Johnny Drille: I want my music to outlive me
Her obvious excitement warmed the cold room, as he walked in that night. If one didn’t know any better, you would suspect immediately that this was his beloved spouse. However, a quick look around shows that almost every woman was sharing a similar euphoria upon sighting John Ighodaro, better known as Johnny Drille.
As we were gathered in that cozy Ultima Studios, in Lekki, for a first listen of his debut album dubbed, Before We Fall Asleep, it resonated clearly; Johnny Drille is the biggest lover boy in the current Naija music scene. The Edo State native, upon breaking into mainstream spotlight in 2017, has long stolen the hearts of many Nigerians with his infectious and soothing love songs. Five years and numerous hit-singles after, the 31-year-old Mavin Records singer has managed to garner a growing fanbase, even without releasing a single album.
Nonetheless, if there is one thing JD, as he is fondly called, has maintained since his breakout, it is his unique soothing vocals, which when combined with his Afro-fusion (folk/RnB/Soul), and heartwarming lyricism becomes a sonical wonder. On this 14-track album, Johnny masters the ropes of experimentation, birthing unusual harmonies, for instance with the Afro-Rock satire, Lies, as well as delving into the commercial Afro-pop/Upbeat RnB/ mellow RnB-Trap fusions (which is an emerging musical movement that can be called ‘Neo Afrobeats’), where he shows that he is capable of standing his feet in any genre. From intriguing features, such as the Lagos Gospel Choir, Don Jazzy, Ayra Starr, Ladi Poe and Styl-plus, to the deliberate soothing track listing, which peaks repeatedly from the neck to the toes of this album and finally climaxes with a choral rendition, to the brilliant lyricism, which includes socio-conscious commentary, especially on corruption and police brutality, to the amazing sound production, which interestingly was solely done by the multitalented singer himself, this album peaks with many delights and is one of the best to hit the shelves this year. It feels very wholesome and makes for very vibrant listening no mater the situation.
Catching up with Guardian Music, Johnny Drille talks about the reasons behind the long wait for the album, experimenting with his sound, finding happiness in love songs, working with Don Jazzy, being single lover boy in Lagos, being an introvert, nursing a vision to create evergreen music, and many more.
How does it feel after all these years of waiting for a debut album?
IT feels so surreal, at the same time, it feels like a burden has been lifted off my shoulders. I have waited for so long to get this out. I am really excited for the fan base; they have waited for so long.
Why the wait, why did it take this long?
I think that it is a lot put together. If I had wanted to release an album a while ago, I could have. But somehow, I just couldn’t. I think there was a reason for it; there are certain sounds that you create for a certain time, and after that time, you kind of evolve into something else. I had to evolve with my sound as well, and that takes a bit of time. I got it out eventually and I have honed the sound.
Why did you feel the need to evolve?
I am first a music producer; I am pretty interested in sound and other things that are possible with the music in general. And I wanted to be able to explore. It was an opportunity for me to also reach out to more markets. It was just about trying to find the right balance of fusion of sounds that would appeal to more people.
I wanted to just explore sounds. I tried Afrobeats and Folk, Afrobeats and Rock. One of the songs dubbed Life is a blend of Afrobeats and Rock. The album in itself is very daring in the sense that it tries out new things for the first time that nobody has ever done, no matter how weird it seems.
Is this going to become a pattern for you?
I think some of the most beautiful sounds we have heard in the last couple of years have come about from experimentation. Afrobeats as we know it isn’t the same Afrobeats we were listening to two or three years ago. Now, there are fusions of RnB and Soul in it. Someone started experimenting with that and after it blew up, everyone is now jumping on it. I am always going to be experimenting and trying out new things, as long as the core of the music – its value – stays the same. As long as it is still great music, I am all for that.
As a multitalented artiste, what is your creative process like?
There is never really a one way for me to approach making a song. If there is one thing I know that has occurred over time, it is that I usually go for the music first. It just comes to me in my head, and then I record the melodies as a voice note on my phone. Some of the greatest melodies I have ever created have just come to me by coincidence. Then, I make the instrumentals to lay it up. It is just basically freestyling some melodies; you never know what could come out for it.
Then, sometimes, if I already have an instrumental, I start to take out all the melodies I have recorded and liked and begin to chop them into place. Sometimes, the melodies already sound like they are saying something and then all I have to do is interpret them with words; that is what happens mostly.
Then, most of the other times, I would just be in the studio and I would create a beat and then decide the direction I want to go. Then, I write the music last. Sometimes, I work with other songwriters, because I don’t want to get stuck in my own way. There never is really one way to approach it.
Does having to work as a producer and studio engineer stretch you out?
No it doesn’t. For the most part, it is really fun.
You had some interesting features on this album. How was it like selecting them?
Yeah, so it was pretty strategic, not just for me, but for my team. For example, I knew that at the ending I wanted to have a choir perform for a huge crescendo, and then I remember I had a friend who is a music director for Lagos Gospel Choir; I reached out to him and we made the song.
The Styl Plus feature was more of like I wanted to make one love song that had the generation before me who were the pioneers and have me from this generation come together to make one the most beautiful love songs ever. I love that people appreciate the song.
Who were the people you listened to growing up?
I listened to mostly Christian music growing up, because I was born into a Christian home. It is interesting, because I naturally got interested in Folk music; that is because a lot of the Christian song from two decades ago were mostly country sounds, but we just didn’t realise it.
