Friday, September 15, 2023
Niko Moon has really clear memories. Music, cars, school. How much his parents loved each other, created a place where life was an adventure – and what you had was all you needed.
His dad, a drummer turned truck driver, loved old cars. As a boy, he remembers a Falcon, “red interior, and the carpet. The way it smelled.” He used to love to pile in with his dad, riding around, going to get donuts – and listening to music.
“I was 8 or 9, and I didn’t get it,” he laughs. “It was John Prine. My dad’s favorite was ‘One Red Rose.’ It’s funny. I knew all the words. I’d be singing along without a clue, but loving it... loving the line ‘What I never knew, I never will forget...’”
Like Prine, Moon’s finger is on simple things that really matter; easy joy and how to find it, loving where you are and finding ways to write about it so everyone – the really smart, the can’t be-bothered – can find their way to the bliss. It’s what Moon seeks to capture and sow in his songs.
Growing up an hour outside of Atlanta, back when it was country not exurbia, life moved at a different pace. People knew each other, took their time, shared a meal on Sunday with their family and pitched in when someone needed a hand.
Moon wanted to extract the essence of growing up in small-town Georgia. Banjo forward, swaggy back beat, guitars that tang as much as twang. Sonic tags, melodies that tumble and moments that embody all the warm welcome and friendliness that defined his life as a kid listening to his mama play Alison Krauss in her car, his debut album GOOD TIME creates an old school sort of country ethos that also drags a bit of Michael Franti, Prine, the Eagles and Outkast through songs that simmer, stir and sizzle in all the right places.
“In middle school, I started having my own opinions about everything,” he’s quick to offer. “Nirvana, Offspring, Green Day, Sister Hazel, Outkast, Tupac, Biggie. That drum and bass rhythm section of hip- hop, I just fell in love with. Didn’t know what they were talking about, either, but I really loved the way the drums knocked me out!
“My hair was all long. I was wearing basketball jerseys, JNCOs, playing hacky sack before school. I didn’t know what I was, so I was taking it all in, trying to figure out who I was.”
All of it turned out to be more than anyone could’ve bargained for. A musically curious kid, he remembers watching his dad practicing drums in the garage. “I got chills. I couldn’t comprehend how he was doing it,” he remembers. “I was so little, but he was in a touring regional country/rock band, had hair down to his waist. He gave it up, made the decision it was better for his family to just drive. I always respected him for that. You know, he was getting up at 4 a.m. to provide for his family.
“But he was such a fan of music, of songwriters. To just sit and listen to what they did with the story and the language. He – and my mom, who had the sweetest voice – were always singing to me. There’s a rhythm to that, too.”
That rhythm is shot through every track on GOOD TIME, a self-cultivated positivity starter kit. Whether the staccato/dobro punctuated laundry list of ‘can’ts’ that forms “GOOD AT LOVING YOU,” the double entendre “WAY BACK,” the slinky, finger-snapping “SMALL TOWN STATE OF MIND,” or the strummy philosophy of “WITHOUT SAYIN’ A WORD,” Moon recognizes you can’t have heart without the beat.
“The rhythm, the groove, the lyric: it’s all important,” he protests, trying to home in on his sweet spot. “The songwriter in me says it’s the words; but at the end of the day, it’s the rhythm. Rhythm’s the more elemental thing. The head and the heart, right? The heart is deeper a lot of time, and I want my music to move people. When they love the way it makes them feel, they’ll get there. But... I want to reach the ones who love the lyric, who really focus on what you’re saying, too.”
If the secret sauce is the alchemy, it’s been years in the slow-steeping. Not only did Moon produce Franti’s acclaimed Stay Human, Vol. 2, he’s been the secret weapon for Zac Brown for almost a decade. In love with music, the young kid caught up with the circus, “back at the Dixie Tavern on Wednesday nights, 200 people with the line wrapped around the bar and across the back. ‘Chicken Fried,’ ‘Toes,’ ‘Free,’ yes, but he would do Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Keith Whitley. And his picking, there’s always a hook built into the chord, even when he’s just playing G, C, D.”
