Chicago artist NNAMDÏ is currently on tour supporting his latest album, Please Have a Seat. He recently took the time during a stop at Saturn in Birmingham to talk with us about the album, his songwriting process, adapting the music for the stage, Dr. Mario, and so much more.
Scratched Vinyl: Before we get into anything else, you came out on stage tonight in this amazing jump suit. Where did this come from? How did this come into your life?
NNAMDÏ: This jump suit was actually made by the set designers of a music video I was part of. Or the set/costume designers. I had never met them before. I shot a video with this director, Austin Vesely, he’s big in Chicago, done a lot of Chance stuff, has put out some short movies and stuff…legend! Very sweet man. So I did a music video with him for “I Don’t Want to be Famous,” and I showed up to the shoot, and the costume designers had made this for part of the shoot. And I became obsessed with it. Gurtie [Hansell] and Kate Garcia, they have a company called MotherTwin Productions, they do all sort of art design. So they made this for that, then I started wearing for the tour I did with Wilco, on and off, no wait – it was after that! I think I started wearing it at this Wilco fest [Solid Sound] they have in the Northeast, and then I started wearing it after that. Yeah, it got a lot of love, and I was obsessed with it, and I didn’t have to think about what to wear on stage – I love not thinking about what to wear and just putting on the fit, so I asked them to make me two more for this tour, so I got a red one and lime green one, too. Trying to get a baby blue one for the West coast dates. Custom made, it’s beautiful and I love it.
SV: Going back a little bit, it’s been a crazy couple of years for you. You released BRAT while we were in lockdown, and then you surprise us with another album, Krazy Karl –
NNAMDÏ: Oh yeah, I did!
SV: And then when things start to open up again, you get asked to go on tour with Wilco and Sleater-Kinney…
SV: Have you had a chance to let that all catch up with you?
NNAMDÏ: I feel like it caught up to me too fast, honestly. Yeah, obviously during pandemic times, we have a lot of time to think, then jumping back into shows, it felt so strange. I think we were all on eggshells for that Sleater-Kinney/Wilco tour. There’s not a lot of hanging – very strict precautions. Also, Wilco is very – they’re like the most organized people in the world. So the shows were supposed to be some indoor and some pavilion shows, but then they were like, “We’re not risking it,” so they moved them to all outdoor shows, but then it thunderstormed every single day on that tour. So we would have to pause in the middle of the show, and people would have to take shelter, if there was lightning…if there was lightning you had to stop, but if it was just raining, you keep it going. So that happened like 95% of the shows. Also, I broke my wrist the first day of tour, so I couldn’t play guitar, I had to have my friend Parker learn all of my guitar parts for me. So, I feel like I didn’t really have time to think on that tour, I was just trying to get through it. I was like, “There’s no way I’m going home – I don’t care what happens!” The worst I could possible feel is if I had to go home, so even when I broke my wrist, at the hospital, I was like, “Yo, can we do the surgery like right now? I gotta show in six hours!” And they were like, “Nah, dude!” So yeah, I think maybe it all caught up really fast. It might still be catching up, honestly. Some things move fast and other things feel like they move slow. I feel like since the pandemic, time doesn’t really make sense anymore. It feels like everything is happening at once, and everything is simultaneously so near and so far away all the time. The trauma of being stuck in the same place for two years.
SV: Well, now you’ve got the new album and you’re out on your own tour. Let’s start with the album, Please Have a Seat. It’s interesting on the album, because you have the juxtaposition of the audio clips, where you first have a polite flight attendant voice, with a “Please have a seat, we’re about to take off,” vibe, and then you immediately have a voice say, “Sit your ass down!” Where did that come from, and what is the meaning behind the title for you?
NNAMDÏ: I like that you mentioned both of those, the juxtaposition of that, because the album title was cool to me, because it could mean many different things, just by how you say that phrase. You could say it like you’re about to teach a class, or explain something to someone politely. You could say it sternly, like if a flight attendant is dealing with an unruly passenger. You could say it in a way that’s more talking your shit and bragging, like “Watch me do what I do” type of shit. So I think depending on who says it, it has different interpretations. And I always love shit like that with art. Sometimes you want to be very direct and to the point, but other times a lot of the best art makes people think different ways, even different than what I think it should be. I like to leave room for other people to insert themselves into my music. That’s one of the reasons I really like that title. It allows you to do that.
SV: Going into the album itself, was there any particular jumping off point? Any mindframe that got you into the writing for this album?
