Perfect In My Mind: Chicago’s NNAMDÏ on BRAT, Blurring Genre and Making Art in a Turbulent World

Dusty Henry

If there’s anything consistent in Chicago artist NNAMDÏ’s music, it’s that he never stays in one place for very long. Trying to define his music by a singular genre is a futile task. An experimentalist that follows his creative whims, NNAMDÏ’s albums are thrilling bouts of sonic whiplash.

With his latest album, BRAT, NNAMDÏ’s found his greatest stride yet with another collection of eclectic songs that, while sounding drastically different, create the best entry point for NNAMDÏ yet. Throughout the album, you’ll hear bits of math rock, hip-hop and pop production, indie rock dirges, singer-songwriter serenades, and more – sometimes even on the same track.

NNAMDÏ’s varied style is representative of the scene he lives and works in. For years, he’s been an active participant in Chicago’s DIY scene – throwing shows at his parents' home which was eventually dubbed ‘NNAMDÏ’s Pancake House.’ The DIY mindset still rings true with NNAMDÏ, who still self-records and performs all the instruments on BRAT. The album was also released under Sooper Records, which NNAMDÏ co-founded.

While NNAMDÏ’s experimentalist, impulsive tendencies were showcased excellently with past releases like 2017’s DROOL and 2014’s FECKIN WEIRDO, BRAT finds a flow that weaves all these seemingly disparate sounds into a cohesive experience. It’s a peek into the multifaceted person that NNAMDÏ is and his unwillingness to be pigeonholed into one thing.

It’s not just luck either. Despite what the title may imply, BRAT finds NNAMDÏ maturing as an artist and refining his approach – all without losing the loose and spastic fun that he can’t help but exude in all of his work. While making the album, NNAMDÏ wrestled with existential questions about the role of an artist and what it means to make art in uncertain times. As the times have become, well, even more uncertain, these questions still ring true but NNAMDÏ’s album itself justifies the pursuit of seeking meaning through art.

We caught up with NNAMDÏ earlier this month to talk about the creation of the record, following his muse, and how he’s coping with COVID-19 as an artist and label owner.


transcription by Miina Beyreis

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KEXP: Listening to your back catalog through this new record, it seems like you don't like to stay in one place for very long – sometimes mixing lots of different sounds on the same song, even. There are lots of really fun, surprising moments and left turns and kind of just not caring about a specific genre. How did you start to develop your sound and take this approach?

NNAMDÏ: I don't think anything I did was very meticulously thought out. I feel like all of the things I make are just like very emotional, like whatever I'm feeling in the moment is what I'll do. So I usually don't set out to be like, I'm going to write this rap song. Most of the time I usually don't set out to do that, unless I'm trying to curate it like a very specific sound. But that's usually not how I go about recording. I just record as much as I can, usually, until I have a chunk of songs that I'm like, Oh, these sound like this. And then I'll write based on those songs to finish a project if I see similarities and things that work together.

So when I'm writing stuff, I'm just writing and recording, whatever comes. There's definitely influences in there. It's like everyone starts off imitating people, whether they think they are or not, it's just subconsciously the things you've picked up, the things you've heard are just in your music. So it's definitely in there. But I, for one, was not actively trying to imitate anything or do anything in particular. I just love to do it. It's kind of like meditation. Something to do to keep me from doing other dumb things, you know?

I'm sure it's a question you get a lot. I read a lot of interviews about that specifically. I think it's interesting because I think most artists I talk to don't care for being pegged down to a genre. It's just really exciting to see someone that's making music that just goes. It feels impulsive, in a really good way. It feels organic and impulsive. Does it ever get tiring people bringing it up to you?

A little bit because... Yeah, I feel it's important to be able to explain for lots of different reasons, like definitely marketing. It's definitely important to be able to explain what your music is or what it means to you. But, I don't know, the use of all these genres. I feel like it's so easy to just brush someone, or put someone in this one category. Just by hearing someone else say it, you know, like. And I try to steer as far away from that as possible just so people don't have any expectations with my music like. Yeah. I don't think people should expect anything I do to have a particular sound, and I don't think that people should expect things everything I do to be for them to like, you know. I'm usually making it because there's a feeling, something I feel that needs to be said or needs to be made and. Yeah, I just want to encourage people to maybe find different descriptors of things they enjoy. Which is hard in itself, trying to come up with a new language to describe what you're listening to.

There's something about that seems kind of freeing, though, to just kind of like, I'm not going to care about making this a rock record or a math-rock record or a hip hop record. It's just whatever it is that I make. Right?

