Tolü Makay: “I want my sound to transcend beyond the years I love on earth”

Tolü Makay Pic: Evan Doherty for VIP Magazine

Music is more than a passion for Tolü Makay, it’s a calling, something she’s been drawn to since she was a child and something which she has now, turned into a full-time career. Since moving to Ireland from Nigeria when she was five, it was the one thing which helped her deal with her emotions and find her identity. It helped her form friendships and find a community. While she was regularly moving home and moving school, it was the one constant in her life – and still is.

In 2018 Tolü decided to follow her heart and release her debut single Goodbye (which has amassed over 800,000 streams on Spotify), and a mere two years later, her cover of The Saw Doctor’s N17, which she performed alongside the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on New Year’s Eve, 2020, went viral. It struck a chord with millions of people around the globe, and she instantly became one of the top artists to watch, selling out shows right across the country, with people even likening her to global superstar Adele!

As her career is only just beginning, we sat down with 26-year-old Tolü to hear her story, and plans for the future…

Tolü Makay Pic: Evan Doherty for VIP Magazine

Tolü, as mentioned above you burst onto the music scene just a few short years ago and look at you now. Does it feel surreal, just how quickly everything changed?

I think what was surprising was how it came about. I had released Goodbye, then my EP Being in October 2019 and the whole N17 thing was just another gig that I did. I didn’t think it wasgoingtobeahugedealsoIhadno expectations. It was surprising more than anything. My goal as an artist was to get recognition and get to a point where people knew my sound or music, so it was definitely in line with what I wanted.

Music has always been a huge part of your life, something you’d been working on since you were little…

Oh yeah, always! I have performed from a young age. It was a personal relationship that I had with music. Even when I was older doing corporate jobs, music was always a way to make me feel good or calm. After I finished up work in Google, I knew I needed
to stop and figure out what it was I needed to do, and music was the only thing that stuck. I am so passionate about it. Always have been.

Let’s go back to your childhood where it all stemmed from. You moved here from Nigeria when you were five years old with your family, can you remember much of that time?

Not really, I just have fleeting images and memories. One of the things I remember is from a birthday and I on a beach in Nigeria with my parents wearing a white dress. It’s only small things like that. My granny is the one who raised me the most as my mom was over here trying to get herself settled. I go back quite regularly now to Nigeria so I do know places and family members.

Tell us about your experience growing up in Offaly. How was that for you?

It was interesting! I felt like a passenger observing more than anything. Tullamore was the first place I felt like I was part of a community, I had a home. I was part of the church there, and I went to a youth centre in the evenings when my mom was working so it was nice to have that community. Rather than changing schools and home every year, Tullamore College was the first school that I was going to for a steady period of time. It also allowed me to understand and enjoy different forms of creative outlets.

Tolü Makay Pic: Evan Doherty for VIP Magazine

As you just mentioned, a lot of things were out of your control, moving home, moving schools, but music was one thing that was a constant.

Exactly! Church was such a huge part of my life and every Friday or Saturday I knew I had to learn a song and perform it. I enjoyed that form of structure. It was good for me to learn music intuitively because in school I never had studied music as a subject. For me, creating music is a feeling and I think that’s what people relate to.

Would you consider yourself to be particularly religious, or was it more to do with the community aspect?

Oh no, I was definitely a religious kid. For the community part, I just thought that was normal but religion was very much a big part of it, when I was younger anyway.

Gospel music had a big influence on you – is that still the case, do you still tap into that?

Definitely! Within gospel music, there are so many genres. Essentially, gospel is just spreading the good news and the word of God, but you could sing however you wanted, as long as there’s a message there. I definitely think that’s why the songs I write are very hopeful and positive. And I think that’s just the way I am, the way I’ve been raised, to think about things in a positive way and to know that things will eventually be ok. Now I’m really understanding how to have more depth with my words and emotions, that it’s ok to say things are really shit sometimes, you know? It’s human, it’s fine. But gospel does definitely influence my sound.

On that note of being positive, you found love during the pandemic, your career blew up in the best way, some good things certainly came from that time! It’s a metaphor for life in general, that even through the dark you can find light.

