Nnamdï grows up on Brat | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Music » Music Feature

Nnamdï grows up on Brat

The prolific musical polymath uses his new solo album to teach himself something about work-life balance.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment
"He's just Nnamdï, and he makes music that's incredibly real," says Ratboys front woman Julia Steiner. "His music makes you feel like you can do anything." - STEPHANIE BROOKS
  • Stephanie Brooks
  • "He's just Nnamdï, and he makes music that's incredibly real," says Ratboys front woman Julia Steiner. "His music makes you feel like you can do anything."

In winter 2018, Nnamdï sat in his swivel chair in the basement recording studio of his home in Portage Park, listening intently to the sound of his own voice. A tireless musical polymath, he was using the studio's monitor speakers to review a batch of 30 or so song sketches for his next album. He hoped to find a common emotional thread in at least a few, to give him a theme to pursue—but what he heard was a sobering message from his own subconscious. Song after song, each in a different way, announced itself as the work of a human who wasn't doing so hot. If he approached what he'd written as a listener, not as its creator, it sounded like a cry for help.

By the time Nnamdï dropped his previous album, 2017's Drool, he'd already appeared on dozens of releases by a long list of bands. Drool was his 12th solo record, but it was still a landmark for him: coreleased by Bay Area indie Father/Daughter Records, it was the first thing he'd put out on a label not his own, as well as his first full-length to get a vinyl pressing.

Drool earned Nnamdï a wave of recognition from critics and peers, not just in Chicago but far afield, and it quickly changed his life: he sold more music and stepped up his touring regimen, and in summer 2018 he played the Pitchfork festival. He'd quit his day job after Drool came out, and between his frequent tours, he settled back into his favorite space—he holed up in his studio. Nnamdï is gregarious and charming when he goes out, but he was going out less. "The shifts coming back from tour can be difficult," he says. "I wouldn't call friends or my family. I'd come home, not sure what to do with myself, so I would just come home and only work on music." He began to feel increasingly out of touch with his circle, even the people he cared about most. He'd thought of his creative pursuits as an unqualified good, without realizing what they were costing him.

Those emotions crystallized that winter day in his studio. Three of the songs he'd played back for himself appear on his new album, Brat, which came out the first week of April. Before COVID-19 canceled everything, its release party had been scheduled for Saturday, April 18, at Lincoln Hall.

"The songs on this record are all connected to a particular time frame where I was learning a lot about myself," Nnamdï says. "It documents a growth period that is one of the most important periods of my life in understanding myself, learning how to be vulnerable, and becoming more confident in who I am as a person."

With Brat he began going by simply "Nnamdï," not by his full name, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya—an attempt to mark a new chapter in his personal and musical development. "It also comes from the same brain, same source," he wrote in a statement explaining the change, "but presented in a more concise, direct way." Some of the tunes on Brat carry the desperation he'd heard in his music back in 2018, while others reflect what he discovered as he tried to heal his life. On those later songs, it's as though current Nnamdï is reaching back to console past Nnamdï.

I've known Nnamdï since 2010, when his first band, an instrumental duo called the Para-Medics, played at my punk house in Normal, Illinois. He's 29 now, and he's been making his boundary-defying music since middle school, when he first fell in love with DIY punk, math rock, and hip-hop—still the main currents in his furiously hybridized sound. He's empathetic and funny, and his songs are harmonious despite their wild complexity. He injects inventive rhythms not only into his drumming and programmed beats but also into his dexterous guitar playing, sharp-edged rapping, and playfully layered vocal arrangements, whose shimmering harmonies sometimes sound almost sanctified. Drool is probably his most stylistically and tonally consistent album—it feels carefully curated, especially compared to the random smatterings of everything and anything on his earlier releases. Brat falls somewhere between those two extremes—it has a lot of variety in its sound, but it's unified by a strong emotional center.

