Talking storytelling in music with Tomo Nakayama

This Sunday at the Northwest Folklife Festival, Seattle singer/songwriters Tomo Nakayama and J.R. Rhodes will sing as part of a program titled “Kinfolk: Stories in Song.”

Nakayama is one of the most exciting folk musicians in Seattle right now, and his songs are intensely interested in narrative. He’s resistant to my suggestion that narrative is currently out of style in music. “It depends on the genre,” he says. “Folk music is especially built around storytelling and setting stories to music.”

He’s willing to admit that “maybe in the realm of popular music,” narratives aren’t as popular right now — it’s been decades since Top 40 radio was populated with storytelling music. Perhaps, Nakayama says, that’s because tech-addled attention spans reward artists who traffic in “shorter vignettes instead of sustained narrative,” but he thinks that story and song will always be combined in some way.

Nakayama believes that his authorial perspective has deepened over time. “I think I used to write kind of exclusively from a first-person point of view. And I guess I still do, but it’s less autobiographical now — less literal, maybe.”

“I think I’ve become more observational as I’ve gotten older,” he says. “When you’re younger, you think the whole world is about you.” But Nakayama has realized with time that “there’s only so much you can say about yourself before you get bored, and to just keep from running out of ideas you start to look around and observe the world around you.” Ultimately, even those observational stories share something about the artist: “through describing those things, you start to reveal things about yourself that you weren’t even aware were there.”

Who does Nakayama turn to when he wants to hear a good story-centered song? “Locally, Sera Cahoone is one of my favorite songwriters,” he says, also citing Seattle hip-hop artist DoNormaal. “People who tell their stories in a way that no one else can is really appealing to me.”

Why is it so important that Folklife is focusing on stories in song at this particular time? “Everything is so polarized right now,” Nakayama says, “and my songs aren’t overtly political in nature but I feel like what’s being lost in a lot of these conversations is just the basic respect for humanity.”

“So that’s really what my songs try to convey — little stories of people and of everyday life and reminding ourselves of what we have in common,” he says. Music works better than any other storytelling medium for Nakayama when it comes to “bringing it back to what our core values are as human beings.” Common experiences that inspire empathy in others, he says, is “the kind of story I like to tell.”