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The Eclectic Soul Music of Nick Hakim

[Pitchfork]

After struggling through a tumultuous adolescence marked by rejection and violence, this singer-songwriter started playing music, and his life changed.

By Quinn Moreland

It is a miserable day to visit Nick Hakim at his home in Ridgewood, Queens. April showers have extended well into May, and an almost comically torrential rainfall has transformed the charming New York City neighborhood into a giant flood. But inside the 26-year-old’s apartment, which he shares with his partner Naima and two roommates, all is tranquil; the only sign of the storm is an innocent plink-plink tap on a triangular skylight. Hakim’s presence is immediately soothing, though initially guarded. We break the ice by discussing the arduous task of moving from one place to another—his debut album, Green Twins, is his first release since relocating to New York after graduating college, and its emerald-tinted chill shows both a young man and his adopted city in transition.

As exorbitant rent prices push artists away, many have warned that New York City is increasingly facing the risk of losing its creative class. Before moving to relatively quiet Ridgewood, Hakim struggled to get by financially in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn while waiting tables and also teaching music at a nonprofit in Boston two days a week. Though he considered leaving the city completely, Hakim remained because of the energy and drive of his local peers, including his band, the jazz collective Onyx, singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief, and rising filmmaker/musician Terence Nance. In the end, Hakim learned to utilize his precious free time while gradually carving out his own space in the city. “There’s still a hungry, positive, angry community—angry in a good way,” says Hakim, sitting in his light-soaked home studio. “We use music to fuel that passion for creating and playing shows and making art.” Rather than presenting the stereotypical cooler-than-thou attitude that can exist within NYC music circles, Hakim’s spacey soul embraces his diverse community and upbringing.

Hakim’s parents emigrated from Lima, Peru, to New York City in the early ’80s after his father received a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at the New School in Manhattan. After about eight years, the family moved to Washington D.C., where Hakim was born and raised. His mother founded two daycares in addition to serving as a social worker in local public schools; his dad’s main gig involved analyzing finances for companies that deal with education in at-risk countries.

Though Hakim would not express an interest in playing music until his late teens, he was surrounded by a diverse array of sounds at home. There was the nueva cancion—political folk music—of his mother’s native Chile; ’60s and ’70s touchstones like the Beatles and Al Green; D.C. hardcore bands like Fugazi that were beloved by Hakim’s older brother—though Nick preferred the reggae-infused Bad Brains, especially since one of his teachers performed regularly with the band’s vocalist, HR; and Latino rappers like Big Pun and Fat Joe.

In his youth, Hakim was placed into special education classes and often found himself ostracized in school. “I had a lot of learning issues,” he tells me, pouring hot tea into a cup. “When I was in sixth grade I couldn’t tell time and I didn’t know the months in order.” But when he was 17, one of his friends invited him to sing with her church choir, and he began teaching himself to play piano. Everything changed. Suddenly, the kid with the “two-point-something GPA” was accepted at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. While there, he self-released 2014’s two-part EP Where Will We Go, on which he ponders romance’s alluring intoxication, ensuing heartbreak, and eventual death through a dark and frosty lens. Those releases became an unexpected success, racking up millions of SoundCloud plays, leading to opening slots for Maxwell and How to Dress Well, and an eventual signing to indie titan ATO Records, home to Alabama Shakes and Hurray for the Riff Raff.

Surrounded in his studio by a poster for Thundercat’s Drunk, a rack of earth-tone clothing, stacks of synthesizers, and an overflowing collection of records, Hakim seems like a humble soul. This humility is reflected in Green Twins’ insistence on finding oneself through a positive relationship with others: “She taught me to make love with patience/Not just thinking about myself/To really feel the other person,” he sings on the funky, seductive “Cuffed.” Unlike Where Will We Go, Green Twins flourishes with a playful sexiness that reveals Hakim’s newfound contentment and confidence. The new album’s vibe is encapsulated in its psychedelic artwork, which shows a lone eyeball peering into a mirror in the midst of a hazy fog.

“It’s like looking inwards in a very surreal way,” Hakim says of the image. “There’s a lot of songs on this record that have to do with the things that live inside my subconscious but that I can’t really access until I am asleep.” While making Green Twins, he learned to write down his dreams, and the mysteries of the psyche enter into the record immediately on the title-track opener, where Hakim croons about hidden fears over a dusty beat and swirling keys. Minutes later, he combines faith and lust on the hollowed-out gospel of “Bet She Looks Like You,” where he exalts a lover with the swoon-worthy declaration “If there’s a god I wonder what she looks like/I bet she looks like you.”

Considering how drastically music altered his trajectory as a teenager, it makes sense that Hakim never strays too far from it. Even during our conversation, he casually leans across me a few times to tinker with parts of a song on a Moog synthesizer. And as I emerge from his apartment into a shockingly sunny day, I can faintly hear him up the stairs, playing the complete tune for the first time.

Pitchfork: How did you end up at Berklee College of Music?

Nick Hakim: My decision to go was very conscientious—I was really curious about learning specific things about music and technical work. I literally applied to five schools and I got rejected from all of them, except for Berklee. Coming from a background where I didn’t do good in school, it felt good to get accepted from an institution that was supportive. The first two years I was there were fucking amazing for learning, and I met so many people.

What did you study there?

Production, composition, advanced harmony. In terms of majors, they had a music therapy major that sounded really interesting to me. I’m all about working with young people. I got a job with the Boys & Girls Club through school, and they gave me money to stay in school because I was a student teacher.

I was also volunteering at a juvenile detention center for a year, working with music therapy students—we’d go there with a mic and let them record their raps. I had one student, his name is Anthony. There was a week that I missed, and he was like, “Man, why didn’t you come last week? I wanted to record this.” He was depending on my presence and on me bringing the computer. Monday was music day [in the detention center], but the rest of the days were just like a fucking prison for them.

You had some difficulties in school as a kid too, right?

Yeah I did. A lot of people do. I was lucky to a certain extent because my mother was always very adamant about dealing with it since she worked in the school system. I was put in special ed in second grade. That means I would take tests in the corner of the class by myself, and I would have to be escorted to the water fountain or nurse’s office to take medication two times a day. I went to three different high schools and I got held back when I left the first—the year I got held back was the year that I started playing and learning music.

A big reason why I’m interested in working with young people is because I can genuinely relate to feeling rejected and stupid as young person—feeling like you’re not capable and then feeling depressed because of that and projecting that in a way that is negative and violent. I was very fragile, and when I started getting a little older I started fighting a lot more and doing all kinds of dumb shit. I definitely was not a very happy person and I lashed out and I was rebellious at home and everywhere.

What would you say to a kid who is having a tough time at school or home?

Everybody has an individualized situation, and just being a consistent and open presence in their life goes a long way. I remember being pressured and not wanting to talk about shit. I look back and I respect and acknowledge the fact that I was lucky, I had a lot of really great teachers. That’s a way of just being a positive presence. I’m trying to learn how to have that kind of space all the time. I don’t know if I can tour and do all this shit and teach all the time, but I wanna teach in spurts. I have a lot of friends who are really involved with their own art and also work with young people, so maybe in the future we can all come together and start a nonprofit organization.