Oh yeah! I even have tattoos which signify being able to grow in the dark. I know how to persevere through hard times because of how I grew up. Moving around a lot isn’t easy on a child so you learn how to adapt very quickly. If I want to do something, I’ll do it, especially if it’s something that’s pulling on my heartstrings. That was the same with music. I wasn’t happy in my job, so I needed to find what made me happy.

Tolü Makay Pic: Evan Doherty for VIP Magazine

Looking after your happiness and your mental health is so important. Some artists use music as an outlet, almost as a journal. Would you?

Oh yeah, 100 per cent. It lets me be retrospective and also introspective about life. It allows me to feel connected to other people. Sometimes I feel like such an alien, I feel like something else, something other. I often think about how my experience isn’t the same as what the average Joe has experienced. With music, knowing that people connect with that, it means so much
to me. I don’t take what I do lightly. I really think music is a spiritual thing, and not in a religious way, just in how you’re able to connect through it.

Is writing and recording music when you feel most at ease?

Absolutely. When writing music yes, but also performing. I frickin’ love performing. I love it. My last show was Beyond the Pale. I’ll be performing at the Notre Dame v Navy American football game in the Aviva in August. It’ll be really cool. I’m going to be working with an orchestra. I really want to focus on writing new songs now. I feel like I haven’t released anything in about a year. I hope people feel like it’s new and exciting, something they’ve never heard before.

You’ve been involved with Irish Women in Harmony, covering Dreams by the Cranberries. The group, and the songs that have been performed, just prove the level of talent and skill in the industry here.

I’ve been saying this for years! Ireland is just one ball of creative genius. Ireland grows incredibly talented people, in music, poetry, design. There’s insane artists who have come from Ireland. Even globally when you meet an Irish person, they’re probably doing well!

Is there anyone in particular who inspires you, or who you’d like to work with one day?

I love to meet people and hear stories. I’d love to meet Enya. It’d be great. I really respect her craft. In terms of vocal production and being able to use your voice to create emotions, she does that incredibly well.

Tolü Makay Pic: Evan Doherty for VIP Magazine

People have compared you to Adele, how do you react to something like that? What a compliment!

I appreciate that! I think I’m quite ambitious but I think one needs to be. If you can’t see where you’re going, it’s hard for you to get there. I’m a dreamer and I need to believe that where I’m going is where I will get to.

It’s the power of manifestation.

It really is! You have to believe it in order for it to come true.

Tolü, you recently met and sang for President Michael D. Higgins at a garden party in Áras an Uachtaráin. Was that a pinch me moment?

That was awesome and I think we’re basically friends now [laughs]! He came down for the opening of the Offaly arts centre, Esker Arts. I was asked to help launch it with Donal Lunny so that was amazing, and the President was invited down too. There’s been some really brilliant opportunities and I just want more – the sky is not even the limit, the moon is.

Another one was surely singing Danny Boy at the JFK Centre in Washington on St. Patrick’s Day. You’re ticking off these major milestone moments, so what else is on that bucket list?

That was insane! The Grammys is definitely on the list. I also want my name or sound to transcend past the years I live on this earth, that would be my ultimate goal.

Tolü Makay Pic: Evan Doherty for VIP Magazine

It seems like music was almost ingrained in you, but for a while you had planned to go down a different route. You went to NUI Galway to study psychology, what made you decide to do that?

Coming from a first generation immigrant background, the first thing your parents want for you is security and that means having a good job which is full time, with a pension etc. It’s clear, it’s clean. Once I started working, it wasn’t gelling with me. I’ve always been involved with music. I thought I’d be a neuropsychologist during the day and then a rockstar at night! Music was always going to be part of it, but I didn’t think it’d be the main thing and I didn’t know how I’d be able to make it into a full time job. I don’t think my parents understand the magnitude of things I’ve done because they’re not here to see it but when friends of theirs say it or show it to them, they’re like, ‘Ok, this is a big deal, well done!’

Is it hard being away from your family during these exciting times?

Yeah, they’re not here with me now in Ireland. I’m quite used to doing my own thing so I’m okay with it. The older I’m getting the more I realise how important it is to have people along with you on the journey, even if it’s friends. It’s nice to have people who see you grow, rather than just being lonely by yourself. I have a really good friend group who are like my family.

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