Nick Hakim: The Best of What's Next

A journey inside the mind of Nick Hakim, reveals a uniquely talented dreamer and the story behind one of this year's best records.

Music Features Nick Hakim
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Nick Hakim: The Best of What's Next

Nick Hakim openly admits it – as a recording artist, the 26-year-old was something of a late bloomer, especially considering his musical family. His kid brother – now proficient on electric guitar – began playing in earnest at age 11, his older brother had been drumming in punk combos since his teens in the Washington, D.C. neighborhood where they grew up and his guitar-strumming parents – mom hails from Chile, dad from Peru – had been playing South American folk music and old-school American R&B around the house ever since he could remember. But Hakim didn’t discover the soulful singing voice and skeletal, hip-hop-influenced compositional style heard on his otherworldly debut Green Twins (Out May 19th on ATO Records) until he was almost out of high school. Up to that point, becoming a musician wasn’t something he had considered.

“I was 17, and getting into music was 100% on my terms,” reflects Hakim, who now lives in New York, where he still holds down a day job at a busy bike messenger service; a bicycle has always been his preferred method of urban transportation anyway. “It was a place of solace for me, mentally, because I would actually act out a lot in high school – I got in a lot of trouble and I didn’t get good grades.” He wasn’t a mean kid, or unkind to his classmates, he stresses: “But I was in special ed for a long time, from second grade to tenth grade. It was really fucked up, and I had to stay back a year in high school. And after I got out of special ed, I felt like I had to figure things out. And I thought, ‘I’m not good at any of this other shit, so fuck it – I’m going to write songs, man. I’m going to learn how to do it!’”

Listen to the title track from Nick Hakim’s Green Twins:

The newbie couldn’t very well throw out any stylistic rule book when he’d never received one in the first place. So he enrolled in Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he carefully studied the theoretical foundations he would eventually discard. In his second of three years there, he finally began recording himself, resulting in his first nine-cut, two-part EP, the somber, depression-fueled Where Will We Go, which has nothing to do with the more surreal, but self-assured material he penned for Green Twins, he insists. He was a different person then, still finding his aesthetic identity. And aiding him in this pursuit was a tuition-financing straight gig the conservatory secured for him, mentoring kids, eight to 18 at a Boys & Girls club in Roxbury, Queens. Witnessing first-hand their impressionable, almost blissfully naïve young minds in an after-school environment stirred something inside him, gave him a sense of belonging – and higher purpose — that he’d never had.

“And I had a group of students that I still keep in touch with,” says Hakim, who also simultaneously volunteered every Monday for a year with at-risk teens at local detention centers, teaching them how to make beats and express themselves with rudimentary studio equipment. “And one of my students, she was nine years old when I met her, and now she’s 15 – it’s insane to see how they grow up so fast. But I really learned a lot from that, and it makes you practice what you preach. When you’re explaining specific things about music – or even life – to these kids, you have to actually explain it, and you discover that you don’t really know something unless you _can _define or describe it in a way that makes sense. So it’s fun, working with young people, and even now, I’m still doing workshops with high school kids in New York, and working for a few different non-profits as a teacher or a mentor.”

Berklee could only take this artist so far. “It definitely beats the shit out of you, in a way, and it’s very expensive – that’s why people don’t go there very long,” he says. After meeting classmate Andrew Sarlo, who would become his engineer, bassist, and key mad-scientist collaborator on Green Twins, he moved to the Big Apple, found part-time work at a hip record store called Human Head (where he was often paid in stacks of vintage vinyl; “I should have taken the cash,” he sighs), and also anchored a restaurant job that he hated. “It was a fucking hustle, working six days a week just to make rent in New York,” he says. Still, it gave him time to carefully consider what he really wanted to say with his official bow. Hakim speaks in the shambling, vaguely stoner-ish patter of “Saturday Night Live”’s squirrelly Pete Davidson. But he croons in an ethereal, cabaret-intimate style that wafts through Green Twins like bar smoke from some 1950’s film noir classic, often building – as on “Cuffed” – into a fervent Gospel crescendo.

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Hakim recorded many of his album ideas at home in his bedroom. But he and Sarlo decided to study some of their favorite records and use obscure production techniques from Phil Spector and Al Green as a template. “We would listen and go, ‘How the fuck did they do that?’” he cedes. “So we would research it and look that shit up. But we also wanted to leave a little to the imagination, and I guess from naivety, you reference certain things, but you kind of create your own approach and technique. And I played basically everything but bass – Andrew played that. And I did go to music school, but I’m still not a prolific instrumentalist. I can play my instruments, and I can write songs,” he laughs. “But I’m still just kind of fucking around.”

That confessed innocence – a sort of ‘I many not know art, but I know what I like’ approach – is what sets Green Twins apart from any other record you’re likely to hear this year. It opens on the tentative piano notes of the title track, which morphs into a dreamy trip-hop backbeat (Hakim utilized a combination of loops, drum machines, and organic percussion throughout) that gradually gets more and more wobbly, like some interstellar transmission. Lyrically, it was based – like many of the album tracks – on a recurring dream he had, this one about two lime-green gelatinous creatures that brush past him, only to be flattened by a passing car a minute later. The scratch-textured “Bet She Looks Like You” follows, wherein he takes listeners to rafter-raising falsetto church, as a congregation of guitar notes flutters in the apse. By the third track, the drums-and-riff spinal column keeps the slapback vocals aloft, Hakim’s peculiar muse is starting to become apparent – he makes soulful cocktail-hour jazz to calm the incredibly nervous, a la the fluffy “Needy Bees,” a wah-oohed “TYAF,” and the aqueous “Those Days,” backed by the expansive Onyx Collective. Or perhaps to make them even antsier, as on the jittery “JP,” a tribute to Boston’s Jamaica Plains neighborhood.

“There was a naked lady across the hall who was walking towards me, but her face was morphing really fast into all this crazy shit. It was really weird, but it was a pleasant dream – it wasn’t scary.”

One nursery-rhyme simple cut, “Slowly,” is rooted in another dream Hakim had. The “Green Twins nightmare” had started the whole project, he explains. “So I started writing down every time I had a weird dream, and “Slowly” was a really weird one,” he elaborates. “There was a naked lady across the hall who was walking towards me, but her face was morphing really fast into all this crazy shit. It was really weird, but it was a pleasant dream – it wasn’t scary.” All of the tracks are underscored by the Roger-Dan-meets-Salvador-Dali cover painting of a giant, lake-surfacing human eyeball staring into a fancy bedroom mirror. “Keith Rankin did that painting – somebody showed me his stuff on Instagram, and I wondered if he’d be into collaborating with us,” he says. “And all it took was a few conversations and some rough sketches.”

Now that he’s found his sound, Hakim sometimes wonders what might have happened if he’d discovered music earlier in childhood, like his brothers. Would the results be as astonishing as the ones his late start provided? Or would he have given up songwriting altogether by now and moved on to a more conventional career? What it all comes down to, he’s decided, is curiosity – you’re either born with it or you’re not, even though it may lay dormant for years. “And that hunger is definitely important to maintain,” he concludes. “And going back to the subject of working with children or young kids, they have this vulnerability and this default curiosity. They’re green around the edges in a lot of ways. But it’s great to have that mentality of not feeling you know everything, so you’re not stuck in your ways.”

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