And a lot of my music had to do with my surroundings, too. My last record 'DROOL' was mostly electronic and rap songs as well. But I didn't have access to recording with a full drum set or real instruments unless I went somewhere far away or spent a bunch of money, which I didn't have. So yeah, it's just also just very much a product of where I am and the access I have and how I'm feeling in the moment.

Yeah. And especially on this new record, which I want to dig into more, is how you do all these different sounds, but the way you arrange it or sequence it or put it all together, it feels cohesive and natural. When I was trying to describe 'BRAT' to somebody, I was like “There are acoustic songs, there are math rock songs, there's more hip hop leading songs. I don't know what to tell you, but when you put it on, you'll get it.” But for you, how do you kind of build that consistency on your records while you're doing so many different types of music?

I don't think I've done it on any other record. I mean 'DROOL' all fit together because it was mostly electronic sounds like all the sounds work together. But previous records I've done where it's a little more sporadic songs. I don't think I ever really reached the point where it was like a cohesive story and feeling. All of those other records were connected. Just me being the connecting factor. People were like, "This is definitely NNAMDÏ being NNAMDÏ." But I feel like this is the first record I've put out where I've combined all or most of my consistent musical interests. And yeah, it's just like a more cohesive story. And I think that just came with age and kind of understanding the flow of how my music works and how music works in general. Yeah, it definitely comes with age and experience.


When did you start writing 'BRAT'?

I would say two years ago. The oldest track on 'BRAT' was written around the same time as 'DROOL'. But I just made the beat around the same time, and then I didn't know what to do with it. So yeah, the oldest thing is three years ago. But I'd say I started writing it more about two years ago. I kind of already hinted at this, but the way my writing process works is I just record a bunch of songs and then I start to notice similarities and I'll chunk them together and I'll chunk a different group of songs together. And then after a while, I'll be like, Okay, I'm going to focus on these songs and then write more songs that feel like these because that's where my head is at right now. So the beginning process of writing the album is very slow. And then towards the end, it's more like, OK, I know kind of what I'm going for.

When you started kind of putting 'BRAT' together, what sort of ideas and themes were you seeing in that batch of songs that seem to fit together, and what ideas of things that you want to explore with the album?

A lot of ideas I was saying had to do with my wants and my needs. It was during the transition of doing music full time. I was learning how to balance my time between tours and just figuring out what works for me and what I really want as a human, first and foremost. And, yeah, it was a lot of overthinking, a lot of self-reflecting. And dark ways, the ways that went too deep and in ways that were beneficial. Self-reflecting on how I interact with myself when I'm alone and how I communicate with others, and what I hold to be important myself. Those are definitely themes. These feelings of selfishness for pursuing a career that seems not guaranteed for a lot of people, like there's a lot of people that are great at music and great at songwriting that haven't even got to the point where I've gotten. I'm not like haven't got to like a crazy big point, but a lot of people don't even get to go on tours or do any of that. And I felt lucky enough to just kind of do it, even though my first tour tours, I just booked myself through MySpace. So it's not glamorous. But I recognize the privilege in every step of the way in my music career. And I've thought about that so much the past couple years. Just my privilege, even though, I didn't have money, but I had the time. I didn't have the responsibilities of having children or a family to take care of, so I could actually focus on music because no one needed me to do anything for them. So that's a privilege in itself. Yeah. I was just like piecing all these things together. So a lot of that information is on 'BRAT'.

When you announced the tour cancelations due to Covid-19, you'd mentioned that 'BRAT' was written about choosing to create art in an increasingly turbulent world and how that could feel selfish. But then you kind of pushed back against that idea. And so that is not selfish. Can you talk about that?

I think just being an empathetic person, you have to realize how blessed you are to do something that you love to do and get paid for it. Because everyone knows people that work jobs that they hate, like from 9 to 5 every day. And I could never do that. And I worked and kind of put myself into the position where I didn't have to do that and. Yeah, it's just a very... I don't know. It's such a crazy blessing. Yeah, I don't think that actively anymore. But for a while, that was weighing on me a lot. Knowing that I could get a decent job, a decent paying job that I hated but be able to help my friends and family like way quicker. But, knowing that I would hate myself, hate my life if I did that. And choosing to do this other thing, where I hope this works. I am passionate about it. I am going to work as hard as I can, but also nothing is promised in that field like so. Yeah. It felt selfish at times.

Throughout the whole record, you have a mantra you repeat, "I need you, need something new". What does that phrase mean to you and why did you want that kind of running throughout the album?

