Interview: NNAMDÏ on the Making of "BRAT"

Photo by Maren Celest

Experimental hip-hop, jazz fusion, avant-pop, hyphy, rock, emo—all of these classifications have been used to describe Nnamdi Ogbonnaya's music, and if there's something we can all agree on, it's that none of them tell the whole story. The Chicago-based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and engineer is known for making exceedingly unique music that somehow manages to both defy and masterfully blend all of these genres, and then some.

This week sees the release of Nnamdi's newest effort, BRAT, which follows up 2017's DROOL. Recorded entirely in his basement with a couple of friends and their own gear, the new record demonstrates Nnamdi's maturation as a songwriter and, in his own words, as an adult.

It touches on themes like reconciling the selfishness of making music when things might be simpler if you didn't, and navigating the emotional turmoil of his between-tours existential limbo. Mixed into these heavier moments, you'll still find Nnamdi's signature brand of levity—jams like "Gimme Gimme" and "Bullseye" that you can't help but tap your feet to.

We recently had an opportunity to talk with Nnamdi about the making of BRAT and his creative process. In the conversation below, we got into everything from how he approaches writing music to what kind of gear he can't create without and how he finds meaning in his lyrics.

For more info on BRAT, out April 3, visit Sooper Records.

Where did you do all the recording for BRAT?

In my basement, I recorded everything in my house.

You play just about everything on it, right?

Yeah, I played everything except for the strings, and horns, and there's one synth line that my roommate played, at the end of the song "Semantics."

You have a really distinct style—even stretching back to your past records—and I feel it really coming through in your production. How did you come into your production style?

I don't think it comes from anything specific. My musical sound and production comes from just years of experimentation and different influences. I think it's hard for people to pinpoint, because it can kind of cover a pretty big range genre-wise, but I also think it's undeniably me. I think it's just like a soup, you know? There are a lot of factors that go into it making it what it is. [Laughs]

[All photos by Maren Celest.]

Do you ever think about all the ingredients in the soup, or do you just kind of indulge?

Sometimes it doesn't happen actively, but sometimes I'll be really into some artist, and I'll be like, "Let me try to make something that sounds like this," and that'll just be like an experimentation tool. But it never—whether I'm trying to replicate something or not—it never ends up sounding like that, because I always end up tweaking it until it's kind of this mangled, unrecognizable thing.

A major part of your art is its distinct visual aesthetic—from the way you present yourself to your videos and choices with the album art. I was wondering if you think about your music and your visual aesthetic in tandem, or are those separate considerations for you?

I definitely think about them in tandem. Every time I write a song, I think about a visual representation of it, so I immediately will have music video ideas for the majority of my songs after I write them, and artwork ideas. That kind of changes as the songs are combined into groups.

So I might have one song and have a very specific idea, but then I'll group four songs, and it'll kind of form a little bit of a different idea. But I'm always actively thinking of visuals and really trying to get more into the visual world with movies and all of that shit.

When did you start writing the songs that would eventually make up BRAT?

"Gimme Gimme" was probably written around when I put out my last album, or right after that, so three years ago, 2017, is the oldest song. And the most recent one, was probably two months before I sent in everything to get pressed.

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya's Daytrotter Session, 3/19/2018

How regularly do you compose, or write music? Is it one of those things you do whenever inspiration strikes, or do you have a routine?

I pretty much write every day, or play some sort of music every day, and usually end up recording little voice memos, making a beat. I would say most things don't see the light of day, but it's just kind of a practice, and a good habit for me to keep me fresh.

There are also spells where I don't do anything for like a week, and I'm just kind of absorbing whatever is happening around me. I think those times are pretty much on par—it's not more important than the writing process to me. If I didn't let myself soak in information, I wouldn't have anything new to create.

Being a multi-instrumentalist and writing and recording all of this yourself, is there a specific instrument that you gravitate toward?

I think they all satisfy different hungers in me, so I enjoy playing them all. I would not call myself a guitarist at all, even though that's mainly what I play in my own band. I'm a tinkerer—I like to tinker with every instrument. I would only tell people that I play drums if they ask me what instrument I play. I've been playing drums since I was in like fourth or fifth grade.