"When I went and listened to choose some songs for the new record, I picked up on these themes," Nnamdï says. "They didn't stem from nothing—it came out of my brain and what I was feeling." One of those songs is "Flowers to My Demons." Built around a gorgeously knotty acoustic guitar progression, it repeats a direct appeal that appears on more than half of Brat's tunes: "I need you / Need something new." But that "you" isn't anybody in particular. "I put that in there to motivate myself to keep going," he explains.

As Nnamdï fought his self-isolation and workaholism, he reminded himself to be more deliberate and consistent about talking to people. He wanted to remember to be open and present, and to check in on friends who'd moved away. During the years when Brat took shape, that phrase from "Flowers" became a mantra for him. He also had to work around his tendency toward self-deprecation—with the record's title and cover photo, for instance, he jokingly cast himself as a petulant child throwing a tantrum. Focusing on art and self-actualization often felt indulgent, but he stayed a "brat"—that is, he sat there and thought about what he'd done. How did he end up as an emotional creature who didn't know how to express himself? The things he learned from asking that question inform the new album.

"Throughout the whole project, I was getting really down about the state of the world," he says. "A lot of musicians and artists I'm friends with share the feeling sometimes when they're working on their art or working on their music, and they'll look outside and think, 'What the fuck is the point of what I'm doing?'"

Sometimes he thought he should find a job where he could help people more concretely. "It seemed selfish to pursue this music when family wasn't doing well, the world is insane," he says. "Sometimes it got hard to justify not doing something more. That's where the 'brattiness' comes in—feeling selfish for the art, even though I know it's not selfish because I know how important art is to me and to the people I meet."

Nnamdï grew up in the south suburb of Lansing and started drumming in the Para-Medics with guitarist Dylan Piskula in 2004. They evolved from classic-rock covers by the Who and Led Zeppelin into noisy, Don Caballero–influenced math rock. They were inspired by Lansing's vibrant DIY punk scene, which at the time included Dastard, Like Bats, and Erfert—whose bassist, Tommy Borst, booked local shows with soon-to-be-canonized emo-revival bands such as Grown Ups, Lautrec, and Castevet.

"That was my introduction into a different world," Nnamdï says. "People were making their own art and booking their own shows—it influenced me to want to do it myself."

Nnamdï enjoys the support of the crowd during a 2011 show in his family's home, aka Nnamdi's Pancake Haus. - COURTESY NNAMDÏ
  • Courtesy Nnamdï
  • Nnamdï enjoys the support of the crowd during a 2011 show in his family's home, aka Nnamdi's Pancake Haus.

In 2011, Nnamdï and his brother Alfred (he also has two sisters) started putting on shows in the family home. Their parents, both preachers, spent extended periods organizing parishes on the west coast, and the brothers took the chance when they saw it. They called their ad hoc venue Nnamdi's Pancake Haus, and with Alfred working the skillet, they filled hundreds of bellies with flapjacks while hosting touring and south-suburban bands such as Easter and Ratboys. Nnamdï also performed frequently in several different contexts, including the Para-Medics, his solo act, and the newly formed trio Sooper Swag Project. The last consisted of three MCs—Nnamdï, Luscious Duncan, and JD—with JD (who also goes by ThrashKitten) contributing thick, schizophrenic Ableton beats.

Nnamdï had been making solo tunes for about as long as he'd been playing with the Para-Medics, and in 2010 he'd launched a Facebook page for Nnamdi's Sooper Dooper Secret Side Project, where he posted "albums" that were mostly songs for and about his friends. But the self-titled debut full-length from the Sooper Swag Project, which came out in 2012, was the first time his music got traction outside his social circle. "Drop It in Some Water" combined elements of trap and cloud rap with deliberately wonky beats and self-consciously silly lyrics: "While you laying in the gutter / Straight from the udder / Smooth like butter / You on some margarine."

