Nick Hakim Talks Recording in Spanish, Sacred Spaces, and His New Album ‘Green Twins’

Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla

When a 19-year-old Nick Hakim got off the bus in Boston for his audition at the Berklee College of Music, he was fresh off a high school career in which he’d been held back a year and shuffled between three different high schools and various special education programs. He had trouble making it to class, let alone getting good grades — four other schools rejected him. But by the time he’d finish his rendition of Eugene McDaniels and Roberta Flack’s soul standard “Feel Like Makin’ Love” for Berklee’s faculty, his talent had proven undeniable. It’s clear to anyone who’s heard him sing — his voice at once aching and soulful, its dulcet tones belying a reserved strength. Even at his lowest moments, he’s always had that voice.

“I always knew that I could kind of sing, like a little bit,” Hakim admits. “Since I was in sixth grade, I liked to sing along with things. My mom told a bunch of girls at my school. She was like ‘Oh, Nico, he has a beautiful voice, he sings in the shower.’ I was like ‘Mom, what the fuck?’ I was just really secretive about it unless I was amongst my family.”

Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla
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His acceptance into Berklee helped Hakim flip the script on his education. Instead of struggling with algebra, he was willfully discovering the mathematics of music. After years of being made to feel like something was wrong with him, he found a place where he would get to spend time doing the things he cared about most. “It reinstated to myself [the idea] that I was actually worth something,” he says. “It was the first time that I felt passionate about learning something.”

That bus ride set in motion the sequence of events that led him here, at 26 years old, set to celebrate the release of his debut LP Green Twins, with a headlining set at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. On stage, backed by a band of his friends, his brand of reverbed soul feels sparse, romantic, and deliberate. On a good pair of headphones, the nuance of his overdubs are revealed, the vocals layered in a fashion similar to the way Kevin Shields stacks My Bloody Valentine guitar tracks, verdant melodies washing out in swirls of echoes. It’s extremely intimate music written in solitude, and quite often, loneliness. But its creation would have been impossible without plenty of help, and the fact is not lost on Hakim; in fact, it seems to inform his worldview as a whole.

Neither of Hakim’s parents are professional musicians, but music has always been woven into his family’s social fabric. Born to Peruvian and Chilean immigrants in the Washington, D.C. metro area, some of his first memories are of his father hanging with his childhood friends from Callao, passing around a guitar and singing songs. “At family gatherings [there] were a bunch of guitars and percussion instruments, and everybody singing folk songs,” he recalls. “It was just a normal thing.” His parents exposed him to nueva canción, the South American folk tradition of protest that originated in his mother’s homeland of Chile, but also to Jimi Hendrix and Al Green; his younger brother, the raw energy of Bad Brains.

“I isolated myself from a lot of people. I wrote those records, and that was my way of coping with it.”

His time in high school was tough, but he was fortunate enough to have people that encouraged him. One such mentor, a multi-instrumentalist and music teacher named Alonzo Ferguson, would let him hang out and practice piano in his school’s music room, and used flash cards with chords and changes to teach him popular songs like Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” or D’Angelo’s “One Mo’Gin.” He encouraged, but also just listened. That guidance helped inform Hakim’s own teaching and mentorship — he’s taught music since 2011, and volunteered with the Boys & Girls Club and at a juvenile detention center.

That empathy is informed by his own experience, having needed that helping hand early on. “It’s just about being present,” he says, “and being an open channel if you need it.” At first, Hakim tells us he doesn’t think his mentorship necessarily contributes to how he writes music. But “it definitely contributes to my overall state of mind,” he admits. “Maybe subconsciously, yeah. It feels good to not always think about yourself.”

Berklee may have provided an outlet for Hakim’s energy, but it couldn’t solve all his problems, and that first year away from home hit him hard. He carried the grief of loss with him to Boston; he lost his grandfather, one friend to cancer, and another to an overdose, two of his high school classmates to a car crash, and separated from his longtime romantic partner. The songs he wrote — which ultimately became the 2014 EPs Where Will We Go Pts. I & II — are dark and introspective, a reflection of the grieving process. “I was really lonely,” he says. “I isolated myself from a lot of people. I reflected on it and I wrote those records, and that was my way of coping with it.”

“My first words, I spoke Spanish. It’s a special thing, and I don’t take it for granted.”

While much of that sonic palette remains the same on Green Twins, the production is more refined, the mood more hopeful. His vocals still sound like transmissions beamed through space, drenched in reverb, but at certain moments — like the lounge vibes of “Cuffed” — he’s confident enough to be unabashedly sexy.

New York emerges as a strong influence; its wealth of music and the hustle it requires just to survive. Hakim moved to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood after graduation and worked a litany of jobs, waiting tables and making bike deliveries in New York, and busing up to Boston two days a week to teach music. “It was desperate, it was fun, it was happy, it was fucking weird,” he says. He found safe spaces in Human Head, a Williamsburg record shop he worked at and socialized in, and Palisades, a short-lived club a few blocks from a studio he shared with some friends, where he’d open for nearly any band that would have him on the bill. He put on shows with his friends at an abandoned restaurant in TriBeCa (Phony Ppl, Princess Nokia), played in different bands (Onyx Collective, Jesse and Forever), and even produced records for other artists.

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Green Twins quite clearly reflects Hakim’s personal growth, but it’s unlikely to be his final form. All of his recorded output to this point has been sung in English, but Spanish is his first language. “My first words, I spoke Spanish,” he says. “It’s a special thing, and I don’t take it for granted.” And not unlike his ATO Records labelmate Alynda Segarra, who took the latest Hurray for the Riff Raff record on an exploratory journey of her heritage, he’s begun to consider the dynamics of Latino artists making music for an English-speaking audience: “Gabriel [Garzón-Montano] and I have been talking about this, my friend Benjamin [Julia] and I have been talking about this, he has this band IGBO,” he says. “I have a friend Lorely [Rodriguez], Empress Of – she has songs in Spanish, and she’s a big influence in the sense of embracing that shit. Buscabulla, they’re inspiring because they’re just like, ‘Fuck that, we’re going to make songs in Spanish. This is us.’” To that end, he and Benjamin came up with the idea to record covers of Paraguayan folk songs, flipped and arranged in their style. If it comes to fruition and is anything like what we’ve heard from him so far, it’ll probably be soulful, wrapped in reverb, and breathtakingly beautiful.

Nick Hakim plays a record release show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom tonight, May 17, at 9 p.m. Green Twins drops on May 19 via ATO Records.