Interviews

‘I always knew’: NNAMDI on new music, family inspirations and his ‘backup career’ in engineering

todayNovember 28, 2022 1

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Courtesy of the artist

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Element Everest-Blanks: You were born in California, moved to Ohio, and then ultimately settled in Lansing, Illinois.

NNAMDI: Correct.

EEB: Father was, or still is, a minister.

NNAMDI: Yes he is. I would go to church, do the services. I started playing some music in church too. I played drums a little bit, but I was never out being debaucherous ’cause I just wasn’t into any of that stuff.

EEB: But you did find your love for music with Mom being a singer Dad playing guitar, correct?

NNAMDI: Correct. There is a stereotypical kind of gospel. I grew up in Baptist church type of kid who just is surrounded by all these musicians and is just good from birth almost because they’re so immersed in the culture. I wish, that’s the culture I grew up in. But my dad was… The churches we had were kind of more Methodist churches and I think he brought in a little bit more of Pentecostal flavor in the churches. And also it was a lot of startup churches. My dad was trying to start up churches so there weren’t a lot of people, it kind of grew over time. But it wasn’t one of those scenarios where you go and people are shredding instruments. Sometimes it would just be me playing drums and people singing or me and if there’s a keyboard player, just us two. So I wouldn’t say I particularly learned music from there, but it did help me while I was learning. I was taking private lessons at the same time as growing up in church though.

EEB: So do you feel just having that experience though, but not having any other instruments to cover you when there were mistakes made or when you were learning on your journey at such a young age, do you think that served you as a musician?

NNAMDI: Absolutely. I honestly never really thought about that. But yeah, I definitely think just my dad being like, oh get on the drums and just play a beat. And then he would start singing something and people would join in with him singing. I think that helped me, definitely it helped me be more willing to move on the fly and probably better at improvising I think. Just because I had to jump in whenever he wanted me to do that. I never really thought about that, but it definitely would have had to impact how I learned music because it was very, very much like you don’t know when you’re going to be called up to do something.

Courtesy of the artist

EEB: Do you also think as a former traveling musician, I know that there are times where something happens where that set is interrupted and you’re able to just switch gears and continue to entertain while whatever happens in the back continues to work itself out and yes, the crowd may notice something is happening but you’re able to gather them back and focus them on you. I know a lot of people learn how to do that in different spaces. Do you think your father being a minister and being able to hold people’s attention and gather them in one space under one mind, do you think that helped you learn how to perform at all?

NNAMDI: I do think I learned a lot about public speaking and just being in front of a group of people from my dad because he’s so such a natural at it. I don’t think it came as natural to me until I learned that I could be myself in front of people and it would be okay.

I was always thinking that the people that did that you have to get into a zone or put on a character. But learning and through experience, I know that I can just go up there and be me, which is a privilege I think, and pretty cool. Not a lot of people can do that. I think a lot that I’ve learned is how to make a group of people feel like you’re talking to each individual person rather than just talking to a group of people. And also the opposite of that, being able to command a crowd and kind of bring people onto your side and just, I don’t know, get people where you want them to be, to open up, to be able to experience the music in whatever way that they need to experience that time. I think I did.

EEB: You have a degree in electrical engineering. What? Talk to me about when you decided you wanted to go to, it’s the University of Illinois, correct?

NNAMDI: Yeah.

EEB: What did you ultimately want to do? What did you think you would end up doing?

NNAMDI: I always knew that I was going to end up in entertainment. It was kind of something I did just because it seemed like a safe fallback plan. But if I’m being honest, I never planned on pursuing it. In my head I was always just like, I’m going to do something in the entertainment field.

EEB: Was that one of those things where your parents said we need to have some job security?

NNAMDI: Yeah. It’s smart. That’s a good idea. It’s still working out for me and now I have this knowledge, which is great and it’s still there for me to use. It’s still in my brain for me to use whenever I want. So I don’t consider it a waste even though I’m just very focused on music and was even throughout my college. I definitely, definitely don’t consider any of it a waste of time because everything happens for a reason. I feel like I’d be in a different place, I don’t know what it would be, but I wouldn’t be where I am right now. And I appreciate and acknowledge that where I am at right now feels good.

EEB: Let’s talk about the level of guts it took to put out what you were feeling in the midst of everything that was happening in our country around George Floyd. What made you take this approach to revealing how you were feeling in the form of a punk album? A punk EP?

NNAMDI: Punk music to me is very intentional and very specific and it’s supposed to make you feel a very specific thing and have the energy that draws you in. It’s about energy and it’s about action and movement. And I think that to me, music is the one thing that I feel like I am able to provide for the world. It’s one thing where I’m just like, I can always think of something to add to the conversation.

Even though I might not know the actions that need to happen I can influence other people that are smarter than me in those regards with music. Because I think music is a powerful tool in that regard and can influence people in many, many different ways. Not just to make other music, but to make art to, I don’t know, to pursue things in the sciences, technology. I feel like it’s very inspirational in all of these things. And so at that time I felt very helpless and I was just like, let me do the one thing that I know I can do and I’ll see if I can raise money to go to certain community funds and things where people are actually more active on the foregrounds than I am able to do.

EEB: That’s really commendable. I know a lot of artists didn’t know what to do so they didn’t do anything. And I think it’s really difficult to know what to do in such an unsuspected and tragic situation. So the fact that you were as present to say, hey, I want to not only do something, I want to of course express myself, but I want to make sure that anything that comes from this goes to the community that’s hurting, which is a family community to help the situation in any way. So as a part of that family community, thank you. Because a lot of people didn’t know what to do and at least you did something to express how you felt.

