David Basskin, host of Stolen Moments on Jazz FM.91, recently said of singer-songwriter Ndidi Onukwulu: “The extraordinary Ndidi Onukwulu. She’s got a fabulous voice. She writes really interesting songs─unforgettable.”
Ndidi Onukwulu is one of the most fascinating and richly creative artist in contemporary music, and she happens to be a personal favourite. So it is with great pleasure that I present part one of this two part interview with the extraordinary Onukwulu. In it we discuss the making of her 4th album, Dark Swing, her turbulent childhood, and finding herself through music. In part two, we delve into her inspired songwriting and being a brown girl making music outside of the box. Chaka V.
“When I was about three, I vaguely remember telling my grandmother that I wanted to be two things,” explains Ndidi Onukwulu, via the telephone from Vancouver. “I said I wanted to be a star. But not like celebrity, because I didn’t understand what that was. I had gotten a children’s book on astronomy so I learned what stars were. They were these big burning balls of gas and I thought, oh my gosh, I want to do that. I want to be this ball of gas that just burns, lights things up and then explodes. And then the other thing was 42,” she says matter-of-factly, which makes me burst into laughter. “I didn’t understand that eventually you reach age. Like, age happens. I was like, ‘I want to be 42.’ That was my thing.”
It’s April, and the singer-songwriter is hours away from heading back to her home in Paris. She’s currently the opening act for Grammy awarding winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter and her 4th album, Dark Swing, has just come out in Europe. Onukwulu is spunky, even over the telephone–it’s a charming demeanour that belies a complicated and fascinating artist and woman. During our one hour talk her forthright nature never wavers. She is warm and quirky, blunt yet coquettish. Witty and profoundly self-aware, all elements found throughout her beautifully intimate body of work.
Onukwulu burst onto the scene in 2006 with her debut album No, I Never. She was different from the beginning, jumping off of her album cover with a look of irreverent earthy glamour. Her refreshing mix of imaginative lyrics paired with a bluesy cool voice garnered instant acclaim. CBC Music wrote, “There are voices that demand we listen to them…to the emotional undercurrent that carries with it the soul of the speaker.” ET Canada called her the ‘’funkier Billie Holiday,” and Flare magazine later named her one of their artists to watch. Her second album, the Contradictor, received a Juno nomination.
The acclaim came as a surprise for Onukwulu, who as a child never dreamed of being a musician. The unexpected success was exciting yet uncomfortable, and the attention was at times unnerving. She wondered if she deserved the success that so many struggle for, and few attain.
“People always think, this is something you’ve always done, it must have been something you’ve always done,” she says. “But it isn’t. It wasn’t anything that I had ever really thought about. It wasn’t until later, at the encouragement of my friends, that I thought I could do it.”
Onukwulu started singing at 19–it began as ritual with her college roommates. Before going out to clubs or bars, one would read poetry, another would perform and Onukwulu would sing. With the encouragement of her friends she began to explore her newly discovered talent. Eventually she moved to New York, did the open-mic circuit, and became the frontwoman of a rock band. Soon enough she discovered her own eclectic style and it quickly resonated with audiences.
“I didn’t even think that I was really truly any good at what I did until last year,” she confesses with a laugh. “I know its crazy [but] it’s when I actually started to go, ‘OK, I’m not a sham.’ At 19 is when I started the adventure. I just made a decision that I was going to be a musician. When you start something so late, you don’t have training. You don’t really know how to play an instrument. You don’t even know how to sing with other people playing, and it’s like suddenly you’re thrust with all these musicians, playing all these festivals. I really felt insecure about what I was doing. When I was on the stage I wasn’t, but when it came to writing and recording in the studios, I was really critical and judgmental about myself because I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t have this great, how do I explain, obsession. I’m not obsessed with this. And I’m not obsessed with how the song is going to be.”
Although music was not an obsession, it became a key expression in her journey to unravel and heal emotions and experiences from her childhood.
Onukwulu was born in a sleepy rural British Columbia town, which she once called “hell on earth” during an interview with Vancouver Magazine. In that interview, she went on to explain that it was a “beautiful country, but the racism and ignorance and bullshit is unreal. All I wanted was to escape.” (Later she would name her 3rd album, The Escape.)
