Everyone has a story. A tale composed of tiny moments weaving through our day-to-day routines and occasional adventures. The small parts define our past and influence our future.
Austin soul man, Nakia, has a story that has taken him from singing in Alabama churches to NBC’s “The Voice,” and everywhere in between. With his June 29, 2017 reunion with His Southern Cousins at Antone’s, the latest chapter in his tale is a loving nod to an extraordinary past.
Nakia’s story begins in 1980’s Alabama. As a kid, he honed his voice through church choirs, Kiss, and Top 40 radio. But becoming a junior Gene Simmons was not in the cards, thanks to his dad’s love of soul music.
“When I was a kid, [my dad] had blues and soul records, especially soul,” shared Nakia. “He had this Time Life box set called ‘Saturday Night Downtown,’ and it had James Brown, Joe Tex, and all these great soul singers and soul shouters. I fell in love with those records.”
Upon moving from Chicago to Austin in 2002, Nakia gigged around town as a backup singer for various groups. After a stint with the Miles Zungia (Fastball) side project, Small Stars, Zungia encouraged Nakia to break out on his own.
In 2007, Nakia did just that. After a chance meeting with musician Matt Hubbard, the duo began writing songs over a computer Nakia ended up selling to Willie Nelson. Due to time constraints, Hubbard dropped from the project. But after linking up with local guitar player Mac McNabb, Nakia finished an album’s worth of tunes. The two decided a band was needed for the recording studio, and Southern Cousins was born. From this partnership, two albums were released: “Playing the Cards” and critically-acclaimed “Water to Wine.”
His Southern Cousins
During the band’s 10-year anniversary show, standouts from both records were well-represented. Nakia’s core sound is soul unhinged. Deftly dancing from tender and sweet, to wall-shaking shout, Nakia took listeners on a musical roller coaster.
The set opened with “Elizabeth Lee,” a thumping southern rock jam about a dangerous confrontation with a treacherous lover. As the song escalated in both sound and story, Nakia’s vocals grew gravelly and impassioned. Musically, Nakia is an actor as well as a traditional singer. During the set’s opening, he became the song’s had-enough-of-it protagonist, and the tune soared because of it.
Other highlights from the early days included the velvety slow jams “Texas Crescent Moon” and “Making it Up to My Baby,” off “Playing the Cards.” During the middle of the set, the band performed the opening track off “Water to Wine,” called “Choose Your Poison.” It’s a lush tune full of three-part harmony, sprinkled atop a soul-sweetened funk bedrock.
But it’s not all Nakia. His Southern Cousins laid down a carpet of smooth groove during “Will It Go Around In Circles” that exploded into a brazen finish, worthy of a southern church revival. The group’s backup singers, The Fresh Up Girls, beautifully belted through “On The Bus,” while McNabb’s guitar work seared through the blustery rise and fall of “Touch, Feel & Lose,” a standout track on Nakia’s latest Southern Cousins reunion outtake album.
Life Without the Cousins
The reason there’s a reunion at all is complex. In 2009, Jessie from The Fresh Up Girls left the band, and Nakia’s father passed away from pancreatic cancer. Needing a break from the group, and not wanting to continue without Jessie, Nakia formed The Blues Grifters with McNabb. Many years later, a video of a performance at Saxon Pub made its way to the producers of NBC’s “The Voice”, who recruited Nakia for their first season.
Ending up in the top eight contestants on CeeLo Green’s team was a game-changing experience for Nakia, netting him worldwide acclaim and a mentor he remains close to today. But of all his collaborations, Nakia lists Sharon Jones, of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, as his most treasured. What started as an accidental duet during the 2008 Austin City Limits Music Festival has become a touching friendship.
One of the first people to learn of Jones’ passing in 2016, Nakia spoke about her as if she was his sister, a testament to their unique connection.
“Every time we were in the same city together after ACL, she would call me up and we would sing together,” shared Nakia. “And it was all thanks to that random thing. It was never meant to be a collaboration, but it ended up that way. Sharon was my greatest example of good, positive energy coming my way.”
In the between years, Nakia became deeply involved with Austin music nonprofits like SIMS, HAAM, Black Fret, and Austin Music Foundation. With two Black Fret grants under his belt, critical acclaim, and a new Blues Grifters record waiting in the wings, the future is bright for this ATX soul superstar.
Triumphant Return 10 Years Later
But that Thursday night at Antone’s was all about honoring the past. As the clock slowly turned towards midnight, Nakia stopped the show to say a few words about his band. It was like watching a father toast a bride: sweet, honest, and from the heart.
In response, the group launched into the brilliant “Water to Wine.” Transitioning from mournful piano and guitar into an avalanche of blues progressions and soulful shouting, the song shook Antone’s to its very core. Listening to Nakia belt, “If you want to change me, you’ll have to turn water to wine,” felt like a declaration of defiance in the midst of a screaming, pulsing gospel choir.
A pair of songs from the new outtakes record followed before Nakia closed the show with a cover of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Fueled by the energy of the 10-year reunion, Nakia transcended the Joe Cocker standard into something magical.
An artist of range, talent, and pipes for days, weeks, and years, Nakia will always be a fixture in the local Austin scene. This latest chapter in his incredible story is a passionate love letter to the band he once had, and a confident nod to a bold, bright future. He’s far from finished.
For more Nakia information, albums, merch, and show listings, visit nakia.net.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
What’s your favorite Nakia tune?