Nick Takénobu Ogawa '05: Charting His Own Path
The non-classical cellist and composer has been playing shows and releasing music under the name Takénobu since his Haverford graduation.
There’s not really a road map for success as a non-classical cello player and composer, so Nick Takénobu Ogawa ’05 has been making his own path, one instinctual step at a time.
Ogawa, who is 36 and based in Atlanta, has been playing shows and releasing recordings under the nom-de-music Takénobu since he graduated from Haverford. The Takénobu catalog mostly features low-key melodic pop songwriting, centered on Ogawa’s cello and vocals. At its core, this is singer-songwriter music, but with atypical instrumentation and a gently offbeat sensibility.
Like most cello players, he started out focused on classical music, getting lessons at age six from Dieuwke Davydov, an instructor at Middlebury College (where both of Ogawa’s parents taught) and playing in youth orchestras during high school. But, he says, “I was turned off by the atmosphere” of classical orchestras, and he chose East Asian Studies as his major in college rather than anything music-related. But Ogawa never entirely turned away from music, and during sophomore year he took “Intro to Western Music” and “Philosophy of Music” classes, which pointed him in the direction of other cellists who had unconventional approaches to the instrument, such as Mark Summer of the Turtle Island Quartet.
Just as his ears were opening to the wider variety of cello styles out there, Ogawa took a year off from Haverford to live in Kyoto with his father, who was teaching in Japan as part of an academic exchange program. “I taught English at elementary schools and spent most of my time dedicated to practicing cello about four to six hours a day,” says Ogawa of his time in Kyoto. He didn’t have a teacher in Japan, which freed him to develop his own nontraditional style of playing and writing music.
When he returned to Haverford for his junior year, Ogawa began playing the pop-inflected material he’d written in Japan at concerts in Lunt Basement and the occasional late-night performance at Drinker House. “The response I got from fellow students at Haverford was incredibly encouraging and strengthened my desire to pursue music professionally,” he says.
After graduating, Ogawa continued to write new material and hone it at open mics, and within a year he won the 2006 Williamsburg Live Singer Songwriter Competition in Brooklyn and used the prize money to record his debut, Introduction, which he released independently in 2007. “Not much came of it at the time, but at my mom’s suggestion I submitted the album to Pandora,” he says. “Four years later, the algorithms and stars came into alignment and Pandora started playing my music to enough people that I could pay my rent with iTunes downloads, and I quit my job and went full-time with music.”
He also brought a new violinist and vocalist into the core lineup of Takénobu in 2017, which turned out to be life-changing. Kathryn Koch, who also plays in the Buffalo-based band Tiny Rhymes, took up Ogawa’s offer to record some new songs he’d written. They then started touring together, and during a leg of 2018 dates in the Pacific Northwest, Koch and Ogawa got engaged.
He notes that having both a musical and life partner on the road has changed his attitude about touring. “It can be exhilarating and enriching, and it can also be exhausting and expensive,” he says of being on the road, but touring with Koch is “something more akin to a vacation.” The duo are planning to tour together throughout the year and beyond.
In the studio, Ogawa and Koch can create full-bodied arrangements to enhance the songs, but on stage they use digital looping pedals to build layered beds of music over which they can then play and sing. “She has a great musical sensibility, and our voices complement each other,” he says of the sound they create. “She brings both a depth and a sweetness to the music that I can’t achieve on my own.”
They’ve recorded the sixth Takénobu LP in Nashville and plan to release it this summer, preceded by online releases of a few of the songs. The first of these, “Fight to Make It Up,” is almost six minutes of Ogawa and Koch’s instruments dancing around each other alongside their sweetly harmonizing vocals.
Also coming this year, Ogawa’s original score will accompany Still, a feature film set to stream on Netflix. The movie, about a hiker who stumbles into a mysterious secret along the Appalachian Trail, was written and directed by fellow Atlanta resident Takashi Doscher.
It’s the latest in Ogawa’s second line of musical work, composing scores for short- and long-form projects, which have included the cooking documentary 42 Grams, the podcast Invisibilia, and the Netflix sports docu-series Last Chance U. “Working with film is an interesting challenge, because while I have my own input I’m ultimately trying to please the director,” he says. And although his scoring work requires different strategies than writing Takénobu songs, Ogawa hears his pop music benefiting from the scoring assignments, with more of the instrumental compositions’ sparseness affecting his approach to pacing.
He’s also become proficient in managing the business side of music—with the help of some College pals. “It’s funny, but a lot of my friends from Haverford went on to become lawyers,” Ogawa says. “I negotiate a lot of my own contracts, and my friends have really impressed on me the importance of intellectual property rights.”
In the last decade-plus, each new collaboration and opportunity has helped Ogawa grow from performing in the basement of Lunt Hall to a steady schedule of writing, recording, and playing. He recently finished adding cello to the next record by fellow Georgia musician Kishi Bashi, and he’s planning to tour with him in the summer with Takénobu opening the shows. The tour will coincide with the release of Still and his new Takénobu record with Koch.
Along the way, he constantly seeks opportunities to create something new and follow his creative instincts. "I try to come up with some kind of musical idea every day,” he says. “I used to try to wait for inspiration to strike, but I’ve learned that making a habit of just trying to write something every day is much more effective, and I’m more equipped with the tools to execute something when inspiration does in fact come."