Ahead of making his debut Glastonbury appearance this weekend with his band Medicine for The People, Nahko Bear is making a solo appearance here at The Wedgewood Rooms.
The band is known for blending genres in a musical grab-bag of rock, hip-hop, folk and more, alongside a hefty slice of spirituality and an eternal optimism.
Since their 2016 album, Hoka, Nahko has released his debut solo album, My Name Is Bear. The album revisits songs Nahko, now in his early 30s, largely wrote when he was aged 18-21.
So what inspired him to go back to those old songs?
‘I'd always had a plan to do so and always loved the songs, it was really only a matter of time and a matter of making the time to document them properly. There were a few I really had to dig into the vault to find, but I really tried to stick to the era of 18-21/22 and honestly it was really fun.’
‘We'd been touring Hoka for a couple of years and I was ready to keep creating. I was writing music as I do all the time, but I didn't want to go too far down the line without letting these songs fully exist.
‘And some of them are songs that die-hard fans had already known about because of the YouTube channel I started years ago – so there some familiar songs that people were always like: “When are you going to record that song...?”’
As a baby Nahko was adopted into a white, middle-class family in Oregon in the American north west. Although it was a loving environment, he knew his background was different to theirs (he eventually discovered he has Puerto Rican, Native American and Filipino roots). He left home at 17 in a bid to, in that old but very apt cliche, find himself.
Looking back at the songs from that period through more mature eyes, how did he find it?
‘It was a trip, and kind of emotional, and there was stuff that came up where I was like, I can't believe I used to be like this, or went through that.
‘Something that also helped me thoroughly process all of it was that I put together a short stories book alongside it that went along with the record. I was able to write out my feelings and tell the stories of the songs – it was getting it out of my system and being able to digest what I had gone through and everything I was carrying. It was a very therapeutic process.’
He tracked down his birth mother at 20, to discover she had been sold into slavery and he was the product of a rape.
‘A lot of it was prior to meeting my birth mother which was a huge change in my life and brought on the songs that were on my first three records – it changed my life. These were the first steps into creating the songs that most people know.’
The album also features a number of spoken word interludes he recorded at the time.
‘I actually used to record my thoughts on a (American electronics chain store) RadioShack tape recorder – like field recordings – and I dug through the archives and found a bunch of them. It's so crazy listening to your own voice from when you were 18 on a tape recorder – a tape recorder!’
One of these interludes is called Too Much Kerouac in which he ruminates on the influence of the On The Road author and Beat Generation writer. Did Jack Kerouac influence him?
‘I think you already have to be questioning society – you are probably reading a little Walt Whitman maybe – you don't even realise there a culture of beatniks, you just don't want to be part of society, or pay taxes, I just want to live in my van down by the river, or whatever, or listening to some Bob Dylan.
‘I left home at 17 and kind of followed my nose, but I had no idea how to survive in the wild on my own.
‘Partnered with Kerouac I was also really inspired by the story of Christopher McAndless (the subject of 2007 film Into The Wild) and his whole story of making your way to Alaska. It's that whole discovery that happiness is best shared – that's really the focus. But if you can understand how lonely it can be in such a big world, I think you find something resonating in Kerouac's work.’
Having lived in Alaska, Louisiana, Hawaii, and LA, Nahko is now back in Oregon, ‘on the edge of Mount Hood National Forest.
‘I’m back close to family, so they're all happy that I'm back in the hood. I'm right on the river and back in nature. I need space to spread out, being with people all the time, when I was younger it wasn't that big a deal, but now I'm older I definitely require a lot more alone time.’
With positivity and optimism a recurring theme in Nahko’s music, and a new Medicine For The People album on the way, does he find it tough to retain that attitude?
‘Of course – I go through my depressions and pessimisms just like anyone else, and even within this new record's body of work there are going to be some things we talk about that aren't as positive.
‘But I feel that I focus on the future in a good way, in the sense that I tend to, as an empath, to see the good within the bad.
‘And I tend not to live within the negative perhaps as long as some people – which is I think the gift that comes through the music: “Hey, you're not alone!” And even though it seems you're in the trenches forever and ever, there's always going to be light at the end of the tunnel.’
A long way from being a Donald Trump supporter, he has even been able to see the positives in the divisive figure’s presidency.
‘The system's been broken for a long time, but what's inspiring is the underground movement and the mobilising of young people who are redefining the system, redefining democracy and not looking at the top tier.
‘There's a lot of paranoia around what is really truth and what is fake news – that's been the whole (Trump) campaign, to create confusion and propaganda. As long as we continue to stay centred and to seek a centre, and stay in tune with our intuition, the outer world will continue to shift into a place we want to live in – but only if we continue to participate in that change.
‘The older I get, the more participatory I become. I used to not care about politics: “Oh, it's broken, screw the system”, and so on.
‘But now I'm older, the empath in me is like, everyone has a soul and everyone's purpose here is equally important and we have to participate in changing the way we observe each other and the way we treat each other. ‘
Ever the optimist he believes this younger generation will sweep away the old guard, and genuinely serve the communities they represent.
‘I understand there are ways we can make things better and it doesn't have to be at the cost of turning the power over to a corporate entity to make decisions for us.
‘There's a whole generation of younger people who are going to make the opportunities happen, it's just keeping us inspired with music to fuel the movement – it's that commonality, that language that we can all agree on.’
So would Nahko ever move into politics?
‘Oh no,’ he laughs, ‘I'm happy just writing the songs.’
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Friday, June 28