Davis Media Access: Music, resilience and what comes next

by Autumn Labbé-Renault

I started out wanting to write a story about Nat Lefkoff as the recent winner of the Davis Independent Music Initiative, a grant-funded project that seeks to improve the quality of music produced in Davis. But it became as much a story about Davis and the pandemic’s impact on artists as anything I’ve written about in the past two and a half years.

DIMI was founded in 2019 with support from the city of Davis Arts & Culture Fund. Organizer Joel Daniel, who was the first recipient—with local Brazilian Space Funk band Boca do Rio being the second — said this year’s finalists were all incredible, and completely different from one another. “Any one of them could have been a standout winner. It came down to a feeling that beyond talent, Nat was really pursuing his music in a career-minded way,” Daniel says. “He had previous releases, which showed an ability to get things done and progress forward. We also felt his music was accessible, and there is at least the possibility of a very high ceiling for him.”

I’ve known Lefkoff since he was about 10 years old, as both our families were involved with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis. Ever since, I’ve watched him steadily grow into the musician who recently won the $10,000 DIMI grant to advance his music career. Though he’s hard pressed to pick a genre for his music, which he describes as centered on music and melody, he thinks alt pop could be a contender.

Lefkoff was born in Davis and grew up here, graduating Da Vinci High School in 2012 and The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA in 2016. His parents purchased his first guitar, a Squire ¾-sized electric, at Watermelon Music when he was in seventh grade, and his first band— Downhill From Here, later renamed Simon & The Firebreathers — was here as well. Though his family has since moved away, he returned in 2021 and is making Davis his home.

The years in between have been peppered with doubt, growth, resilience and a pandemic. In the early winter of 2020, I saw him play solo at Blue Note Brewery in Woodland, a gig at which he announced he’d quit his job and was going out on tour. “I’d been living with six other people in a two-bedroom house in Santa Cruz, working at an outdoor education school, and playing every weekend. I was exhausted from no days off, I’d saved enough and thought if I don’t do this now, I’ll regret it when I’m older,” Lefkoff says.

That tour was not to be, and the 16 venues he’d lined up started going dark by mid March 2020. He started back at the outdoor school but was quickly out of work after it shut down. Though he could have survived on early pandemic-era unemployment, he was restless and eager to return to work. He ended up working in Rohnert Park for an organization that provided disaster and emergency assistance to people who were immunocompromised and needed to quarantine.

What wasn’t happening during this time was music. “I was living a very nonsocial and nonmusical life,” Lefkoff says. “I started having those 4 a.m. wake ups where I’d think maybe I’m never going to do music again, maybe it’s never going to happen. Is this the end?’ he recalls. “I hadn’t written anything in a year.”

“Then I started having this recurring dream, where there was a stage and a man singing on it, but I’d realize it was a dream and wake up to record his lyrics — only to later realize those recording sessions also took place in the dreamtime,” he says. Eventually the dream shifted to a man in a park leaning against a tree and singing what ended up being the chorus of his song “Heavy Lifting,” which became the title track of his 10-track album Heavy Lifting, released in October 2021.

Lefkoff says he felt a huge shift then. “I woke up, wrote down those lyrics, recorded a few things, then woke again in the morning and wrote the entire song on the spot. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, especially lyrically. I was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment and purpose.”

Winning DIMI, he says, was one of the things that helped him feel rooted again in Davis. “I like that there’s a community of people here who care about art and music, enough to advocate for it. That’s not true everywhere.”

When I asked him how he plans to use the $10,000, apart from recording he described much of it as a reinvestment in people who have supported him along the way, especially his manager, and friends and fellow musicians Rowan McGuire and Jackson Vanover. Of McGuire, in whose home studio he records and mixes, he especially notes, “he’s so much more — a co-writer, editor, producer, collaborator.”

“I appreciated that one of the questions on the DIMI application asked how we’d give back to the community,” Lefkoff says. “I thought about how very few times in my life I’ve been paid what I’m worth, and I’d like to help support those who have supported me.”

That sensibility spilled over into his still-in-progress tour with Santa-Cruz based band Deadnettle, which has featured two legs — one from Central to Southern California, and a second from the Sierra foothills all the way up to Humboldt — paying fellow musicians at least something and splitting the door with them was foremost on his agenda.

I asked Lefkoff if there was a moment where identifying as a musician really crystallized for him. “When I got to college at 18, I quickly teamed up with Louise DeKramer and we self-recorded my first (eponymous) album in a dorm room with mics I’d borrowed from the college, and just put that out into the world.” The feedback was immediate and positive, and people started to reach out to him from all over Washington. “That was truly the moment I began to identify as a musician.”

Lefkoff recently shared a screenshot of a message sent to him by a fan on social media. The poster showed a picture of their arm with full goose bumps, hair standing on end and with the caption, “my reaction to your music on a late-night drive.” That, he says, was a different kind of watershed. “It’s a cathartic experience to write and perform, but that kind of feedback — which is totally new — feels like magic, like making a spell, and it hits someone else’s ears and creates a physical response.”

I immediately asked him which musicians do that for him, and he rattled off a far-ranging list including Kendrick Lamar and Bon Iver, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Sufjan Stevens and Aesop Rock. He adds that Touring with Sacramento-based Hobo Johnson in winter of 2021 was “amazing and what struck me was I felt lucky and fortunate to be on this path.”

We ended our conversation by talking about the challenges of being an independent musician in the age of streaming, a topic I’ve covered at various points. It’s hard to make a living when a very small portion of streaming revenue ever reaches the artists. I asked Lefkoff about his numbers on major platforms such as Spotify and Band Camp.

“The song ‘Great White Plains’ blew up, with 600,000 plays on Spotify alone,” he says. “I average 27,000 streams per month, about 1.5 million total since 2017. High-school me would be really proud but … it’s not enough,” he adds, “simply because having that many listeners around the world won’t actually reliably fill seats in venues.”

“It’s part of the human condition to always worry about the next hill to climb, and I think that’s especially true for musicians because listeners will always change and people have short attention spans.” But he notes, “this past year I’ve been happier than I’ve ever been, doing what I love, and going after it with everything I have.”

Learn more about Lefkoff at https://www.natlefkoff.com/ where you can also find links to his music. He plays a Sept. 16 show at Harlow’s The Starlet Room in Sacramento Sept. 16 with Moxy the Band.

— Autumn Labbe-Renault is executive director of Davis Media Access in Davis, where she also advocates for nonprofits in the arts & culture sector. This article wraps four years as chair of Arts Alliance Davis.