Local musician Tomo Nakayama performs for his hometown on November 22 at the Triple Door, joined by two other current Seattleites, jazz pianist Emi Meyer and multi-instrumentalist Betsy Olson.
This show will be the first time that these three musicians have shared a stage. “I’ve been friends with Betsy for a long time through music,” Nakayama said. “I’ve played on the same bill as her when I’ve backed Sera Cahoone on keys and when she’s played with the band S, but this is the first time playing our own music on the same bill.”
Betsy Olson is also looking forward to this unique musical combo. “I have known Tomo Nakayama for several years and have always loved his music,” she said. “Although I’ve never played a show with Tomo or Emi, I’m excited to share the night with such an eclectic crew.”
For Emi Meyer, it’s the Seattle connection that makes this lineup most compelling. “I’m excited to share the stage with some musicians who really have stuck to their roots in Seattle where I grew up,” Meyer said.
Nakayama also points to his Seattle roots as formative of his musicianship. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a really strong all-ages music scene in Seattle and the eastside, which is where I grew up,” he said. “I played shows with people who’ve gone on to play in bands like The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Death Cab For Cutie, Blood Brothers, really an amazing diversity of talented kids who just happened to live in the same suburban area.”
This surfeit of musicians provided good training for Nakayama in how to launch himself in the music industry. “There was a really strong DIY work ethic and a sense that anyone could pick up a guitar and start a band, and press CDs and book tours,” he said. “That attitude has definitely carried over into my career, though the Internet has made it one hundred times easier than when I first started.”
Nakayama found musical inspiration early, and the Japanese community was integral to his explorations. “I’ve loved singing for as long as I can remember,” he said. “I started on the viola in elementary school orchestra, and played that for a few years.”
His teenage years proved even more influential. “I picked up the guitar at 14 when my friend who was visiting from Japan showed me how to play Yutaka Ozaki’s ‘15 No Yoru,’” Nakayama said. “I started writing songs soon after. The music that was coming out of Seattle at the time like Nirvana and Sunny Day Real Estate were big influences.”
Nakayama also considers his family’s support important, as well. “My parents never pushed me into music,” he said, “but they would get me instruments, like a piano and a drum kit and a karaoke machine, at garage sales of friends in the Japanese community who had to move back.”
The upcoming show at the Triple Door demonstrates aspects of how Nakayama’s music practice has evolved from his earlier bands Asahi and Grand Hallway to his current solo work. “I think with every project and album I’ve learned how to better communicate my ideas with people, and how to be a better collaborator and musician,” he said. “I think the longer you play and the more experience you have, the more you are able to have confidence in yourself and in other people. You’re able to recognize your own weaknesses and find the right people to help you out in those areas.”
For this show, guitarist Olson and pianist Meyer fit the bill. And the two women share some commonalities in their musical backgrounds. “My dad had an old Hohner Contessa guitar that I always wanted to learn to play as a kid,” Olson said. “I ignored the guitar for several years, though, and studied classical piano through college.”
But while Meyer stuck with classical and jazz piano, Olson veered off in another direction. “I picked the guitar up when I was about 19 and started teaching myself to play and found out it was something I could do, especially after joining a band in college,” she said.
Meanwhile, Meyer played piano at hotels and events during high school. “I always knew it was something I’d continue but I didn’t think I would become a professional musician until one day I started singing at the age of 17,” Meyer said. “It just sort of happened in a jam session. It was really suspenseful and exhilarating.”
Then, after high school, Meyer faced another crossroads. “In college I studied Ethnomusicology while recording solo albums,” she said. “Gradually my professional career overtook my academic path, and by the time I graduated, I was living a double life: touring in Japan while finishing my senior thesis.”
Although Meyer is a Seattlite, she draws heavily from her multicultural background. “Being born in Kyoto is something I came to appreciate more as I got older,” she said. “Like the great guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson says, who also shares a bi-cultural background, it’s like being given a key to two worlds.”
Meyer says that these worlds are not separate, but rather help to illuminate each other. “Studying traditional music that uses different tunings or rhythm structures, combined with having a career based in Tokyo, puts whatever contemporary music that’s popular or hip in context,” she said. “It makes you think, ‘ok, this is the perspective of this culture at this time.’ I think it keeps you grounded as an artist, not worried about following trends or what others are doing because it’s so different in each country.”
This broader outlook also frees Meyer in her musical practice. “It gives me room to experiment,” she said. “I’ll release an album in Japanese one year because it’s playful and I know a sector of my fans want that part of me, the next year I’ll release a jazz album because that’s what I grew up on and it challenges my chops.”
While Meyer continues to focus on a solo career leading to the release of a new jazz album next summer on Origin Records, Olson is splitting her time between multiple bands. “My band is a three piece with Sera Cahoone behind the drums and Rebecca Young on bass,” Olson said. “It’s a good feeling to be able to bounce ideas off people with the massive amount of experience that Sera and Reb have.”
But Olson likes to keep busy. “I also currently play bass and keys in S, Jenn T. Champion’s post-Carissa’s Weird project,” Olson said. “Playing with experienced musicians in two bands of completely different genres keeps the music interesting and expands my musicianship.”
Olson is no stranger to hard work. “I grew up in a hard-working middle class family in Billings, Montana,” she said. “After moving to Seattle, I found a good balance of working to make a living and still being able to play a lot of music, which at times, means playing in two or three bands and leaving for a few weeks here and there to play music on the road.”
But despite the common thread of hard work between Olson, Meyer, and Nakayama, it’s the impact on the audience that is the ultimate goal. “When we play a song, we want the audience to feel something, and I would say that is probably the most important thing to me,” Olson said.
For those familiar with Nakayama’s recent work, he promises some surprises at the Triple Door. “I just got back from a big U.S. tour where I gathered a ton of ideas and inspiration, so I’m hoping to have a few new songs by November to debut at the show,” he said. “It will be nice to close this current chapter and move on to the next album, which I’m going to record early next year.”
But he doesn’t plan to stop evolving then. “I’m still learning,” he said. “Every day is an education, and I’m grateful to every single person who has listened to my music.”
The performer-audience connection has also fostered new experiments for Nakayama. “Touring and performing solo for the past couple years has really opened up for me the sonic possibilities of the guitar and voice,” he said. “I’m really enjoying discovering new ways to do more with less, in all aspects of life and music.”
This exploration of frugality and minimalism has led Nakayama toward greater gratitude. “It’s an amazing privilege to be able to do this for a living,” he said, “and I hope to write many more songs, and to keep recording and releasing them on my own terms, for many years to come.”
Tomo Nakayama performs with Betsy Olson and Emi Meyer on November 22, at The Triple Door, 216 Union Street, Seattle. For tickets, visit http://tickets.thetripledoor.net/eventperformances.asp?evt=992.