The path to success for a contemporary folk artist must not be particularly easy. For one, there is an overwhelming propensity. The genre boasts such a sturdy foundation of recognised greats, that those lucky enough to find themselves with exposure are oft chastised as pretenders to the throne. When The Tallest Man On Earth released The Wild Hunt, a fantastic album in its own right, the Dylan comparisons loomed over the release like the ghost of a more successful elderly sibling. Luckily for him, such comparisons haven’t hindered his growth as an artist, which has seen him break free of the ‘Dylan-lite’ label.
Coincidentally, this brings me to the second biggest challenge facing folk and acoustic artists – their musical direction. Whilst far from unique to the scene, the contemporary manifestations of chart-topping folk music present a particularly potent dilemma. One only has to look at Mumford & Sons, who swept the mainstream with their own formulaic and oddly impersonal brand of folk, to see that the limelight isn’t always conducive to ingenuity. I say oddly impersonal, because perhaps most of all folk seeks to engage with audiences on a personal level – it’s an intimate genre.
A few exceptions aside, the pressures of the mainstream can often squeeze the personality out of an artist, and with the acoustic scene perhaps the most heavily populated by aspiring artists, the perceived need to compromise musical individuality in favour of success is significant.
All of this serves as a prelude to the introduction of my artist for this month – Nick Hakim. Whilst many of my previous articles have served as grandiose appraisals of emerging acts, the character of this instalment is somewhat different.
Nick Hakim hails from D.C. from a musical family who, perhaps unsurprisingly, raised him on a cocktail of classic folk and rock. Hakim has produced two EPs, Where Will We Go, Pt.1 and Where Will We Go, Pt. 2, both of which were released in 2014.
There’s definitely something about Hakim musically that separates him from the swathe of folk artists pounding at the mainstream door. Firstly, it’s perhaps important not to restrict Hakim’s music to the folk pigeonhole. It’s clear that he’s drawn inspiration from a variety of genres; at times the steady throb and bounce of his tracks, Cold and the instrumental Papas Fritas, have a distinctly R&B flavour – more D’Angelo than Dylan.
He himself describes his work as alternative soul, citing Chet Baker and Marvin Gaye amongst his significant influences. There’s certainly a similarity in warmth and texture between himself and Baker. When listening to Sleep – a track from the second of Hakim’s EPs – one is reminded of Baker’s debut album, Chet Baker Sings. This is, in some small part, down to the originality and sensuality of the production on both EPs. Whilst, to some, his use of stifled vocals, muffled drums, and a prevailing static to many of his tracks may border on gimmicky, for myself they serve as an essential dimension to the intimacy of his music.
During Heaven, the recording is set against the wash of rain falling against a window, and the creaking of a chair. It’s not dissimilar to the white noise on Sufjan Stevens and Grouper’s latest releases. In the case of Sufjan, the sound of his air conditioner can be heard in the background. It’s something that’s been observed numerous times as a key method of engendering a sense of intimacy – it invites us in.
For Hakim, that personal dimension of his music is far from just a tool for intimacy; it’s certainly genuine. For Pour Another from the Pt. 1 EP, he claimed that the hushed and subtle character of the piece could be largely attributed to the fact most of the initial recordings were taken in his bedroom, and his fear of disturbing his neighbours.
Whilst typically, at this point, I would move on to discuss the optimism I have for the artist’s future, waxing lyrical about what a big year 2015 is likely to be for them, instead I am going to express a concern. Recently, Hakim has been performing live as a solo act, without the backing keyboardist, drummer, and backing singers with whom his tracks are recorded. My concern is that, were this move to eventually carry across to his recorded work, there’s a strong chance Hakim could vanish, assimilated into the void of non-descript acoustic solo acts.
Hakim has managed, at a relatively early stage, to cultivate a genuinely unique sound, especially in comparison to the artists around him. Some of this can be accredited to the intriguing and intimate manner in which he has produced his work, but perhaps even more influential has been the inclusion of his backing band.
Whilst Hakim is a key inspiration of his work, his best moments are undoubtedly achieved with the aid of the back-up instrumentals. Providing he avoids the temptation to embark on his musical quest alone (something that I must acknowledge he’s not expressed a desire to do) he has the capacity to mirror the critical favour afforded to contemporaries such as Bon Iver, Sun Kil Moon, and Father John Misty.
This is all pure speculation however; the truth is that Hakim has produced two beautiful EPs, crammed full of soul and personality. In terms of obstacles in his way, he is probably the master of his own destiny. His style should be unique enough to avoid any of those pesky and dismissive comparisons that can plague even the best artists. Whilst he’s shown few signs of abandoning his musical roots just yet, the truer test will come as he achieves greater notoriety. One certainty: this is one folk artist well equipped to navigate the tricky path to success.