After hearing a performance by Heartland Nomads, you may get the feeling this trio is tapping into something deep below the surface.
Perhaps it’s the surprisingly powerful vocals by frontwoman Chi Ko. When the band first started performing in subway stations, passersby would do double-takes to see whether the voice matched the singer.
“I think it’s because I’m a very small person,” Ko said. “I almost think it works to my advantage, because people aren’t expecting it.”
The Brooklyn-based trio is composed of Ko, guitarist Greg Meyer and drummer Andrew Quan. They met in Los Angeles while all three were working for the nonprofit organization Liberty in North Korea (LINK), which leads rescue and resettlement of North Korean refugees looking to reach freedom and safety.
In the spring of 2014 the close-knit LINK community was shaken when a group of interns, known as the Heartland Nomads, was killed in a fatal car accident just five days after returning home from a work trip. The unexpected tragedy hit them hard.
“None of us had ever experienced death on this scale before, so we didn’t really know what to do or how to feel. But we knew we had to honor them,” Ko said.
So in 2015 they walked away from their jobs to form a band and move to New York. They named themselves after the Nomads and dove headlong into the new endeavor. They made phone calls and booked gigs from California to Brooklyn. With two small cars they began their journey eastward, with the trip home doubling as a cross-country tour.
In June the band is teaming up with Sofar Sounds to tour the Northeast before heading westward for a homecoming tour to California and back starting in August. In the meantime, they aim to record a follow-up to their debut EP Small but Fortunate.
Here, they share more about what inspired them to chase after a new kind of life for themselves and how their music reflects this same desire.
Do you think the experiences of North Korean refugees escaping hardship fit into the themes that are apparent in blues music traditionally sung by oppressed people?
Chi: Folk and blues always tell a story or talk about a hardship. With the song “Run Joseph Run” specifically, named after our friend Joseph Kim, who escaped North Korea at the age of 16, I was listening to a lot of slave spirituals when I was trying to write. I felt like the chasing after freedom was so similar to how North Koreans are chasing after their own freedom as well.
Explain how your sound evolved. Did you pick a genre or did it pick you?
Chi: We definitely did not plan on being a folk blues band. When it started out, I thought it would be more of a soulful sound. But then it was like the songs took on their own sound. It was almost like the songs informed our band’s sound. Then we knew it was the direction we were going in.
It can be risky to try doing music full time. What made you finally decided to pursue it as a livelihood?
Greg: Before I started playing guitar for the band, I had been working a 9 to 5. I’m a very practical person and like having my ducks in a row, so the thought of quitting everything and doing music scared the crap out of me because there are absolutely no guarantees. But when the Nomads passed away, it was like all my fears about savings or retirement or anything like that went out the window. Once that happened, I was kind of left with—what do I enjoy doing? And that was playing the guitar.
Andrew: It was very much a wakeup call that if I don’t know how long I have and was going to pass away tomorrow, what would I want to be doing? What would I want to be investing my time in? Like Greg, I like stability. But I viewed it as a God thing. He’s giving us the bare minimum of talent and bringing us together as friends, musicians and roommates. The circumstances, the passion and the talent were already there. The rest was orchestrated.
Chi: I felt a lot of insecurity about my ability to sing. When I turned 26 and the Nomads passed away, I didn’t care if I thought I was good enough. I don’t even know if I’m going to be alive tomorrow! I’m going to try. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll still give it everything I have, because I only have one life.
Did you find that your first tour as a band helped ease any fears about your decision to take a leap of faith?
Andrew: At the time, we only had one original song and were doing a lot of covers. The amount of support we got from friends and family, whether it was financially or letting us play shows at their house, was super affirming for all of us, even when we didn’t feel like we knew exactly what we were doing. It was a great experience.
Your show schedule is a little non-traditional. I see in addition to bars and clubs, you have a lot of nursing homes and rehab facilities. Talk about that a little more.
Chi: When I first wanted to do this band thing, I told the guys, “Yo, I want to play at a nursing home.” That was one of my dream venues. Our friend from church volunteers at nursing homes all over Brooklyn and mentioned that one of the homes was doing a Christmas thing and needed someone to do the music. So we played there right before Christmas and it was one of the most amazing shows we had ever played.
How did the residents respond to the music?
Chi: Once we started playing, all the people just came to life. They were sitting in wheelchairs, but they were dancing and moving their hands in the air. They kept telling us they loved us and sang along to an Elvis song. It was so beautiful and reminded us that this is why we’re here, to make a difference with our music. We pass our days playing about 10 nursing home shows a month. We have totally been provided for. Being able to play at places we love and make our rent is a total dream for us.
What’s your favorite thing about performing live?
Chi: What we love about performing live is being able to share our vulnerability with a room full of people. When we first started out, I was really scared sharing the story about the Nomads and everything our songs are about. Since we’ve started telling people our story, people have been so receptive to it. I get scared being vulnerable, but the response has been so incredible. People will tell us their own stories of struggles with death and grief and loss, so it’s been an incredible way of connecting with complete strangers.