NNAMDÏ: Honestly, just the idea of comfort. And chasing that. I feel like that’s a lot of what humans are after – just getting to a point where they can be comfortable, whether that being financially stable, or in their own skin, being comfortable with themselves. I feel like that’s really at the heart of everything we do. Wanting to find that comfort. I think that’s what I was trying to think about, or take note of, as I was writing these songs. I was really cognizant of moments where I felt like I was at peace, and I could think clearly. I was trying to remember all the moments, because usually I’m just like go go go, I have to be doing something, I have to be moving forward, so it was nice to make an album that forced me to stop and think about what I’m actually doing and appreciate the different moments, instead of being like, “On to the next thing! On to the next thing!”
SV: It does feel like over the course of the album, there are songs that touch on what you want out of your career, and maybe what level of success you’re comfortable with and stuff like that.
NNAMDÏ: Yeah, there’s a lot of that, and there’s a lot of like emotional knowledge and learning things about you that you like and don’t like and how to articulate them. It’s a lot of me learning how to articulate different aspects of my life. Career being an important part, because it takes up the majority of my time. It’s not only my career, it’s also my favorite thing. So you know, when it’s your career, your hobby, and your passion, are all bound up in the same thing, you have to find other hobbies. You can’t do it one hundred percent of the time or you’ll – I don’t think anyone should do their hobby a hundred percent of the time. You have to have something to break out of that so that you can go back to it with a fresh mind, fresh eyes, fresh ears, and appreciate it more once you do other stuff. You know, if all you’re thinking about is making music – you see it a lot with pop stars, where they make it bigger, and then they don’t know how to write anything but about how they’re in the studio. It’s not really relatable, no one understands it, so it’s good to do things just to have different perspectives.
SV: Has there been anything that you’ve picked up in the last couple of years that has helped you have a positive distraction, or something like that?
NNAMDÏ: Um…I got really into playing Dr. Mario in the pandemic. So that helps my brain kind of shut off. But you have to be thinking in a way that’s very fast paced, but in a way – I’ll play with other people and they’ll get so anxious, but to me it’s great. Playing pickle ball, that’ll do it. I’ve been writing a lot – not really music or lyrics or for art, but just writing stream-of-consciousness things and just ideas and watching them form into whatever. Nothingness, bullshit, or whatever it happens to be – just with no expectations of what the outcome will be. I think that’s been helpful. That’s the majority of it. I’d like to get into more hobbies.
SV: Getting into the album, you’ve had a long history know of bringing a lot of different genres together. Have you found that you’ve developed a process for doing this, or do you find that you just follow where the music is going to take you?
NNAMDÏ: I think the important thing to me is the flow of the album. Maybe to like outside ears, if you only heard a few songs, you could come to the conclusion that this is all so different. If you listen to the whole thing, everything flows together well. It’s not just jumping around for the sake of jumping around, you know what I mean? The songs are meant to blend together, but if you listen to song number one and song number nine, it might be like, “Oh, this is jarring,” but within the flow of the album, nothing feels jarring. It’s all about the flow. It’s like reading a book – of course if you jump from chapter one to chapter eight, you’re going to be like, “Ah! This is different!” You gotta fill in the blanks.
SV: And that’s what I’ve always appreciated – going into this album, you find the connecting points to make it all fit together.
NNAMDÏ: Which I used to not do. I think that BRAT was the first record that I did that on. Where it actually made sense to me, and it wasn’t just a collection of songs. It’s actually like songs that need to be together to complete a full vision. This is definitely an expansion of that, and I feel like I’ve gotten better about it over time, and just knowing what works sonically. And sometimes the connecting points aren’t even sonic, it could just be the lyrical connection, but if you’re really listening, you’ll be able to latch onto it. Feel the connection.
SV: Just curious, what was the timeline, coming out of the pandemic, touring, and writing and recording this album?
NNAMDÏ: I guess a couple of the songs were made shortly after BRAT, so like mid-2020. A couple of the songs are that old, but I was writing two different albums at once. I was writing one that was more straightforward, poppy, and one that was more dense lyrical subject matter. And then over the course of time, I just started picking ones from each one, and instead of focusing on two different things, I was just like, “These two can actually become one thing.” So I kind of mushed and brought in some new songs and took out some songs from each album. And then I had maybe six from those where I was like, “Okay, these make sense.” And then the last half I wrote in the last year before shit got released. I do that a lot with albums – not writing two albums at the same time, but just having folders of ideas that feel similar in a way, and then when I have enough where I’m like, “Okay, I keep getting drawn to this idea or I keep focusing on this textural sound,” then I’m like - it’s a clicking moment – “Oh, these songs belong together!” Then I’ll write the other songs to connect them.
