First Published March 2021
IT’S TOLÜ’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, folks, 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. It’s as if no other outcome was ever possible.
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. That, of course, was in no small part due to the uninhibited joy and ferocious energy the band always found a way to tap into when they stepped on stage.
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, and a singer whose heart and spirit is proving every bit as big and as charged with passion as her voice, the moment when it happened feels as immediately undeniable as the perfection of a daffodil or a snowflake. No other moment was possible, except this one, a moment of beauty designed by the universe itself, for our enjoyment.
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.
Now, a lot of songwriters often say that they write because it’s easier to say things in a song sometimes than it is to say it in ‘real-life’, or in person. And sometimes, their songs actually help them to work out things in their own lives. So for Tolü, I wondered if songs like Don’t Let Go, You Are Enough,Me, Myself & I, and even something like her spoken-word piece V.N, are as much messages to herself as they could be to whoever else might need to hear them?
“Definitely. I wrote those songs to help me get through a lot of mental challenges that I was going through. And also to help me to just keep going and really pursue the dreams that I really have in mind. So I’d definitely say that I was writing and singing for myself. It wasn’t even until a few months before it had to be released that I came up with a name, and it kind of wrote itself for me. Definitely for me, and for a long time, it [writing] helps me to know who I am, and to know that I needed to get through certain stages of self-love and self-confidence. That was definitely a stage that I was going through in order to help me to get into a new stage of life.”
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 [laughs]. 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. And it may not even be the word. It may just be how something sounds and how it resonates or portrays certain emotions that I can’t naturally bring out with just 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].”
What I most love about that voice-note is that Tolü ended it as if she was talking to a friend, which is, of course, exactly how we should talk to ourselves…
“Definitely! Honestly, I can spring towards negative thoughts a lot, but I think that’s just human. But I think it’s important that we train ourselves to be kind to ourselves, the way we would want other people to treat us. Another thing that I’ve learned is that if you don’t learn how to treat and love yourself, then you’ll be very accepting of people treating you badly. It’s something which you kind of have to unlearn, which is quite difficult. But yeah, the need to speak to yourself in a positive manner is a daily thing that I’m quite conscious of, and I’m really happy that the voice-note made it out to the world.”
Speaking of the brilliant video for You Are Enough (which, as a matter of interest, was filmed right beside where I live, and which I somehow managed to TOTALLY MISS!),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! [laughs]. So no, it wasn’t rehearsed or anything. We just had a few hours in the cafe [the Riverside Cafe, Main Street, Tullamore…now on its way to becoming an iconic musical and cultural landmark thanks to Tolu!], 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! [laughs]. 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 – I think a week before the shoot – 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 [laughs], and they were standing at their cars, obviously social-distanced and all, watching us. They were so cute [laughs]. It was great. 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. Martina is just an awesome professional. I think that’s even her first music video, but that’s just a testament to how amazing she is. Even with that small team that we had, they did such a fantastic job of portraying exactly what ‘You Are Enough’ is. It’s amazing to create a song and then for someone else to visualise it in quite a mirrored way as to how you want to let other people see it.”
I read recently – with absolute horror, might I add – 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. To willingly and on purpose not use somebody’s name, is pretty much to deny their existence to a large extent…
“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. So for me not to have done that really shows the depth of how shut up I was from who I was supposed to be. 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! [laughs]. 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! [laughs]. Imagine if it was just some random name! [laughs]. No, no.”
I was curious about how that experience might have influenced Tolü’s songwriting. Did it make her even more determined to put herself – Tolü – into her songs, to make sure that her songs are completely what she wants them to be, and a reflection of who she is?
“That’s a tricky one. Before I started getting into songwriting, I was just singing. That was a way for me to just tap into my emotions, and also to connect with other people. That’s how I kinda was with the church. I was still singing right up until university, cos’ I won a gospel-pop competition and I was managed for a year so I decided to start singing about my own experiences rather than singing about God. And there’s nothing wrong about singing about God, I just wanted to expand. So I suppose, from uni days I started writing poems, but I’m not great with poems. I think it’s just more so thoughts and journaling my feelings. Then when I had the confidence to write my first song, which is ‘Reflection’, that was actually a poem that I then arranged into a song. When times got really tough and I just really needed to have an outlet outside of saying God is good all the time. I was like, you know, I’m in a really tough situation and I want to talk about that and I want to sing about that. With ‘Reflection’, that first song, I felt so torn between who I believe I am within myself, and between who people see me as. That can be quite conflicting. That’s why I started songwriting and journaling my thoughts, because it helped me figure out who I am in my inner voice.”
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 down…no, not shut down…you’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. And I think that’s why I wanted the EP to be very raw. I just wanted it to be a release of what I was holding for three or four years. And it did exactly that for me, because once I released it I really felt that now, I was going into a new chapter. Now, becoming who i’m supposed to be. Now, I have a voice that I feel confident in. So, it definitely did help me in navigating and expressing myself as a human being. That’s why I named it ‘Being’ [laughs].”
~ BEING, the stunning EP from TOLÜ, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms, AND her brand NEW single, USED TO BE, is out on March 5th. Watch this space for Part 2 of our chat with Tolü coming your way in our St. Patrick’s Day edition!