection. 

Diverse collaboration has long been integral to Hakim’s creative philosophy, and Cometa is no different. Contributions range from indie giants Alex G and Helado Negro to rap hitmaker DJ Dahi, a move that – along with a feature on Pink Siifu’s 2021 album Gumbo’!! – could signal a diversion toward more hip-hop collaborations in the future. However, it’s Hakim’s affectionate songwriting and bare musings on the weightless jubilance of love that propels the record to emotional new heights. Cometa marks another artistic achievement in a resume that is quickly growing with them. I caught up with Nick to talk about collaboration, reflecting on early creative works, being inspired by dreams, and his latest album. – Ross Olson

Congrats on the new record. How does the feeling of dropping at this stage in your career compare to earlier releases like Green Twins and Will This Make Me Good? Are the emotions still the same?

Nick Hakim: Yeah. Sometimes there’s two sides for me. I feel really relieved, and I also feel really vulnerable. And then I was like I just want to start working on the next thing immediately. So that’s kind of where I’m at right now.

Are you not one to sit still after you drop something? Are you kind of antsy to get started on something else?

Nick Hakim: I think that’s how it’s been. I always have moments of finding rest within that. But I think I always have to be working on something or else I’ll get distracted with other things.

When did you first begin conceptualizing Cometa?

Nick Hakim: I started like August 2020, September 2020. I didn’t have this grand idea of what I wanted to do or what it would be. Like anything I’ve ever made, it just kind of fell into place. All the pieces fell into place. That’s kind of part of the concept, just seeing what happens when you sit down in front of instruments without having a pre-thought or a concept. It’s just an approach I’ve always kind of had when I make music.

A number of the songs on Cometa seem to have fluid structures and feel almost weightless. Was this just a natural manifestation of the original ideas you were working on from the beginning?

Nick Hakim: Yeah I would say so.

Was there more of an emphasis on capturing a mood and feeling rather than thinking about structure?

Nick Hakim: I think a little bit of both. I think one of the main things with this is how the voice sits. How the vocals sound, and the lack of effects they have on them. Or like minimal effects. Some of it is pretty affected, but I would say the clarity of my voice I think was a big part of this record and trying to emphasize that. Being completely bone-dry on some tracks. Being very bold or direct lyrically and sonically in where I’m sitting in the mix or where I’m sitting to the listener, which for years was myself. So it was like, just trying to make it so I’m right here, and not back there.

Some of your previous work delves into not being selfish with your partner and putting their needs first, whether it be physical or emotional. Is this one more about yourself and kind of giving into the vulnerability love can bring out of you?

Nick Hakim: Yeah I think it’s like not trying to think too much about how I say it. Just saying things that come naturally. I feel like it’s very joyful. It’s not really sad. It’s all pretty celebratory in a way. This journey of like, my own kind of process of dealing with different people, not just romantically, but friendships and how it translates to how I operate with someone. I love people, I really do. I consider myself a people person. I thrive with my friends and being able to talk to people and having someone to share with what’s on my mind and vice versa.

There’s moments of feeling really lonely on this record too. It’s kind of weird, it’s like two separate, polar opposite energies of feeling this exciting thing. There’s a part of it that’s really sad, and wanting to feel this exciting thing with something or someone. I think sometimes there’s a lot of emptiness. Like most of us, we all go through a lot of ups and downs. It’s interpreting that, and making it into these songs. I would never think that people would want to hear them. I’m grateful to do this regardless.

I think that’s a good segue into the video for “Happen,” which I think is very powerful. I think we as a society tend to not think about the everyday people we pass by on the street who are going through their own shit. How did you come up with the concept for that video?

Nick Hakim: That was Johan Carlsson. He had this idea for showing people on the train in slow motion. I was just like ‘that is one of the most perfect, kind of fake, but also abstract kind of way of pulling this visual of this song to life in a way that felt so right.’ He’s incredible, he’s so smart. I went to Stockholm to do that video with them.

How was that experience?

Nick Hakim: It was so quick. We did it in like three days, or two days. I was so jet-lagged. I arrived in Stockholm from New York and immediately went to the studio at 8 in the morning. For me it was like 3 or 4 in the morning. It was crazy because I started working immediately. I drank so much coffee just to operate. But I also was operating based off adrenaline and excitement.

I read that you would write and build song ideas around dreams that you had, which is impressive because I feel like it’s hard to remember your dreams most of the time. Do you try to write while an idea or emotion is fresh?

Nick Hakim: I used to be in the habit of writing down right when I woke up, or voice memo-ing. A lot of songs and concepts were things that would happen, and dreams that I would be like ‘this is so crazy.’ They were so vivid. I used to have recurring ones. It was this really strange kind of thing that was calling me to make something out of it, or listen to it. These really strange kind of visuals that I would have. Sometimes I dream things so real that I will forget that it was a dream. I would think that it actually happened. On the first song on the record [“Ani”], I’m like ‘I can’t tell if you’re real or if I’m dreaming.’ I still kind of play around with ideas of the subconscious and the idea of something and the reality of something. These kinds of extremities of how we process. It’s a whole other realm of the little things that go on in the back of your mind. It’s something to document and pay attention to.