SV: I think that’s an important lesson for younger people to pick up on – in this day in age, it’s easy to have a mindset, where it’s like, “I just recorded this thing, let me put it up on the Internet right now and get some feedback,” but sometimes it’s better to let things simmer.
NNAMDÏ: Let it sit, because – it depends, but a lot of the time if you let it sit, you can come back with a fresh mindset, and you’ll realize what else needs to happen. It’s better than putting it out and realizing, “Damn! I wish I had done this differently!” It’s better to give things some time. Also, I think most people don’t know how to make albums – I think a lot of artists, even artists that I really like, just do the “collection of songs” thing, and then they try to make up a theme afterwards. And you can tell. You can tell when someone is like, “Oh, I just came up with the name and theme afterwards.” Rather than it’s like integrated into the whole creative process.
SV: When you’re doing that, you reach a midway point where you’re kind of like, “Okay, I see the theme emerging – this is the direction!”
NNAMDÏ: Oh yeah. I had that furniture idea about three or four songs in, because I was thinking about all the artwork, too. I was thinking about every aspect of it. Not just the music. I was thinking about the name, I was thinking about the flow of the songs, I was thinking about how people are going to visualize maybe when they listen to it, and I was thinking about music videos, and the art for each individual track. I really wanted it to be different furniture and stark images for each track. Luckily I worked with someone who got that idea right away, and it worked out well.
SV: I know you will write and record by yourself, but then when you go out on the road you have a band with you. What’s your process of translating the music into a live setting?
NNAMDÏ: Yeah – I need a better process, honestly. Because I don’t – when I’m in the studio, it’s very much experimentation, and I’m not someone who writes a whole song on an instrument and will just play the whole thing. It’s very much piece by piece by piece, and then I’ll re-record and re-record different pieces, until it’s finished. I rarely ever – sometimes with drums, and sometimes with bass, I’ll do a whole take on a song with drums, because that’s my main instrument. Most of the time, though, I do it piece by piece, and then I’ll change it and change it until it gets to a point where it’s finally complete. It’s like those puzzles where you move around the squares until you find the picture. So then, when I have to do a live show, it’s like learning the whole album again. Because it’s like – sometimes I’ll take videos of guitar parts, just to have references or record stuff on my voice memos, but I really have to learn it from scratch, how to play it all the way through. And how we’re going to do it. That’s why the arrangements are different. It’s fun, though – it’s like writing two separate albums! It’s cool. I love playing with a band. My band rules.
SV: You’ve assembled a good crew.
NNAMDÏ: They’re great!
SV: As you’ve been touring, have you noticed any songs that have taken on it’s own live identity?
NNAMDÏ: “Dedication,” for sure. On the album, it’s very electronic, spazzy, glitched out type shit. And live it’s more punky and thrashy. I think it’s a little more punky in general, but that’s just what I would like to see, so that’s what I perform. I like to see people yelling and getting sweaty and running around and engaging with people. “Dedication” is that one that stands out to me as being the one that’s like, “Okay, this is like fully thrashing now.”
SV: And it’s got that big sing-along part to it as well.
NNAMDÏ: I love it! I wish every song was a sing-along. Someone asked me the other day if I would rather play every show without a microphone or have to stare at myself in the mirror for five hours a day – something ridiculous! And it’s play a show without a microphone! I would love to get to the point where everyone is just there to sing together. That’s my ideal show. Not me performing the songs. It’s like, “We’re going to come together and we’re all going to sing this shit together and we’re all going to leave.” That’s my ideal scenario.
SV: Now you’re out on the road, touring the album. How much more tour do you have left?
NNAMDÏ: A lot. We’ve got one more show on this run, then we go home for a week, then we’re back out on the road for a month. We’re done touring April 16th.
SV: So people can check out the tour, but is there anything else that people should be looking out for?
NNAMDÏ: I just put out two new songs, so people should be listening to those. I’ll probably put out some more videos soon. Other than that, I’m chilling. But it’s still fresh – those songs just came out.
SV: Finally, if there were three artists that you could work with that you haven’t before, who would that be?
NNAMDÏ: Andre 3000, Frank Ocean…and I want to say…Dolly Parton. That would be fucking crazy! Can you imagine? That would be bonkers.
**To learn more about NNAMDÏ, visit: https://nnamdi.bandcamp.com/