- 01 Sep 22
Having last performed at Electric Picnic as a backing vocalist for Soulé, Tolü Makay is more than ready to step into the spotlight at this year’s festival. She tells us about her journey from being a shy kid at boarding school, to one of the country’s most celebrated emerging stars.
A string of acclaimed singles, collaborations and a well-received EP had already established her as a serious one-to-watch by the end of 2020 – but even Tolü Makay couldn't have predicted the sudden, skyrocketing trajectory her career would take off on December 31 of that year. In a now-famous TV moment, destined to go down in the annals of Irish music lore, her poignant performance of The Saw Doctors’ classic ‘N17’ with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra launched her into 2021 as one of the country’s most buzzed-about new voices.
“Honestly, I was this close to going back to my full-time job again,” the Nigerian-born, Tullamore-raised artist tells me. “But as soon as ‘N17’ happened, and the whole virality of it, I was just like, ‘Okay, maybe I should stay at this for a while, and see how it pans out…’”
With everyone from Graham Norton to US government official Samantha Power praising her rendition of the track – which has since racked up streams in their millions online – Tolü found herself standing before a colossal wave of adulation and expectations, on a scale that would overwhelm many emerging artists. Following in the footsteps of her defiant musical heroes Nina Simone and Erykah Badu, however, she’s fearlessly stepped up to the plate – going on to score coveted spots on prestigious Spotify playlists and the Conversations with Friends soundtrack alike, and taking home the prize for Female Artist of the Year at the inaugural Black & Irish Awards last year. 2022 has also found her earning prominent placements on some of the country’s biggest festival line-ups, including Electric Picnic.
Tolü, fittingly, is in The Saw Doctors’ neck of the woods when we get the chance to chat – waiting to soundcheck ahead of her high-profile support slot for The Flaming Lips as part of Galway International Arts Festival.
“I don’t even know how to feel,” she says, with a refreshingly genuine combination of exhilaration and nerves discernible in her voice. “Scared, but it’s fine!”
It’s a night of double-jobbing for the 26-year-old artist. Her Galway gig coincides with a pre-recorded appearance on the RTÉ music show, The Main Stage – during which she performed a special duet with Gavin James.
“That was absolutely phenomenal,” she says of the collaboration. “I enjoyed every bit of that. Everything just keeps happening, and I’m like, ‘Okay! I’m going to keep going and pretend this is all normal’.”
These latest milestones arrive just a few weeks after her performance at Áras an Uachtaráin, for a special ‘HeForShe’ Garden Party hosted by President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina, in support of gender equality.
“Singing for the President was definitely one for the bucket list,” she reflects. “He really is so lovely. I was happy to meet him as well. I love that he loves art. He’s really into creatives exploring, and doing as much as they can. He gets it!
“I’m not going to lie,” she adds. “It was my first time there, so everything was just like: ‘Woah...’ The whole day was stunning.”
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Tolü’s next major bucket list moment is hurtling ever-closer – with her performance at Electric Picnic in September set to be “one for the books,” she reckons.
“When I got the news, I was like, ‘Wow, we’re here – shit,’” she laughs. “In a way, it still hasn’t sunk in yet. Once I get there on the day, and I can see the crowd, maybe that’s when it will hit me properly. I just need to work hard, and I’ll be fine.”
This will be her first time stepping out front and centre, but it won’t be her first time performing at Stradbally.
“I was actually doing backing vocals for Soulé,” she reveals. “She was looking for backing vocalists, so I was part of that. It was just for one particular year. I got to be on TV, on RTÉ, before I did my own thing. It was nice to see how it’s done, through her. I’m the type of person who’s better at learning by seeing and doing, and being involved. I was like, ‘Yeah, I definitely want to come back and do this myself’.”
While she admits that even thinking about Electric Picnic is currently “petrifying” her, there’s a few names on the bill that she’s particularly excited about.
“Megan Thee Stallion is on the line-up, and that alone is just: ‘Ahhhh!’” she enthuses. “And I know CMAT will also be there. I’m really looking forward to seeing her. I think we’re going to hit it off when we meet in person for the first time. She’s real cool.”
Tolü’s position on the line-up is a significant validation of how far she’s come as an artist, particularly in the year-and-a-half since the release of ‘N17’. In many respects, she’s grateful her rise to fame has happened in Ireland – where we generally “mind our own business,” she laughs – allowing her to keep living a relatively “normal” life.
The online attention, however, “became kind of difficult to manage,” she admits.
“That’s the only thing where I was like, ‘Oh God…’” she resumes. “And it’s both positive and negative. Positive because you’re creating connections – huge connections that you wouldn’t have ever even thought of. And then, sometimes it’s negative – because it’s a lot.
“Sometimes you don’t know how to tune it out,” she adds. “Especially when social media is a way of you working, and sharing your content. I’m still an independent artist. I’m learning how to cope, and manage working by myself. It’s nice to have a band, and people that support me and assist me with the business side of things, but I’m still independent. People think I’m beyond that, but I’m like, ‘No! Still learning!’ I’m just trying to get closer to the trajectory I want to be on.”
