Chicago’s NNAMDÏ Is Learning Balance

“I’ve learned what I need to be a self-employed person making art in the world.”
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Chicago’s NNAMDÏ Is Learning Balance: Interview

Chicago’s NNAMDÏ stands as a man of the people. The musician and co-owner of Sooper Records (KAINA, Sen Morimoto; you know them, you love them), born Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, is a crucial part of Chicago’s music scene. On top of his work with pivotal Chicago artists, the multi-instrumentalist and “humble visionary” was recently shouted out by the seminal Moses Sumney as a Black indie artist worth watching, and, of course, Sumney was correct. NNAMDÏ’s music absconds rigid conceptions of genre and formality to be something entirely its own in the best of ways.

“[Music] just gets pigeonholed into a category that wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a preconceived perception of Black artists in general,” NNAMDÏ tells me over the phone. “It’s something people need to actively be aware of because a lot of people don’t know they’re doing it. It happens to a lot of people I know getting lumped in R&B. I’m like, ‘Really!?’ For me, a lot of what I do, people grapple with calling it anything. A lot of things I do might be pushed into the rap category sometimes, but I’ve done a lot to make sure people aren’t able to do that with me. If you’re doing that with my entire catalog, then you really didn’t listen to it.”

For those who do listen, as the follow-up to NNAMDÏ’s 2017 offering, DROOL, BRAT is 12 tracks of pure musical expansion. We open with “Flowers To My Demons,” which sounds like the wind blowing between petals on an apology bouquet. The whispery quality of “Flowers To My Demons” both intrigues and excites, how NNAMDÏ is doing unprecedented things on the mic.

“I was just having fun,” NNAMDÏ says of his process. “My friends used to compare me to a muppet because of my energy, and when I get excited, my voice will get high. It’s not a thing I can control. That comes out in my vocals, too.”

Somehow, “Gimme Gimme” manages to be both hardcore and whimsical, how the vocal pitching swirls while NNAMDÏ’s delivery rails against us. This drama only amplifies on “Semantics.” Later, on “Price Went Up,” we take a soothing turn and melt into the orchestra of NNAMDÏ’s thinning vocal. Each warped and soaring “higher” does little to prepare us for NNAMDÏ’s pattering raps. You’ve never heard music like this, and you never will again.

Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: Since you wear so many hats in Chicago’s music scene, I wanted to start by asking you about balance. As in, how do you find balance in your life?

NNAMDÏ: Finding balance is a recent thing for me. I was a one-sided individual for a long time, probably up until a few years ago. [Finding balance] comes with getting older and realizing how much you need a community to have a significant impact. You can only do so much stuff by yourself, which I was trying to do for a long time. I learned to open up and realize I can’t do everything myself. Letting the people that wanna be in your life be in your life, and if you reciprocate people’s positive energy, it helps you in the long-run. I’ve been trying to do things other than spending all my time on music, like talking with friends and family more, which is something I was not usually good at. That helps me balance my energy.

You’re now using a stylization of your first name as your stage name, as opposed to your full name. How do you draw the line between the stage and the self?

Changing my stage name was mainly because I like the way it looks written down. There’s a lot of one-word artist names that are very powerful to me, like Cher and Prince. I wanted to separate from family things, you know? People can still search and find out my last name easily, but there will be less of that, and people will mostly just focus on my music. It just seemed like the right thing to do as I started to do music full-time. I like to keep everything else I do personal, and only put things in the world I wanna put out. [The name change] felt like a big step in that direction.

Let’s talk about the new album, BRAT. It comes three years after DROOL. What’s been the biggest lesson learned between DROOL and BRAT?

I’ve learned a lot because DROOL was when I initially started doing music full-time. During this process, I’ve learned what I need to be a self-employed person making art in the world. I learned a lot about selfishness and things I need and how to interact with my mind, which is focused on very particular things. I started doing animation, and I would animate for 13 hours a day and not talk to anybody. The main thing I learned was being able to balance my time better. It’s hard.

