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Music City

Interview by Holly Gleason

In the wake of Niko Moon's SESAC Songwriter of the Year win, we revisit Holly Gleason's conversation with the singer/songwriter/musician.

Niko Moon may be the biggest good-vibe guy in Nashville. Not because he was Zac Brown’s secret collaborative weapon, having a hand in “Homegrown,” “Loving You Easy,” “Beautiful Drug” and “Keep Me in Mind.” Nor because he’s a go-to songwriter for Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts and Morgan Wallen, with a #1 of his own in “Good Time.”

The Tyler, Tex.-born, Georgia-raised multi-instrumentalist just naturally leans into the happy and seeks the uplifting. The son of a drummer who went full-time into truck driving to support his family, Moon was raised on a healthy diet of John Prine and Patty Griffin, but also steeped in the OutKast/Atlanta school of funk rhythms. The result makes the happy-go-lucky writer/producer the third point of a triangle with Jack Johnson and Michael Franti, whose 2019 LP Stay Human, Vol. 2 Moon co-produced.

With his 2020 Good Time EP and current single “No Sad Songs,” Moon has found the sweet spot for intriguing rhythms holding small-town values in a roots-music vat that expands modern country. His hooks are pure gold, but the vibe is total platinum.

Your dad was probably your first real influence, wasn’t he?
My dad was a truck driver his whole life, but he’s a drummer too. There was a time he was driving during the day, then gigging at night. I remember being little, going to see him play. It was the coolest. Then he made a decision that it was better for his family to just drive. He worked two jobs a lot; some days, he’d be up and gone at 4am and wouldn’t be home ’til after dinner.

He drove for The Atlanta Journal Constitution for a long time, dropping papers at their delivery centers. He drove for a delivery service during regular business hours. Later, he worked for a cleaning company, cleaning offices after hours. I always respected him for that; to make that sacrifice for his family, that really stuck with me.

Your dad really loved music.
If there was a first song I heard as a baby, it was something by John Prine. My dad was such a fan of songwriters, to just sit and really listen to what they did with the story and the language. He was always singing to me. There’s a rhythm to that too.

He was never the type of father to sit me down and tell what’s right and wrong. He lived his life being an example. We grew up very working-class. We were living in this trailer for a while and we didn’t have a dining room; when Thanksgiving came, we just pulled out the ironing board and put the turkey, mashed potatoes and everything on there. We had the heating go out once, but he made it an adventure. Pulling the mattress over to the fireplace, getting the wood and making a fire. It was “camping out,” and we didn’t see it as worry.

That explains your attitude. Are you more good-time vibe or romantic?
I wasn’t always romantic. That came from my wife [singer/songwriter Anna Moon], who I write with all the time now. Before her, I had it in my head you had to be “a troubadour.” It’s all travels and lonely, smoking a lot of cigarettes, drinking whiskey. You know, this Jack Kerouac way of living, where you have to suffer for your beloved art. It was a story I invented.

So you thought love songs were dumb?
I thought there was something soft about writing love songs. Then I met Anna, who’s a fantastic songwriter. She affected me in so many ways. I got really comfortable in trying to understand my life, my path and what it needed to be.

You have that small-town ethos.
I grew up one hour north of Atlanta; Anna grew up one hour west of Atlanta. We grew up in different towns, but it’s the same town, really. You get past the cities, and you’re listening to the same music and doing the same things.

A lot of the songs are love songs to my hometown, which is not the eighth wonder of anyone’s world, just a little place off Interstate 20 that’s not next to the ocean, doesn’t have a mountain with some beautiful view. But my family, my friends, my memories are there—and that’s special. So when people hear these songs, I hope they hear their life and their town too.

As a writer, what’s more important, the words or the beats?
The songwriter in me who loves Prine and Patty Griffin says it’s the words. But at the end of the day, it’s the rhythm—it’s the more elemental thing. I want my music to get both kinds of people—the ones who get swept up and the ones who really dive in and analyze every line. But the heart is the deeper root. Between the head and the heart, it’s the heart, always.

Which explains the way you use grooves and rhythm changes.
OutKast and the way their drums sounded, they hit so hard. I had a little Chevy S-10 pickup. My goal was to blow out my speakers every day rolling up to school with OutKast.

Their music, like Prine’s, is really euphoric.
I’m always looking for the meter and where to change it up. That comes from OutKast. I think about the head bob—how your head either bobs down or back. Between the vocal flow and the drumbeat, you can change how people bounce. When I sing, I may realize I’m jumping the downbeat a little bit in the verse, so when I’m getting to the chorus, I hit it straight-up. Prine had that too. The conversational thing that moved with the rhythms. Same deal.

You co-produced Michael Franti. He’s another rhythm guy.
We’re good friends, but he is. There’s so much joy in his music, between the reggae he’s doing and his whole vibe. I love harnessing that positivity. That glass-half-full way of thinking is fantastic. Bob Marley was a huge influence on both of us. But Michael’s also about the details. We listened to hundreds of kick-drum samples to find the perfect one. He knows that rhythm matters in making people feel.

How’d you make the transition from writer/producer to artist?
I said, “Let’s take a month and unpack who I am, my sound and what I want that to be.” I wanted to think about my influences, how I wanted to bring them together, what I resonate with.

Happiness isn’t some specific thing or achievement. For me, it’s my wife, my dog, my family. So, to make country music that makes people feel really happy? That seems to be it. You know, there’s a magic when music really moves you. That’s what I’m going for.