Joy Oladokun on Making Soul Music, Breaking Creative Barriers, and What She Learned From Amy Winehouse
Joy Oladokun picked up a guitar when she was 10, and started using music to make sense of the world around her. The LA-based singer/songwriter is roots rock meets folk, with a voice that is all soul. She describes her sound as “the lovechild of Lauryn Hill and John Denver.”
In 2015, Oladokun released her first EP, “Cathedrals.” That same year, she launched a highly successful Kickstarter campaign to raise $30,000 to fund her first full-length album, “Carry,” which was released in late April. We spoke with Oladokun about her journey into music, fighting creative anxiety, and the messages behind some of her songs.
Your first EP “Cathedrals” was self-produced and released. How was the creative process different for your first full-length album?
For the EP, at first we were leaning toward adding a bunch of instruments, but once we started recording, it felt like baby steps. I was so hesitant in the first place to put my songs out there for a greater audience than, like, my mom. For the first EP, it was about focusing on getting the songs down and sharing them. With the album, the budget was bigger, and the scope was bigger because it goes from five to 10 songs, and it kind of felt like I didn’t have as many of those doubts about whether or not I was supposed to be doing this. It was like a kid in a toy store. Like, “What can we play with? What are some tricks we can put in the album that will make it feel really unique and special?” I think the scale just got a lot better, and I feel more fully expressed with the album. Everything was just me getting something off my chest.
You mentioned that you were hesitant to go into music professionally, but what you’ve done so far has been so well-received. What do you think you would go back and tell that girl who was maybe a little hesitant to take the leap?
I think that I would probably tell myself that that uniqueness, or that feeling you have that you don’t really fit in anywhere, it’s not a handicap; it’s actually your greatest strength. I think as a kid I always felt lonely — sometimes even as an adult, I’ll feel like no one really gets me, or understands me or where I’m coming from, and I feel like if you never say anything or try to communicate who you are and how you feel about things, you aren’t giving people that chance to understand you. I would just tell myself to just go for it and say what you want to say and not be afraid what people think because that weirdness, that oddness that you have, is actually a huge strength. It’s what will draw people to your music.
What has it been like performing these songs live?
Crazy cool. We did a house concert, and I had a celebration for finishing the Kickstarter and finishing the album. We did another house concert for the one year anniversary of me being a musician by trade, and so it was just me and my guitar, and I played through most of the album. It was really cool because I told stories pretty much after every song about where I was when I wrote the songs, and why the songs mean a lot. My songs are vulnerable enough that you can kind of understand what’s going on in my head when you listen to them, but I think people just appreciated being able to hear the stories, and hear even more about me and my process. I think when you share your life on that kind of scale, it allows people to feel and gives them permission to feel what you’re feeling. I hear so many stories talking to people after the shows, and which songs have helped them, and that’s been really amazing because it’s so easy to convince yourself that you’re alone.
As far as telling stories behind the songs, I know you’ve spoken about your single “Shelter,” but I want to touch on two of the heavier songs on the album, “Young” and “Charleston.” Can you tell me a little more about what’s behind those?
I’m from Arizona, so I was visiting my family there, and we were watching the news, and the Walter Scott case was being discussed. As a kid growing up in a small town with not a lot to do other than going outdoors and hanging out with people, I just never experienced anything that felt like intentional racism. People made comments, maybe, out of not understanding, or just wanting to know more, but nothing that ever made me feel like, “Oh, you don’t like me because of the color of my skin.” When I saw this video of this man, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, essentially. I didn’t understand how when I was a kid, I could grow up feeling like it didn’t really matter what you look like, or where you’re from — people can still work together and get along. You become an adult and you wake up and realize that’s not the case everywhere. Also, just because of who I am in my faith and believing that kind of peace is possible, and there can be a day where we set aside our differences and champion what unites us, or at least celebrate our differences. “Young” was one of the heavier songs that I’ve written just because I was pissed and I was sad. Part of it was that the Walter Scott guy looked like my father, and I think there’s an emotional component to it. This isn’t how things should be. We can do and be better. It is possible, and “Young” is that cry.
“Charleston” is kind of the same. I had the first verse written for it for a very long time. It was like, “What do you think heaven is like, and who do you think God is?” Living in LA, it’s actually, surprisingly, a very spiritual town, so you just have a lot of crazy conversations with people about God, or about New Age stuff, and I was just writing from that experience, but I couldn’t finish the song, and I got frustrated. Later that night I was working on it, and I heard about that massacre at the church in Charleston, and it’s just one of those things where a tragedy was a spark that ignited me being able to write the song. I’ve worked as a missionary in other countries, and I’ve had jobs that everyone talks about as if they’re so meaningful, and “Oh, you’re doing important work.” When I told people I was going to become a musician, it was — people try really hard to make you feel like they’re excited for you, but you can kind of see the confusion and some disappointment. It really did come down to one of the best things that I do is write music and share songs, and it may seem like it’s not a lot, but I can sing about things in a way that can affect change and provoke thought, and I’m going to do that as often as possible.
