Chicago Artist NNAMDÏ Is a DIY Force to Be Reckoned With

He details his latest album ‘BRAT,’ his inspirations and isolation.

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Multi-faceted Chicago-based artist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, better known as NNAMDÏ has too many inspirations to count. He’s spent years in his hometown’s DIY music scene, switching instruments and experimenting as a member of bands like Monobody. It’s an interesting, if not singular, résumé for a producer who grew up listening to his older brother’s Black Sabbath records one moment, then switching over to his father’s love of The Police and a sister’s CD of Destiny’s Child. Late last week he released his latest project BRAT, a categorically unclassifiable record that’s an open and honest depiction of anxiety, independence and social-distancing even before the current Coronavirus crisis.

His “Wasted” music video showcases just how vast and ambitious his original ideas can be. He detailed that he often writes his music with a visual already in mind when alone in the studio. He celebrated Valentine’s Day with the release of his album’s intro track, “Flowers To My Demons”. The track was influenced by West-African guitar and vocal arrangements, with plenty of pitch changes crescendoing to make it a more than memorable release. NNAMDÏ detailed the creation of the song, saying it, “Pinpoints behaviors and habits within us that we may not be proud of, so that we may bring them to light and work on them, even while acknowledging that there are imperfections within us all. And that’s just life.”

He also debuted his new “Gimme Gimme” music video featuring vivid and oversaturated cinematography with some 90s-infused animations. The artist tapped one of his youngest fans to help out. He detailed how it all came together. “Last year in July, I was lucky enough to play a Chicago street festival called West Fest. During my set, unbeknownst to me, there was a young kid who was going absolutely crazy during my set. My friend excitedly showed me a video of it after my set and it brought me so much joy. We posted it through my label Sooper, and also my personal social media pages because I was determined to find out who this kid was.”

“After a couple weeks of sharing the video someone recognized his parents standing in the background of the video and contacted them. Shortly after that his mother messaged us and we began talking. His name is Kylar and he was 7! I immediately began thinking of ways we could work together. Spur of the moment, I decided to fly Kylar and both of his parents to Chicago to film a music video with [Director] New Trash. It felt right and it ended up being so much fun working with them… All in all, the video encompasses the more lighthearted portions of BRAT relating to youthful naivety and immaturity.”

After the release of his “Gimme Gimme” music video, NNAMDÏ joined HYPEBEAST to talk about the inspirations behind his latest album, BRAT, his history of genre-less musical experimentation, and where he’s going from here.

HYPEBEAST: First off, how are you doing with the current Coronavirus quarantine?

NNAMDÏ: I’m doing alright, all things considered. All my sh*t got cancelled like my tour and release show. Even the vinyl record is being pushed back because of everything, so yeah, it’s kinda uncertain for a lot of people about how things are gonna turn out in the next few months. But definitely hoping for the best and staying positive. [BRAT] is still out digitally the same day which is good. I would’ve been very bummed if I had to move that but I think it’ll be good for people because the album is a lot about isolation. I think it’s an interesting time for people to hear it.

BRAT deals a lot with self-care practices and prioritizing yourself while balancing the fact that you can get lost in your art. So what did you learn between your 2017 album DROOL and this record about that balance?

I learned a lot about communication. I’m no stranger to being holed up in the same place, isolated for a long time. In between tours what ends up happening, kind of in an obsessive way, I’m working on music and I won’t leave my basement for like, I don’t even wanna say. Just too long without talking to people. So during that process I learned the importance of making the time for people who make the time for you. People who are checking in on you and hitting you up. Knowing that it can’t be a one-way street. I would ignore messages and everyone for awhile and then whenever I was done working I would try and hit people up. Being open and honest with what you’re going through, too.

Your musical background is super diverse. You play multiple instruments and often approach music from a genre-less perspective. How’d your love for music and journey as a multi-instrumentalist start?

It really was a natural progression of things. My parents were into music when I was younger — my mom would sing a lot and my dad would also play guitar and write songs. Not anything professionally, but growing up in church he would work on a lot of religious songs and introduce me to different Nigerian tunes. They’re ingrained in my brain. He was also into The Police (laughs), so that was an early influence. And Bob Marley.

