First Published March 2021
LEAVING ROOM FOR THE UNIVERSE
If you were tuned into the Tommy Tiernan Show on RTE 1 last Saturday night, then you’re probably waking up this morning with a smile still on your face. Now, on any given week, Tommy himself – thanks to his wonderful way of both talking to people and just letting people talk – could well be reason enough for smiles that last for days. Last weekend, however, Tommy was almost a guest on his own show and an observer filled with wonder, just like the rest of us sitting at home, as the powerhouse pairing of Tullamore singer/songwriter TOLÜ MAKAY and her best friend, the Longford poet, FELISPEAKS took centre stage.
The love for each other, for life, for their respective art-forms, and for creativity, that sparked between the duo – and into the middle of which they welcomed Tommy as if he himself was a long-lost friend of theirs – was the kind of wild, pure energy that, if it could be harnessed and shared, would be a light bright enough to lead us all through however many dark days remain until the last year becomes, at last, a ‘remember when.’
But thank God we had them to enjoy last Saturday night, all three; Tolü, Felispeaks, and Tommy. And thank God we’ll have all three and their prodigious talents to look forward to enjoying ‘live’ and in-person when the sun rises once more on those days we so long for. And in the meantime, for the journey, we have Tolü’ to soundtrack our lives.
Born in Nigeria, raised in Ireland, and at home in Tullamore, it’s no exaggeration to say that Tolü is made for the world stage, and is already well on her way to a point in her career where recognition on that level begins to come her way. A nominee in the Hot Press Hottie Awards 2021; a landmark debut EP – Being – already in existence; a first long-player in the works; a place in the hearts of the nation courtesy of her tender treatment of N17; three sold-out shows in Dublin coming up between the end of May and early June; after last weekend’s stellar showing, it can surely only be a matter of time before Tolü becomes a regular sight on our tv screens; and not forgetting, of course, the beautiful balm for the soul that is her latest single, Used To Be, out now too…Tolü’s presence in the world is a force of nature and a blessing. And perhaps the most exciting part of it all is that her time in the limelight is just beginning…
In Part 2 of our recent chat with Tolü, and before we got onto some of the amazing things that have been happening for her – such as her by now famous, aforementioned, and oh so glorious version of N17, being part of Irish Women in Harmony, and the not so little matter of those several sold-out shows – I just wanted to ask Tolü a simple question: How was she doing? I’d seen her say about a week before our chat that it had been a year and a half since she’d seen some of her family. With the whole Covid situation being what it is, it’s difficult for all of us not being able to see people that we love and care deeply about. But in Tolü’s case, that also means not being able to share these magnificent moments in her life with her family…
“Thank you for asking. People don’t actually ask that. It’s been very tough. I’m actually going to start getting emotional now [laughs]. It’s been really hard, especially December, normally that’s when we go back home to see everyone; parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, all of that. Even though all of these amazing things are happening, it feels quite lonely at the same time. I have amazing friends, and I absolutely appreciate all the goodness and all the love that I’m receiving. But then, with family, you also want them to rejoice with you and see the magnitude of what you’re experiencing. I can’t send them every single newsletter that I’m in, I can’t send them every post that everyone sees, or every TV show that I’ve been on. So it’s just little scraps that they see, so it’s hard for them to kind of engage with it all. Some days are tougher than others, but honestly, the support I’ve been receiving has been keeping me very positive. And I’m so grateful for that, because if I didn’t have my amazing management Welcome To The New World, and my friends that are showing me love every moment and asking me how I am, and who are actually being there for me to be able to see them, I think it would have been a very, very, very, tough, tough, tough [laughs], and weird space to be in. Because from the outside it looks amazing, but then on the inside I’d be really sad. I’m really grateful that I have people around to share moments like this with even though my family aren’t with me.”
On then to Tolü’s magical version of the Saw Doctors hit, N17, which really did bring a tear to my eye when I first heard it. And I know a similar experience to that was shared by so many. It’s one of those moments where the listener can only sigh at the beauty of what they’ve just enjoyed when the song ends. But how did it all – Tolü, N17, and the RTE Concert Orchestra – come to be?
