The Song Is Never Finished: 11 Questions With Musician Goh Nakamura

Goh Nakamura

Goh Nakamura

By Sean Tuohy 

Goh Nakamura has been constantly writing music and honing his craft since the 1990s.

During his impressive career, he’s arranged music for award-winning director Ridley Scott, released critically acclaimed albums, and toured the world. Nakamura has even played a parody of himself in two films directed by David Boyle: "Surrogate Valentine" and "Daylight Savings," both of which were met with positive reviews.

Nakamura was nice enough to take time away from touring to sit down and talk with me about music, how he writes songs, and how he never feels that his music is ever finished.

Sean Tuohy: When did you begin writing songs?

Goh Nakamura: I had a 4-track cassette recorder in high school, but I was only recording guitar instrumental pieces, nothing with lyrics. It wasn’t until well after college that I wrote a song that I was happy with. That’d be “Daylight Savings.” I was 30 years old.

ST: Who were some of the artist who influenced you? Was there a song that made you think, "Hey, I want to write music?”

GN: I studied jazz and mostly guitar improvisation way before I attempted to write lyrics, so my influences in that realm are Miles Davis, Bill Frisell, and Chopin. As far as songwriting: The Beatles, Elliott Smith, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, and Neil Finn. So many songs made me want to write, but one that comes to mind is “Between The Bars” by Elliott Smith.

ST: How much of yourself do you put into each song you create?

GN: I’m not sure, to be honest. I don’t consider myself to be a confessional songwriter. I write more from wordplay and making the syllables match the structure and architecture of the melody.

ST: You have some of the most fun, playful, and funniest lyrics of any artist I can think of. How did you create this lyric style? Was it something you worked at or did it just come naturally?

GN: Thanks! I don’t think I’ve created anything new stylistically or anything. I’m still working on it, and will always be working on it. The songs never quite feel finished to me. I revise my own lyrics live all the time. If I listen to old stuff, I have to think of it like a photograph…they’re (hopefully) the best I could do at that time, and I have to accept that.

ST: “Surrogate Valentine” is my personal favorite song by you. It's sweet and charming and I will hum it out of tune all day. What is the backstory of the song?

GN: I think I first recorded a demo of that around the late 1990s. I lost the cassette (yeah, I’m dating myself here!). It sounded a lot different. I wish I could hear it, because all I have is a fuzzy memory of it…the melody was the same, but the chords where different and heavier.

ST: Do you know if Natalie Portman has listened to your song "Natalie Portman" yet?

GN: I hope not. That song is/was a joke. Embarrassing.

ST: You have played a fictional version of yourself twice on film, "Surrogate Valentine" and "Daylight Savings." How did you get involved with these projects? Was it difficult to play a version of yourself on screen?

GN: I met a director named Dave Boyle at a film festival in San Francisco around 2009. We hit it off, and wanted to collaborate on something. I wrote a song to help promote a film of his called “White on Rice,” and he made a video of me singing it on a rooftop in San Francisco in black and white. I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess that was an audition of sorts for a movie idea he had of a traveling musician. He pitched it to me, and I said “sure” without having any idea of what was in store. I ended up playing the lead role, which is basically an alternate reality version of myself. It was definitely difficult to act, even playing “myself.” I have nothing but the utmost respect for professional actors who do this for a living.

ST: Several of your songs have been featured in Hollywood films, such as “Body of Lies” and “A Good Year.” Has licensing your music been positive for your career?

GN: None of my songs have been licensed, but I did a bunch of guitar work and some co-writing, and arranging on the scores to five Ridley Scott films. The films I did the most on were “A Good Year” and “American Gangster.” Both were incredible experiences, and I hope to do more if I’m going to survive as a musician. I’m still trying to license my music, but it’s akin to winning the lottery.

ST: What is your song writing process? Do you start with lyrics or the music?

GN: It’s different almost every time. Sometimes I intentionally start with one or the other, but most of the time it’s about equal. I’ll change the lyrics to fit the melody and vice versa. They feed on each other.

ST: What advice would you give to young and upcoming singer/song writers?

GN: Learn and write as many songs as you can. Pick them apart and find out what you like and don’t like about them. I wrote so many crappy songs before I was happy with one… I still write crappy songs. It’s okay though, it’s just music. It’s sort of like writing an essay or something, write as many drafts as it takes to strengthen the song. Be able to recognize things that are disposable lyrically, melodically, or architecturally. Not every song needs a “chorus” or a “bridge.” If it gets your message across just with one section, then why dilute it?

ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

GN: I usually don’t take my own advice. I’m trying though.

To learn more about Goh Nakamura, check out his official website, like his Facbeook page, or follow him on Twitter @gohnakamura

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