Is there any piece of gear you really have an affinity for, whether it's drum gear, or a guitar, or anything you feel was a really important piece of gear when recording BRAT?

I wouldn't say there's much instrument-wise, because I don't really own that much stuff. I really just got my first guitar like a year and a half ago, so I've kind of just been lucky enough to be in areas where I was surrounded by instruments.

But I would say the thing that I really can't do anything without and use every single day is my M-Audio MIDI keyboard—that's how I compose and write a lot of things. I use Native Instruments Maschine hardware and software and my MIDI keyboard.

My roommate has some keyboards and is a collector of synths, so we have a lot of gear in our basement. It's very good, I can't complain.

While listening to BRAT, I wondered whether you're first influenced by a musical idea—whether it be a chord progression, melody, or beat—or do you tend to start from a lyrical standpoint? Your songs have such great detail and nuance in both respects, so I wonder where you even start.

That's a great question. For me it's never lyrics by themselves—it's never just like I wrote these lyrics and now I'm going to write music around that, I've never done that. It's either the music first or the lyrics along with a vocal melody. I'm a very melody-driven person, so I feel that the words kind of just fill themselves in based on how the music makes you feel.

I read recently that you said you sometimes write lyrics not entirely sure what they necessarily mean in a literal sense, that they kind of reveal themselves after the fact of being written and played. Is that right?

Yeah, I did say that. With a lot of the songs I write, the lyrics and the vocal melody will just come, and it'll be something that's stuck in my head for awhile before I write it—or I record it right away, and I won't know what the source of it was until I begin to kind of dive deeper.

It's never anything that's truly random, it always stems from something—either external or internal. And it's kind of a fun way for me to write, exploring that journey of Where did this seemingly random line of music or lyrics come from?

One of my favorite lyrics from the new record is from "Glass Casket." When that song starts, there's a certain sort of heaviness to the music and then you hear those first two lines—"I wish I was a farmer / I wish I was an astronaut"—and there's almost some humor in that. Then you add, "So I could feed my family," and there's that heaviness again. What's behind those lyrics?

A lot of these songs were written in between tours, when I was finally starting to tour full-time without any other jobs. I was trying to get my schedule in order, my routine, and I didn't really have a set routine to follow, so in between tours would kind of be a little dark for me sometimes.

There's some definite post-tour depression where I'm like, "Damn, I went on tour, I made some money, I can survive until this date, and then I have to figure shit out." So there was a lot of going back and forth at the time about why I was doing it and knowing it would be easier to make money if I would just get a different job. But then also knowing I could never do that, or else I would have done that, you know? There's just something about artistic people, and they have to get their art out, and I feel that way about performing and writing music.

NNAMDÏ - "Price Went Up"

So I wrote that song specifically during down time, when I felt like I was neglecting important issues in my life—like neglecting calling family, and I was thinking a lot about the future, and thinking if this shit doesn't work out, what would this have all been for?

A common theme that goes through the album is selfishness, and trying to at least vocalize how I feel about making art sometimes. I know a lot of other artists that are empathetic and will feel this also—that sometimes it feels like it's not as important as it is. We all know how important art is, so it was about going through that battle, and that song was directly focused on those thoughts.

Something that struck me about this album was that recurrent tonality somewhere between heaviness and sadness and yearning. With your past records, I feel like there are more moments of levity and humor. Do you feel like you tried to step into a more serious zone for this record, or did that just kind of happen?

I feel like I've always been relatively 50/50 in goofiness to seriousness—sometimes 60/40, leaning towards the sillier side. [Laughs] I don't think I've ever really put out anything that didn't address serious issues.

I think this record is a lot more powerful just because I am an adult now, and I have kind of grown into my comfort in writing and in how I kind of express what I'm feeling. But there are still elements of silliness, it's just not as in your face, it's not as bippity bop boop for the most part. "Gimme Gimme" and "Bullseye" are very in-your-face silly, but I feel like I just kind of learned to combine all of my emotions into kind of one expression, if that makes sense.

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