Name: Tony Njoku
Occupation: Producer, Songwriter
Current Release: Your Psyche’s Rainbow Panorama on Silent Kid Records.
Recommendations: If you’re in London, Tate just opened an exhibition for Kara Walker. She has a big piece in the turbine hall called ‘Fons Americanus’. It’s beautiful and there’s a very potent narrative condemning Britain’s colonial past in her work. I strongly recommend.
On a lighter note, I’m really obsessed with colours and have started reading a book called ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ by Kassia St Clair. I definitely recommend. It’s a fun piece that dissects the intricate nature of colours, from the cultural connotations to the psychological and beyond. I’m loving it thus far!
If you enjoyed this interview with Tony Njoku, check out his bandcamp profile and Facebook page for more music and ordering directly from the artist.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing lyrics very early on, around 8 or so. I didn’t have any means of recording sounds so that’s all I could do. I was really into rap music so I was trying to write that sort of stuff. Around 12 years old is when I got a laptop to record and make beats, so I started with that and as time passed my taste changed and I went from making hiphop to more experimental electronic music and here we are. Music was a beautiful/abstract space, it just felt a lot closer to the source of everything. It’s more direct and so tangible emotionally.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I think I’m still in that stage of learning and emulating. A lot of my ideas start off as an emotional reaction to a chord progression I heard or a melody I thought was beautiful but out of my range, then I’d try to bend it to my voice and end up with something new. But early on I definitely was explicit in trying to copy specific artists, I wanted to sound like Nina Simone or Anonhi when I was a teenager, their style of singing just felt so pure and rich. So I emulated people like that, I suppose it’s the best way to learn and to eventually find your own voice.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My biggest challenge at the beginning is the same as now, getting my voice to sit well with everything else going on in the mix. I have this love hate relationship with my voice where it feels great to use it but I’m not always keen on the sound of it. So that’s probably the biggest thing production wise. Over time I’ve tried making my production more minimal, that sometimes works, I also have vocal effect chains pre saved, just to help make the process of recording vocals smoother and more bearable.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I started out on just a laptop, interface, a mic and a midi keyboard. The evolution has been gradually incremental. My software is upgraded and heavily kitted out now, I have better interfaces and preamps, I also have a few nice bits of synth hardware. I really feel like for what ideas I am trying to accomplish I don’t need that much. The studio apparatus are not as important as the ideas.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I think creatively humans operate best in the moment and machines help us reflect. With machines there is no pressure to make the moment perfect, there’s no pressure to emote and land the perfect take; you can feed the machine some musical information and it can repeatedly mirror that back at you until you lock in to the feeling the music gives you. That’s the best thing about it for me. I get to be totally free in the way I record things and then over time I get to grow with the piece, understand what I’m trying to say better and then edit it as much as I like until it suits my needs.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I always try to bend my tools to meet the ideas I have in my head. I’m constantly thinking of sounds and musical ideas, before I enter the studio I feel like I have a full song in my head already. So when I get to my instruments I try to use what is in front of me to remake what I have in my head. The results are never exactly as I thought them but that’s part of the fun.
My tools can’t create what’s in my head so I constantly have an objective to chase and I end up landing somewhere else that is sometimes more exciting that the idea. The restrictions I’ve put on myself through limiting my musical resources really forces me to be more creative, which is very exciting.
Say I have an idea to add a choral section in a song but don’t have access to a choir, I would try to use my synth to recreate something that sounds similar to the idea I had, which often gives very interesting results.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
The best form of collaboration for me has been talking out ideas with other creative. It’s a great way for me to gauge whether my ideas hold any weight, whether they make any sense and from the convo I may also get some insight into how I can move forward with the idea you know.
I’m really bad at jamming, my brain just doesn’t work like that and I’ve also never really trained to do that, my journey in music has mostly been quite isolated. I think that really comes from wanting to get my ideas out quicker, collaborating can take some time when doing it with new people.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I definitely try to separate music making and other admin type stuff in my life. Before I go to bed I decide what kind of day I want when I wake up. So I decide if I want to spend the day creating or doing admin. Recently admin has taken over and I’ve hardly made any music in the last month but I’m trying to rectify that. Regardless of that decision though my morning routine stays the same every day, (give or take).