When it comes to people that influenced my sound, I would say I have listened to a lot of Owl City, Jon Bellion, among others. The people I listen to change all the time, and that affects the music I put out.
You have quite a flourishing friendship with Jon Bellion. Did he have any input on this album?
So, on this project, he had a little bit of influence. But we are working on much bigger things together that I can’t talk about right now. However, I am very excited because Jon is an amazing artiste and person. And I am really excited for what the future holds for music.
So, looking into your album, are there any true stories on it?
Yes there are a few. Sister, Loving Is Harder, Before I Let Go, Lost In The Rhythm, and Lies are true stories. For instance, Loving Is Harder is drawn from the fact that a lot of times, people take relationships on social media to be picture perfect where it is all blissful. I wanted to be able to tell a story from the other perspective and to make people see the not-so-pretty side of live, especially now that we are having so many broken homes. I want to remind people that love is beautiful, but it is indeed hard work.
What are your favourite songs on the album?
I love all the songs equally. However, if I were going to pick, I would probably pick it because they are more personal to me. The song Sister is one of my favourites, because my own sister inspired it; I have held on to that song for the past four years. I wanted to be able to tell her story, which reflects what a lot of other women go through with the whole pressure of motherhood, putting their lives on hold and all.
Another song is My Kind of Brown; it is a song to encourage people who feel insecure about themselves, especially in this social media era where you see people looking a certain way and doing some certain things and you feel insecure about your own unique features. It was to encourage people to accept themselves for who they are and be happy.
Another song I would pick is Ova, because it features the almighty Don Jazzy; it is a blessing to make a song with him. I remember how seamless it was making that song with him.
Love songs have been your forte, what drives you towards it?
There is a place for every subject matter in our industry. Fortunately, I am one of those that have to sing about love most of the time. I think I am a lover boy hard; I naturally would sing about it. I think it is also about the way I was brought up.
My parents are some of the most ‘lovey doveys’ I have seen.
Growing up to see that type of love makes you grow up to appreciate it. I think that you can never really sing too much about love; the world deserves love. It is not just love from the perspective of appreciating a woman’s body, but the deeper side of love.
Speaking of your parents, you have such a deep relationship with them.
Yes, I do. I am always doting on them. I only get to see my parents twice a year. It makes me sad. This is such an interesting time of their life. I am always excited whenever I have to go home to see them.
Growing up in Benin, how did you pick up music?
I come from a very religious and conservative background; it was pretty fun growing up there. I was part of the Church. My earliest memories are just hanging out with my dad and watching the moonlight with my older sister.
My family is closely knit. I picked up music from Church; I was part of the Choir. Before I got to Lagos, I was doing music in my dad’s church for about six years. So, I was already doing it professionally. I think growing up around music nudged me towards it.
Before you joined Mavin Records, did you ever see yourself doing music full-time?
Music was always it for me. Even if not in the mainstream, I enjoyed arranging and creating music. Music was always it for me. If I didn’t become a popular artiste, I would have ended up as a record producer or engineer somewhere. I have loved the music for as long as I can remember; it has always been the music.
So, you didn’t have any pressure to use your BSc degree to find work?
My certificate is even still with my school, there was no pressure at all. I always knew it was going to be music. I always had the conviction that it would be music.
How did you connect with Mavin Records?
A couple years ago, I met Don Jazzy first through Twitter. He reached out to me after seeing me do a cover of Dija’s song. I think sometime in late 2016, he reached out to me again and he asked me to come see him personally. He told me that he wanted me to join his team and all that.
So, how is the community at Mavin Records like?
It is an amazing environment; everyone is passionate about every artiste. It is the most structured and biggest record label in the whole of Africa; they have a track record of churning out some amazing artistes. Everyone is working to get everyone out there; it is a big family.
Delving into your personal life, what is your relationship status like?
I am in an amazing relationship with my music and we are in the early stages right now.
So, is there no space for anybody at all?
There is always space for people, but the focus right now is on the music. As soon as it changes, I would keep you all updated.
Apart from music, what else do you enjoy doing?
I enjoy watching movies; I barely have time for it now, though. Once in a while, I play video games. I also love to research; I can spend hours on Wikipedia, I just love to get new knowledge. Asides those, everything is just music.
What are your turnoffs in people?
I don’t like when people cannot read the room or understand your social cues. You know when someone comes to visit you in the house; you don’t need to tell them that you need to go out. Some of them just want to lurk around all day. However, I don’t really have much attitudinal problems with people; I am a bit of a patient person, so I can cope.
How would you define your fashion style?
It is more conservative and casual. I like being that simple guy; I like comfortable clothes. You most likely would find me on a tee shirt and jean or a sweatshirt and hoodie. Of course, you would find me wearing beads and necklaces, but you would never find me wearing gold.
Tell us three things people do not know about Johnny Drille?
Some people don’t know that I am a pastor’s kid. Also, I am an introvert. Lastly, I have road rage.
What do you enjoy most about your popularity today?
It is just the fact that I am able to connect with more people for my music. That is the biggest blessing for me, knowing that my music means something to someone.
Finally, what’s the vision for Johnny Drille?
It is for me to be able to make music that would outlive me. I am not talking about in my lifetime; I mean in 100 years, people would be able to make reference to my music as that guy that stood out and was creating futuristic music.