It means a lot to me now, but it's something that kind of just came to me and wouldn't go away. So I was like, this must be important if I keep saying it. So it definitely came from a subconscious place. And I kind of just rolled with it. But the more I repeated it, the more meaning was kind of applied to it. I think it means a lot of things that I need. What I need out of my relationships with friends and family. How I need to like respond to... What's the best way to put it? Yeah, just basically how I need to, what I need to do in order to live a healthy life, and how I need to interact with people and what I need from them in return, if anything. And also, just knowing that I always push myself and always want more. Like, I'm kind of never satisfied with where I'm at. Whether that's how I play my instruments, where I'm at with drums, I always want to be better. So I'm always hard on myself and sometimes I have to realize that I am enough in that moment. So like I have to realize, no, I'm good. I need to be myself. But also I need to realize, yes, it's in me that I want to be better always and I want to get to that next step. So it's kind of just realizing things like that.

As you're piecing together, I know we've kind of already touched on this a little bit, but when you're kind of putting together the sonic palette of it because it's so separate, what were you trying to reflect through the instrumental side of the record and how it makes these turns? Does it tie back to the themes you're talking about at all?

I don't think I was actively thinking about that. I think it kind of just organically happened in ways where I was combining like electronic and acoustic instruments. I feel like a thing that ties it together well, is some songs are strictly alike or strictly acoustic instruments. Some songs are strictly electronic and there are songs with both. And I think the songs with both help tie the two opposites together and the mantra, I think definitely helps tie everything together as well. But yeah, I wasn't actively thinking about the sonic palette during the initial creation. And I think the first chunk of songs were very probably the most different on the record. So I think the ones that combined them came after, to make things flow a little bit better.


On the song “It’s OK” repeat the simple phrase. There's no need to pretend you're okay if you're not. Which I think kind of resonates even a little harder now. It really struck me when I first heard it, but these days even more so. I'm curious about the inspiration behind that song. And who are you talking to? Are you talking to yourself, talking to folks listening, or both?

Definitely both. I think it was definitely very important for me to say that out loud so I could hold myself to it in times where... I don't really like talking about my business at all with anyone. I don't know, if there's a problem in my life, I like to just deal with it usually on my own. But that's not always fair to the people you're around, you know, like if you're going through something and you just like trying to figure it out. Me, I don't have a poker face so people can tell if I'm mad or angry and sometimes I'm just like, I'm good. And then they're like, OK. Clearly not. And I'll just figure it out on my own. But yeah, I think just kind of it put me in a place where I allowed myself to be a little bit more open with people that were open with me. I'm still not the type of person to just post shit on the Internet, like how I'm feeling all the time. But yeah, it's just like the people I'm around. That's another term. Another version of selfishness to me is if people are like around you and like are giving you that certain amount of energy and you're not reciprocating it, I think it's pretty one-sided, even in terms of sharing negative information. Me, I'm just like, damn I don't want to share this because I don't want to bring anyone into my funk. But like. It ends up not being fair to people you're close to, to do that as well.


Yeah, because that energy is going to emanate and manifest somehow, you know. I'm also really curious about the imagery with the album. I loved the music video for “Wasted” as well as the album cover. I was curious about the thought behind the imagery and what you were trying to convey about the record through it?

I think a good way to look at those visuals is like a kind of like a kid's birthday party gone awry. That was the first thing I thought of when I thought of the album cover and I really knew that I wanted "Wasted" and the album cover to be the same imagery. So that was something that I knew right off the bat when I was coming up with the album cover and writings, the song "Wasted". Yeah, it's... I feel like it was very simple, but also my facial expression and the pose gets off my kind of sillier side. To me it's a pretty iconic picture, my friend took. She did. She snapped. She did. She did great. So, yeah, I was kind of going for kind of light, a light picture, but also serious at the same time. Because that's how I feel a lot of the time. Even in dark situations, I try to make a lot of jokes. I think no matter how low I get, there's always like some form of humor. I'll still crack a joke in my lowest hour. And that's just part of who I am. So. Both, both sides of the coin, I think, are displayed in that art and the video too.

Totally. I feel like that comes through in the music as well on the album. There's definitely a lot of these moments are more like levity and introspection, but there's also just some really fun, exuberant moments like "Gimme, Gimme", coming out of "Flowers to my Demons" to that song. It's just energizing and fun. And I don't know if you're trying to keep that balance in it, but it seems like we get to see a lot of different facets of you on the album.

Yeah, definitely. The flow of the songs was very intentional. It's definitely mental. Crescendo and then ride the high you're on. And then it will drop down when it needs to. So it is all very intentional organizing.


You also co-run Sooper records. Can you tell me a little about the label and how it got started and the idea behind starting the label?