What mistakes did you make with DROOL that you rectified with BRAT?

I don’t think there were any mistakes. It turned out exactly how it needed to turn out. I did everything I was capable of at the time. I don’t like to dwell. I used all the resources I had available to me to record. I was living in an apartment, so I couldn’t do live instruments unless I booked studio time or convinced a friend to let me do it in their practice spot. That’s why a lot of DROOL was digital. I think you just work with your circumstances. Throughout BRAT, I was opened up to different utilities to help me record. Now, you see more live drums and more live, loud amplified guitars. The situation changed, and I have access to more resources.

On BRAT’s “Everyone I Loved,” you talk about everything you love turning to dust, which is an irrational fear of mine. What prompted that image?

It came from a handful of things. I was recording that song in the studio, and I had the melody. I didn’t have the last few words. A lot of it came from the studio being full of cobwebs as I was recording, and also… I went to check my phone and had so many missed calls. Instead of sending family members a text back, I was like, “I’ll call them in a bit.” When I finally called them, it was for something kind of important, and I felt like complete shit. I could’ve been like, “Hey, what’s up?” But I waited, and there was no need to do that. So that prompted me to realize I was letting things pile on that didn’t need to pile on, and to check in on people and make time for the people that make time for you.

I love “Price Went Up,” and how your voice stretches and becomes the centerpiece of the track in a mind-boggling way. Do you go to the studio with the goal of destroying boundaries and conceptions of sound?

I don’t think about that! I was just having fun. My friends used to compare me to a muppet because of my energy, and when I get excited, my voice will get high. It’s not a thing I can control. That comes out in my vocals, too.

I appreciate the message of “It’s OK.” Have you ever pretended you’re not okay, and how did you come to a place where you could be forthcoming with your feelings?

This is an interesting question because I feel like I’m constantly… I joke around a lot, but I don’t think I do it in a way where I shy away from any serious issue. Sometimes, the perception is I’m dumbing down situations and not taking them seriously. Just the way my brain works, humor is a coping mechanism and ultimately makes me happier. I’m pretty optimistic as a person—I’m full of hope. That can be perceived as me putting on a face, especially on the internet. I usually post if I have something funny to say.

Also, I think it comes back to me with family and friends. A lot of times… I don’t like talking to friends or family if I feel bad, which a lot of people, they talk through things. My first instinct is “I’ll figure it out!” and I usually do. Sometimes, that’ll lead me to stew in whatever mess I’m in, and if someone calls me, “I’m good!” I figure my shit out before I tell them later. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, but I’ve been trying to be more open in the moment. That’s also selfishness, which I talk about a lot on the record. Not being fully open with people that are close to you, it feels like a form of selfishness for me. That’s something I’ve been working on over the past couple years.

Recently, Moses Sumney shouted you out. What did that mean to you?

It meant a lot! He’s like a literal God on earth, in my opinion. I saw him at Pitchfork [Festival] a couple years ago. His set was so tame and quiet for most of it, and everyone got quiet. A whole festival just shut up to listen to him perform. It was amazing. I ran into him at this photoshoot backstage, and I was like, “I love you! I love your music!” 

What about his overall sentiment about Black indie artists not getting enough recognition? What’s your take there? Or, perhaps, how white critics woefully misunderstand Black indie artists?

That’s 100 percent true. A lot of critics still approach it as, when they see a Black person… You shouldn’t even approach it as a Black indie artist. You should focus on the music. A lot of [music] just gets pigeonholed into a category that wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a preconceived perception of Black artists in general. I don’t feel like people intentionally go about it to stereotype, but it’s so ingrained in music culture. It’s something people need to actively be aware of because a lot of people don’t know they’re doing it. It happens to a lot of people I know getting lumped in R&B. I’m like, “Really!?”

For me, a lot of what I do, people grapple with calling it anything. A lot of things I do might be pushed into the rap category sometimes, but I’ve done a lot to make sure people aren’t able to do that with [all my music]. If you’re doing that with my entire catalog, then you really didn’t listen to it.

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