New York, that fickle mistress, has birthed and dashed thousands of music careers. But if you can make it there... well, you know the rest. Tales from the concrete jungle with Azealia Banks producer Nick Hook, singer Tiombe Lockhart and electro-soul singer Jesse Boykins.
Rolling up to a sandwich joint in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Greenpoint, Nick Hook jumps off his bike and starts talking a mile a minute. Powered by coffee from Ninth Street Espresso in the East Village, and a session at Sixth Street Pilates, as well as his daily three-mile run, the red-haired Hook bubbles over with energy and enthusiasm. He has every reason to be: Azealia Banks, with whom he worked when she was just a young unknown from Harlem, is one of the hottest indie rappers around, and Hook is in the process of extending his studio so he can create more hits. He’s also doing production work on a number of other people’s tracks and working on his solo album – later in the afternoon, he’ll take to Twitter to ask for title suggestions.
After grabbing a salad and sparkling water, Hook heads to his studio, which he warns is “still a work in progress”. A large, light-filled room on the fifth floor of a converted industrial building, the studio is filled with synthesisers, mixing boards and computers – ground zero for what could be the next indie sensation. Hook settles in, first playing a handful of tracks he’s heard about from various sources, then getting down to work on the production for a track by Villa, an upbeat indie dance number that sounds like it could be a cut from the latest Passion Pit album.
A few hours later, Hook takes a break and heads up to the studio’s roof, settling in under the scorching-hot sun and gazing out of over a panoramic view of Manhattan. “I don’t think I could be anywhere else,” he says. “I was just in LA and I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done. Part of it was that I was with Azealia and she was hanging out and having fun, and part of it was that it takes so long to get anywhere. I can just jump on my bike or the train and be almost anywhere in New York in 20 minutes.”
“I love the weight of New York. I like that everything is so dense. It propels me to work harder and dig deeper”
A city of superlatives in many respects, New York happens to be one of the best cities in the world for music at the moment, sending forth an army of DJs, rappers, singer-songwriters, and indie rockers to the wider world and the sales charts. There are hundreds of live-music venues, from the iconic Hammerstein Ballroom and Madison Square Garden to 285 Kent Ave, a ramshackle space that hosts indie rock and noise bands and makes up in charm what it lacks in air conditioning.
If you need a drummer, or a singer, or a collaborator, New York is full of them, and if you want a record label, all four major labels and hundreds of indies are here waiting. An artist doing press can swing by Rolling Stone’s office in midtown, or Billboard’s in the East Village, and still have time to grab a drink with some bloggers in Bushwick before making it home for dinner.
But there’s a lot of competition here. When you live in a city where investment bankers complain about feeling poor, it can be tough for a working musician to pay the bills. “I love the weight of New York,” says Tiombe Lockhart, Hook’s partner in the band Cubic Zirconia, who also performs as a solo artist. “I like the idea of hustling and the fact that everything is so dense. It propels me to work harder and dig deeper. And it’s not just New York; the internet also makes it possible for anyone to create and upload music or videos. But I don’t think I could make the type of music I make anywhere else. I get so much just living in the city.
I live in a Dominican neighbourhood and I hear things just walking around that I wouldn’t hear if I lived in another place.” Lockhart started singing after her mother noticed her talents, performing in churches as a kid and eventually attending a performing arts high school after moving, from Atlanta, to Los Angeles as a teenager. She then studied jazz at the New School in NYC, and was signed to Elektra Records shortly after graduation – only to be dropped from the label a few months later.
“I was ready to give up, but my mom kept pushing me,” she says. “I met a producer who asked me to do some vocals and sent me a track and a cheque – I didn’t want to be unethical so I did the work, and wound up working with a group called Platinum Pied Pipers. Then I went back to doing the solo thing, and was even on the cover of [music magazine] XLR8R, but nothing felt right.”
One night, she went to a sake bar with a mutual friend of Hook’s. She met Hook, who was working as a waiter there and was eager to have her join his band. The two bonded over booze and DJ Quik, and Lockhart credits her work with Cubic Zirconia for revitalising her interest in music, though she came close to going down another path. “I worked for two years as a secretary at an investment firm,” she says. “At one point, someone told me I would make a great banker.”
Read the full story in September's issue of The Red Bulletin.