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Winter Creature

Acting in a feature film reaffirmed Tomo Nakayama’s commitment to music. Now he’s steering away from the chamber-pop grandeur of his beloved band Grand Hallway and toward a closer connection to 
his songs and his audience.

You can’t manufacture intimacy like the interior of a parked car on a cold, wet November night. Outside, traffic streams by on Leary Avenue in a murmuring swish, taillights haloed through the rain-blurred windshield. Inside is a cocoon of upholstery and body heat.

Tomo Nakayama sits in the driver’s seat, tented by a dark wool coat. He plugs his iPhone into the stereo and without fanfare plays a song he recently recorded, an un-mastered, unreleased cover of a deep cut by the Rolling Stones called “I Am Waiting.”

The music is sparse, hypnotic, languid—acoustic guitars pulsed by thigh slaps and sleigh bells. It sounds like an ancient English ballad, earthy and sober but incantatory, almost mystical. Tomo (always Tomo, because Nakayama is too formal and too foreboding for this 5-foot-3-inch 33-year-old) leads with a hushed vocal melody.

Like a winter storm, fears will pierce your bones
You will find out, you will find out

Midway he harmonizes with another voice. This is Jesse Sykes, the husky-throated singer he sought out specifically for this song, which will be included in an upcoming compilation of covers of songs from Wes Anderson films. Their voices rise together, toward an unseen light. A single guitar chord hovers in the air as the song ends.

“It was in Rushmore,” Tomo says. “That chorus, so foreboding. It sounds almost like an apocalyptic warning. I’ve always loved it.”

We’re parked a block from the Ballard cafe where he works mornings as a barista. After two hours of conversation over coffee inside—talking about Tomo’s Japanese mom and Vietnamese dad, his early childhood in Japan and teenage years in Ballard, his belief that honest moments can’t be packaged and resold—we’d retreated to the car for its stereo. I’m betting Tomo prefers to hear his music like this, sitting beside an attentive audience of one.

Solo Tomo is a new thing. After a decade of playing music in big bands, he’s lately finding strength in smallness, distilling his talents, finding his essence. Over the past year, Tomo toured the East Coast solo, appeared in a feature film and released a successful single as part of that film. All along, he’s been pressing against his own preconceptions and self-imposed limitations. Now he finds himself on the verge of a musical awakening.

Tomo has led Grand Hallway since 2005 as a vehicle for his prolific songwriting and expansive compositions. Abetted by a slew of stellar musicians that swelled to nine members and sometimes more for recording, Grand Hallway erupted with dramatic, warm-hearted songs. Most were mini-orchestral odes to love and family and the Pacific Northwest. The band has released a handful of albums, gaining an ardent following locally and in Europe.

The most recent, 2011’s Winter Creatures, features Tomo on vocals, guitar, piano, bass, drums, pump organ, mandolin, vibraphone, Mellotron, synth, tack piano, timpani, harmonium, glockenspiel and percussion. The album manages an evocative simultaneity: It’s crystalline as snow and cozy as a blanket, a dual aesthetic that infuses all of his work.

“There’s a particular feeling you get in winter,” Tomo says. “It reminds me of Christmas or being home with the family and everything is white and quiet outside, really still and cold, but then you go inside and sit by the fire and hang out with your family. It’s intimacy versus the harshness and starkness outside.”

In addition to his work with Grand Hallway, Tomo also played keys and percussion with the Maldives for a few years—the sole Asian-American surrounded by a burly cadre of bearded white guys. But the constant big-band collectivism of both groups wore on his creativity. Consensus was fun but he ached for individual expression.

“Whenever I write a song, I hear all these different parts in my head, and then I’d want to fill up the spaces with the parts I was hearing. But now I feel it’s almost better to leave it up to the listener to fill in those gaps. Let the silence be the orchestra.”

Over the last two years, Tomo has performed mostly by himself, just fingerpicked acoustic guitar and voice and a piano if one’s around. He’s taken to the Fremont Abbey, with its seated shows and focus on acoustic performances, over the Tractor, his former venue of choice, which now seems too distracted.

About that voice. Tomo’s speaking voice is West coast low-key, distinctly uninflected and matter-of-fact. It’s the kind of voice that can describe a musical experience as “pretty magical” without the slightest twinge of twee. His singing voice, on the other hand… Without exaggeration, misconception or cliché, Tomo’s singing voice is angelic. It’s boyish in tone, or perhaps womanish, tender, beautiful, clear and strong. All of those things, but the word that feels most apropos is pure.

“I’d always been drawn to female voices more than male voices for some reason, and I just found that my range was more in that kind of register,” he says. “So I’d always sing along to Whitney Houston, and that wasn’t weird to me. I guess I never thought I was unique because I’ve only ever done it the way I know how. It has to do with being OK with having an androgynous voice. I feel like it’s all leading to the same source or the same place where music comes from.”

On its own, Tomo’s singing is magnetic. Paired with his diminutive appearance, it’s arresting. That dissonance drew screenwriter and film director Lynn Shelton to Tomo when she first heard him perform at the Abbey two years ago. She’d known Tomo as a mysterious character in the Maldives but had never seen him perform on his own. That night he sang Judy Garland’s “The Man that Got Away” and it was, Shelton says, “a visceral, transcendent human experience.”

That voice in that space is gonna go in one of my movies, she decided. And so Tomo ended up with a major role in Shelton’s Touchy Feely, which toured the festival circuit before getting its theatrical release this past summer. (It comes out on DVD this month.) He plays Henry, an aspiring musician and part-time barista.

“The role wouldn’t exist without Tomo,” Shelton says by phone. “I didn’t write the role and then look for someone to fill it, I wrote the role for him and because of him.”

Shelton introduces Henry as a shy and earnest guy then builds the story to his performance at Fremont Abbey. In a beautiful synthesis of music and narrative, Henry/Tomo plays a song called “Horses,” which Tomo wrote specifically for the film. It’s a transformative climax that commingles several storylines, characters struggling to find love and meaning, as Tomo sings with almost religious gravity.

Is it a blessing or a curse to be found, to be found?
Is it a burden or a gift to be bound, to be bound?

“There are all these different characters going through their different journeys and this song had to envelop them all and find a common thread,” Shelton says. “It’s kind of a miracle.”

Jesse Sykes uses similarly reverent language after meeting Tomo for the first time to record “I Am Waiting.” She normally turns down requests for vocal contributions, she says, but Tomo’s demo version was too powerful to pass up.

“He’s a self-assembled human cathedral,” Sykes says. “He doesn’t need the bells and whistles. He’s one of the lucky ones in that he doesn’t need a band to communicate. He’s transcendent on his own. Some people have a little more ghost in them, that juju that can’t be put into words.”

Tomo says he’s been listening to a lot of electronic artists and gravitating toward stripped-down vocal stylists like Arthur Russell and Bill Callahan. He’s seeking economy, drilling down to the core of his songs rather than building grandeur around them: a minimalist approach to maximizing impact. On Dec. 7 he plays St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle’s grandest intimate venue.

Though Tomo says he enjoyed acting, the most important result of Touchy Feely was that it reaffirmed his commitment to music. It made clear his course. It gave him courage. For his next album, he’ll abandon the name Grand Hallway in favor of something else. Maybe a pseudonym, maybe his own name. The idea is to denote this new attention to closeness and connection.

“The name Grand Hallway lends itself to expectations of a big experience,” Tomo says. “The intent of the name was kind of reflecting how people come in and out of your life, and we experience these fleeting moments of beauty, but then you have to go on your way. The hallway is not a place where you live. You just pass through.”

Photo by Steve Korn

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