NNAMDI: I understand getting overwhelmed and kind of shutting down. That’s a lot of people’s reaction. And I think I do that sometimes as well. But I find just small little actions, not worrying about the huge things that you can’t fix. But okay, I can’t fix the whole societal problem but I can do this one small thing for maybe my neighborhood. I can do this one small thing for this one person. And I think that’s just as important as trying to globalize these big ideas and figure out how to fix broader, more delicate structures.

Courtesy of the artist

EEB: Yeah, I do. You’ve always been a really, to me, interesting artist that will never leave you bored when you know you’re about to watch a NNAMDI video. It’s going to be something special, it’s going to be something unique and you’re, you’re going to be interested in, and just the visuals of it all. And there’s going to be some playfulness to it. There’ll be some comedy there. Where does that come from? Do you naturally, when you write, do you sometimes see what you want it to be right away or is that something that you develop after?

NNAMDI: Almost all the time. If I’m writing music almost all the time, I have a visual element that accompanies it immediately. I’m a very visual person and I love TV. I love a good show that has a good story. I love cartoons. I love visual art. I love graphic design. I’m just a very visual person. And always the company is the music while I’m writing it.

EEB: So it seems like you always infuse yourself into your projects and in one particular project you really infused yourself because a hundred people walked away with a Popsicle stick.

NNAMDI: Oh yeah.

EEB: That was a piece of NNAMDI’s DNA. Those lucky individuals have got a small little piece of you. And from what I remember, your favorite ice cream at the time was Cherry Garcia.

NNAMDI: Oh yeah. It’s a very good ice cream.

EEB: Are we still there?

NNAMDI: I’ve been really into those gelato layers. Do you know what those are?

EEB: Yes, I do.

NNAMDI: Yeah, I’ve been super into those lately.

EEB: So are you just a overall ice cream guy? Is that just like-

NNAMDI: I’m just a sweet tooth, I like anything that’s sweet. It’s kind of bad. But total sweet tooth.

EEB: So how do you even come up with that? A hundred people walk away with a Popsicle stick.

NNAMDI: I can’t take full credit for that. That was a lot of my manager and label partner. I run a record label with my friend Glen, who also manages me now. And yeah, I’m pretty sure that was his idea.

EEB: You broke right as the world was shutting down. How was that?

NNAMDI: It was awful.

EEB: You finally got to the point where everyone was waiting for you. Tell me a little bit about that whole time for you.

NNAMDI: Oh, it was awful. I had a whole tour planned. I had a few tours planned that year and we were going really hard with our campaign. Me and Glen were like pow wowing and coming up with all these cool, fun ideas for marketing. And yeah, it was the most I had put into a project in my life up until this one that I just put out.

So yeah, I was very, very excited. And then obviously the world collided in on itself and it was a bummer. But I think that it in some ways did help me kind of reevaluate the things that I care about and what I put my energy towards. I feel like I had to be very more meticulous about how I expended my energy ’cause I felt like I had way less than I usually have just because kind of hearing all the news and taking in all of the intense things going on in the world is draining.

Courtesy of the artist

EEB: Do you feel like the world shutting down actually served you? And here’s why. Because so many people were just on the go, going with their daily life. And this made people stop and when they were done listening to who they already knew, they went searching for new, interesting music. Do you feel like a lot of people found you during COVID that might not have found you had it not been for the world shutting down?

NNAMDI: I do. I think a lot of people found me because I was very active, especially during very pivotal times, The Black Light that we talked about, which was the number one selling EP on Bandcamp the day that kind of things were at its peak, which was pretty wild. And then I put out another record after that. So I put out three things and then a handful of singles. And I think just like me being active when a lot of people couldn’t find the energy to be active made me stand out a little bit.

But it was kind of a coping mechanism. I do work a lot, even when the world’s not shut down. I am in the studio a lot making stuff. And to me it felt like I did a lot less during that time just because there was so much dead space. But to the outside world, I think it looked like I was doing a lot and I was able to sustain myself off of funds that I got from selling things too. So yeah.

EEB: Yes. And that definitely happened. You once stated that a perfect lineup for you would be Enya, Daughters, Ja Rule, Sum 41 and Prince.

NNAMDI: I stand by that RIP Prince. I’m actually in Minneapolis right now.

EEB: So did I get all of those right?

NNAMDI: Yeah. I still stand by that.

EEB: Back in 2018 you played a gig at South by Southwest and one of the things you noticed was that there were a lot of people wearing bath robes and it seems that that stayed in the back of your mind and appeared in the video. I don’t really want to be famous. Am I on the right track?

NNAMDI: I don’t remember the show you’re talking about at all.

EEB: Someone asked you what is the weirdest thing that you’ve seen someone wearing here and you’re like, bath robes. It seems very interesting that there are a lot of people out here in bath robes.

NNAMDI: I don’t remember that.

EEB: Did the bath robe end up in the video?

NNAMDI: That wasn’t even my call. That was the director’s call. So maybe they subconsciously also knew. Yeah, it was just-

EEB: Look, I’m close.

NNAMDI: You’re doing good. Now I really want to know. I’m going to look at the list of shows that I’ve played that week and try to decipher which one it was because there’s a lot. There were some weird house shows, but it was 12 or 13 pretty big gigs all in this span of four days. So it’s just like, I don’t remember which one was which.

EEB: That’s pretty awesome though. That tiny little piece of information turned up so many years later and was exactly what you talked about. You even stated, “Yeah, I want to do that one day. I want to just perform in a bath robe.” Absolutely.

NNAMDI: That’s so funny, just speaking it into existence.

Written by: Element Everest-Blanks

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