PLAYLIST: NNAMDÏ’s Songs to Isolate To
The Chicago songwriter and multi-instrumentalist talks BRAT, quarantine, and the tracks that are getting him through it.
There’s been an eerie trend of albums dropping these past few weeks that sound like they were written with quarantine in mind, ranging from the emotive introspection of Half Waif and Waxahatchee to the distractive pop quality of Dua Lipa and The Weeknd. Some were even written in a sort of pre-quarantine self-isolation, allowing them to age to perfection upon their April release date.
One such case is NNAMDÏ’s debut release under his modified moniker (formerly Nnamdi Ogbonnaya), which confoundingly bridges the gap between these two disparate sources of comfort. While frequently taking the form of buoyant pop and alt-R&B numbers, each track on BRAT sounds full of joy while also giving off the impression that the songwriter’s enjoying time spent alone. The varied experimental sounds—opening with near-flamenco acoustic guitar and later dipping into Nnamdi’s math-rock past—and hard-hitting hip-hop beats can’t always distract the listener from the sense of isolation at its core.
The truth is, BRAT was written entirely by Nnamdi himself, albeit with a few cameos from friends, including Sen Morimoto and Ratboys’ Julia Steiner. To get an idea for the headspace the songwriter inhabited while writing the record—and, inadvertently, the headspace we’re all going a little stir crazy in—we called him up to talk about a few of the songs he has on repeat while in isolation.
Stay home tomorrow and listen to BRAT—you can pre-order it here.
How have you been coping with the quarantine? Were you already planning to spend this time recording?
It’s just monotonous. I like having the option to go places—even if I don’t take that option most of the time—but not having the option just makes me think that I have to get a lot of shit done, even though no one’s really forcing me to. I wanna use this time wisely, but it’s like…how long will it last? How long will I be fuckin’ forcing myself to record? This could go on for so long, y’know? I’m just trying to teach myself to be calm, and to let whatever happens happen.
I think it’s hard for creative people who think this is their opportunity to write their novel or whatever. Even if there’s no pressure, you sort of put that on yourself.
Some days you just need to brood and kinda deal with your emotions, and what’s going on in the world—it’s fuckin’ heavy. I can’t be consistently working, I realize.
So you’re also sitting around listening to Chief Keef. What, for you, constitutes a “song to isolate to”?
These are songs that I listen to on repeat. Every song on that playlist is something I could listen to for, like, three hours straight, and time will go by however I want it to go by. These days have been feeling extra long to me, especially if I’ve been writing or reading. I want something to kind of soothe, and those are songs that help with that.
Were they songs you looked to before this happened?
Yeah, they were songs I listened to like that before quarantine, and I tried to find songs that made me feel calm, first of all. But also, some are calm in, like, a surreal and serene way, but others are calm but a little bit groovy. It’s just a spectrum of songs that make me feel calm in different ways.
I think a chunk of the songs don’t have drums. I’ve always wanted to make a playlist with songs without drums—especially raps songs. The song “Count on Me” by LUCKI I think has very sparse drums, but not much. “Citgo” has drums, but they’re so far in the background.
The Punch Brothers song, I think, is one of the greatest songs ever written. I could listen to that in any mood, at any moment, and it will make me feel good and sad and nostalgic—so many feelings.
I thought it was interesting how the playlist was split between rap and soft folk/country. Is that just your taste?
Yeah, I think that’s just been my vibe for a while. The Porches song, too—the new Porches record came out at a very good time for me, during this isolation. It’s a perfect isolation album, I feel like. “I Wanna Ride” is definitely a song that makes me long for being outdoors and driving around, but also good to listen to inside.
I really liked the Jodi track, though I didn’t know who that was.
My record label, Sooper Records, put out that album. They lived in Chicago for a few years, they’re from the Jersey/New York area. They were in Pinegrove originally—they were one of the O.G. writers—but then they stopped being in that band when they moved to Chicago. I think that was their first solo record—it was a five or six song EP called Karaoke, and every song on it is perfect. I think they’re one of the most creative songwriters, and one of the sweetest people. Every time I hear this song it makes me feel really good.
My quarantine listening habits have been especially nostalgic—have you gotten that at all?
I did fall into that after I found a photo from when I was in late middle school/early high school playing music. That’s when I really started getting into writing my own music and starting bands. Seeing that picture kind of just took me back on this journey of my musical growth. I don’t have a lot of pictures from growing up—I feel like other people do, but I’m like, “Who do I even ask for photos?” It was nice seeing a couple, and I’ve just been collecting them and posting them every day until the record drops.
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Would you consider BRAT a good album to isolate to?
I think that’s one of the things that’s keeping me going, keeping me positive during this time, because a lot of BRAT was recorded in a very self-isolated period of my life. I recorded all those songs by myself—there’s no other engineer in the room, it was literally just me for days recording different things. So I’m definitely not a stranger to self-quarantining. But I think it’ll speak to people on that level. There’s just a lot of thoughts that go through your head when you’re left alone with your mind. I feel like it can go a lot of different ways, and I think finding ways to remain positive and figuring out the things that are important to you and the things you need to be in order to live a comfortable life and be as happy as you can be. Those were things I was thinking when I was writing the record, so I think now is a good time for people to be hearing these songs.
Do you think what this album will mean to people will be different from what you’d intended pre-quarantine?
I think it’s just extenuated. All my emotions I put into it will be blown up because of the situation people are in, which hopefully is helpful and won’t get people too much in their feelings. But I think everything throughout the record has a general feeling of hope.
I wanted to ask about the Enya song—for as long as I can remember she’s always been sort of a pop culture punchline. I only hear her music in TV and movies used in sort of a jokey way. At what point were you like, “Oh shit, this is actually really good”?
I feel like the joke came after for me. My dad loved Enya and would play this song a lot. So I think there’s a little bit of me remembering that and giving me the feeling of childhood. Her voice is so soothing in kind of a majestic way—I see why people think it’s, like, humorous, but it’s just so angelic to me. Like being wrapped in a little warm blanket [laughs]. One of my dreams is to make a song with Enya. That would be the most legendary song of all time.
You gotta find her castle first.
Oh yeah, we gotta record in the castle, that’s mandatory.