You had some anxiety when writing, and you mentioned needing to step away and realize you couldn’t write to please anyone. I think a lot of artists really struggle with that. How did you work to overcome that sort of mental block?
It’s a daily battle. The war hasn’t been won yet, but I was thinking about it today. Yes, we create and we write to help other people, but I think if you’re not writing or creating on some level to help yourself — and I’m not talking about writing to get rich — I’m talking about writing from a vulnerable place or writing from real experience and real questions and adding in weird sounds and weird things that you just like, just for the sake of your own enjoyment. If you aren’t creating on some level for yourself, then at the end of the day, you’ll have a product that either everyone likes, but you’re not necessarily proud of or excited about because it doesn’t feel like you, and it doesn’t feel like you made it, or you’ll have something you don’t like that no one else really likes either, so what’s the point? I had to come to a place in the album where I had to acknowledge that it’s not a perfect album, or the best album ever made, but I can listen back to some of these songs and instrumentals, and I’m proud of it. It’s my first album, and I produced seven out of the 10 tracks. It’s really exciting to feel like I made that. It was in my head, and I made it a reality. So, doing at least part of it for yourself and not for others is super important.
For your Kickstarter, you called it “new music for old souls,” and there really is so much old school simplicity and honesty in your music. What do you think influences that?
I am an old soul, which is such an artist thing to say when you want to appear more mature, but I really do mean it. Sometimes I’m walking around having conversations with people my age, and I feel like I don’t completely get it, or don’t get music these days, or some things about culture, so I wanted anyone who had ever felt like me in the midst of the world today to be able to feel like they could get behind this album. It’s a new thing, but a lot of the ideas that I talk about feel old-fashioned in a sense. They don’t necessarily feel progressive. They’re the same questions about love and about relationships and about who we are that have probably been said a thousand times over, but have been said by a different person at a different time, maybe in a different way.
I was really excited about the guitar solo in “Bread + Wine” because it’s so reminiscent of that ‘70s sound.
That song is my baby. That’s the song where when I’m talking about doing things for yourself, that was the song where I was like, “I’m not sure if anyone is going to get this, but I love this song so much that I don’t even freaking care.” We went nuts, and it’s so fun, and I feel like it comes through on that song.
A lot of your songs are about lessons learned, but there’s always this message that there’s going to be light at the end — that happiness is always around the corner. What brings you joy and inspires you to find that light?
That’s a great question at an interesting time. I’m sure most people can tell this from listening to the album that I’m a spiritual person, I’m a Christian, I believe in God, and a lot of my hope comes from that spiritual aspect. I also understand that is not always relatable for everyone else because not everyone believes the way I believe, so I have this thing I do before I go to bed that I’ve been doing lately because it’s just been kind of a crazy season. I try to think of things to be grateful for. I really like hummingbirds, and there’s a lemon tree right outside my house, and lately hummingbirds have been coming and hanging out around this lemon tree, so that’s one of things. I feel like gratitude grounds you in a way that nothing else can because things can get shitty and difficult really fast, and to be able to look outside, and look at the sunrise, or be thankful for a call from a friend, or a good meal. Gratitude takes all the distractions and sadness that can come with heartbreak and fear. Gratitude says, “At least there’s this. At least there’s this one beautiful thing in the midst of all this chaos.” So, definitely gratitude.
What’s on your playlist right now?
I’ve been listening to Amy Winehouse a lot. I just watched her documentary, and as an artist that writes from their life, there isn’t a song that isn’t directly inspired by something that happened to me, and Amy Winehouse was that same type of artist. When “Rehab” came out, I was a kid, and I didn’t get that they were literally trying to make her go to rehab. I’ve been listening to “Frank” and “Back to Black.” How she wrote about her life was tragic and poetic, and it didn’t end well. I’ve been trying to challenge myself by asking, “In the midst of you sharing your life with people, how are you taking care of yourself?” So, yeah, lots of Amy Winehouse. I feel like everything I’m listening to is kind of old — Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones… I listened to the new Radiohead and it was phenomenal and cinematic. I wish I could say something fun. I don’t know what the kids are listening to these days.
Are there any questions that you haven’t been asked that you really want someone to ask you?
Whoa. Wow. Okay. “Animals and Angels” is the last song on the album, and it’s about — I got hit on at a bar, but as a person, I’m not good at reading social cues, and so I didn’t understand what was happening, or that he was trying to make some moves. I always tell that story before I play the song live, and no one ever asks me what happened after. You know, like, “Did you get his number? Are you guys dating now?” No one ever asks, and I would like them to because it’s my real life story. I mean, nothing happened because I’m super single, and I don’t know what happened to him, but it’s one of those things where it would be nice if people were a little curious. I leave it open ended on purpose.
Maybe people are hesitant because they think it’s too personal to ask.
I think in general, I wish people would ask me more questions about the stories behind the songs because I never put everything out there, you know? I’m always down to share a little bit. A lot of the stories are funny and end awkwardly.
For the latest on tour dates and other news, you can visit Joy Oladokun’s official Facebook.
“Carry” is now available on iTunes.