Nick Hakim Talks "COMETA" and Collaboration

Nick Hakim. Photo by Driely S. Used with permission from the artist.

Nick Hakim
Nick Hakim. Photo by Driely S.

On a brisk October evening in Ridgewood, Queens, the singer-songwriter and producer Nick Hakim's band loads into the nightclub TV Eye for what will be a sold-out show with no opener. It is the night before the release of his lush and woozy third album COMETA—that's Spanish for "kite"—a song cycle described simply by the artist as a project reflecting on the "floating" feeling of falling in love.

By the time an out-of-town friend and I walk over to the gig, the red-curtained, 250-capacity space is already packed. Though I have to brush through the crowd mid-set in order to get a glimpse of his band's gear, the venue quickly proves itself to be the ideal match for the intimacy of the D.C.-born musician's soulful songcraft. Seated stage left at a Korg Polysix stacked atop a Wurlitzer 200A, Hakim led his quintet through a set that was as expertly restrained as it was romantic.

When I speak with the artist a few weeks later from the comfort of his dimly mood-lit studio in Greenpoint just a few miles away—a four-room space that formerly belonged to Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never—we discover that we share the same Wurlitzer tech and bond over the hassle of lugging the 50-pound electric piano to shows. He tells me the gig I caught was the first he played with that particular lineup. "I was a little nervous, but everyone pulled their weight and listened to each other. I've been playing with some of those guys since 2011. There's some chemistry there already by default—they all contributed something on the record, so they've been living with the music for the last year or two."

The official video for Nick Hakim's "Vertigo", directed by Asli Baykal.

The recording of COMETA was split between a number of domestic spaces and proper studios, and Hakim is quick to weigh out the pros and cons of working from home versus the luxury of a control room or vocal booth. "When you're in your own space, you don't have the pressure to finish something really quick, and sometimes that can be really good. On the other hand, one of the pros of being in the studio is you're paying for time, and the pressure is there to get something out of it. At home, you get distracted a little bit. Working on a setup that you created yourself, you can set up the patch bay or Ableton's external instrument device however you want and navigate things differently."

Foundations were first tracked at Sonic Ranch, a bucolic five-studio complex located on a 1,700-acre pecan orchard in the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas, 30 miles east of El Paso. It's a space where his longtime co-producer and mixing engineer Andrew Sarlo once recorded Big Thief's grungy, no-overdubs modern classic Two Hands; one that the band sought out for its vast desert location. "My thing is I'm not looking around the space," Nick responds when I ask whether or not he location scouts in a similar manner. "Obviously, being in a nice environment helps, but more importantly, am I going to be able to tap in and really get in the zone?"

After laying down an upwards of 30 initial sketches, Nick's crew eventually moved to Outlier Inn Recording in upstate New York, where the tracks started clicking and "a lot of the seeds were planted." As he tells it, the process of songwriting and recording often happened simultaneously. "I was kind of discovering things as I was going. I think it's important to sometimes write from scratch, but for this one, it was a pretty sudden change. I was just like, 'Oh, I like these chords. Let me improvise on top of this, let's just experiment and see what happens.' That's how this whole thing came about."

Over its 10 tracks, COMETA contains cameos from an entire studio backline's worth of keyboards and synthesizers: Clavinets, Mellotrons, and Minimoogs among them. Even one of the standout singles "M1"—stemming from a separate session at Electric Lady Studios—is named after Korg's once-ubiquitous early digital workstation that serves as the track's central force. In keeping with the album's overarching theme, I ask Nick which instrument on the record possesses the most romantic sound—his answer is unexpected but also unsurprising.

"It's definitely the nylon guitar that I learned how to play on," He offered, pulling out the instrument from a corner of the studio and strumming a few jazzy chords. "I started playing guitar when I was 21. It was kind of the foundation for a lot of these songs, and it's the foundation of a lot of the music that I do." When tracking acoustic takes at Outlier, he'd point his guitar at a Neumann U47 for a full-bodied sound, but when tracking at home, he'd rely on his Reslo ribbon mic.

Since his critically lauded 2017 debut album Green Twins dropped, Hakim has earned a reputation as a prolific and genre-fluid collaborator—the new album is no exception. For certain elements, Hakim would take off the producer's hat and let others behind the driver's wheel. DJ Dahi, the Los Angeles rap producer behind rowdy singles for Kendrick and Drake, handles the hard-hitting drum programming on "M1", while his old friend Roberto Carlos Lange, the face of Latinx experimental pop project Helado Negro, provided the pillowy synth textures on the standout slow jam "Slid Under".

The official video for Nick Hakim's "Happen", directed by Johan Carlsson.

He was introduced to Alex G, the Domino recording artist and DIY veteran who contributes an upright piano performance to the torch song "Happen", through the Philadelphia polymath's co-producer Jake Portrait working out of the studio across the hall. "I played Jake the track, and he was like 'Yo, can I send this to Alex?'" After the two met and found they got along, they proceeded to swap stems. "He sent over four piano takes on top of the whole song, and we just comped it from there."

The song contains bone-dry double-tracked vocals that evoke early Elliott Smith—upon pointing this out, Nick tells me the "thereness" of that late songwriter's recorded output was what he was aiming for. "I love recordings where it almost feels like you're in the room. Like I'm right in your face, you know what I mean?"

A contrast from that chance meeting is the avant-garde guitarist Arto Lindsay—a New York no wave legend that Hakim describes as an uncle figure—who offers his signature atonal skronk to the end of the opener "Ani". "I really like recording with Arto. I went to Brazil with him for two weeks to work on his music and help record vocals, but for this song, I was like, 'Could you just send me some freaky shit?' I don't even think he knew what he was going to do before he did it."

Nick Hakim
Nick Hakim. Photo by Driely S.

When it comes to transforming his studio creations into live arrangements, Hakim hopes for it to sound as much like the record as possible while keeping things natural, only deferring to a Roland SPD-SX triggered by drummer Vishal Nayak for the occasional drum machine loop or synth pad. "Every track is a little different, but the band is so good that they can naturally emulate things. I'm not opposed to using a computer on stage at all, but I want to avoid running tracks with a click. I still want to keep monitors feeding up to ourselves. Sometimes I don't have my voice in the monitors as much as I should—maybe I just try to listen to the room sound."

Upon being asked how he went about assembling COMETA's cast of characters—whether on stage or in the studio—he attributes it to chance. "It's a little informal, to be honest," he admits. "It's not very calculated. If it works, it works. Either way, I feel like I'm surrounding myself with musicians that can really speak through their instruments and have their own respective dialects."

After Nick's warmly received TV Eye set, I stumble upon the spacious green room adjacent to the stage with its own private bar, similarly packed with the artist's team and his musical family of friends. Beside the taps, someone cuts a photo cake adorned with COMETA's cover, a grayscale image with green text depicting Nick reflected in double-vision through a pair of glasses.

A rep from Nick's label ATO Records hushes the post-show conversation with the clink of a glass to make a supportive speech and a pre-release toast. "This is straight out of Spinal Tap," my friend points out as we raise our glasses, and she's not wrong—it felt like a behind-the-scenes moment from a seasoned act's tour documentary. One thing was for sure at the end of the night: the cultivation of community and collaboration on display in Hakim's music is not only heard: it's turned up to 11.

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