You are here

Talkback: Niko Moon

Country Meets Hip-hop By William Stokes
Published April 2021

TalkbackPhoto: Matthew Berinato

“I love being a part of the evolution of my world,” reflects Georgia‑born, Nashville‑based Niko Moon as he prepares for his first performance at Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry. His sound is certainly not typical for the Opry, however. Fusing hip‑hop beats and production with acoustic instrumentation and familiar country lyrical themes, Moon’s music represents a collision of worlds. “I grew up about an hour outside of Atlanta, so I was in the country. Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt, all these country legends were literally 10 minutes down the road from me; but I was also an hour away from Outkast and Ying Yang [Twins] and TI and the whole Atlanta vibe, you know? So that’s why my music is the way it is. I was always really drawn to the drum and bass production of Atlanta hip‑hop, but I really like the organic instrumentation of country music, and especially the lyric and melody of country music, so for me to just be myself and do what I feel is authentic: it would have to be a meeting of those two worlds.”

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

I’ve really been digging on Chris Stapleton lately. I’ve always been a big fan of him, but I’ve been going back to some of his older stuff, especially the Traveller album — you know, his first breakout album. Vance Powell’s engineering and Dave Cobb’s production. I’ve had the chance to be in the room with Dave Cobb a few times, and just really became a fan of his production style. Also, Tha Carter V just came out: Lil Wayne, he’s probably my favourite rapper. I just love his whole, kind of stream‑of‑thought style. So, I’ve been really getting down on that. I’ve also been listening to a lot of older jazz like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra while I’ve been cooking lately! For some reason I really like old jazz when I’m just in a situation like that, because as a producer I’m so analytical about music; I’m constantly thinking, “I wonder what mic that is on that vocal,” or “That’s cool what they did on the drums.” But when I listen to old jazz, for some reason I don’t think about the production at all. I just enjoy it, like a human being should.

The project I’m most proud of

Well, I haven’t come out with my full‑length yet, I’ve just come out with my EP. But that’s definitely what I’m most proud of. I’ve produced albums for lots of other artists, but being able to give my life a sound has just been awesome. I feel like I learned so much through the process of producing and engineering other people’s music. It really honed my ability to get to the root of who I am, production‑wise, quicker than I would have without that experience.

The first thing I look for in a studio

Mics, man! To me, if you don’t get it good at the source, there’s nothing you can do. You can only polish a turd up so good! For whatever reason, I do really well on a [Sony] C800. C800s are so weird to me, because when they don’t work — which, I think, is more often than not — they really don’t work. But when they work, it’s like nothing can touch it. I’m just one of those singers that it works on. I’d rather have an unreal mic going straight into a [UA Apollo] Twin [interface], than have all the outboard gear in the world and some giant 4k SSL console.

The person I would consider my mentor

To be honest, YouTube is my mentor. I’ve learned more, I think, from YouTube than anything else. It’s amazing. Back in the day you had to go get an apprenticeship, you had to go get under somebody to really learn what’s up; and now there’s just a world of endless hours… you couldn’t watch it all if you lived a hundred lifetimes. I still do it. There’s still so much to learn. But when I was just getting going, I would, like, watch every Pensado’s Place ever.

The biggest misconception about the role of a producer

That a producer is going to make you a star. I think, sometimes you’ve got these artists that will come into a room and say “Make me a hit song.” A producer can be capable of making a hit, but he needs a hit artist! The producer’s job is to make you the most fully you that they can. You are this thing, and their job is to shine a light on you, as brightly as possible.

Niko Moon: To be honest, YouTube is my mentor.

My go‑to reference track

If I had to pick a song, it would probably be ‘Gravity’ from [John Mayer’s] Continuum album. Sonically that album is probably one of my favourites — it’s John Mayer’s opus for sure. I just love the way everything sounds on that record. Steve Jordan’s drums sound unreal, the guitar tones sound unreal… I feel like, if I was to go to another room and work with another artist and get some sort of vibe for the room, it would be that.

There’s also this track by Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Dawsin’s Breek’. When I want to make sure a track is hitting right, I’ll A/B it to that track. There’s something about it, the low end… I’m not trying to reference the top end, typically. If that sounds good to me, I’m happy. But on the low end, to make sure things are hitting correctly, that song is just really great.

My desert island studio item

My Sony C800 microphone. That’s my desert island item. I feel like, as long as I’ve got that, I’m good. I used to be really big on plug‑ins, but as time has gone on it’s not nearly as important as I used to think it was to get things to sound great. I’ve seen too many ridiculously good mixers or ridiculous engineers, and I’ll be like, “Oh, my God, what EQ are you using?!” and it’s just, like, the stock EQ.

The one piece of gear I would bring back into production

NS10s. Why, why, is Yamaha not making NS10s anymore? You can’t count how many hit records have been made with NS10s. I know Avantone came out with their version of them in the last few years… But, Yamaha: y’all gotta bring back the NS10s! Right now I’ve got Barefoots that I work on, and they have this knob that sits on your desktop that can switch between a bunch of different modes. There’s ‘regular mode’ and there’s ‘old school’ which emulates the NS10s, and then there’s one called ‘cube’ which emulates the Avantone little cube speakers, so you have one set of monitors that can become different types of speakers. So, I’m constantly putting it in ‘old school’ mode to see what NS10s would be doing, I mean, that’s how impactful that speaker was.

The producer I’d most like to work with

I haven’t talked about him yet, but without him my music wouldn’t be what it is. His name is Josh Murty: he’s my co‑producer and one of my best friends. I’m in Nashville, he’s in LA, and before [the Covid‑19 crisis] happened we would fly out and work with each other. Now we’re working remotely: we’re using Zoom’s screen‑share capabilities so he can take over my computer. I’ll go in my vocal booth and track vocals, and he’ll be cutting my vocals in LA, in real time. It’s a mix between using Zoom and Audiomovers, the plug‑in. We’re halfway through my second album and we haven’t seen each other once. Anyways, Josh is the other half of my production team. It’s me and him, together. Every single thing that I do, he produces it with me. Honestly, he’s my favourite producer out there, and I get to work with him!

But outside of him… I think it would be cool to collaborate — me and Josh — with Finneas. He might be the most ahead‑of‑his‑time producer in the game right now. I remember the first time I heard Billie [Eilish]’s album, I feel like I’m pretty good at hearing something and going ‘That’s cool, I see what you did there.’ But on that album there were some things where I was like ‘How did you do that?’ And that’s a rare thing. Like, he’d do these verb throws on [Billie’s] vocal, where it sounds like he’s printing the verb and then chopping it off, so right when she’d come back in the tail would cut off. I just thought that was really clever. I would never have thought to do that. He would also formant her vocal; you’ve heard pitched vocals a million times, but he’d have moments where her vocal would formant and he’d automate the formant while she’s singing. That was some out‑of‑the‑box shit — really clever, you know. And they did it in their bedroom.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

Stay true to yourself. When I was just getting into music, I just wanted to be a part of it: I didn’t care how. I didn’t care if it was as a songwriter, as a producer, as an engineer, as an artist… I just wanted to be involved with the community. I wanted to be involved in music that ended up becoming special, that actually had an impact in the world. And, I think for a moment there I was so wanting that that I started emulating my heroes. It was a little bit of a pitfall for me. I looked up to certain artists or producers or mixers or engineers so much that I wanted to be like them, instead of just learning from them. I think it’s important to just be yourself. There’s only one you. If you can be the best version of yourself, you’re going to be original because there ain’t nobody like you! And it took me a long time to figure that out. I wanted to be my heroes, instead of just being me.