In summer 2012, Nnamdï and Alfred closed up shop and moved from Lansing to the former Lucky Gator Loft location at Grand and Pulaski, rechristening it Swerp Mansion. "We talked about having shows, but the priority was to find a space to make art and practice," Nnamdï says. Alfred didn't need that kind of space—he writes fiction—but he put his brother's needs first.

Nnamdï's move to the city precipitated an almost comical increase in his number of musical projects. Over the next few years, he added at least half a dozen more: he started playing bass in kinetic pop-punk band Nervous Passenger and math-rock unit Teen Cult, as well as drumming in ambient pop group Mother Evergreen, screamo outfit Ittō, math-fusion band Monobody, and another math-rock act called My Dad. Through 2014, he put out one or two albums per year with the Sooper Swag Project or under his own name, most of which contained at least 20 songs. The 2013 full-length Bootie Noir included the syrupy fever dream of "Ice Cream" and the bright midwestern-emo guitar lead of "Art School Crush," while the EP Despondent, released later that year, was a march into screamo despair.

Nnamdï's 2014 album Feckin Weirdo has a song called "Sit Tight," which positions music making as a refuge for him. The song arose from his experiences being bullied as a kid. "I'm never mad about it, because I'm happy with the person I turned out to be and I don't think I would be myself without any of those encounters," Nnamdï told me during a 2016 interview for my podcast Better Yet. "But I got bullied a lot by the cool kids in high school and middle school. They'd say, 'Why do you sound white?' It didn't make me feel as bad at the time, I would try to brush it off, but I'd think about it more and more. I really thought that no Black people liked me."

"Sit Tight" opens with a bass drum pulsing in a panicked frenzy like a crashing hard drive, which drops out on the same downboat that introduces the song's digital clouds of Tron-style synths—with the transition marked by a burst of gentle falsetto vocals that floats off from the point of impact. Ratboys singer and guitarist Julia Steiner provides the song with its lullaby chorus: "Sit tight / In my hideaway." Hi-hat coated in digital distortion flutters and stutters while a rim-stick sound rattles in bursts like a woodpecker intent on disrupting the dream. But the percussion drops out for Steiner to join Nnamdï in singing, "No one's gonna judge you here / We're the only people near for miles and miles and miles."

The combination of the melody's syrupy movement and the nagging, busy rhythms beneath it is exactly the type of counterintuitive choice Nnamdï has always made, as if drawn to the challenge of making clashing elements sing beautifully together. The anxious percussion gives the song's dream world a reason to exist—it's the safe place Nnamdï wants.

"Nnamdï is magnetic because he's so himself," Steiner says. "There's no pretension, no BS—he's just Nnamdï, and he makes music that's incredibly real. His music makes you feel like you can do anything."

Even during his Swerp Mansion years, Nnamdï was spending a lot of time in his home studio. His roommates rarely saw him out of it. When he wasn't holed up working on music, he was studying—he'd eventually graduate from UIC in 2014 with a degree in electrical engineering. And neither of those things was especially compatible with the thin walls of the space's thrown-together bedrooms, especially when people came over to hang out and party in the common areas. Nnamdï looked forward to shows at Swerp Mansion—held in what was usually the living room—as a release from the grind. He lived there for three years, moving out in summer 2015.

In June 2016, Nnamdï launched Sooper Records with Longface guitarist Glenn Curran, whom he'd gotten to know while helping out with vocal arrangements for Curran's solo project, Man Without a Head. "Glenn brought up the idea," Nnamdï recalls. "He said, 'I think you have a community of people that support you in a way that I haven't seen before. I think we should start a label.'"

Nnamdï was reluctant at first—he's already made two failed attempts at starting a label—but the quality of the music coming from that community soon pushed him off the fence. "This shit is undeniably good—it's not even a matter of opinion for me," he says. "Everyone around us is killing it and making interesting music, and people should hear it." In July 2018, the two founders brought aboard a third owner, eclectic hip-hop artist Sen Morimoto, who'd met Nnamdï while playing at Rich Jones's All Smiles series at Tonic Room in summer 2015. The Sooper catalog includes records by Kaina, Wrong Numbers, Miranda Winters of Melkbelly, and all three owners.