Escaping the town was not the only place that the self-described “sad little eight-year-old” longed to free herself from. Born to a white Canadian mother and Nigerian father, who parted ways early in her childhood, as a little girl Onukwulu lived with her mother and rarely saw her father. In an interview with ET Canada she publically shared that she was a survivor of physical and mental abuse. Withdrawn and quiet, there were few people in her young life that she trusted.
“I was quite introverted. I was only precocious with people I felt comfortable around, my grandmother and maybe a couple other people. I didn’t have a lot of friends at all, at any point in time. And I was very much in my own world.”
While singing was not yet a goal, her natural ability as a writer was apparent. And in some ways, writing can be credited for helping her find safety by providing her an imaginary world in which to explore and create.
“As a kid I had a bit of a pathological lying problem, it’s a by-product, I think, of when you grow up in difficult situations. You create these stories because you don’t know how to relate to people,” she shares. “I envisioned having this big family. I decided I had siblings and I had a 13-year-old sister. At the age of eight I wrote a full diary of what I believed my 13-year-old sister would write. I brought it to school for show-and-tell, and read it out loud. So writing for me was always something I liked to do, and making up stories.”
After shuffling in and out of foster care, Onukwulu was permanently removed from her mother. Somehow, she found a way to survive on the streets of B.C. before finding a permanent family. She now looks back on her troubled background with hard earned acceptance rather than rage.
“I’m sort of at a point where I don’t want to be angry anymore,” she says. “You know, I was a lucky, not a lot of kids going into the care system have the luck that I had. I ended up in an amazing foster home and that family is my family to this day and I have brothers and sisters. I was lucky. I had always been lucky. Every time I went into care, I was always placed with a great family and they were always really kind to me. So even though I was in these circumstances where I was being mistreated, I was always able to see what functioning was like. And I always sort of knew that it was never really my fault.”
A couple albums deep, Onukwulu discovered that residual issues from her turbulent childhood were seeping its way into her new found success. She admits to finding ways to sabotage her achievements by becoming involved in one unhappy relationship after another, leaving her emotionally devastated. An eventual emotional breakdown opened up creative spaces that changed her.
“During the writing and making of this record [Dark Swing], I was married, divorced and massively heartbroken from a real love — on my part — situation. I had to make this record because the label was like, ‘You have to make a record now.’ I was like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to write about. I’m not eating. I don’t sleep. I didn’t even have a place to live. I’m on a floor, and like, how did I get here? How did I get here? How did I destroy myself? Why was I so bent on destroying everything? I’m punishing myself. Why did I do that? And so, that’s when a lot of these songs came through. It was actually understanding what I was doing. I was just punishing myself because I didn’t feel that I was good enough. And it was a pain that I had to go [through]. It was so rooted in my upbringing. And to be free of it, I had to write it out until it was old and I was done. And then I picked up my pieces and now I’m great. But I wasn’t for a very long time. And it’s still a day to day decision like, OK, today is going to be good. No matter what comes up, I’m going to be OK.”
Dark Swing is a cathartic experience, and like all great pieces of art, Onukwulu’s fearless and raw honesty takes it to visceral levels. Known for writing some of the most effortless songs about new love, here she courageously and unflinchingly travels the road of heartbreak. “Engine Gone Cold” to “Once Again” and “Don’t Come Around Here,” finds Onukwulu wandering between despair and fragile hope. You can feel the pain and the isolation, as well as the healing. Dark Swing is one of the most personal and moving albums put out by an artist in a very long time.
“This album was finished two years ago. So it’s interesting that it’s coming out now. Now, I’m way past that,” she says with a thoughtful laugh. “Now I’m back to commenting about the world. And you know, I mean, it’s up and down, like I said, recovering from trauma is a day to day thing. It’s not just people with these problems that need steps to recover, it’s those that suffer from it. And it’s a day-to-day acceptance and a day-to-day forward movement. I’m definitely a lot better but I have my days. Everyone does. It was definitely good to do this record. And it’s actually great playing it live. Live, there’s new forms and there’s new nuances. I’m singing these songs from today’s perspective, which is very different from that time. So I’m actually glad that there’s been sort of a delay with it coming out because I don’t think I would have been able to perform this material even last year. It would have been too hard.”