Now/It's: An Interview with MOCHA (Sakari Greenwell and Sheila Graves)

Since Now/It's inception, the primary initiative of the site was to highlight Nashville as a whole. The city does seem a ever so slightly susceptible at times to what one could refer trendiness, and to focus only on the trend dujour would do nothing to further expand Nashville's social and cultural bounds. Luckily for us, there are folks like Sakari Greenwell and Sheila Graves, who are more or less going headfirst against Nashville's trendiness grain, and with good reason. Greenwell and Graves make up one of Nashville's most promising funk and groove groups, MOCHA, and after nearly half a decade of finding their footing, the duo is as poised as ever to roll around town with the smooth grit and grind that only a Parliament-influenced group can do. It's been a circuitous path for MOCHA, but the duo has come into their own to get what's theirs. 

Now/It's met with MOCHA at their home near the Edgehill neighborhood of Nashville.

Sakari - How are you?

N/I - Good. How are you guys? Thanks again for being flexible with all the weird timing and stuff like that.

Sakari - Of course. Thanks for…..

Sheila - Being flexible back at us.

Sakari - Yeah!

N/I - Happy to do it. So you guys have been doing some recording stuff as of late? How’s that been going?

Sheila - It’s been good. We’re just trying to finish up this project that we’re going to try and put out in October. We have everything tracked now, so…

N/I - Now it has to get mastered?

Sakari - Mixing and mastered. The process. That’s the fun part. Definitely the fun part.

N/I - So what kind of release is it, then? An EP?

Sakari - It’s an EP - it’s going to be four songs.
Sheila - Just a little thing. A little snack.

Sakari - Yeah. A little snack [laughs].

N/I - So will that be the first experience in making a full blown recording and the process that coincides with that?

Sakari - Yes. This will be our “debut” as they say.

N/I - Okay. So the “official” debut, so to speak. That’s fair, because the first I had heard of Mocha was through Nick [Byrd], and he had seen you guys at Fuzz Fest, right?

Sakari - Yeah. We love him.

Sheila - He’s sweet.

N/I - So that’s the debut, but how long has Mocha been around?

Sheila - It’s been a thing for four years.
Sakari - Yeah. It’s probably been exactly four years…. Well, almost four years, in December. It started with me and this other guy from school, and then Sheila quickly joined. We started with a bunch of people.

Sheila - But it really just became me and Sakari. So all the other people dropped out one way or another.

Sakari - The layers started to peel back. We started to see what was really going on, who was really in it.

Sheila - Who’s doing the work.

Sakari - Who’s doing the work. Who is on the same page as far as the vision for the future, and it ended up being me and Sheila. The last two ladies standing.

Sheila - We’ve been revamping our social media and all that since July.

Sakari - Re-branding a lot.

N/I - So this other guy - there’s no bad blood or anything?

Sheila - No. We just parted ways.

Sakari - No bad blood.

Sheila - He just didn’t want it any more.

N/I - I see. It was perfect in the sense that you never really want to have to be the one to break the news to someone that they’re holding everyone back.

Sheila - We’ve done it before, though.

Sakari - For sure. We’ve definitely done it before. I’ve always been the fire-er, which is funny, because you have to sit people down.

N/I - So were there other iterations to Mocha outside of that?

Sakari - Yeah. It was originally an eight piece thing, maybe even ten-piece, with background vocals, horns, and all those things.

Sheila - But then it gets misconstrued when someone thinks they’re in the band after one show when they’re not, and then you have to be like “Nah dude, you’re not.”

Sakari - Plus, that’s just not feasible. We can’t take a ten-piece band on the road at the end of the day. So I guess now that it’s just the two of us, it’s perfect. Because two people can easily go and tour.

N/I - Absolutely. It’s a lot more casual.


Sakari - For sure.

N/I - I’d imagine you can probably do more last minute type gigs.

Sakari - Right. The options are more limitless. We can just go to a show and set up fast.

Sheila - Plus, it’s just two girls.

N/I - So are you guys going out a whole lot with shows, then? I know you’ve done a couple things with ACME as artist-in-residence.

