On March 14, his first day of self-quarantine, Tomo Nakayama made a music video in his house. He stood in front of a wrinkled white sheet, singing. In many ways, the music he’s released since his 2014 debut—gorgeous, gentle, celestial folk—would be a logical soundtrack for us, a city of sudden hermits. But his new record, Melonday, which he released today, is a clear departure, trading acoustic guitars and pianos for bright swirling electropop and watercolor synths. It's more Phoenix than winsome singer-songwriter, more Postal Service than Death Cab for Cutie. In the video, to the song “Tick Tock,” instead of somber contemplation, he’s alone but grooving in front of that sheet.
If the music sounds like a contradiction to our present condition—songs built for a dance floor—the lyrics have an eerie prescience. Take the opener: “Girl in the evening gown / where do you go when you’ve got nothing around.” Or the start of the second verse: “We live in a lonely time / you’ve got your devices, I’m in service to mine.” He wrote the song over a year ago, but like all art released in the pandemic, the context has altered it.
When he was starting the album a couple years ago, toying with new sounds with his collaborator Yuuki Matthews because he’s a fan of pop music (Madonna, Robyn), he found himself entering new lyrical spaces, those of “ambivalence and confusion and heartbreak,” that he’d intentionally veered away from in his previous work. Ultimately, he says Melonday is about “finding love and meaningful connection in the modern world, with technology and everything. Ever since this virus hit, it’s taken on a whole ’nother level of meaning.”
Whether we want to be or not, we’re all “in service” to devices. The very technologies he was wary of—are they corroding our humanity? what does it mean to be present anymore?—have become vital sources of connection. In place of the record release show he planned at the Sunset Tavern on April 30, he’s turned to online shows. He’s livestreaming a dance party at 8pm on Facebook today to celebrate the record release. He contributed to an Artist Home’s 12-hour stream, and another couple for kids, and thus parents, who are stuck at home. “Thanks for watching, kiddos,” he posted after. “My heart feels full and glad. You are my favorite audience.”
Beyond that, he’s trying not to stress about the financial aspects (musicians make most of their money from shows—but you can buy his album). He takes his dog out for walks and has an “epic text thread” going with his bandmates of nearly every meal each is cooking. But writing new music is on pause: “It’s just been too emotionally draining, the events of the past couple weeks.”
Is it strange, I asked, releasing a dance album at a time when congregating in a venue is banned? “I’ve been really looking forward to sharing it with other people,” he said. “I’ve been dancing on my own for the past couple years. I’m used to just dancing in my house by myself.” He’d wanted the album to be about getting out, about reasserting our bodies in the physical world, together. He still looks forward to that, whenever it comes, but for the moment, “I want people to send me videos of their solo dance parties.”