“Yeah, so it was Kite Entertainment, they were the ones who were recording – they picked the song – and they were the ones who put me forward. But a friend of mine called Susan Scannell, I think she works with them and she was also there on the day when we were shooting, she was the connecting factor really. Kite got me in contact with Gavin Murphy from the RTE Concert Orchestra, we had a conversation – and I don’t even think we had a phone conversation, this was all WhatsApp texts, and him sending the arrangements for the orchestra. This was all done on WhatsApp, it wasn’t even a proper file or anything [laughs]. Then I quickly sent a voice-note with me singing over the tracks, so he could get a sense of what I was planning to do with it, and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s perfect, yeah, that sounds beautiful already.’ And I was like OH GOD! [Laughs]. Then we went to shoot down in the Camden studio, and everything was obviously Covid friendly, and everyone was just lovely. It took a few hours to shoot, which was fine. They treated me really well. But even the night before, I was speaking to some of my family and stuff, and I think that kind of helped me to tap into the emotion that I needed for the next day. It was a long few hours!”
Tolü, of course, has also been one of the artists involved in the Irish Women in Harmony collective, sending their version of Dreams by the Cranberries, to the top of the Irish charts…
“Oh that was amazing! I need to say a massive thank-you to Erica Coady who hit me up first, and then I got in contact with RuthAnne who is…whoah!…such an amazing person! She has so many accolades, and has written for some of the biggest artists we know of (Britney Spears, Niall Horan, Westlife, One Direction, Bebe Rexha, and more), so to be in her presence with so many other amazing Irish women, I was just like YES! Absolutely! How could I say no to this?! [Laughs]. And obviously we all know how amazing the Cranberries are. I think the song ‘Dreams’ is what we needed in that moment, in 2020. No-one really expected it to just grip everyone’s heart like that. It was something I knew I needed anyway, because there were no gigs, no concerts, I wasn’t going anywhere! I was stuck in Tullamore doing live-streams! [Laughs]. And I really didn’t like the appeal of live-streams, especially the ones on my Instagram because it was really hard to get a response, except for ‘likes’, but those are silent. I’m trying to see if Instagram will pay me for a feature that I think would be really cool for them [laughs]. But yeah, ‘Dreams’ was such an amazing moment. I really needed that collaboration to keep me going, and to feel motivated, and to have that drive, and to feel important and be part of something. No kidding, I really believe that in the next maybe five, no, even less than five years, some of the biggest artists that we’re going to be getting in this world are going to come from Ireland, because there’s just so much talent that’s pouring into this country constantly, and genres as well. It’s exciting to be part of something bigger than you. And that’s what Irish Women in Harmony did for me.”
Looking forward instead of back next, Tolü has some big moments coming up in May and June – all going well – with a chance to get back in front of a ‘live’ audience again for her very own shows. How excited is Tolü for those shows to happen, and what does she want that experience to be like for her fans?
“Oh I’m really excited! We have three dates in Dublin, and dates in Galway and also Cork, so it’s kinda like a mini-tour. I had a dream about headlining [my own show] in 2018, and I was like I have to do it! I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ve planned it out exactly how I want it to be; outfits, the entrance, how people are going to be seated, what people are going to see, and smell, it’s very detailed. It’s called an ‘experience’ for a reason. I want people to feel alive. I want people to be able to sink into every emotion that I’m portraying. I want it to be like a spiritual moment, but not like Godly or anything like that. I want people to tap into their emotions with every song that I sing. I want it to be world-class, but obviously you have to start somewhere, and this will be my first show. But I hope it will be the foundation for even greater shows. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to set a really good bar for myself so that I can develop the ideas that I really want to be able to manifest.”
I pointed out to Tolü how I loved that she’s even planning her entrance, because sometimes I hate it when people just walk on and begin, something Tolü’s response indicated she agreed with, and certainly won’t be happening with her!
In talking about how she was appointed as assistant to her choir’s head-mistress when she was just fifteen, Tolü once remarked, “It taught me how to performwithout knowing what performance was.” But I wondered what have all the things she’s experienced in the last year or so taught Tolü about who she is as an artist and as a person today?