I have older siblings and they were naturally discovering things before me and then I soaked in all of it. My sisters were listening to their thing and I’d be like, “Oh cool, I’ll listen to some Destiny’s Child.” One of the first records I bought was No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. My oldest brother was into Black Sabbath and heavier rock. As his pallet expanded, he’d introduce me to new music. They all played instruments too.

What is it about your creative process that makes you want to naturally isolate and be so independent?

It’s the only aspect of life that I can completely control, you know? I’m a big control freak, but only internally. When I’m in a group setting I don’t really wanna be in charge. I’ll only take charge if it has to be done, but my own music gives me the chance to be like, “Okay, now you can do everything you want to do.” I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s opinions. Sometimes having someone else in the room with me will lead to a different product. I’m not saying that it would be bad or better, but it would be different having someone else’s energy in the room, even if they’re not saying anything.

When you go to open up to people during the mastering process, how does that collaboration change your initial vision?

This is the first record that I’ve mixed with someone else. I mixed this record with my friend Steve who lives with me. The studio in the basement is mainly his gear and that’s one of the main reasons why I moved here. I used to live in Humboldt Park [Chicago] then I lived in North Lawndale and Garfield Park area. I’m also in a band called Monobody and he plays bass in that band. I’d come up to this house to practice once a week and just got lucky when a room opened up.

I figured that if I don’t have to pay for studio time or a rehearsal space I can get a lot more done. We built up this trust playing in bands a long time, like for ten years. He would hear me recording things, during what was very much the learning process for me, and he’d see me do something that was totally b’ass-ackwards and I could feel him being like, “I wanna help, I wanna help.” (Laughs) But him knowing I was stubborn he would be like, “Hey, did you mean to do this?” He would tweak one thing and it would sound so much better. I eventually was like, “F*ck, okay.”

Your first handful of singles really showcased your vocal range. Was experimenting with pitches and expanding your voice something you made a concentrated effort on with this project?

I’ve always had a very wide vocal range. I think it was a lot more organized this time around and not just in random spots. A lot more concise and precise. Just more focussed.

There’s an incredible performative aspect to your music videos. What were your influences?

Usually the first idea, or the strongest idea — usually things evolve over time when you don’t do it immediately — but it’s good to let some things just sit and then come back to them and you’re like, “Yes, this is still a great idea.” That’s when it creates something that will last longer and be timeless. I felt that way with the “Wasted” video because I had the idea for the album cover and that video at the same time.

I wanted it to be exactly like the cover of the record, but come to life. We had one day to shoot it and all the people who were helping out with it were definitely like, “What the f*ck is this going to turn out to look like?” We were pressed for time and things seemed like they weren’t going the right way but we had so much cool footage. I edited everything myself. It was my first time using Adobe Premiere to edit — I used to use Final Cut a lot. Every time I write a song I have a very vivid idea usually of what the music video would be. They come hand-in-hand, in tandem.

On “Glass Casket” there’s a particular set of lyrics where you’re contemplating wanting to take up different paths and careers. You sing, “I wish I was a farmer, I wish I was an astronaut, so I could feed my family and take them somewhere very far away.” Is there still a part of you that worries about providing for yourself as an artist?

I’m not worried because I know that I’m gonna work and make it happen. If I look at myself three years ago, it’s already an extreme jump. It might not look that way to other people, but for me, to be able to support myself right now was not something that I thought was possible when I first started making music. It was something that I had to learn by witnessing other people.

Once someone closer to me was doing well, I was like, “Damn, people I actually know can do this and mature?” I’m always trying to expand and chase the next thing to build. I don’t feel those exact feelings — I don’t have the anxiety or the worry because my drive has overtaken control of that anxiety. I don’t let that enter my brain as an option anymore.

You had a really heartfelt message on a recent Instagram post about the importance of making music in turbulent times. What do you want people to walk away with after listening to BRAT?

When my friends ask me what I want my music to do, I always say that I want it to inspire creativity in other people. In whatever field that may be — people who want to help out with social issues, just human issues. We’ve been doing a lot of the same thing for so long and I think people need to change and figure out ways to influence other people to change and think creatively. And learning how to communicate well.

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