Other than dreams and recurring thoughts and emotions, are there any other kind of different muses you channel when you start writing songs?

Nick Hakim: Yeah, romantic partner. Whoever I’m with at the time is definitely a muse. Family members. Sometimes really direct people. Everyday people you see on the subway. There is a lot of recurring themes around friends that passed. Reflecting on loss. Reflecting on how to process death and religion. How to process alcoholism. How to process substance abuse. And also other people I know that have issues with abandonment. Also really positive things like romance and love. Seeing that and feeling that.

The first song on my last album is called “All These Changes.” I think on that record I was trying to write about stuff that I hadn’t written about in songs that have come out. But I was like ‘let me focus on making the themes be a little different.’ So I started writing a song about how each urban city I’ve ever been to is changing so much with gentrification. Indirect and direct gentrification. These terms that have to do with an area that is changing and what it does to the communities that have been there for a while. It expanded into me talking about how mother Earth is freaking the fuck out and going crazy and going mad again. I tried to make these songs about that. A friend of mine passed away in 2018.

Sorry about that, man.

Nick Hakim: Thank you. We all lose people. We’re all going to lose people. We’re all going to have to deal with death. I think it’s sad when somebody so young decides they don’t want to be here anymore. It’s a thing that a lot of people battle. It just affects me so much when it’s someone that doesn’t want to be here anymore. I wrote a song dedicated to him, but also dedicated to a more abstract, broad way of looking at how we interact with one another. I think one thing that really affected me was, when we interact with one another, you don’t know. Everyone has some internal battle going on. The simplicity of just trying to be kind. Everybody has their struggles. Everyone has their insecurities. But also everyone has their light and positive things about them too that make us human. I think about Robin Williams sometimes. It breaks my heart thinking about his character. He brought so much joy to everyone, but he was so sad.

You would have no idea from the outside. “Quadir” is one of my favorites from your last record. That one was very moving.

Nick Hakim: I’ll never forget I played that for Ali Shaheed Muhammad. I literally will never forget this. He just came into the studio. I was working with Dylan Wiggins, and Dylan was like sharing a studio that was in the same building as his uncle, Raphael Saadiq. Ali Shaeed Muhammad was across the hall. I played that song for Dylan, and Dylan asked Ali Shaeed Muhammad to come in and he listened to it. It was two days after I did the vocals. I’ll never forget his reaction. He was just like ‘wow man. That’s some real heavy shit I feel like you’re going through.’ It was one of my first times sharing it. I’m just a big fan.

I’m sure hearing that from him was probably pretty crazy.

Nick Hakim: Definitely. I’m really proud of that song. There are vivid memories to writing those pieces. I’ll never forget writing those chords and then making a little demo on my four track with just Wurlitzer and vocal. The lyrics were a little different. Even with “Happen” on my latest record. That was such a special recording to make. I’m really grateful to be able to do this, but also I don’t really know what I’m doing sometimes. But I do.

I feel lucky that I get to have some vulnerability with the things that I see. I also feel like I just want to keep getting better. That’s the main goal. I just want to make better songs, make better records. A lot of it is about acceptance as well. I’ll hear a recording of me in my 20s or when I was like 19 and I’ll just be like ‘ooh.’ It used to be so hard for me to listen to stuff like that. I’m sure with you it’s the same thing reflecting on old work.

Oh yeah. Cringe.

Nick Hakim: I got to a place. I’m not gonna bump it, but if it ever comes on I could be like “that’s like a different person,” you know? You were such a different person back then.

Before I’d be like ‘I don’t wanna look at the shit I wrote four or five years ago.’ But even if it sucked, I’m glad I did it. Because it put you in a position to get better and grow for the next thing you’re working on.

Nick Hakim: You need stuff like that to grow. Even if it’s not the greatest thing you ever made, that’s alright. And then there’s like the whole thing of seeing an idea through. How can you know if it’s a horrible idea if you haven’t like fully dove into it?

100%. It seems like collaboration is a big part of the creative process for you. Does it kind of keep things fresh to go from doing a jazz record with Roy Nathanson to working with someone like DJ Dahi?

Nick Hakim: Yeah I mean that’s just the reality of the people I’m surrounded by. It’s not like I’ve done this intentionally, but it’s just naturally been this range of generations of different people. Learning from each of these people, that’s just naturally how it’s happened. I don’t really think twice when it comes to the opportunity to meet someone. You could bring up Roy. Roy has been a mentor, and a friend. Such a positive figure in my life for the past five years. I got to know him really well. I’ve learned so much from him.

Someone like Dahi, I’ve admired his work for a long time as well. He’s just so good at creating things from scratch. He’s such a good dude. He’s easy to talk to. We finally made it happen. Sending stuff back and forth. He’s a fan of my records. We’re just fans of each other’s work. That’s kind of the foundation of how we went. It’s all just natural. That’s an important thing. It’s enjoyable. It’s not like pulling teeth. With these kinds of things, it’s just kind of letting things be what they are.

