Singer-Songwriter Nahko Discusses How Politics & Meeting His Birth Mother Influenced Solo Album 'My Name is Bear'

Josué Rivas
Nahko of Medicine for the People

Singer-songwriter Nahko, frontman of world music collective Nahko and Medicine for the People, is now taking a step back to tell his own story.

For his debut solo record My Name is Bear, he embraces the translation of his given name "Nahko," which means bear. In a press release, he explained, “I was going by my adopted name of David until I got to Hawaii and a friend encouraged me to go by Nahko. It’s a statement to myself. I’m no longer a little bear. I’ve reached a place where I’ve progressed through this journey of music. I can share these songs from a very specific period today.”

Nahko's journey is not a standard narrative, but one seemingly made for a vintage film. Adopted as a young child, he breaks out on his own after coming of age and follows love across the country, capturing episodes of hitchhiking, heartbreak and psychedelic contemplation all in one plot. My Name is Bear chronicles this journey through his early adult years, primarily from age 19 through 21. It all leads to a crucial turning point in his life where he formed the band, but also met his birth mother for the first time. 

He describes the moment in the press release: “I drove there and, there she was, my mom. My two sisters, their kids, my two brothers…everyone. Mom was crying. I was crying. The first thing she asked was ‘What do you do?’ I shrugged and said, ‘I play music.’ It literally happened like that — all by divine intervention. I picked up, left Hawaii, and came home to not so randomly discover my mom lived basically down the street from where I grew up.” He penned "Early February" about the moment just a few weeks prior. 

 

My Name Is -- and his name is Britches. he was the first gift given to me when I was adopted. ol' Britches has seen me thru a lot. pretty awesome he's in such good shape. must be that brown fur. never really ages. he still smells like my childhood - a hint of old spice ha - he's still got that indent in his forehead where i figured he'd needed a haircut. it's all too ironic and awesome that he gets to be the symbol and imagery for this upcoming tour. when you come to a show, you'll see him on a lot of things including our merch and backdrop. it was an honor and blessing to collaborate with @mysticmamma on the image that Britches is now the center of. i've been a fan of her art for years and it is so humbling to have been able to make the connection and create an alchemic image of bear, dimensional elements, and nature. just some fun facts before the tour starts. i'm so excited to share this body of work with you all. hang on. it's gonna be a wild ride. -- . . . --: @josue_foto

A post shared by NAHKO (@nahkobear) on


Nahko lets his own recollections of the time period set the tone, using cassette tapes he recorded during those three years as interludes between songs. He invites you into his life in an incredibly intimate way, and suddenly the listener is welcomed on a warm journey of finding their place in the world, and doing a whole lot of mushrooms. 

Recently, Billboard covered the music video for "Dragonfly," the lead single off My Name is Bear. Nahko's new friend Paris Jackson stars in the video, and shared her excitement to be invited into the project. "There was so much love and light radiating from everyone involved throughout the creative process," Jackson explained. 

My Name is Bear debuted today, Oct. 20. Stream the album here, and read through Billboard's conversation with Nahko himself, below. 

The songs from My Name Is Bear were written prior to Medicine for the People was created -- what made you decide to go back and revisit this music?

Well, a couple different reasons. I was finally sort of taking a look at the vision for the next five years and I have all this music that hasn't been recorded, including basically two records of back catalogued music. And then plenty of Medicine for the People music to record.

So I was like, "Dang, all these years I've been waiting to let some of those songs from the back catalogue, like, give them life." I always knew I was going to record them, but I just didn't know when. I finally was like, okay, I just gotta make time and this spring, I'm going to do it in May. I got the month off, I'm going to do it grassroots style. I'm going to do it, in my friends closet and do it myself. Of course against all of the label. We work with this really dope indie label that's in LA, but they were just like, "No, no, no, Nahko, I don't know if you should do it by yourself, you know you're just a kid." So, of course I'm like, “Guys, I got this. I got it, I got it, just trust me, I got it.” I got to finally work with my bass player. He's this amazing producer and his name is Patricio and he's from Chile. It was really fun getting to work with him to co-produce it.

I just figured it was time and a lot of the songs, actually, people know already who have been following us for sometime. There's plenty [from] back in the day when YouTube first started. I was putting up videos all the time and there's a collection of some of those songs that people fell in love with that never got officially recorded. So I put some of those on this record.


I tried to stay inside the bracket of 18 to 21. I didn't fully...  there's like, three or four that sort of exist from 22 to 23. Some of them, even though they were past the age I was working from, they just made sense to put in there. The other part of it was, obviously, the politics of the world, and specifically the country -- I'm a huge advocate for the ‘people have the power’ kind of thing, and really encouraging young people to get involved in politics.

On one hand, I could have dove right into the next Medicine For the People thing and focused on that but I was like, "I think I'm going to wait a little bit and give that record some more time to develop." Also considering the state of the country, I'm thinking about 2020 elections already. I got to work with Bernie last year. I want to be on the trail with whoever else is going to be inspiring and is going to get the young people stoked, so I should probably have a record ready to fuel the movement when that time comes.

For sure, the election stuff is all starting really soon isn't it?

I heard a statistic today on Democracy Now that was like, Trump's own White House staff gave him a poor rating of even making it out. I guess the 25th Amendment states that his staff can vote him out. I was like, that's pretty dope. 

And the fact that he needed to be reminded of what the 25th Amendment stated...

Yeah he asked Bannon, Bannon was like you know 25th Amendment, and he was like, what's that? So you know exactly what I'm talking about. Now he's threatening to revoke licenses from NBC, like are you f---ing kidding me? I mean somebody else said it today, that is more like, that's beyond what Nixon tried to do. 