I wake up around 5:30 am and make some herbal tea, drink water and then I meditate for 10 – 15 minutes. Then I do a 30 – 40 minute work out and then write out my intentions/to do list for the day. On a recording day I work through the late morning into the evening. I don’t like working at night, I like to be able to record a song, export it, put it on my phone and go take a walk in the park with it.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Ok so I can talk about a really abstract and jarring track on the new album, ‘DISTURBED’. The song is essentially about being overwhelmed with dysfunctional thoughts that cause negative feelings and made up beliefs. It’s like observing someone who would come up with a totally false scenario in their head and be in total disbelief of the reality of the situation. When those negative thoughts arise the person totally changes into someone else, essentially that was the narrative I had when I was making it.
So I started to view those dysfunctional thoughts like parasites that infiltrate your mind and jeopardise your wellbeing, hence the opening lyric “They came in swarms”. Sonically I wanted to showcase that concept as well. I wanted a sound that was dissonant, violent and scary. Something that would work in a horror movie.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Flow state is what comes to mind when thinking about this question. Flow state being a state of mind where you’re totally immersed in the activity you’re doing. Getting into the zone. For me when I’m in that state of mind I lose sense of time, everything slows down to whatever pace I am comfortable in, my focus is razor sharp and I notice everything that’s going on in what I’m doing. It’s the most blissful state and I’d also consider it to be quite psychedelic as well.
I’d say being totally alone really helps this, when I lock myself in a studio and know I’ll be alone for the next 8 hours that really helps me get into that state. Also having a piece of music or a musical idea that already excites and inspires me helps me get to that state quicker. But being around people can be distracting; having my phone around can be distracting as well.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I pretty much use the same equipment in the studio as I do live, so they’re very connected for me. I feel more like an architect in the studio though whilst on stage it’s more a performer, because it’s more in the moment and there’s room for improvisation. The compositional side of writing in the studio feeds into my live practice. I give myself parameters in which I can improvise around by playing alongside audio from my studio sessions. That helps give the improvised sections focus and limits any meandering.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
For my album ‘Your Psyche’s Rainbow Panorama’ I spent a great deal of time designing synth sounds before I even starting writing music. Sound and timbre are incredible important in my work. They often have an impact that allows the music of the piece be very simple yet the end product holds tremendous weight. Also having the right sounds laid out before you begin writing is so inspiring. Before I start writing I try and create the sounds in head on my synth and then from there everything else comes.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I’m a very visual person, I see a lot when I’m listening to music. I daydream a lot about very abstract scenes when listening to music. Mainly colours and shapes, these really enhance my experience of the music. I call it playing with abstractions. It’s not a happening that makes actual sense, it’s deeper almost, like the body feels the value of doing it, there’s an inherent joy in it but there’s no articulate way to describe it, in fact the value of trying to describe it is in the trying not in the description., so maybe more of a spiritual value.
I guess what that tells me is that our senses are connected and and also that not all valuable experiences can be documented through words.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I like to think that my approach to art is mainly aesthetic, spiritual and psychedelic. But I’m beginning to really understand that being an artist who has chosen to truly embody the Lynchian definition of “the art life”, art really becomes a simulacrum of my existence. And therefore its purpose evolves and I evolve and its focus shifts as mine shifts. It’s a mirror that shows me what I’m thinking/feeling, sometimes in a much clearer way.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I view music a lot like I view water, it’s can be refreshing, cleansing, comforting, forceful, intense, beautiful, powerful and so much more. And mainly it is totally necessary to have it in human existence. Therefore I think the basic concept of music will remain the same for eternity.
I watched a short clip somewhere that mentioned this: “Technological innovation without humanitarian evolution equals a dystopian future”. I feel like music and art in general can act as our anchor that keeps us from drifting into that dystopia. Music is the water we need to feed and nurture our humanitarian evolution.