“Most of the people I’ve made songs with this year I haven’t met,” Tolü Makay laughs as we chat over Skype from our respective lockdown rooms. It’s one of the more peculiar by-products of this pandemic; a catalogue of art that, by necessity, happens in isolation yet makes its way to an audience through collaborative effort and the connective sinew of technology.
Don't Let Go
You Are Enough
Tolü’s first collaboration during that initial lockdown was working with Zaska on My Whole Heart, with her contribution recorded in a makeshift vocal booth in the closet in her mum’s room.
From here, Tolü’s ongoing experience through 2020 seems more productive and varied than most, working with a multitude of artists in the audiovisual realm despite the Covid-imposed restrictions. “This year has taught me that if you really want to do something, there is a way to go about it. It’s just a matter of finding it.”
In a year peppered with musical miscellanea, most significant was the October release of the ‘Being’ EP, seven tracks of soulful introspection delivered with an often startling vocal and some of Tolü’s most ambitiously produced compositions to date.
The releases that preceded the latest batch of songs pointed in no small way to Tolü’s increasing confidence as both a solo singer and a songwriter. After moving to Ireland from Nigeria when she was five, the local Pentecostal Church in Tullamore became a fixture in her family’s life, with Tolü’s vocal talents ensuring her place in the choir within a few years.
“My mum always believed if you are in the house of God, you have to serve him some way. My servitude was singing in the choir or leading prayers in worship.”
It served as a close-knit community and musical apprenticeship until life took over and Tolü drifted from the faith. Her estrangement from the church was documented in 2018’s Reflection.
“I had gotten over this three-year relationship with a guy I thought I was going to marry. Coming from a household that has certain standards, beliefs and expectations of me, I had this war within myself because I was finally, for the first time, questioning things around me.
“I felt like I was somewhat of a late bloomer in the sense that I never questioned authority or people who were older than me. I think it was the good Christian girl thing I grew up with. It wasn’t until something drastic happened for me personally and I was on my own for the first time that I had the chance to reflect.”
"I had this war within myself because I was finally, for the first time, questioning things around me"
Let Me In followed in and around the same period of reflection and growth, an even more personal and emotionally forthright slice of neo-soul. “It challenged my perception of a lot of things I thought I had overcome, you know, being confident with your body, being confident with your sexuality, being confident in the moods you are in.”
Referring to her Pentecostal upbringing, she elaborates, “sometimes – where I grew up anyway – that is not allowed or accepted. You’re not allowed to be sexual or to present yourself in such a manner. So that was a huge risk for me but it was real; it was rawness.
That’s what I want to show in my music. We all have the same experiences. One thing my mum always said is ‘nothing in this life is new’. The way I took it is nothing is new but you have a duty to tell the story.”
Tolü singles out Nina Simone’s Blackbird as a particularly important piece of music in her life, and it’s easy to pick out a similar ethos in her own compositions even if, conversely, the abiding themes of the ‘Being’ EP are hope, catharsis and, ultimately, absolute self-belief.
“That song doesn’t give you any form of hope. The reason why it is so striking to me and I like it so much is coming from church, you always have to talk about the good news and spread the gospel. This song is just like ‘I’m black and I don’t feel like I’m going to get to where I want to be’, which is really sad because, you know, it’s still relevant now but also common to what she was going through, especially being an African-American in her time.”
In a similar vein of protest folk with an equally percussive pulse, Tolü wrote and recorded Riot in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the killing of George Floyd, a completely organic track recorded impulsively with just vocal layers, handclaps and finger clicks. It was released quietly but came to the attention of RTÉ, although Tolü baulked at the idea of the national broadcaster using it for anything beyond her control.
“I didn’t want it to be used as a pioneer for a movement because it was really just something I needed to sing out so I could feel sane enough to continue singing about being and about loving life.”
Tolü’s path to a full-time career in music hasn’t been without its trials. She completed an undergrad in psychology at Trinity before undertaking an as-yet-unfinished postgraduate degree. Attending BIMM music institute proved untenable as her employer at the time wouldn’t acquiesce to the time off, forcing her to drop out after one semester. Juggling studying and then working full-time with a burgeoning need to make music proved too intense and things came to a head in May of last year.
“I was literally only getting about four hours of sleep per day because once I was done with work, I was going to rehearsals or a gig, or recording or in the studio. My weekends were never free – I just wasn’t living.
This is where the song Don’t Let Go came from, actually. It came to a point where I had a mini panic-thing for a whole week. I was really burnt out. I wasn’t taking care of myself or giving myself time for the past two years. Four hours of sleep each day is not that great. I just burned out. I wasn’t able to get out of bed for a whole week. It was a very weird, surreal thing. I don’t know how to explain it.
Anyway, I got myself up from that mood and it was grand but the same thing happened again sometime in July going into August and it was really bad. I had to get my mum to come down from Tullamore and help for the week. That’s when I had to listen to myself and know something was happening either emotionally, mentally or physically and I needed to make a decision. That’s when I quit my job and started music.”
“I grew up pouring my heart out and making people connect to this spiritual entity ... I still feel it when I sing.”
Ditching the distraction opened up a whole new freedom and even though 2020 became a shitshow no-one could have expected, Tolü’s year has been rich in creativity, both solo and within diverse groups such as Irish Women In Harmony and The X Collective. She played her first festival with her band at ATN20 – a live stream on a stage in the woods in front of a couple of cameras and crew members.
“That in itself was a surreal feeling for me, getting that opportunity at a time when things were so dire. I was really happy in that moment.”
Like the rest of us, Tolü is missing that buzz you get from a bunch of bodies in a shared space, something that stretches back to her childhood and adolescence in the choir and which can never be replicated through clicking a link.
“I grew up pouring my heart out and making people connect to this spiritual entity, or deity rather, and I also felt that presence. I still feel it when I sing.”
On New Years’ Eve, Tolü drew a veil over 2020 with a beautifully poignant take on The Saw Doctors’ N17 as part of RTÉ’s countdown special, a contemporary voice giving new meaning to a well-worn staple. Her signature will be all over the road ahead.
Although one or two live shows have been confirmed for 2021, not least her first headliner in Dublin’s The Grand Social in May, she is reluctant to give away many more details just yet on what’s in store, live or recorded, other than an enigmatic, “my face will be around.”
It’s usually this time of year that she tries to get back to Nigeria. The ongoing End SARS movement against police brutality, however, alongside Covid-19 means reconnecting with home will have to wait a while.
“I actually did my first performance last year in Nigeria. I was just doing it freestyle because I hadn’t rehearsed with the instrumentalists but I created a really awesome song on the spot, which I may use. The music scene in Nigeria is electric. It’s amazing. It’s everywhere. No matter where you are, you constantly hear music; there are people dancing in the street to promote something. It’s such a vibe.”
While we all anticipate better times ahead outside these insular bubbles, 2021 seems set to be a year in which Tolü delves even deeper into that well of creativity we have only glimpsed so far. Promotion continues for the ‘Being’ EP, long-distance collaborations are lined up and live performances are slowly but surely falling into place. The ritual of writing and recording, though, is foremost in her mind.
“I’m looking for time. I’m looking for solitude, and by solitude I mean going away, finding a room or whatever and just doing music from day to night by myself. I think that’s what I need…a different form of stillness, not the one we are in.”