When Sooper and Father/Daughter released Drool in April 2017, it was the climactic moment Nnamdï had been ceaselessly working toward. When the album took off, he was able to quit the odds-and-ends job he'd been working at Curran's law firm. But even as he continued to innovate musically, build community, and inspire people around him, he was starting to feel like his efforts were pointless.

"If people are asking about you because you seem off, it's really not fair to just say 'I'm fine,' which is literally what I always did," Nnamdï says. "It was completely second nature to me." - MAREN CELEST
  • Maren Celest
  • "If people are asking about you because you seem off, it's really not fair to just say 'I'm fine,' which is literally what I always did," Nnamdï says. "It was completely second nature to me."

To support Drool, Nnamdï toured as an opening act for Do Make Say Think, Vagabon, and Speedy Ortiz. During the same period, he hit the road drumming for Monobody, Ratboys, and Mother Evergreen. The trouble he had reintegrating when he was home was driving a wedge between him and the rest of the world, especially those closest to him. "It's a weird time when you come back from a tour, especially if you don't have any other work," he says. "I thought, 'Well, I've got to make my own schedule.'"

That schedule kept Nnamdï in his studio for long hours. He worked himself into a deep rut, and without realizing it, he came to rely on music as his only outlet for emotional expression.

"I used to not tell anyone what I was going through. I would write songs and say, 'That's it, it's in the song,'" he says. "I don't like telling people how I feel. I don't want to bring anyone down—if I'm down or depressed, I would put it into a song and let that be the outlet, rather than have to burden people with these things."

As Nnamdï came to understand what he wanted to do with Brat, though, his attitude changed. "I realized that withholding information is a form of lying," he says. "If people are asking about you because you seem off, it's really not fair to just say 'I'm fine,' which is literally what I always did. It was completely second nature to me."

With the Brat song "It's OK," he speaks directly and tenderly to these old emotions. "There's no need to pretend / You're OK if you're not," he sings to himself and to everyone. He's made a leap forward from the Nnamdï on "Sit Tight," who tried to keep up a facade of being unbothered by bullies even as he created an imaginary hideout for himself.

"I think it's important to me as a Black male to show openness and to show all the different aspects, show that I get angry and that I can use that anger in a positive way, show that I do get sad," Nnamdï says. "Because Black males are mostly shown as these intense figures that are very one-sided, which is not true. I think it's important for younger Black kids to see older Black folks that are being vulnerable and also confident in themselves."

An earlier song on Brat—one of the "things are not so good" songs—is "Perfect in My Mind," where falsetto vocals and caterwauling guitar feedback evoke the disappointment that's baked into the creative process. It's about learning how to live with the fact that your art never lives up to the vision of it in your head. "Glass Casket" is a dreamscape shaped by dissatisfaction, filled with wishes for all the things Nnamdï could be: a farmer to feed his loved ones, for instance, or an astronaut to take them far away from the fucked-up world.

But by the album's closer, "Salut," Nnamdï seems centered, grounded, and at peace with himself. It's as though he's finally accepted that he really can inspire people and bring them together, and he's prepared to take that power seriously. He's found his faith, and it's not in a distant God: "If it's meant to be, then it will be," he repeats. "Salute to my lord, silent and above he remains."

Everything about Nnamdï's process in making Brat is interwoven with his desire to be a better person. Some part of him may think he's acting like a spoiled child by using his art to fix his life, but his efforts will benefit anyone who listens. "If there was a younger me looking at me," he says, "I would want him to think, 'I'm learning things from this person, and I feel comfortable enough to be myself because of this person.'"  v

MAREN CELEST

  • Maren Celest

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Give $35/month →  
  Give $10/month →  
  Give  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment