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NNAMDÏ On 'Brat' And Channeling A Decade Of Chicago DIY Influence Into Pop Music

May 10, 2020
Originally published on May 10, 2020 3:32 pm

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, who releases music as NNAMDÏ, has been a staple of Chicago's indie scene for years. He's been called the city's "weirdest musician," and his most recent album, Brat, explores what happens when a kid who dreams of being an artist actually finds success.

NNAMDÏ's solo music spans multiple instruments and genres — from math rock to screamo to hip-hop, occasionally all in the same song — and draws from years of participation in groups from all over the Chicago's DIY scene. He's played with other indie artists like Vagabon and Ratboys and also founded his own label, Sooper Records.

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke to Nnamdi Ogbonnaya about his eclectic influences and creative process, making the decision to pursue music as a full-time job and how he is surviving self-isolation with throwback jams. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above, and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On his eclectic, genre-less approach to songwriting

I feel like there's no reason to put a restriction on your art unless you're going for a specific sound to maintain throughout the years. For me, it's kind of just the freedom of expression, and there's no need to put a ceiling on that. I think I've just been influenced by so many different things and I've hung around so many different types of artists. It's not really an active thought when I'm writing music; it's really just like a feeling.

On the song "Glass Casket" and making the "selfish" decision to pursue music

This is one of my favorites for a few reasons. One: It wasn't forced at all. Every aspect of it came very quickly and organically, which always shocks me when that happens because I'm like "Where is this coming from?" It's always a very exciting feeling.

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To me, the lyrics hit really hard because it was at a time when I was deciding to pursue music full-time and battling with how selfish some decisions felt — pursuing my own personal dreams and my own well-being and health. And kind of going over in my brain that I could just get a job somewhere that was a 9-to-5. But then, I know I would be miserable because I know I wouldn't be able to focus on music as much. I need to work to make money to help other people, but I also need to focus on this because I feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing. So it's kind of about the battle between those two things.

On listening to and creating music during the coronavirus pandemic

The first few weeks I was going very hard and recording as much as I could. And then I finally took a day and let everything soak and let the uncertainty mellow it out and realized I don't have to force or rush anything. I feel like that's important for a lot of artists: You don't have to force or rush anything during this time. It's very stressful just as it is. So take your time to just experience every moment and try not to stress as much as you can.

During this time, it's been a lot of nostalgia music for me, like music I grew up listening to and radio pop that was around during the time. A lot of Destiny's Child, a lot of No Doubt, a lot of Sum 41, which was one of my favorite bands when I was little. Busta Rhymes. Also my friends' music, because that's the most comforting thing during this time, when you can't really hang out with them. Just putting on some of my friends' records and just letting it play.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Chicago-based experimental artist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has been called the city's weirdest musician by the news site Vice. His work spans instruments and genres, often in the same song, and draws from years of participation in groups from all over Chicago's indie scene, from math rock to screamo to hip-hop. He's also founded his own label, Sooper Records. His new album "Brat" explores what happens when a kid who dreams of being an artist actually becomes successful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYONE I LOVED")

NNAMDI OGBONNAYA: (Singing) Different things I used to care about now just wear me out. Everything I love turns into dust.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nnamdi Ogbonnaya joins us from his home in Chicago, more specifically his backyard.

Welcome to the program.

OGBONNAYA: Hey. How's it going?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's going. It's going.

OGBONNAYA: Yeah, indeed. It is definitely going. In what direction? Who knows?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who knows? But here we are. How do you feel about people calling you the city's weirdest musician? Do you take it as an accolade, or does it feel pejorative?

OGBONNAYA: I don't agree with it. I think I would rather be called that than have people be either, like, flat on me or not having an opinion on me. I feel like I'm kind of a polarizing person in general. So I would accept that over a lot of other things, but I don't necessarily agree with it. I think people maybe just aren't open to having an artist that kind of just does whatever he wants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that what it feels like? - it's like freedom. I mean, you go wherever the music takes you. Is that what I'm hearing you say?