Sheila - Yeah. We’re finishing that up next month. That’ll be the last show. We’re starting to get more, but we’ve been playing a lot of shows to make money to fund everything, but now we’re switching to doing more sets.

Sakari - Or original shows.

N/I - It’s tough when you have to record and have to pay for it somehow, so knowing you can get a gig that’s like an artist-in-residence, but that also means there might more covers in there than normal.

Sheila - And those are fun. Everyone comes and dances and all that.

N/I - Exactly. So when did you guys arrive at making this new EP?

Sakari - Oh man, it’s been so many different times.

N/I - Because when you go from ten-piece, to eight-piece, to three-piece, to two…

Sakari - Right.

Sheila - It was really…

Sakari - It’s been a work in progress, for sure.

Sheila - It’s been a really long time.

Sakari - I feel like it’s been a reflection of the four years of college that you go to - it’s always an evolving thing.

Sheila - We’ve tried to record a lot more in the past, and the tracks would always come out with this sort of “Alright. That’s not it” vibe.

Sakari - It’s been a lot of trial and error. I never knew anything about recording with a live band, so it’s all been a learning process.

Sheila - Definitely a learning process.

Sakari - And when you get the track back, you’re like “This is not it.”

Sheila - Everything on this EP, we did in two days. Well, everything except for one song. But two days in July, knocked it out. Got it done.

N/I - Geez. So how many parts are you guys doing?

Sakari - We did two guitars….

Sheila - Drum, bass drum, and vocals.

N/I - So was that super intense to get it all done in two days?

Sakari - It’s definitely a situation that you have to zone in on.

Sheila - There’s no room for lackadaisical. We were like, “Whatever we get done with, we got to put it out.”

Sakari - Because at this point, we’ve been trying and trying and trying to capture the songs that we create - whether it’s finding the right sound, the right engineer, the right space to record - so these songs, a lot of them are pretty new. I’d say they’ve all been written in the past year. So we’ve had a bunch of other songs, but we decided we needed to kind of start over a little bit.

N/I - Sure. So who did you guys record it with?

Sheila - We tracked at Brown Owl, which that was cool to be in there. Ryan Yount helped engineer it, and Russ Long’s mixing it right now. We produced it.

Sakari - We arranged it.

Sheila - Arranged it. Wrote it. All that.

N/I - You guys are based in Nashville, but you’re doing something that’s different than what Nashville’s historically known for, and you’re two girls going for it - what is that dynamic like?

Sakari - Honestly… The two girls running shit, that’s definitely the part I love. But at the same time, it’s just that you got to go the extra mile out here. First of all, people are like “You play bass?” to Sheila all the time. And then as a vocalist, you’re already immediately discredited amongst musicians and other players. It’s like, actually, I have a college degree for it, but whatever [laughs]. But I feel like the country, indie kind of market and genre is part of the infrastructure of the whole city. It’s hard out here to push a brand new image and a sound - I mean, I don’t really know fully what to categorize what we would do, because it’s just a conglomeration of all of our influences.

Sheila - I definitely feel like the scenes changing in Nashville, for sure.

N/I - Definitley. If you look at the difference between now and as recent as five years ago, it’s night and day.

Sakari - When we first came to town, it was way different from now. And I feel like the whole “New Nashville” vibe is the no country, but we’re in the land of country thing has a lot of people trying to strap up and try and take the title.

Sheila - There’s more of a buzz in the air.

Sakari - And I think we’re about to take that title, by the way [laughs].

N/I - Sure. I kind of figured you guys would feel that way. Sure, there’s still a lot of that country indie stuff, but now it seems like it’s just kind of indie in the sense of independent artists. You no longer have to maintain…

Sakari - The “sound” of indie.

N/I - Right. The sound of indie or anything like that - which that opens an entirely different conversation - but independent artists that can grab things on their own, and take command of it. And with you guys, being able to see where to re-brand and re-orient things, and where you would work best, that’s what I think Nashville’s headed toward now. And it sounds like you guys are getting to the forefront of that.

Sheila - For sure.

