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Interview: Joy Oladokun talks new album, songwriting and life on tour

The singer-songwriter’s sophomore LP is due for release on 17th July.

Joy Oladokun
Credit: Shannon Beveridge

Originally from a small community in rural Arizona and now living in Nashville, Joy Oladokun began playing guitar when she was ten, inspired by artists including Tracy Chapman, Lauryn Hill and Bob Marley.

Her unique blend of folk, R’n’B, pop and classic songwriting has since won over audiences around the world, and she released her debut album Carry independently in 2016. The follow-up, in defense of my own happiness (vol. 1), is due out next month and features nine new tracks.

Ahead of the album’s release, I spoke to Joy about the process of making the record, her powerful new song Who Do I Turn To?, how she approaches her songwriting, what she’s learned from life on the road – and how she reacted to Russell Wilson and Ciara using one of her songs on Instagram…

How would you describe your music?

Yeah, I feel like I draw from a lot of genres and styles. I think I have these like folk-driven lyrics because I grew up in a small town that played a lot of country and folk music. I love soul music and gospel because I grew up in church, and I do feel that music is transformative and uplifting. Then there’s hip-hop, just because I’m a millennial girl growing up in the world that I live in now, you know? Wanting to make people dance and sing and think about the world in a way that gives people hope but also tells them the truth about what it’s like. I’m not sure if that’s a very helpful description of my music [laughs] but it is somewhat of a description.

Your new album is coming out in July. What can you tell us about it?

Yeah. I have been writing songs almost every day for about four years now. Ever since 2016 when I put out my last album. And some of those songs have been for other people but a lot of those songs have been for me, just because my motivation as a songwriter has always been to help myself process things. And so I just had songs that I was compiling in the cloud, as it were. My team and I just kind of realised that there’s a clear narrative here and a story. We could try and wait to figure out the flashy hook or whatever, or we could release the music in the moment which it reflects. I think we chose that and it’s been this really cool adventure. I think the album is such a reflection of that. Because as a queer Black woman in 2020, it’s a lot of my processing and my feelings about the future and the world and my hopes. I’m just excited. I don’t think I’m the most eloquent person so I’m excited to hear my thoughts in the format which I feel most comfortable.

You also got involved with a lot of the production on this record as well – how did you find that?

Yeah. I essentially locked myself away for about six months last year, because I got burnt out on doing the songwriter rounds where you’re singing to new people every day, but you try to write new songs and shape your songs. I felt like I was losing a bit of my voice in it, and I’m really grateful for doing that because I think that I learned so much, but I got to a point where I was like, ‘I need a break’. And so I just started working solo every day, and just really teaching myself how recording software works, sort of, and teaching myself how to make my voice sound the way that I want it to and make my guitar sound the way I hear it in my head.

I learn a little bit of the technical and then shuck off whatever technical I need until I get the creative and the emotion out there. I’m just really excited. I don’t know that I’m proud of myself but in the same way that writing lyrics and writing songs is therapeutic for me, making music and playing my guitar and hopping behind my trashy drum kit and hopping on the bass, just that is therapeutic for me as well. I personally have gone through a lot in the past few years so it was a gift to be able to take not only some of my words and put them out there but also to take some of my musicianship and put it out there.

You mentioned that it’s been four years since your last album. Do you think your songwriting and how you approach your music has evolved since then?

Yeah. I feel like I’ve been inspired by the history of music. I feel like the DIY feel of my album comes from the punk scene and the way that it’s spreading information and how it doesn’t have to be perfect or cookie-cutter, it just has to be real. I think like I said earlier with the production and sounds are touching a little bit on hip-hop, touching on soul, touching on rock, touching on an 80s power ballad just for fun [laughs]. I think that it’s all there and all the pieces are sort of working together.

How did you decide on the title for the album?

I grew up in the church, and then after I went to Christian college and worked in a church that was a very close-knit community of people. And I had so many positive experiences. But I worried that my theology or my beliefs about God and the world and how people should be treated, as I realised that those were starting to break with that community, I made the choice to be like, ‘I’m gonna step down and pursue a different thing’.

But I found myself in the years after still having to explain myself to these people, and I think part of that is the relationship. There were some people I wanted to continue a relationship with, so I would talk through the awkward conversations about maybe people thinking I’m going to hell for being gay [laughs]. I fought through some of that so I could pursue a friendship. But I think there was a part of me that felt like I had to apologise for finding the love of my life, or not making Christian music, or not working in that world, or not being a teacher or a doctor – not being all these things that maybe my family or maybe religious institutions told me to be. I felt like I constantly had to apologise for it.

And as I was going through these songs there was just a very clear theme of setting up a new shift for why am I allowed to be happy, and why the choices I am making tend to be good for myself and for others. And I kind of fell in love with the idea of ‘in defence of my own happiness’. Just really digging into ‘I’m sorry if my actions may have hurt you, I’m sorry for where I may have mis-stepped but I really believe that I’m on the right path, and I believe that so much good is coming from the life I live now.’

Were there any songs on the album that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?

