It was a Gap commercial that first attracted Tomo Nakayama to the grand piano.
“Rufus Wainwright was in it,” he tells me while sitting in the North Seattle home he shares with his girlfriend. “It was like a 30 second thing, one of their Christmas ads, but I saw it and something just clicked and I was like, I want to be that guy. That’s when I fell in love with just the image of someone sitting at a grand piano.”
Across the room from us, cast in the warm glow of the room’s low lights, is a baby grand piano. Stained in a deep nutty brown, the instrument’s edges are worn from a century of use. The piano, Nakayama tells me, was built in 1909 by Cable Nelson, a company in Michigan that was bought out by Yamaha in the 1970s.
For the majority of its life, the piano lived elsewhere, under the care of a wealthy Seattle family. Then, last month, photos of it appeared on Craigslist, offering the instrument for free if the new owner could have it moved. Nakayama emailed a letter of interest to the owner, including a URL to the website for his band, Grand Hallway, and waited.
Nakayama wasn’t always fascinated by the piano. Growing up, he played the viola but resisted his parents’ pleas for piano lessons out of childish spite. In his teens he began playing guitar and writing songs. He would lift the lid on the family’s upright piano and toy with melodies, but he would go no further. Then, at the age of 18, he saw Rufus Wainwright hawking sweaters and everything changed.
“That was how Grand Hallway started,” Nakayama says. “I wanted to play piano and learn how to write songs on it. It started more or less as a really self-serious project. I was listening to a lot of Nick Cave and just guys you would see sitting at a piano. There are a few songs that Neil Young plays on the piano and then there is John Lennon and the Beatles stuff I was always into. I really got into Nina Simone in college and that was one of my dreams was to carry that mystique and energy into what I do, not necessarily play jazz, but that kind of moodiness that just happens with the piano.”
But writing on a piano can be hard to do for a young, rootless songwriter.
Locked in his darkened bedroom, mourning a recent break-up, Nakayama began writing songs, some on piano, but most on his guitar. Those songs became Grand Hallway’s debut Yes is the Answer. Later, while working at a movie theatre where there was no piano but plenty of time to write out chord progressions between taking tickets, he constructed the band’s next full-length, Promenade. After that album of orchestral pop songs raised his band’s profile, Nakayama drafted Shenandoah Davis into his band. Davis, a trained pianist capable of mellifluous play, gave the band the piano sound that Nakayama wanted, but Davis’s presence also made any attempt by the young songwriter to compose on the instrument redundant. Then, following the release of Winter Creatures last year, Davis left the band to pursue her solo career and Nakayama was left to reinvent his band. He did so by going back to piano.
And there, on Craigslist, he found the instrument he had been searching for all along. After paying the movers $200 and a tuner $100, he was able to start, finally, to write the music that Grand Hallway was made to play.
“It’s funny,” Nakayama says. “Every instrument brings out a different side of you, I think, a different aspect of your songwriting. To do something unfamiliar forces you to just focus more on the actual movements of your body rather just go into auto pilot with guitar. And I think that my piano playing has a lot of space in it just because I can’t play that fast. The space between the notes has come to define the songs.”
Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see, in the flesh, email email@example.com and tell him about it.
Photos by Nate Watters