I really didn't want to start a label at the time, honestly, because I'd tried to do three other kinds of label-like things over the course of throughout my high school college career. And it just didn't work because I for one was not fully invested in it. And I didn't have the Know-How or skillset or the energy to do it because I was also in school for some of them. But yeah, I met this man who's now my friend named Glenn Curran. I think we met outside of a show. He used to be in this band, The New Diet, I think he was in towards the end of it. And also this band, Longface. Yeah, we just started talking at a show one day. He was in a suit, which was really funny to me, like a very unbuckled suit. I don't even know why it was so funny to me. But just in the context of where we were, it was like a rock show and there's this one guy in a suit. But I found out from talking to him that he was a lawyer and he just got off work and came straight to the show. And yeah, we hit it off and just became really good friends and started working on a recording project of his called Man Without a Head. And just through that process, we got we became really close and he was like we know so many dope musicians that no one knows about these people and they're so cool and talented. And he's like, "We should really start something to put out their music." And I've never done that. Well, yeah, just his passion and our friendship kind of grew. It made so much sense to start it with him. I don't think it would have happened without any other person, honestly. But. Yeah, that's kind of how that came into the world.

That's awesome. How do you kind of curate the bands that you put out and what are you working on right now?

It's been a direct connection, so people we've ever made music with or have seen play shows or played shows with, so it's usually something where one of us has a direct connection with them. We haven't taken any random person emailing us, as of yet. But who knows what will happen in the future? Mostly Chicago based. We put out St. Louis based band and someone from New York as well, but they lived in Chicago for a little bit. Yeah. It's just curated. We will put out a lot of tapes early on, which we've kind of dwindled down and now we're focusing on those people who are visibly passionate and who are in it. We're just, this is the thing that I want to do. A lot of times we're putting out people's music who we loved, but it wasn't there. I don't know. You can tell kind of the difference between people who are just like I refuse to do anything like this is the thing that I'm called to do. And people who are doing it because they love to do it, but are also just like if it's not in the cards, it's not in the cards. So yeah we focus more on people who don't have an option B who are just like, I have to do this. And we see that in some people and we're just like going as hard behind them as possible.

How's it been navigating the Covid-19 as a label owner and an indie artist? I know you're about to go on tour with Wilco and lots of other opportunities on the album release.

It’s fucking insane right now. There's so much uncertainty and no matter what anyone says, no one is 100 percent sure when things will be back to any semblance of normality. It's so up in the air. The Wilco tour isn't until August, but that shit could get canceled still. You know, it definitely could and it relies on so many factors which we have no control over it, which is horrible. Running the label, we have a few releases planned for this year and now we kind of have to reevaluate how we're gonna approach the releases. Because a lot of the physical marketing has gone down because people make a lot of their money from selling their physical products on tour. Those are things we have to consider, whether we put less money into physical and then more money into some other aspect of a release. Or what? So we're learning and adapting and navigating as we go. Well, hopefully, it goes back to us being able to play live shows.

Yeah, I know a lot of people are feeling that. I think you kind of mentioned the beginning of our call that you were working on some music? Do you find it's easy to work on art right now? Are you able to focus on that? Is that a relief at all or anything?

It’s very bipolar. It's like extreme ends of the spectrum. Because on one and I have this record coming out. And it's literally the only thing bringing me joy really consistently has been knowing it's coming out soon and every day I'm just like one more day, one more day. So yeah, I'm so pumped about that and everything surrounding it. I've had so many bucket list things happen and just good energy from people. So that's positive. But then there'll be huge shifts where it just... I don't know. Just worrying about friends paying rent, people losing their jobs. It's so hard to be balanced, so every day I just kind of try to meditate and find the balance before I do anything else. But yeah, it's on and off. Some days I'll be like I just recorded or I just made music for eight hours straight and then there'll be a couple of days in a row where I'm just like, I literally don't want to talk to anyone. So. I don't know. It's kind of evolving and trying to. Yeah, it's the balance that is the most important thing for me. Because I can get as mad as I want, but it's like, what do I do with that energy? If I don't put it into something positive, then I feel like it's a waste. But when I'm feeling that negative, I kind of just like, all right, maybe I just need to chill and do something relaxing. Hop on Netflix, watch something fun. Yeah, just being okay with not getting anything done is something new to me because I never feel like I'm doing enough as it is, so this pandemic has really brought that to the forefront.

That definitely resonates. I'm hearing a lot of the same things from other people too – some days I want to be super productive and do all these things and then other days I'm just going to sit here and deal with this.

That's what you gotta do. You got to have that balance. I don't think anyone will be able to go the whole time every day without having moments of what the hell is going on in the world. Like everyone I know is having those moments. It's good to go back to making it for fun.

'BRAT' is available now. Stream it in full and/or purchase it from Bandcamp below.


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