Matt Nakoa grew up on his parents’ farm in upstate New York, but the rustic charms of rural life couldn’t hold this prodigiously talented multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter down on the farm.
He’s spent most of his adult life in major cities — Boston, where he studied at the Berklee School of Music, and Manhattan, where he developed his career as a performer — and is now a road-bound touring musician, performing more than 200 shows a year.
Along the way, he’s steadily built a following based on his superb musicianship, smart but accessible songwriting, and amiable, involving stage presence. It doesn’t hurt that the thirty-three-year-old Nakoa possesses the smoldering good looks of a pop heartthrob — not that Nakoa plays up that side of his appeal, as he primarily sees himself as a devoted and hard-working musician in search of the perfect hook.
Although his background includes classical training and a degree from Berklee, he describes himself as primarily gravitating to pop music. When using that term, Nakoa refers to previous decades when “pop” did not connote ephemeral tripe but melodious and ingenious songs that could tickle the ears and touch the soul.
“Back in the old days of Top Forty and Motown, there was more heart and soul in pop music, and that’s what I resonate with,” says Nakoa, who I’ve reached by phone on the road. “I like a really well-written song with a great hook — you know, what I’d call a pop song.”
“I also enjoy a well-crafted lyric that is relevant to people’s lives and emotions. So it’s pop music in the sense that it feels good, but it’s got as much substance as I can get in there.”
Nakoa studied the craft of songwriting and composition at Berklee, but it was playing at piano bars in New York City that really trained him for a career as a working musician. For three nights a week over a period of five years, he’d take requests and perform all night.
“I would start at 9:30 p.m. and play till 4 in the morning, with one break,” he recalls. “And it was all tips, so I had to learn how to engage an audience and keep their attention or else I didn’t get paid. It was a real marathon of a gig.”
He built up a repertoire of 500 popular songs, but it was a small number of them that were most frequently requested: “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Walking in Memphis” and so on.
I ask if he ever felt like the character in Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Nakoa says without hesitation.
But the gig paid his hefty New York rent and he learned a lot about what makes a song connect with an audience.
“When you play these hit songs — something like ‘Tiny Dancer,’ by Elton John — and you come to that big lift when everybody starts singing along, you feel like, ‘Oh, that’s what you want to happen when you get to the chorus of a song,’” says Nakoa. “Whether it’s conscious or not, that definitely seeps into my writing.”
Nakoa has made three albums, the most recent being “Casting Shadows,” released in March. He sings in an appealingly burry, boyish voice and tastefully deploys his awesome chops as a keyboardist and guitarist on his hyper-melodic songs.
His songs call to mind the work of Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren and especially the cult-hero power popper Emmitt Rhodes.
In terms of craftsmanship, you could throw Elton John and Billy Joel into the mix as well.
Nakoa likens himself to John Mayer, “because he works really hard and studies hard and knows a lot about the history of music and songs, and that’s something I identify with.”
Nakoa has been called a well-kept secret, but gold this pure doesn’t stay hidden for long. Presented by the Fiddle & Bow Society, his performance in Greensboro is an opportunity to catch him in an intimate setting while you still can.