Tolü Makay: ‘I thought I was superwoman, I thought I could do it all’

‘It’s my first time doing an album, so you learn.’ The singer reflects on 2021


For Tolü Makay’s burgeoning career, this year started as it meant to go on. On December 31st, 2020, she appeared on RTÉ’s NYE Countdown Show with a stop-in-your-tracks, emotive reinterpretation of The Saw Doctors’ N17 with her rich caramel vocals complemented by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. At a time when households felt isolated and Irish emigrants couldn’t come home, it created a shared moment when it was needed the most.

“The performance was just another gig for me. But I didn’t expect to create a huge moment. I had no idea that would happen,” she says. In the weeks that followed, the clip snowballed online; RTÉ’s Twitter and YouTube posts gathered more than one million views. Notable names like Dara Ó Briain to author Jane Casey sung her praises, and Graham Norton echoed many a person’s fragile states on New Year’s Day by saying it “reduced me to a sobbing mess”.

“I was like: Graham Norton? Am I seeing that name correctly?,” Makay says, laughing. “And getting validation from The Saw Doctors, the owners of the song, was a moment of realising that I might have done something really good.”

Her moment in the spotlight, however, coincided with a tragedy in the black community: the death of George Nkencho, the 27-year-old black man who was killed by armed gardaí just hours before Makay’s performance on the national broadcaster. “It meant I didn’t know how to feel. It felt very upsetting, if I’m honest,” she reflects.

She spent the next few weeks in a remote part of Co Clare, concentrating on songwriting. “Where I was staying, I literally had to stand behind a specific corner of my window to get internet connection, so not being around social media helped me refocus and recharge, even with all that madness that was going on in the world,” she says. “I just tried to do my best, because what else can you do with the opportunity than just use it.”

Debut album

Makay was born in Nigeria and moved to Co Wexford when she was five, then relocated to Tullamore. The Makay family grew up on a varied musical diet that incorporated both African and western sensibilities – everything from Yoruba and African-American gospel music to Beyoncé, Adele, Florence and the Machine and Snoop Dogg. Music became an active part in her life when she joined the choir at her Pentecostal Church, and turned into a calling after she won a national gospel competition in 2016. Her first EP, Being, was released in October 2020.

She felt the pinch of not being able to perform in-person shows during lockdown, though her first headline tour was able to take place last week. The preparation caused her to push back her album’s release from the end of 2021 to early 2022. It was a decision she made confidently, as these last months showed her the value in biding her time. “I wanted to reflect on the year and add some new songs to sum up my thoughts and feelings. But I thought I was superwoman, I thought I could do it all, and then I realised I did not have the time that I thought I had,” she says. “It’s my first time doing an album, so you learn from these things.

Plus, “society was taught a huge lesson in 2020 that no matter how important or rich you are, if life does its thing, there’s nothing you can do about it. So I’m learning to be patient, and check in with my mind and my heart and my soul that I’m doing the right thing, that I’m doing what feels good to me”.

Before the album release phase kicks into action, Makay is overdue a trip to Nigeria to see family and friends for Christmas. “Nigeria is fun. It’s parties, it’s a vibe,” she explains. “In Ireland and the western world, everyone’s in their homes for Christmas but in Nigeria, what happens is that young Nigerians from all over the world come back so it’s a huge party for the entire month, it’s lit.”

The trip will set her up nicely for 2022, a year that’s set to make her more prolific. If that wasn’t evident by the much-touted debut album, a planned debut US tour, or that Spotify added Makay’s recent single Behavin Like a Lil B to their new pop UK playlist – the misappropriation of being from the UK is always a sure sign that big things are to come.

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