Writing, traveling, seeing the world, Moon absorbed a precision and commitment to music that was exacting, even as it embodied simple pleasures. “Everyone in that band is so good. Spending 10 years watching them arrange and create was intense. Relentlessly authentic and refusing to adapt to other people’s ideas of what you should be was a real lesson.”
Ten years was also spent living the life. In the rock & roll Jetstream, Moon confesses, “I had it in my mind to be a real artist you had to live this life: always moving on, lonely, smoking a lot of cigarettes, lots of girls, drugs and drinking. That Jack Kerouac way of you have to suffer a little to really be an artist. But that was a story I invented...”
Tragedy collided with magic. With an engagement imploding in the most high-impact way – see the sinewy “DRUNK OVER YOU” – Moon sought higher ground. Young, talented and good-looking, it was easy to shut off, shutdown and remain aloof. But that’s when he met Anna, who Facebook friended him after a photographer she was thinking of using showed her Moon’s picture in his photo portfolio.
“I was playing Atlanta, so I invited her to the show,” the reformed player remembers. “She came, and was so beautiful. I thought we were gonna hang out, but she stayed two minutes, told me she liked the show and left.”
A proper date, a real conversation and the news that she, too, was a songwriter intrigued him. Unaware that she’d already appeared in Italian Vogue, he asked her to play a song. He was stunned. “She didn’t know how good she was.”
Smiling now, he confesses, “I was in love at first sight, but that creative force changed everything. I knew she’d understand me, get me – and while she was from an hour north of Atlanta and I was from an hour west of Atlanta, we were basically from the same small town.”
Though they were writing for her UK pop deal, they never stopped collaborating. As importantly, they had fun. Even in the lean years, the pair created joy where they were with what they had – and it seeped into their songs, their sounds and the way they saw the world.
“I’ve never cared about playing solos, only how the songs feel,” Moon explains. “When I was renting a room from my buddy for $200 a month and making $100 a night, Anna was right there, and she got that, too. She still does.
“We were lying in bed one night, talking and ‘LAST CALL’ just dropped out. The last line of the chorus, ‘If lovers are like alcohol, then you’re my last call...’ It hit home, because I’d been drinking so heavy when I met her, I was missing all the good stuff. Then I met her, and well, you hear the songs.”
The songs, absolutely. The cascading wonders of the world “DIAMOND,” which his lover overwhelmingly outshines, the arcing be-in-the-moment “LET IT RIDE,” the harmony slathered “NO SAD SONGS” and the 2x Platinum No. 1 debut single “GOOD TIME” all bear witness to Moon’s hybrid sound and spirit. “When you’re in a beautiful moment, soak that up, bring it in and watermark your memories with a song, with these songs. Find a way to remember...
“I got a tattoo that says, ‘This, too, shall pass.’ Me and my dad both did, because he used to tell me that, and it’s true. If you can find ways to remember, to hold on to the feelings and everything in that moment, that’s the deal. It’s so simple: I’m the first person to tell you I’m just trying to make people happy. Life is so short; you’re here, and then you’re gone. I want to enjoy every moment – and if (the songs) are the best thing we can give people, do for each other, then I’m all about it.”
So much so, that Moon holed up at home and started playing around with sounds, rhythms, grooves and Miss Anna Moon. Between them, they crafted 14 songs that distill the essence of who they are, how they were raised, where they grew up and the things that matter. Laughing, he says, “Finding Anna was really finding myself. We both exist in this music, in these songs – and in this life, what makes you happy is love, whether Anna or your friends, your family and the way you choose to see the world. These songs, I hope, create a space to pick the beauty in a bad day... and make you bob your head a little.”
Moon’s latest effort, COASTIN’, is available now.