That seems like the ethos of the Onyx Collective from the outsider perspective. It just seems like a breeding ground for creativity and artistic freedom and expression. Would you say that’s the experience you’ve had working with them and being a part of it?

Nick Hakim: Absolutely. It’s very free. It’s accepting, it’s never felt pretentious. It’s really abstract. They have a practice space on the rooftop of this apartment building, right next to the Manhattan Bridge. It’s on Market Street. I wrote the last song in their little shed. That’s why it’s called “Market.”

I was gonna ask if that was the similar culture when you were at Berklee. Was it pretty collaborative? Or were people more competitive and kind of looking out for themselves?

Nick Hakim: I think I had a unique experience there. I wasn’t competitive. I didn’t have the skillset to be competitive with anyone there. It was a competitive environment for certain people, but for me I kind of kept to myself and have friends that I made that I stuck with. I met Adrianne Lenker there. We’re still really close friends.

You guys were there at the same time?

Nick Hakim: We were there at the same time, and had the same band. We used to rehearse in her house. She would rehearse first. I would rehearse second. And then we would do shows together all the time.

The Berklee alums is an endless list of talent from what it seems like.

Nick Hakim: Yeah there’s a lot of good people who went there. I’m grateful I went there. I enjoyed my time there very much. It was definitely hard. I was gonna drop out like five different times, but I ended up finishing.

Did it help you feel more confident in your instruments and writing songs?

Nick Hakim: A little bit. I went to school for voice. I didn’t go for any instrument. I didn’t have private lessons with guitar. I started playing guitar when I was 21. I started playing piano when I was like 17. I still consider myself somewhat self-taught on piano. I studied theory and all that shit. That really helped me with my writing. Just being able to communicate with musicians I was playing with. I learned so much there. I didn’t really have many options for college. I got denied from everywhere.

It was the only place that really accepted me. I wanted to go there because I knew I wanted to make music. I knew that I wanted to write songs. When I was there, it really felt like I was trying to understand a vocabulary. Like I was trying to understand a language. It was so bizarre to me because I had no context to it. I had some understanding of some basic theory, but I went there as a vocalist and I could play a little piano. I couldn’t even play guitar yet. I just found my people and kept to myself in a way and worked on my first EPs.

You’ve talked about how you had some struggles in school at a young age. What was it about playing music in particular that you found comforting and that you found some refuge in?

Nick Hakim: I had this thing in my head that I was stupid, you know? I actually thought that. Like I’m in special ed. I’m dumb. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go to college. If I do, I’ll just go to like UDC (University of the District of Columbia Community College). Not to disrespect UDC. I actually think that they have good programs there. A big part of it was my family having music around all the time. My mom and my dad both sing and play guitar. My older brother was into a lot of different kinds of music, played drums. My younger brother was obsessed with playing guitar. I started writing songs with him and we started making little recordings.

We had this little Costco Yamaha piano that we had around the house. I just started learning and teaching myself really. I felt like I had superpowers or something. I felt so incredible. Even though I used to play out of time and was in my own world, but I used to feel so transported by that exchange of playing and hearing something back. I had some incredible music teachers. I had a unique high school experience. I went to four different high schools. My second year which was eleventh grade, all the teachers went on strike. I went to the music school, and down there was fucking Asheru. The rapper Asheru. There was Jay Coleman who also playing drums with fucking HR from Bad Brains. They were all part of the scene. I was this kid that came out of nowhere and I was there every day. That group of people, they saw that I was like really committed. I was really trying to figure it out. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew that I was doing something.

It definitely sounds like you tried to pay that forward when you were volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club, and at the juvenile detention center. Was it important to you to try and emulate what some teachers had did for you?

Nick Hakim: Absolutely. That’s one of the things I did at Berklee. I taught at the Boys and Girls Club with a group of music therapy students. I tried tapping into the music therapy world at Berklee. I was really interested in it, but I didn’t have enough time to do the whole major. I just did like maybe three classes with it. But I would volunteer every Monday and go to this detention center and work with kids and work with music. I worked at the Boys and Girls Club in Roxbury. I met some incredible, talented, young students. Some of them I still keep in touch with. I love them all very much. I taught at a couple nonprofits. I taught at City High School, the oldest alternative high school in the US actually.

Sounds like you learned a lot working with those kids.

Nick Hakim: Yeah. Sometimes I have to take a step away from teaching because I don’t want to half-ass that. Right now, like what we were talking about earlier, really going into my own work. I only have the capacity to do so much. But I really enjoy working with young people. There’s so many talented people at City-As (High School). I’m just like ‘you guys are so good for your age.’ It’s insane. They are actually like next level.

You might be working with them down the road.

Nick Hakim: Yeah. To answer your question, I want to give that back. My mother has dedicated basically her whole life to high school kids. I learned a lot from her as well.

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