I feel like all of them had a sense of ease to them, even if they took a long time. Songwriting’s such a labour of love, it’s just trying to find the right words to express emotion. And so I think that they all came pretty easy to me once I figured out the words to say things and then they became something beautiful. I think the ones that stick out are the ones where I try new things, the ones that are my favourites. There’s a song called Smoke – it’s just in the second verse where I do this spoken-word, Talking Heads-type singing pattern thing that I’d never tried before. And I think those moments… I don’t know, I’m so excited for this record because I feel when I listen to it I can hear the fun I had. And I can hear the joy that I feel, and the reflection and maybe the fear about the future and the hope. I can feel the yearning. I can relieve everything I was writing about, and I hope that people will connect with it in the same way. I just really enjoyed making this record because it felt easy.

I also wanted to ask you about your new song Who Do I Turn To?. Can you tell us about that?

Yeah. I was initially a little afraid to release Who Do I Turn To?. There’s that Nina Simone quote that says, ‘an artist needs to reflect the times’. And as an artist I felt that burden, but I also didn’t want to feel like I was capitalising on a moment or trying to draw attention to myself. I didn’t know the right way to do it and up until the day I released it I felt weird about it. But I had people I love who talked to me and said, ‘hey, you know your heart and you know your intention, and you also know what it feels like to ask this question and what it felt like when you wrote this song’. And it was like, ‘oh my goodness, finally there are words for that emotion’. And my why as a songwriter is always motivated by first doing that for myself and then passing that on to others.

And so once I caught sight of that again it was really quick and easy. I had a couple of engineers, Ben and Colby, who donated their time – they don’t have a ton of money to donate to causes but they wanted to help me fix it. And I did the piano and vocal at my house, and Natalie [Hemby] and I wrote over Zoom because we’re all still quarantining here in Nashville. It just came together really naturally and quickly. Writing it was easy. I have to give Natalie props for as a white woman talking to me about a Black woman’s experience and as a human she did such a good job of listening to me, and just helping me curate these moments and feelings of what it’s like to be Black in America at this moment. So yeah, I’m really proud of it, I’m glad I decide to release it despite my fears.

You’ve spent quite a bit of time out on the road particularly over the last year or so. What’s your typical live show like?

It depends on what format you’re seeing me in. If I’m with a band I am just selfishly living out all my rock star fantasies [laughs]. It’s not really for anyone else. And I guess people comment a lot on the commentary that I give in between the songs. It’s something that I’ve really started integrating into my live show. Because when you’re with a band it’s hard to do a bunch of the talking and the jokes, but when it’s just me I can do whatever I want. And so I just started telling more stories about the songs and sharing my life. All of my idols, all the great troubadours of the 70s, share what they have to say about life and what they thought about the world through storytelling. So in my solo acoustic shows I really started hammering the storytelling. And I’m sure that for some people it’s miserable, but I hope others hear my heart and my thoughts on life with a backdrop of joy, and doing as much as I can in the time that I’ve been given.

I read that Russell Wilson and Ciara used one of your songs in their baby announcement video on Instagram. How did you react when you found out?

[laughs] My initial reaction was disbelief, just because I’d been shopping for car engine oil in Walmart with my dad and my sister called me and was like, ‘hey, did you know that Russell Wilson used your music?’ and I was like, ‘that’s not possible’. And I ignored it, and then opened up my phone and lo and behold it was my voice. It was just some random circumstance – an audio library that I’d worked with before, their videographer found my song there and used it. It was kind of a bizarre touchpoint in my career, but one that I’m so grateful for because as someone who makes music that maybe sways a little more towards the older end of the genre spectrum, it was a way to connect with people that maybe wouldn’t listen because I don’t use an 808 and stuff [laughs]. So yeah, I think that moment was a cool picture of how social media can give people like me an opportunity to gain an audience bigger than what you can do with years of slogging by yourself.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Only one song?! Oh! OK… Oof. I think I’m going to pick A Case Of You, not only because it is my partner’s favourite song, but I feel like Joni Mitchell as a songwriter invented a language. And you can tell when a song is written by Joni Mitchell and you can tell when someone is influenced by Joni Mitchell. I just think that’s the coolest thing. And it’s one of the songs where it’s most apparent to tell how unique she is and how amazing she is.

Normally at this point I’d ask what you’ve got coming up next, but given the current situation with COVID-19, how have you been keeping busy during lockdown? I know you’ve been doing a few livestreams…

On the work front I have a little studio upstairs with a bunch of instruments and records, so I’ve just been writing every day still. I find a lot of peace and joy – not to be weird about using my own name [laughs] – in having a rhythm every day. Just like waking up, working out, playing Animal Crossing and then going into the studio. It’s been a very rhythmic time. And I think that helps my body and my anxiety from thinking about all the things that are just outside our door.

Are you thinking about the next album at all yet?

Yeah, I actually started working on it last week. I think we’re gonna put pedal to the metal on volume 2 for the album, because I feel like ‘in defence of my own happiness’ takes on a new meaning when you’re speaking as a Black person in America. And after the events of the past weeks I wrote a bunch of material about the world we’re in and my feelings. It became an easy path to volume two and that this is what I wanna talk about, this is how I wanna say it. We’re probably gonna release it sometime in the fall and the first single will come out a month or two after the album.

 Joy Oladokun’s new album, in defense of my own happiness (vol. 1), is out on 17th July.

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