10 Aug 2022

BIG INTERVIEW: It's Offaly star Tolu's time!

It's Offaly star Tolu's time!

SOMETIMES in this life you just have to believe that the universe has a plan for you. And most of the time, when that plan begins to unfold in real-time, here's what also happens.

What you realise is that had you tried to even imagine what was about to manifest with you at its centre, there's just no way you ever would have been able to call it. Not in a million years. And yet, as this almost blessed intention of the cosmos reveals itself, what begins to take place and what you begin to witness feels like the most obvious and the most natural thing in the world.

The Saw Doctors  released  N17  as their debut single in August of 1989. And despite the fact that the song is undoubtedly possessed of a certain sadness given that it's about an Irish emigrant's longing to travel once more over those Galway roads with their  "stone walls and the grass is green", it also gave life to an elation of sorts in every performance.

Fast forward to the beginning of this year, and  N17  is once again the song that everyone is talking about. But it's a very different world this time, and a very different  N17  too. And yet, folks, and yet, in the care of the prodigious talent that is  Tolü Makay, not only did this version of  N17  feel unquestionably perfect in every note and every phrase, it was perfect for the moment too. And, while few of us could ever have predicted this crossing of paths between a song that already held a special place in so many hearts, the moment when it happened feels as immediately undeniable as the perfection of a daffodil or a snowflake.

Tolü has just announced the forthcoming release of her brand new single,  “Used to Be”, out on March 5th, and I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with her recently. Before we even got to that convergence of destinies between her and  N17,  I wanted to talk about this remarkable lady herself, by going straight to Tolü's E.P,  “Being”,  to chat about her songwriting. 

With her songwriting, it sounds like Tolü probably incorporates a lot of her own personal experiences, and things that are happening in her own life, into her songs. Would that be fair to say? 

"Yeah, definitely. When I write my own songs and release them, it definitely comes from  my own experience, a personal or emotional story that I had to understand. Cos' a lot of the times when I want to express myself, I find it hard through words. So you're totally right about songwriters being able to express themselves through music. There's certain things that I wouldn't be able to just say, but I can sing it because it helps me to attach the emotional cue that I feel with certain words." 

One of my own personal favourite tracks on  Being  is the aforementioned  V.N,  the spoken word piece. As we all know by now from Tolü's remarkable video for  You Are Enough,  she can act! So I wondered if V.N. was something which was written and rehearsed, or had it been free-styled? 

"No, that's just something that I was saying to myself. I actually recorded that to myself on a voice-note in 2019 when I needed to boost myself up. Because a lot of the times, it's only you that can really get you going. You can get whatever motivation, or whoever is around you to help you, but if you don't believe in yourself, in your core, things are not gonna move. People can believe in you so much, but if you don't believe in yourself, it's just not gonna work. I really needed to kind of speak to myself in the third-person, and that's exactly what I did with that voice-note. So I had that voice-note for a whole year before I decided to use it. I listened back to it, and I was like, 'This is nice. It kind of sums up the entire EP' [laughs]." 

The brilliant video for  You Are Enough  not only has it shown that Tolü can act, it's also proved that she can dance too! I felt like the video was something Tolü would have been very involved in. From an acting perspective, I wondered had it been rehearsed?

"No, it wasn't rehearsed. It was basically just, 'Do this, and we want you to do this...', and then...just do it!So no, it wasn't rehearsed or anything. We just had a few hours in the cafe [the Riverside Cafe, Main Street, Tullamore], to do what we had to do, and if it looked good on camera, good. And if it didn't...! I had an amazing director, Martina McGlynn. I wasn't thinking of doing a video at all, because there was literally no budget! It was done in 2020, when there was a whole pandemic! Martina was actually the one who came up with the concept, and she said she'd love to make a music video for me. So we went over her notes so that I was comfortable with it. And I really love dancing, I love being able to express myself through different forms of art. And funnily enough with acting, I really do love acting too, and being able to portray certain emotions clearly, which is another way of communicating really. So Martina hit me up, and she got in contact with my manager, and we had a few meetings, and literally two weeks after that we were outside shooting. It was a three-day shoot. We asked Paraic  [Jennings]  from the Riverside Cafe if we could use his space, and he was lovely and said yes."

Tolü continued,  "And I got five girls from the Midlands School of Drama to be part of it. I sent them a quick video-clip a friend of mine had choreographed for me, and I also had learned the dance so I had to go in and teach them as well. They picked it up in like an hour! They were professionals, so great. I remember the day of the shooting, their mammies came down , and they were standing at their cars, obviously social-distanced and all, watching us. There were only three people on camera, and myself. It couldn't be a huge production, but it was really great. And obviously the quality of the video was amazing. " 

I read recently Tolü's experience of boarding school, where she had been called Elizabeth by her teachers, presumably  because Tolü was too much to come to terms with. Somebody's name, after all, is who they are.

"Yeah, it's a weird one. Because you know when you're young, I think back then I wasn't vocal. It's only actually now, in my twenties, that I'm trying to be more vocal in using my voice. But back then, I was very quiet and a lot of things would hurt me, and I wouldn't know how to say it. I would just accept it as being [how things were]. But I noticed in going back and reminiscing on that time, I didn't sing for an entire three years. And singing is a huge part of who I am.That's from age ten to about thirteen. So those were difficult times, but I never really assessed it as that. I remember when I left that school and I started singing and going into competitions back in Tullamore, and when I was talking to friends from the boarding school, they were like, 'We never knew you could sing.' And I was like...yeah! It was weird. I don't even know if they did it in a malice way, I don't think people do these things intentionally. I assume that they saw that my middle name was there, and assumed that was just the name to call me."

Ah, so Elizabeth IS at least Tolü's middle name? Well that at least makes it a little bit less weird! 

"Yeah. Oh my God, no! That would be so weird! Imagine if it was just some random name! No, no." 

One of the things I most love about interviewing songwriters is the chance to figure out how and why they write the way they do. Tolü has studied psychology and philosophy at N.U.I.G, both of which delve into the human condition in different ways and can offer fascinating insights into people. And songwriting, of course, can be very much about examining and revealing the human condition too. I wondered if it was the fact that Tolü is a songwriter that led her to studying psychology and philosophy, and having studied those subjects, did they add any different elements or styles to her songwriting? 

"I actually don't know. Before I started songwriting, I was already in uni, it was after or towards the end that I started getting into songwriting. But it definitely did add an element of curiosity, and also wanting better and questioning everything. In terms of why I choose positivity or why I choose ways in which to reflect, I do believe that psychology did help me. With psychology and philosophy, it's all about the human condition and the mind, and society and how we relate with one another. I don't know. It's quite a tough question to actually answer. I just knew that I'm very in-tune with my emotions in ways that I wish other people were. And sometimes that can be a lot. Like, I call myself an empath, if that makes any sense? I feel way too many things that I think other people just do not feel. And it's really hard to kind of express that. Growing up, you're kind of shut, not shut're somewhat ridiculed that you're thinking too much or you're feeling too much, and it [whatever you're thinking about or feeling] is not that much of a big deal. Last year's songs were very happy and very positive, but even within that year, there were a lot of sad songs that I wrote [laughs], that you'll probably hear this year. There's some quite depressing [laughs]. But I'm learning that it's important that I'm allowed to express myself however possible. Human emotions are very raw. “

~  Watch this space for Part 2 of our chat with Tolü coming your way in our St. Patrick's Day edition! 

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