Sakari - Trying to be a step ahead out here. You have to look at everything from a very wide point of view and kind of look at the full picture of things. You have to figure out where the city is moving to, and what’s the vibe? Who’s moving here? Who’s left, to create space for new people to step up and do their thing? I think shit’s about to start moving around here.

N/I - I think so too. So when you take a step back and look at who’s doing what in Nashville, where do you see yourselves? Where could you see yourselves succeeding the most?

Sheila - We’re still trying to figure all of that out. Like who can we play with, and who’s all out there? We’re at the spots.

Sakari - Definitely the college market, live and direct to the young people, because we’re fun.

Sheila - Yeah. They’re going to like it.

Sakari - But older people that are still deep into music and miss just feeling a song at a show.

Sheila - That miss funk music.

Sakari - Music with a melody, and riffs that are repeated and sound fucking good, and are played by real instruments. So I feel like there’s a lot of angles.


N/I - There definitely are.

Sakari - And we kind of sit in a place that’s really independent. Like truly, independent. It’s hard to think…. Other than Kat Milk Blu - they’re family, basically, we played a few shows with them before and it sounded great together on the same bill, so that’s really fun to play with them. But I’m trying to think of others.

N/I - Well it’s interesting to me, just hearing you two talk about figuring out who in town would make for a solid bill, and then going from there, all the while looking at the scene as a whole. Some people seem to over scrutinize and wait only for someone else in their vein to leave before they make moves, and in the end they’re looking too close to see any other opportunities.

Sakari - Well, we haven’t been looking that close.

N/I - It seems like your approach is the most realistic.

Sheila - Sure. It’s more like, “Where can we fit?” I definitely don’t think there’s a moment where we could wait for someone to leave town and then be like “Okay, our time.” because the music isn’t even popping like that here. So it’s really fair game for anybody. So fucking seize it.

Sakari - Yeah. Come up and claim that shit. I feel like it’s a definite motivation for us. Just get our shit out there, start playing original shows again.

Sheila - Start hustling.

Sakari - We’re really excited.

N/I - As you should be. That’s incredible. So where are you guys from, if you don’t mind my asking.

Sheila - I’m from outside of Baltimore.

Sakari - I’m from Chicago.

N/I - Okay. So you two wind up in Nashville because of school?

Sheila - Well, music.

N/I - Right, music first and foremost.

Sakari - My mom’s a professor at Northwestern, so college was a must. I’ve always done music - I started writing when I was eleven - and I did not want to go to college, but I was like “If I have to go, I’m going to study music, and study performance, because I don’t do anything else.”

Sheila - And when you’re trying to make music in a city, where else is as cheap as [Nashville]?

Sakari - Right. If I got to Boston, or Chicago, or LA, or New York, I’m paying an arm and a leg to live. And in Boston, you’re freezing your ass off in winter.

Sheila - And plus there aren’t that many gigs.

Sakari - Yeah. So Boston can keep that shit, I never liked it anyway. But then you hear Nashville is “Music City, USA” - and I hadn’t even thought of Nashville, at all. And I wound up getting into school here, and it was eight hours away, and I really needed to get out of the house. I just wanted to be in a place where I didn’t know anybody, that way, I could do me to the fullest extent. So that’s kind of why I came here. Just to play music. I knew I wanted to start a band, I always wanted live players. I wrote a CD when I was sixteen or some shit, it was trash.

N/I - Is it still out there anywhere?

Sakari - I’m not going to answer that [laughs]. But I feel like I always wanted live instruments, because I would feel embarrassed to play the tracks, it never felt right. So coming to Nashville, I was going to start a little group, and clearly they have live music here - it’s everywhere. So that was what I was going to do, and ultimately why we started it so early on.

Sheila - There was a lot of live music, but fewer opportunities for our style of music. If we didn’t get going, there are even fewer opportunities.

Sakari - Yeah. If you wait too long, you ain’t going to find players. So we were really lucky to meet each other in the first week.

Sheila - Almost as soon as we got here.

Sakari - I was like “What’s up?” and then she was like “I play bass.”

Sheila - Then she said she sang.

