Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Spotlight - Ndidi Onukwulu

Today's spotlight shines north of the border on Canadian musician Ndidi Onukwulu. Although born in Canada, Ndidi has Nigerian heritage as well, which peeks through every so often by contributing some funky rhythms here and there, although she'll quite clearly state that her devotion lies with the blues. Her sophomore album, The Contradictor, came out earlier this week, and she was kind enough to take some time to tell me about the fifth track from it, Goodnight JF. As always, text in red is hers, question in black are mine.

The back story:

This is the only love song I have ever written. For some reason I feel as though I should point that out. The sounds first came to me when standing on a bridge in Dawson City in the Yukon last summer. There was no night out there and I remember looking out at the mountains and watching the sky turn from twilight to daylight , sharing that moment with another human. Hearing the sound of the wind rustling through the pines... that created the guitar melody. I sang the melody into my phone because I didn't have a guitar with me that night. That happens to me often.. I get a song idea and have no instrument aside from my voice to craft with. I digress sorry...soo....

The writing process:

The next day as soon as I woke.....I grabbed my book and started writing the song...words tend to come quickly for me as does melody...I was recalling every single moment of that interaction, the smell, the sounds, the sight. It really was so beautiful and delicate.. that all I could do was write as directly as possible.. so often the sounds of the world busy our mind however during the twilight or right at dawn there is just a brief moment of silence. It's as if the world just takes a break.. As soon as I got near a guitar, I started playing the tune, and it took me a little while to decide what key I wanted and what sort of feel. I started off with an acoustic plucking style which is how I play it live however on the recording it's a bit different.

The recording process:

I wanted to add upright bass and violin so the guitar line needed more of steady flow. I wanted to give the bass line a jazz feel and time... to contrast the roots tones of both the guitar and violin which appears later in the track. Recording the song was pretty straight forward; we were all facing each other in the room. I said one two three and away we went... Almost all my cues are vocally signaled so there was a fair amount of hand gestures and large face movements happening.

The Lyrics:

There is a pretty unique shift lyrically; the start of the song is all about the beauty of the time, the love not wanting to part, not wanting to go to work... just wanting to lie in each others arms, throughout that quiet time, however at the end of the song the tempo shifts and I started to write about longing to get to that moment but having to wait for it, wait for them because complications (such is generally the case in affairs of the heart) make the situation painful and sad. The end note is a wee bit dismal... literally the last word is "you're so hard." I wanted to make a point of including the exhaustion that is ever present in relationships... hence the shift in tone and tempo to go along with the lyrical shift.

And a few questions for Ndidi:

1.) You make it very clear that your one and only love is the blues. Thinking back, when were you truly aware of your attraction to them? What is the earliest experience you can remember?

Well I fell in love with the blues when I heard a John Lee Hooker cassette (do you remember those..I used to love them) was a real bare bones recording. I think it may have taken place in his house, anyhow.. the guitar sounded so deep and distant and his voice was dark and slurred and there was something about the tone.. yes the tone of the sounds that were being created that hit something..

I think it made sense to me.. I could identify with the sorrow because.. that is something I experienced throughout most of my life.

John Lee Hooker - Grinder Man : The Complete Stax-Volt Soul Singles 1968-1971 (Disc 4)

2.) If you could pick any one blues player (living or dead) to work on an album with, who would it be and why?

John Lee Hooker or Little Walter to play and Screamin' Jay Hawkins to sing back ups..
they are all wild and hilarious - that's why I would want to work with them. I like to find the humour in life.

Little Walter - Muskadine Blues : The Road to Robert Johnson and Beyond

Screamin' Jay Hawkins - I Put a Spell On You : Cow Fingers and Mosquito Pie

3.) Many of your song titles have what I assume are initials in them. Can you explain why and / or what they mean?

I enjoy walking through graveyards.. particularly hidden ones.

The initials belong to names I saw on tombstones. These were my favorite names.

I thought writing the whole name would be weird so I abbreviated.


Although enmeshed in the blues, the album doesn't stick with what one would normally associate with a stripped down classic or traditional blues sound. I think for Ndidi the blues is an inspiration, a starting point, that she takes into the present with her own touch. She ventures off with some other flavors as well. Another track, which is one of my favorites on the album, is Move Together, which has got a gospel call and response feel to it coupled with a bluesy guitar crying out and punctuating that makes me just want to clap my hands and sing along. Then you have No Everybody, which begins with a reggae groove that then picks up a bit. Enjoy the following tracks, and then check out the album (you can stream the entire album here).

Visit her website, her label Jericho Beach Music, and become her friend on MySpace.

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