Back to My Name is Bear, You were talking in the behind-the-scenes video for "Dragonfly" about how the meaning of the song changed for you when you revisited it. How did years following when it was originally written influence the studio recording, and if other songs also changed when you revisited them for the album? 

Have you [re-]read something that you read when you were a teenager? I read Ishmael when I was in my early twenties and it had this whole meaning for me. And then I read it again like, a year or so ago and it still had that same meaning but also it changed for me, where I got different stuff from it. Same thing with the songs, where "Dragonfly" I wrote thirteen years ago, and it had its meaning then.

Going back now and revisiting it, I totally get what I was saying and I know where I was coming from, yet it has taken new life now in my life in this way. Even before Paris decided to be in the video, it was already coming into its own new thing. When we added the beat and added the instruments it gave it wings that I had always heard in my head, but didn't [know] existed in it. It doesn't necessarily have to be about the words even at this point. It's more just what we shaped around the words that changed for me, I guess.

That doesn't mean for every song. Like "Be Here Now," the words have new meaning to me in relation to the point of the song. It’s just about being present in your relationships in life and not thinking so much about the past or the future. As Ram Dass states so eloquently, "in the immediate moment that is all that there is." And it kind of sounds very scary but when you actually sort of think about it, if you have a psychedelic mind like me [Laughs] you kind of get what it means. You know, you're just like, "Oh yeah, every moment is so important." That's all that matters. You know, we're trained so robotically to think about retirement and our 401K and this whole structure of living. That’s so not about anything that we're really here for.

Then you add another artist into the picture like Paris. It was such a trip to get to know her over the last year, but also get to know her through this song. As I was writing and thinking and as we were filming it, I was like, "Dude it's so weird. This is not even about what I wrote about. Now it's totally about you and your journey and your transformation." I was just like, tripping -- like, whoa this is so weird and cool. Plus there's so much synchronicity for her with the dragonfly omen and the timing that I asked her for to do it, and also where we shot the video, which was twenty minutes from where her dad was born, and we had no idea we were even going to be doing it that close. It was such a trip.

So yeah, revisiting that song and the other songs, wow. I'm actually writing this short stories book -- it's coming out with the record. I'll have the lyrics in the book and each song will have a short story about the song and that has really fleshed out a much broader idea of what I went through at that time. As I was writing it, it was like, not traumatic but it was almost like oh my god, that was such an interesting time of my life and it helped me actually understand a lot deeper why I kind of wrote all the music that came after that time.

So it's almost like context for Medicine for the People?

Yeah, for sure, because none of it had anything to do with my mom or my identity or my birth story, nothing like this. It was simply about leaving home, finding myself, discovering love out of the context of my home and breaking free of this whole world that I'd grown up in that wasn't what I was trying to be about. Like every kid does basically. 

Just in very different ways. 

Yeah totally, and a lot more mushrooms. 

Sort of on the topic of the book, I know "Early February" is about this specific moment when you met your mom. Are any of the other songs are attached to very specific moments? Or are they more about big ideas from those few years?

Actually they're all about specific moments, which is why it made it really easy to write the book. Because "Early February," I wrote that two weeks before I met my mom, and I wrote it because I was thinking about her and what that story was, even though I only knew parts of it. So I kind of made up a lot of the story in that song, and it's so ironic that two weeks later I met her. I wrote this song and it was a process for me being like, well I have a mom out there somewhere and that's interesting, you know, my dad did this awful thing and that's interesting, and this is what I think about it.

All the rest of the songs are very specific. "Kirby Joe" is about three different mushroom trips I took with three different people at three different times that summer. You know what I mean? And then, "Creation's Daughter" is about buying a ticket to Burning Man and taking my dad's car [for] my first road trip by myself. I didn't know anybody in the desert there, and I slept under my car on a tarp. I did a bunch of acid and wandered around, thought about life. You know, literally sitting on the Truckee River later smoking hash and thinking about super deep thoughts about my life. I left Hawaii -- I spent a year in Hawaii when I was 19 and had spent a year there farming. By the time I left, I had six jobs and was dating this girl, had a whole life and I left it all behind and hit the road.

Then "Susanna" is like this quintessential rendition of "Oh Susanna" and it's just that classic story of a young person having to decide between the lover and the road, or deciding that the road is the lover. Which is very Kerouac to me, even though Kerouac was an alcoholic and whatever. The story has a negative sort of thing, where it's like, "Well, I guess it's gonna be me by myself again." Which is kind of how I was as a kid. It's kind of like, "ugh, I'm always going to be alone 'cause I'm always traveling." It's almost what Eeyore would say if he was a road dog.

"Die Like Dinoz" is about two dinosaurs that were in love, and they got separated by climate change and then years and years later the planet, as it does, changes again and brings them back together. It's just this epic love story... remember Fantasia? I always see the pink hippopotamuses dancing. Is that weird? [Laughs.

Do you have plans to put out more solo work? I know you said you had more songs.

Totally, this is like volume one. I'll probably work on volume two next year. I don't know when I'll put it out. I don't think I'm going to put a record out next year. Let these ones ride it out for next year. But yeah, I will. 

What do you hope Medicine for the People fans get from this debut?  

I hope that they get a deeper understanding of where I came from and how that relates to them, which I think is pretty straightforward. There's something cool about this record where you don't have to know anything about Medicine for the People to listen to this record, you know? You can listen to it, and be like, "Oh, this is nice."

If they dig a little deeper and discover Medicine for the People, that's great. But you know, like I was saying before, it's not like it's wrought with politics and idealism and identity. I think that they're going to get out of it something very pleasant and heartwarming and I think that's really what is necessary right now. I think with so much going on I'm happy to bring them something that's a little bit more filled with love and peace. Something a little more gentle that's going to be supportive at this time. I think that's really what I hope they get out of it, is a really peaceful foundation to work from.