“I think being unique is more important than being good,” Nnamdi Ogbonnaya — best known by the mononym NNAMDÏ — tells me over Zoom from his bedroom in Chicago. Luckily, NNAMDÏ is both. Since 2013, he’s toyed with hip-hop, pop, jazz and indie rock to create an avant-garde yet fun-loving blend. And in the meantime, he’s been an ever-present figure in the Chicago DIY scene, building a cult following for his own music and helping like-minded artists release theirs with his record label, Sooper Records.
With the release of his sixth full-length — and debut for Secretly Canadian — Please Have a Seat, NNAMDÏ has hit new creative heights. His songs are more vulnerable, while also catchier and more confident, yet simultaneously as weird and complex as ever. As NNAMDÏ transcends his local scene, capturing listeners all over the world, it seems like there are no limits. On the album’s lead single “I Don’t Wanna Be Famous” — a track about how he kind of does want to be famous — he sings: “Used to say that I was too weird and shit / Now they wanna take me serious.”
Below, he discusses that tension and his ever-fluid sound with VMP.
VMP: Tell me about your involvement in the Chicago DIY scene over the years.
NNAMDÏ: I used to be in a lot of bands — I was in like six or seven at one time — and I also used to run a DIY venue for a couple years. We lived in this 5,000 square foot warehouse with five or six people, and we’d have shows. And even before I moved to the city, when I just lived in the suburbs here, I started having shows at my parents’ house. I called that Nnamdi’s Pancake Haus, and my brother would make pancakes for all the bands and people at the shows.
Me and my friend Glenn [Curran] have a record label called Sooper Records. I had tried to start record labels or DIY community groups a few times before that, so I was kinda burned out on the idea. But we were just talking about all the dope people we know that make stuff in Chicago, that not a lot of people were listening to but we thought were incredible, and we were just like, what if we just put them all in one place?
So yeah, I’ve been doing it for a while, since I found out that was a thing you could do. It’s hard for [up-and-coming] bands with no audience to book a show at a venue, so I used that [DIY] ideology just to give people places to play. And I ended up making a lot of friends and meeting most of the people I’m close with over the years just running these different spaces.
To me it seems like the easiest path to just do it yourself. I use every tool at my disposal to make stuff. I didn’t have any nice gear when I started recording, I just had a Snowball mic. I think anyone that wants to do it can do it, even if it’s on a small scale. I feel like you just gotta make it happen.
Can you talk me through the writing and recording process for Please Have a Seat?
Half the songs were recorded deep pandemic, and then half the songs were recorded after things opened up again. So [during] the first half there was nowhere to really go, so I would go on very, very long walks and go find a park and just sit on a bench for a while, and just think. Or try not to think. And sometimes I would go to the beach and sit and just look at the water.
Usually I recorded stuff very, very late. I had kind of a fucked up sleep schedule that whole year where I didn’t see the sun a lot. So I was waking up in the afternoon, then going to the beach or to a park while it was turning dark, and then coming home and recording through the [night] and then falling asleep. It was not a great habit, but that was a lot of how those first songs started getting churned out. So I just had a lot of time to think.
The songs on this album can be poignant or dark, but fun and light-hearted at the same time. How did you develop that style?
When I was younger, I always just made stuff for fun, silly stuff that I enjoyed. I wrote little minute to two-minute songs just for friends, and then I burned it to a disc and hand-delivered it to all these people in my town that I wrote songs about. So I think it’s just part of my nature to incorporate elements of fun and humor into things. Even if the subject matter is not really fun. I don’t like, when I’m writing, to end on a hopeless note. Even if it’s the most depressing song of all time, I like to have a tinge of possibility of things getting better. And I think just as I got older, I learned how to merge those things in a way that is less one-sided, and less just like, “This is entirely happy” or “This is entirely sad.” ’Cause I think that’s just kinda existence.
This album has a complex, unconventional music sound, but paired with really catchy and poppy melodies. Where does that come from?