OGBONNAYA: Yeah. There's - I feel like there's no reason to put a restriction on your art. For me, it's just a - kind of just a freedom of expression. And yeah, there's no need to just put a ceiling on that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen to another track on the album. This is called "Semantics."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEMANTICS")

OGBONNAYA: (Singing) Yeah, I used to have friends. Yeah, I used to roll deep till I ruined my health. Ain't been getting no sleep. I got sick of myself. I got sick of these dreams.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we're all spending time alone with ourselves these days, some - you know, sort of enforced solitude.

OGBONNAYA: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think the isolation during the pandemic will affect the way people might process this album?

OGBONNAYA: I think it definitely will because I wrote this album during a time I wasn't really going out or talking to people much. So I was definitely doing my own sort of self-isolation. I think you can kind of hear that in a lot of the songs - kind of loneliness, kind of manic thought process that happens when you are alone with your thoughts for a long time and the process that goes with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEMANTICS")

OGBONNAYA: (Singing) Yeah, I did it all me. You can't handle no stress.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does that feel familiar now that we're in this moment? I mean, I can hear the birds chirping, you know, neighbors. You know, are you feeling productive and creative or - how is this impacting you?

OGBONNAYA: It's up and down, and I think that's the way it is for a lot of people. The first few weeks, I was going very hard and just, like, recording as much as I could. And then I finally took a day and just, like, let everything soak in and let the uncertainty just kind of mellow it out and realize, like, I don't have to force or rush anything. I feel like that's important for a lot of artists. Like - but yeah, I feel like I was kind of prepared more than maybe a lot of people for a situation like this, mentally. But it's still very taxing and draining, like, emotionally on everyone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For real. Let's listen to another track, "Glass Casket."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLASS CASKET")

OGBONNAYA: (Singing) I wish I was a farmer. I wish I was an astronaut so I could feed my family and then take them somewhere very far away, yeah.

This is one of my favorites for a few reasons. One, it didn't - it wasn't forced at all. It kind of - like, every aspect of it came very quickly and organically, which always shocks me when that happened 'cause I'm like, where is this coming from? And it's always a very exciting feeling. And to me, the lyrics hit really hard because it was at a time where I was also, like, just deciding to pursue music full time and kind of battling with how selfish some decisions felt, kind of, like, going over in my brain that, like, I could just get a job somewhere that was a 9-to-5 and has...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you got a degree in electrical engineering - right? - before becoming...

OGBONNAYA: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...An artist full time.

OGBONNAYA: Yeah. So I was like, I could get a job and work doing this, but then I know I would be miserable 'cause I wouldn't be able to focus on music as much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As someone who's sort of a musical polymath, I'm wondering what you're listening to during this time to sort of get you through it.

OGBONNAYA: During this time, it's been a lot of nostalgia music for me, like music I grew up listening to and just, like, radio pop, like Destiny's Child and a lot of No Doubt, a lot of Sum 41 - which was, like, one of my favorite bands when I was little - like Busta Rhymes. Also, just my friends' music because that's, like, the most comforting thing during this time when you can't really hang out with them - just, like, putting on some of my friends' records and just letting it play.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What song do you want to take us out on? What do you want us to play? And tell us a little bit about why.

OGBONNAYA: I think I would like to play "Perfect In My Mind." I feel like that resonates with me mostly during this situation. It's just a song about having a plan, having everything, like, set and time and then something out of your control, like, taking that all away. So it feels very fitting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERFECT IN MY MIND")

OGBONNAYA: (Singing) I couldn't find a way, tried to make it work. But I couldn't make it right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nnamdi Ogbonnaya - his new album is called "Brat."

Thank you so much for being with us.

OGBONNAYA: Thank y'all. Appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERFECT IN MY MIND")

OGBONNAYA: (Singing) Tried to make it work, but I couldn't make it right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.