Wanted/Needed/Loved: Nathan Stocker’s Best Birthday Gift

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In my bedroom, growing up, I had all of the typical toys and belongings you might see in the bedroom of any white, suburban male. I also had several blankets, which I would pick apart and distribute throughout the house and outside until all that was left were the little scraps scattered here and there. I guess you could say I was trying in some way to expand my territory.

But toward the end of high school, I went the opposite way. I got rid of my bed and dresser and replaced them with a two-in-one thing. I started going through my closet asking if I needed this or that. I wanted to keep only the things that had intention or purpose. I got rid of scrapbooks, yearbooks, shoes, and clothes that weren’t black.

I think what I was trying to do was to divest of material things so that I could put more energy into figuring out what mattered. I wanted to maximize the joy I got from human interactions, working, and reaping the benefits from those things.

My plan included a moratorium on giving and receiving gifts, even for birthdays. Nine times out of ten if you ask someone what they really want, even someone who’s close to you, they’re not going to tell you because they’ll be afraid of sounding like a dick. And so the whole thing can feel stressful for everyone, whether they’re the giver or receiver.

It’s no one’s fault that these things happen. Really knowing someone isn’t easy. We spend so much time constructing false selves on social media, doing dumb things just to get likes, that it’s hard to know what a personal or private identity is, or how to share it with someone. I went as far as to avoid even celebrating birthdays at all.

But then I got this letter on my birthday.

The friend who gave it to me was someone I met in high school. It was a pretty small performing arts school with about five hundred kids, maybe a little less. There were different tracks like singing, dance, vocal performance, musical theater, and everyone had their friend groups, usually within their own tracks.

I was in instrumental, just playing music all day, and she was in the theater track. I don’t remember the first time we met—but she’s an incredible writer, and what I do remember is that we were always exchanging things we wrote. When she gave me this letter, I took it back home and read it by myself in my room.

I was floored. I read it maybe five times in a row. It was so beautifully written, and I felt such gratitude because the letter showed that she really got me, and she made me feel like it was okay to be me. That was the real gift.

When the band started to take off, we began touring and traveling. I enjoyed having less in my life and flourishing in the moment. But ever since I received that letter, I’ve found myself starting to come around a little on my previous stance. Rather than letting it all go, I’ve become more interested in figuring out what’s worth holding onto.

I don’t want to sound like I’m preaching, so when I touch on these things in my music with Hippo Campus it’s all based on a feeling rather than something that’s directly described or specifically detailed. This song was inspired by my relationship with the friend who gave me the letter…

But I also want to leave enough room in our songs for listeners to fill them in with their own feelings, experiences, and memories. That way they can connect to the song, even if we don’t know each other personally. A truly personal letter is really something different than a song. It’s intended only for the person it’s written to. A song is a way to share that emotional experience with others.

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Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.

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Nathan Stocker is a guitarist/vocalist for the indie rock quartet Hippo Campus, whose members met at the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists where they all attended high school. Ahead of their 2014 debut, the band landed a slot at SXSW and an appearance on Conan, both of which put them on the map. With two EPs already under their belt, the band’s debut album Landmark is out now, and they are currently on tour.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, and her own subscription-based channel, Vanishing Ink. Esme Blegvad is originally from London but is now Brooklyn-based. Her work has also appeared at Rookie and VICE. More from this author →