The last time I saw Tony Njoku face-to-face was in 2019 at the intimate Cornish festival, and otherwise worst-kept industry secret, Knee Deep. Our conversation amongst the serene countryside views of the festival’s campsite was a convivial experience, and seeing him take his station on stage, I was awe-struck by the spectacle of his performance. The brashness and primal nature of his delivery – with the set ending with Tony on all fours, thumping the midi triggers of his keyboard that lay submissively on the floor with his fists – couldn’t have been in starker contrast to the delicate and vulnerable themes that inform much of his music.
Njoku’s latest release, a quick one-two punch of an EP entitled KILLTONY, stays true to the introspective path the artist has been treading throughout much of his career, but this time packages the epiphanies with musical motifs that feel more akin to the extroverted personality he exudes whilst on stage. Title track KILLTONY introduces his shadow self, blending liquid synths with skittish trap hi-hats as Njoku unrestrainedly picks apart the nuts and bolts of his personality, singing candidly about killing his ego in a therapeutic attempt to elicit radical personal change. Further explorations of the human psyche continue on The Strange Dance of Reality, a song fixating upon the muse of American choreographer Yvonne Rainer, who Njoku uses as a simulacrum of the human experience, paralleling her movements as a dancer to life’s formlessness and sometimes awkward toe-treading social interactions.
Over Zoom, Njoku displays none of these traits, however, with his personality beaming through the computer screen. Considering his sentences carefully, Njoku readily bares his soul, speaking on a range of subjects from the new record’s sharp focus on trap and hip-hop textures, to the candid admission that uncertainty is slowly creeping into his creative life. Through introspection, Njoku is on a path to self-improvement, and all of this honesty has created an individual who is calm and open, talkative and sincere, meaning our conversation unfolds naturally, just like it did the first time we spoke, now over two years ago.
Your new EP further expands upon the experimental nature of your music, this time utilising the harsher sounds of hip-hop and trap as the record’s predominant genre of focus. As an artist who has always had an eclectic sound palette, I’ve never really heard you venture into these types of textures before, so what motivated you to take the music in this direction this time around?
So, I think the music I’ve presented to the world so far has been one thing, but in terms of the music I’ve been creating and kept to myself, a lot of these sounds have shown themselves in the work I’ve made over the years already. So to me, these sounds don’t really feel that new, it’s just that now feels like the right time to start sharing the music.
Also I think it’s because I live with my younger brother who is a rapper and producer. He works with that internet, hyper-active, ‘molly rap’ kinda thing, and he does it amazingly well. His ear for melodies is incredible. So I live with him, and I guess that by living with him, it’s given me the confidence to explore the ‘rap’ space more and just experiment and have the confidence to share it with people, rather than just leaving it to myself and thinking, “because I’m not from this space, do I have the legitimacy to share this kinda music?”
It feels like KILLTONY is an extension on from the direction you took on the Justine EP, a record that you say was, “…the most influenced by modern R&B and hip hop” you’ve put out to date. Would you say you’ve started to feel more comfortable writing in this particular style over recent years?
Yeah, I am more comfortable absolutely. But you know, I did these EP’s as more of an experiment. Maybe if I do another album, I’m still going to be working with these R&B and hip-hop textures, but I don’t know how invested I’m going to be in these sounds in the long run.
It’s interesting that you say that because as an outsider looking in, trap and other rap-based sub-genres seem to be some of the most exciting and innovative spaces in music at the moment. So even with this EP being a one off, what were some of the musical elements of the genres that you were most excited to start utilising?
I love the grooves that a lot of trap and modern hip-hop producers find in their beats. One of my favourite producers is Pierre Bourne, and he does all of the Playboi Carti stuff. You know the song ‘Magnolia’ by Playboi Carti? The most amazing thing about that song, aside from Playboi Carti’s flow, was the groove that the beat takes. It’s very unique, and in all sorts of pop music I’ve never really heard that kind of bounce done so distinctly. I tried to emulate that feel in the KILLTONY track a bit whilst still trying to keep my own identity.
I know from reading your record credits you’re not adverse to having other people come in and contribute to what you do, and for this EP you have both ZORO and your brother New World Ray featuring on different tracks. What do you think you gain creatively from having other people come in and contribute to the music?