“The past year has taught me that I can be very hard-working, I’m tough on myself, probably tougher on myself than anybody else that’s around me, to be honest. But it’s also taught me that I really do love myself. I’m trying to learn or navigate how to be a better person, and I think that’s a really cool aspect that I have of myself. Another thing that it’s taught me is that I’m not patient! [Laughs]. I am not patient! I want things now! [Laughs]. It’s also taught me that I’m loving, and that means I’m lovable as well. It’s taught me that my need to express my emotions is ok, and being emotional is fine. You don’t always have to be so tough or have a tough exterior all the time. It has taught me to trust people more, because trusting people more also means that you trust yourself with the decisions that you make. That was a really big one I learned. What else has it taught me? Oh, and also to do as much as I can, but to leave room for the universe to do whatever it needs to do.”
What does Tolü do to protect her energy? Parts of her job, such as speaking to me and those like me, obviously take up not just her time, but her energy as well. Any artist will have to put themselves in a certain frame of mind to spend so much time talking about themselves and their work to all kinds of different people. So how does Tolü make sure that she takes care of herself in that regard? I saw that she draws, for instance. Does that help?
“Yeah, I did a bit of drawing last year, just to kind of find something. But lately, because it’s just been a rush of amazing, new, exciting things, and I’m still trying to navigate this new space of like…media attention [laughs]…it’s been interesting! I suppose one thing that has really helped me is not being on social media as often. Knowing when to turn off my phone. And also scheduling my days. I’m still quite bad at saying ok, Sunday, I’m gonna not work. Because I do find that I’m constantly working, which is very weird but I think is just something that artists do all the time, without even noticing. You’re constantly working, that’s not normal. I’ve started to take acting classes, professional ones, so that I can actually get better at that skill and focus a little bit more of my time. I have other projects that I’m doing as well. That helps me to remove myself as this ‘artist’ persona, and also helps me to be really disciplined with my time. That way, if I have an interview, or a show or something, it’s all scheduled and aligned and I’ve prioritised what’s the most important to me. Choosing what’s most important to me makes me happier, because even though it may still be work, it still makes me feel a lot more fulfilled than drained, if that makes sense?”
And with that, unfortunately, we came to our last question. As regards Tolü’s vision for her debut album, which she hopes to release later this year, and taking into account the kind of person Tolü is – she had mentioned being an empath, being shy, and I know a teacher once called her an old soul, and also being a student of psychology and philosophy – I felt like she won’t be able to ignore everything that’s happening around her in the world, from the effects of Covid to the BLM movement, and such. Will her debut album, when it comes to us, touch on those issues in any way?
“At the moment, with the songs I’ve selected, no. I think with the way I write, I don’t like to be as direct with political issues. And not even political issues, just things that we cannot control. I’m still trying to understand or even put words into context to even make sense of things. It’s more so sounds that come out, and me shouting and roaring rather than it actually being a song. But with some of the songs, I think it will stand the test of time in the sense that the emotional cue is there. And I think that no matter what situation we’re in, there will be certain songs in there that you can still relate to if a really horrible situation happens. For example, there’s one of the songs in there, that I’m still writing, where it just kind of talks about – and this sounds really sad, but I actually wrote this last year in spite of all the positivity – I wrote about finding somewhere else to live. Not like locations, I meant it like I wanted to get out of Earth. Which is really depressing to hear, but I was just like, is there an alternative? Cos’ this sucks. I wrote that song in the heat of BLM, and the whole situation that was happening in Nigeria with the police brutality [SARS]. I just felt like this really sucked, and it seemed to be the same thing over and over again, with famine, and brutality, and all these horrible things that are happening globally, and seems to be never-ending. You know, what’s the point? And that’s really depressing, and I’m soooo sorry! [laughs]. When I write songs like that, I don’t want to pinpoint one specific issue, because the way I feel is like every [emotion] in one. And it’s a lot to navigate. It’s a weird thing. I feel like I just grasp more to the emotional element rather than the actual situations. But hopefully in time I’ll get better at using words to explain and be more concrete with topics.”
~ USED TO BE, the brand NEW single from TOLÜ MAKAY is OUT NOW. Her Dublin shows for THE TOLÜ MAKAY EXPERIENCE are now SOLD OUT, but some tickets remain for her Galway and Cork shows. For more information, visit Tolü’s official website, www.tolumakay.com You can also follow Tolü on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.