fFor decades, West Hollywood’s Troubadour has been where singer-songwriters get their first tastes. The fabled venue has played a pivotal role in the rise of the likes of Carole King, Jackson Browne and Elton John, and tonight Joy Oladokun takes center stage. The 30-year-old does not take this opportunity lightly. Bathed in the spotlight, she begins talking about a song she wrote immediately after George Floyd’s murder.
“There is no country in the world that kills as many of its citizens as we do,” she says, before pointing out that she was born in 1992, the year Los Angeles was rocked by riots sparked by police brutality . Three decades later and the same old bigotry persists. No wonder Oladokun felt moved to capture the moment in music. “It’s the best way I know to heal the world and that’s why I’m doing this job,” she tells the audience. “To make this world a better place for people like us and people who are different from us.” With that, she kicks off a steamy version of her sharp-witted single “I See America,” using the crunching riffs and howling lyrics of Nirvana’s “Smells.” Like Teen Spirit” interpolates to create a monstrous mash-up that reverberates like a scream of frustration that echoes across generations.
It’s a stunning moment in a show packed with them, and one that Oladokun realized could be received very differently depending on where in the US she’s performing. “There was a show I was playing at the Ryman in Nashville where a guy booed me and walked out as I was introducing the song,” she recalls, phoning me from her tour bus somewhere in Pennsylvania-ish . Needless to say, that experience didn’t stop Oladokun from speaking her truth. “You might just want me to sing nice love songs,” she says, “but as an artist, there are things I need to talk about.”
Born in Delaware to Nigerian immigrants, Oladokun was the first member of her family to come to the United States. When she was young, they moved to Casa Grande, Arizona, a rural community she remembers as “cows and cotton in the middle of nowhere.” A quiet, shy child, she lost and found herself in her father’s extensive record collection, which ranged from the great Nigerian guitarist King Sunny Adé to country stars like Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty to African-influenced 80’s pop from the likes of New York Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. On stage at The Troubadour, she joked that at a shaky moment in her career, she sat down to find out, “How do I become Black Bruce Springsteen?” The Boss is another longtime inspiration, drawn from Oladokun for both his versatility and admired for its longevity. “He’s someone who can put out all kinds of music,” she says appreciatively. “He’ll be collaborating with Bon Iver on a song and then he’ll put out a full E Street Band record.”
Likewise, Oladokun is adept at harnessing musical influences from country to grunge and pairing them with lyrics that examine the inner workings of the human heart. On “Jordan”, one of the standout tracks from her 2021 major label debut In defense of my own happiness she sings about her Christian upbringing and how, as a queer woman, she finds her own path to faith. She tells the troubadour that the song was inspired by the question, “How can God make me love kissing girls?”
Through her unabashed honesty, Oladokun has built a broad and inclusive following that brings together fans from all walks of life. “When I look at the crowd, I see a lot of people who look like me and love me, and a lot of other people who don’t,” she says. “I try to be myself uncompromisingly, hoping that people who don’t necessarily want to get in touch with me because of who I am or how I live can see how much we have in common. When I write about how you feel lonely as a child, it’s understandable, no matter where you come from or what you look like. I think if we can learn to be more aware of each other’s feelings, it could become a kinder, cooler world.”
Now residing in Nashville amidst a songwriting community, Oladokun is currently hard at work on a new album, which she hints will feature performances by some of the “Dream” collaborators. Her latest single “Purple Haze” on which she recently debuted The late show with Stephen Colbert, was written in Los Angeles when wildfires were raging nearby, filling the sky with smoke and turning sunsets purple. “I’m a Jimi Hendrix fan and stoner!” she laughs, explaining that the title alludes to both the legendary Hendrix song and a potent cannabis strain of the same name.
It’s a beautiful, upbeat song that contrasts the endlessly depressing news cycle – “I’ve seen water rise and mighty men fall” – with an opportunity to find solace in romance and community. “It’s quite interesting to be someone trying to deal with deep emotions at this time,” says Oladokun. “There is a lot of fear, frustration and confusion about what the future of the world as we know it looks like. I think the day I wrote Purple Haze I was in that space, but I wanted to do something that’s really beautiful and simple and about what the good of life is, what love is I think .” Capturing this complicated sentiment, she has written a song that any of the great singer-songwriters would be proud of; the soundtrack to a kinder, cooler world.
Purple Haze is available now
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/joy-oladokun-interview-2022-purple-haze-b2075911.html Joy Oladokun: “You might want me to sing nice love songs, but there are things I need to talk about”