Her successes since packing in her day job, she says, have been crucial in helping her to “validate the process, and just keep going.”
“It’s made me realise that my dreams aren’t too far to reach for,” she remarks. “They don’t feel unobtainable. I’m really happy to be out performing in front of people now, and just trying to get my name out there. For me, being a lover of music and watching people performing, I definitely know that it’s one of those things – you just have to show up. You have to gig for people to really understand you, your presence and your essence.
“That’s what’s exciting,” she adds. “But it’s also challenging. Because I think people have these perceptions of what I sound like, or look like, or behave like onstage. The thing is that the bigger the stage, the more excited I feel – because I’m like, ‘Yes! More people are going to hear!’”
With that bold outlook, I’m surprised when Tolü says that she was seriously shy as a child.
“I still am, to some degree,” she reflects. “Growing up I was definitely quiet. I wasn’t as confident as I am now. But that just happened with growth, and time and understanding myself. When I’m out, and someone knows me as Tolü Makay, it’s fine. There’s a personality that comes with being Tolü Makay, especially when I’m onstage. But that’s not how I am, in normal settings. I am crazy, for sure! But onstage, the energy is just different.
So no wild teen years?
“No!” she laughs. “I think my wild teen years started at 19! I went to boarding school, and I was really, really reserved. I didn’t even sing. No one in boarding school knew that I sang. I just kept to myself. I think I was trying to figure out how I fit into the world. But it was mostly because I moved around so much when I was a kid. Making friends wasn’t even a natural thing, because I knew the following year I was going to be moving to a different school, or a different area. That added to the whole shyness when I was younger.”
Having already moved to Ireland from Nigeria at the age of five, her younger years found her moving from county to county – living in Waterford and Wexford before her family settled in Offaly. Between feelings of isolation, and the stress of multiple relocations, music ultimately served as “a way of escape,” Tolü says.
“And also a way to understand myself,” she resumes. “I always feel like the oddball in whatever setting I’m in. I always feel quite different – and it’s like people can almost smell it. That’s just part of how I grew up. Funnily enough, I actually studied Psychology and Philosophy in uni, because I wanted to become a neuro-psychologist. I was really interested in the mind, and how people adapt in their behaviour.”
That background has had a direct impact on her music, and specifically the way she writes her songs.
“Especially the EP,” she says of 2020’s Being. “It really summed up the previous three years of me trying to develop into the confident person that I am. All those songs are true. I had to sing those songs to really be like, ‘Yep, this is who I am, absolutely. I am that bitch!'”
But long before that EP was even envisioned, it was in church that Tolü first began her musical journey.
“I was singing in the church till I was like 19,” she recalls. “I grew up in the church. That was the first time I really connected with music, on an emotional level that I could never really express before. Gospel music is all about your mind, body and spirit. Forget about everybody else that’s in the room – just sing to your heart’s content. That’s the way I sang in church, and that’s the way I learned how to perform to an audience.
“From doing that for so many years, I got very comfortable with sharing my feelings onstage, through other people’s songs,” she continues. “But when I was 18 or 19, I had the opportunity to write my own song. I took it a bit more seriously then. It gave me more confidence, because I learned that I was actually able to do it myself – writing the song, and also being able to work with a producer.”
Her departure from gospel was “very abrupt.”
“At 19, I was like, ‘I’m an adult! I’m going off to figure out what this world means to me,’” she reflects. “It was really lonely, and really depressing. But I feel like I came out the other side as a more confident being, with more of a presence. It’s felt like a continuous growth.”
With a CV that includes tracks with Irish innovators Enda Gallery, Searchlight, Malaki, Zapho, Willzee, Alicia Raye and Zaska, to name a few, collaboration remains a key aspect of Tolü’s approach. It’s a skill she’s honing with each new release.
“With music, I’ve always been around a choir, or a band,” she explains. “So I like working in that capacity, but I also love being like, ‘Okay, this is the idea that I want. How do we execute this?’ That’s the part of collaborating I really enjoy – where I can work with musicians, and almost let them get into my head, so we can create a piece of work together.
“Before I come to people for collaborations, I have the song mostly ready – I just need to find the sound that I want,” she continues. “Even that’s still something I’m learning. I don’t even think I’ve found the perfect style just yet, but things are looking up at the moment, so I’m excited for the future songs that I’ll be releasing.”
For Tolü, the Irish scene has been a uniquely supportive space to continue her growth as an artist.
“Ireland is a really good place to learn, and work on your craft and your artistry,” she points out. “Especially when you compare it to the likes of the American music industry, where you have to be perfect, and present yourself that way – and there’s a lot of judgement. In Ireland, as long as you’re working hard, and people can see that, there’s genuine love and support there. It’s more communal. It feels like we’re all in this together, as a community.”
Tolü Makay plays Rankin's Wood at Electric Picnic at 3pm on Sunday.
For more about Electric Picnic (September 2-4), see electricpicnic.ie – and pick up a copy of the new Electric Picnic special issue of Hot Press:
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