INTERVIEW: TONY NJOKU
It’s getting increasingly difficult to get out of bed in the mornings, due to the nightly transformation of my flat from cozy nest to artic tundra. I swear I can literally see my breath when I holler at my partner to deliver a hot coffee to my duvet fortress. It reminds me of that Bill Hicks joke, that smokers in their thousands are collapsing, blue faced onto icy pavements, unsure when to stop exhaling as smoke gives way to condensation. It’s hard not to yearn for the summer festival season on days like today, for soft green grass, day drinking, and skin burnt into a perfect imitation of Neapolitan ice cream. Luckily, for those of us yearning for those heady days, Welsh festival Green Man is bringing a little bit of summer into the cold, with their ice-skating club night at Somerset House’s famous rink. Another great thing to come from Green Man is the release of a gorgeous session video from London singer-songwriter Tony Njoku. Having also just released his debut album ‘In Greyscale’ at the beginning of the year, and a brand new video for the album’s title track, it’s been an incredibly busy year for the British-Nigerian musician. I spoke to him about his influences, production, and his festival experiences:
KM: Tell us about your background in music.
T: Well I’ve never had formal training on an instrument and couldn’t play an instrument until I was 17/18. It all started with singing though. I was in choirs, school musicals and all that stuff as a really young kid. I started making my own songs around the age of 11 or so. I got given a laptop and a friend gave me some music software and I started making stuff on it for years, writing hundreds and hundreds of terrible beats and rap songs. I didn’t even really understand harmony till I was like 16. I was listening to music in a much deeper way by then and felt I needed to explore that depth more, so I started teaching myself piano obsessively whilst in boarding school, spending hours trying to mimic greats like Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and co. but failing miserably; all the while still producing at the laptop and getting into lots of really unique and beautiful kinds of music. Now the two are meeting and characterising my work today, especially in the live set.
KM: You have a very distinct style – the sparse piano and electronics with the powerful vocal is very striking. Do you think it’s important to give the lyrics and melody ‘room to breathe’?
T: Thanks for acknowledging that – it’s something I strive for with my work. I think it’s imperative as a creator to endeavour to make your own distinct version of things. It expands the conversation and gives people new experiences, which I feel is always needed. In answer to the question, I think it’s relative; I try to look at my work with a sort of gestalt mentality- that is, that the whole is more or other that the sum of its parts. So in terms of giving the lyrics or melody space it’s all about what’s best for the whole piece. No one element is as important as the whole.
KM: You’ve recently released a Green Man session video of ‘Once And Again’ – what were your experiences of the festival?
T: Green Man was a brilliant weekend! I had a lot of great experiences. Watching Kamasi Washington was so great, so were Flamingods and Whitney. Other than the music, the people I met and got to speak with were very nice. I loved the drive from London as well; it’s such a gorgeous site. The folks from GM were so hospitable as well. And of course the shows I played were quite special for me. Especially the one on the rising stage, there were so many people and they were so attentive/responsive. So all in all, it was a good experience.
KM: Can you tell us what inspired this track?
T: ‘Once Again‘ is a very personal song. It’s about fading friendships, mental health, finding solace in nature and how all these experiences repeat and repeat through out your life in this ever shrinking downward spiral. It’s bleak no matter what. But that’s all fine in the midst of the universe.
KM: The transition from the ballad-like start of the song to the electronic section towards the end is certainly inspired. What made you go for such an abrupt change in tone?
T: Well the song is the final track in an album I did titled ‘In Greyscale’. The album explores dualities and juxtapositions within the various ideas and concepts that ran through it. I suppose the abrupt change in tone is an emphasis of that.
KM: The electronic elements of this track are pretty subtle even if they are big in terms of volume, which I think shows a lot of restraint as a songwriter and producer. Do you ever struggle to rein things in when your songwriting?
T: Absolutely. There are so many ways a song can go, so many things you could try. But again it’s all about what’s best for the whole piece. I like to see it as sculpting almost. Once you have a good healthy chuck of material you start chiseling away till you get the product you want. Now it could be as succinct and defined as Michelangelo’s David or as abstract as anything by Henry Moore.
KM: Who do you look up to as a vocalist and songwriter?
T: No one now really, I mean of course as a music lover there are so many artists I really enjoy. I grew up trying to sing like Nina Simone or Bjork and write songs like Nick Drake. But now as a vocalist and songwriter especially, my inspirations tend to be more personal and abstract.
KM: We like abstract here. Thanks for talking to us!
‘In Greyscale’ is out now.
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