Sakari - And then “I have these songs, you can play bass.” and then fast forward to now.

N/I - So it was more or less instant.

Sakari - Pretty much.

Sheila - It worked out perfectly.

N/I - So what do you guys think it is about the two of you together that makes it work so well? You’ve had other members, but in the end, it’s always been the two of you.

Sheila - I feel like we both really have different tastes in music, for sure, but we both have very similar influences and tastes. And the way that we like to go about writing songs is very much the same, and the grooves. When I think about it, bass is a very melodic instrument. It isn’t melodic, but at the same time, it is following a line, which made us realize that bass and vocals go very well together, because they’re similar and opposites.

Sakari - Damn. That’s true. That’s a good point.

N/I - To that point, you look at someone like Thundercat - he plays bass and every song starts with bass.

Sheila - And Esperanza Spalding.

N/I - Exactly. So who are some of those similar, overlapping influences.

Sheila - Parliament [Funk].

Sakari - Yeah. I feel like a lot of…

Sheila - West Coast hip-hop.

Sakari - Definitely.

Sheila - Snoop is like…. I want to work for Snoop at some point. That’s been my goal ever since I learned the bass.

Sakari - But even pop music, which I think is important, because we want to be successful artists, too.

Sheila - We appreciate pop music.

Sakari - Yeah. We appreciate good pop music. Good pop hooks, things that can reach a wide audience. Also, I think on the business side, we’re both really logical people that enjoy the business stuff. More so than I ever thought I would.

Sheila - I didn’t know much about it until this year, really, but now we’re sitting here trying to break it down.

Sakari - But it’s still fun, and I just think the way that our minds operate within that aspect shows that we’re so similar.

Sheila - We’re both very to the point, so if we talk hard at each other, we don’t get upset. If it’s something, it’s not an argument, she’s just getting hot.

Sakari - And we really be trying to stay on top of all of that business stuff. Sometimes it gets hard, sometimes. That was more when were in school, though. Because our self-management model in school was very grueling.

Sheila - We had a harder time communicating with the older group.

Sakari - Exactly, which became a massively annoying thing.

Sheila - So now that we’re in our true form, we’ve been able to get down to work and get everything done.

Sakari - Yeah. It doesn’t feel like work. We wake up - because we live together - go in this little room, clickety clack, drink some coffee and that’s how we do it. We knock shit out, which feels better, just a lot more efficient.

Sheila - We’ve really been trying to meet with people and learn more from people, because all this business stuff doesn’t make much sense at all on your own.

Sakari - Plus, we’re girls, so we don’t want to be taken advantage of. So you really have to know your shit.

Sheila - Nick Byrd, he’s been helping us. He’s kind of been like a mentor the past three years.

Sakari - He’s very helpful. Love him.

N/I - So do you guys want to stay in that self-sufficient management style for a while?

Sheila - I’d say that we want to stay until we can get something good, but we’re not at all stuck on trying to get signed.

Sakari - I mean, as far as a team is concerned - we definitely need some lawyer friends, some street team friends, but….

Sheila - We would definitely be into a booking agent.

Sakari - For sure. Because we’re just trying to play bigger shows. We’re players, that’s what we know how to do.

Sheila - That’s what we like to do. I like to be on a stage. Studio is cool, sure, but stage is always cooler.

N/I - Well then I’m sure guarantees are cool as well.

Sheila - Yeah. At least we’ve been able to get to that point.

Sakari - We’ve worked our way up throughout these years.

Sheila - But I definitely do feel like we’re working our way up to a point where we need help from above to further us.

Sakari - Those connects.

N/I - You can see what’s next.

Sheila - There’s certain things that we can’t fully understand. I mean, I don’t have a business degree.

Sakari - We both got performance degrees.

Sheila - So we’re looking for people that know what’s up. I like to work with people who know what’s up in their field. Neither of us is like the micromanager type person that needs a hand in everything.

Sakari - We do what we do. It’s like if y’all can’t get up here and sing, then I’m not going to try and write this band bio. You’re the artist in your own field, and I respect that, and that’s ultimately true collaboration.