I like a lot of different genres. Drums are my main instrument, and I was always into trying to find drummers and learn new rhythms and just expand on that. Even if I’m not learning the technical aspects, I just wanna experiment and make different things. I like to dissect things and figure out what’s making different sounds on different songs.
I think the beauty for me recently has been coming from like, if I mix this whistle sound with the sound of grating cheese, or if I mix a bowl of gravel shaking with a low bass synth sound, what sound does it make? Even though these are all familiar sounds in their own realm, the combination makes for something a little bit more interesting. [And] applying elements of tension and release to the music, just to make people be in it more and feel the movement of it more, was a big thing for me with this record.
I just love arranging and composing music. Everything I make starts off music, I don’t really think about lyrics until towards the end. I love composing and making interesting, hopefully catchy melodies. On this record I was very meticulous about trying to make vocal melodies that were memorable to me. So I would test things out and then sit on them for a while and come back a few days later and be like, “Do I still like this vocal melody or can it be something a little more catchy?” I think the instrumentation on this record seems simple but is a little more dense if you dissect it. But the vocal melodies were very intentionally easy for people to latch onto.
Why did you approach the melodies that way?
I honestly just wanted to try it, just to see if I could. I think my natural inclination is to go on the more abrasive [side], and teeter on the point of uncomfortableness or awkwardness. Whether that be in the note structure, having clusters of dissonant sounds, rhythmically shifting and jarring things, or lyrically jarring words that I say. I don’t know, I think my natural inclination is to sometimes want the listener to feel a bit uncomfortable. I don’t know what that says about me. (Laughs) I think I’m just an awkward individual, my whole life is kind of uncomfortable, so I’m just like, alright, y’all just come to my level for a little bit and be uncomfortable for a while. But I think for the majority of this record, I released the inclination to want to do that. I wanted something that people can latch onto.
Coming from a DIY scene, do you have an uncomfortable relationship with pop music?
No, I love pop music. I think pop music can be way more vast than our Western ideology of it. I don’t think music has to be boring or simple to be pop music. But I feel like we keep watering things down, with our only intention to be sales, which is not something that I wanna do. Obviously I love selling music and making money off of it. But I think approaching pop music as a thing that unites people and just is a global interest that people can enjoy is a beautiful thing. There’s a reason these things are universally appealing, even if a lot of it comes from it just being shoved down people’s throats. But there’s also an element of the beauty of making something universal when you do it organically. When you do it because that’s what you’re feeling, that’s what the universe has put on you to do. It can be beautiful.
On the song “I Don’t Wanna Be Famous,” you describe some of the heights you dream of reaching. Do you ever feel like your inclination to write complex and unsettling music can get in the way of success?
No, I don’t think being different is a block. I think it’s a blessing. Even if a lot of people don’t like it at first, sometimes people come around — maybe it’s after you die — and are like, “Oh, this was actually very unique and different.” I think being unique is more important than being good in art. I would much rather see something different and be like, “I don’t know if I like this but I’ve never seen this or felt this way,” than to be like, “Oh, this is exactly a carbon copy of this other particular thing, and now we have two of this thing.”
Having been so involved in the Chicago DIY scene, how important is it to you to maintain that community as you grow in success as an artist?
Yeah, it’s important to me. [With] Sooper Records, we’re always looking at different artists and trying to be involved in the community and finding different things. I definitely want to do whatever I can to help people that were like me growing up in the scene that just really love music. I’m just learning as I go. I didn’t know some things were possible, they seemed so out of reach, and then you see people doing things and you’re like, “OK, this is obviously attainable somehow ’cause this person got here.” So if I’m able to do that for other people to get to where I am or greater, that’s the goal. I feel like that’s the goal [of] having any sort of recognition or clout. If you can’t use your status or your position to help other people, then it’s just a completely selfish thing. You gotta bring other people up however you can.
Mia Hughes is a freelance music writer from Manchester, U.K. They specialize in punk, indie and folk rock, and they’re most interested in telling stories about human beings. They’ve contributed to Billboard, Pitchfork, NME, MTV News and more.