Well, every time I’ve collaborated it’s felt very curatorial, if that makes sense. So it’s funny that you say that you think I’m quite collaborative, because for me I’m actually thinking, “I could finish this song on my own, but it would be nice to have this person whose tone of voice sounds nice to sing and harmonise with”.
So you’re picking people based on what they can bring to the track sonically rather than their creative ideas?
Exactly. And that’s not to say that I don’t trust people’s creative ideas. I do. It’s just that I have this bad habit of being very stuck in my ways when I’ve started a song [laughs], so for me it always has to come out in a certain way. I’m sure in the future I’ll open up and collaborate more.
Well let’s focus on your songwriting process for a moment. You’ve acknowledged that your music comes from an emotional place, and that your creative ideas stem from a reaction to how you are feeling at the time of writing. As the last year has been so emotionally volatile for everyone, have you noticed your music change and the type of subjects you want to explore alter?
To be honest, I don’t think it’s influenced my subject matter all that much, but I think the isolation may of heightened my songwriting for other reasons. Over the years, my subject matter has been about turning inwards and looking at myself with more self-reflection and self-evaluation. And I’ve always wondered, “why don’t I write more songs that aren’t so directly about my experiences?” I hear so much drama surrounding my friends, so why don’t I write songs about that? Even if I’m not going to go write something about the political status-quo, I could still write about things outside of my experiences, but I haven’t, I’ve gone inwards instead.
So to dig a bit deeper then, as much of your music centres upon self-exploration and honesty, has this current round of songwriting revealed to you anything new about yourself that you didn’t know beforehand?
[Deep in thought] Yeah, some personal things have come up. I’ve also realised I’m not as patient as I used to be [laughs]. I get irritated a lot easier these days, and I keep on seeing that in the lyric choices I make. Also, I’m a lot less certain of myself now.
Really? I wouldn’t have expected you to say that.
Yeah, that’s something I’ve noticed a lot since doing the Justine EP. Really a lot less certain of myself. It manifests itself in things like second guessing an idea before the confidence kicks in. I’m just second guessing everything, and not just in music but in life in general.
That’s interesting because the music on the EP comes across as some of the most confident and committed you’ve released so far.
Well, I think the doubt can be a good thing sometimes. It can be good that I second guess because as soon as I’m aware I’m having doubts I can double down and be like, “oh you know what, this isn’t that important. It’s just my inner voice playing tricks on me.” Thinking like that can help me be more confident and go more deeper into what I’m doing, Luckily with KILLTONY, it was just all about going extra; forget about all the insecurities and the uncertainties and just go into it.
The lyrics to the song KILLTONY, which you’ve explained as being about “killing ego, facing your shortcomings, owning up to your bad traits, mistakes and wrong doings”, seem very raw. Do you find it tough being so open and honest with yourself when songwriting takes you in that ‘introspective’ direction?
Yeah 100%. It’s tough to face it. There’s also the anxiety of other people looking at the lyrics and reading into them. I don’t like diving into it too much in conversation. What I’m saying is already vulnerable, and for me it’s plain as day as to what I’m saying.
So when writing songs that have such vulnerable themes, what’s your primary motive for doing so?
It’s therapeutic. It’s a letting go of whatever the insecurity I’m writing about is. It’s part of the whole songwriting process to excavate and explore my inner world and character, to unearth it, put it on wax and then let that thing go and grow from it. That’s what it’s all personally about, how am I going to grow from this?
I love how your music sometimes references physical art, and The Strange Dance of Reality is apparently inspired by the dancer Yvonne Rainer. Why did you pick her as a subject and what relation does her art have to the song?
Back in art school in Falmouth, I found a book called ‘Feelings Are Facts’ that was based around her work, and I was just riveted by it. I’ve been thinking about her throughout the years and researching her work, so in terms of movement as a way of expressing feelings and ideas, a lot of her movements try to embody human existence. It feels formless, it feels shapeless, but that’s how life unfolds sometimes, it’s not always one way. There are patterns, but the patterns are always different and nothing is regular about life, and so that was the thinking behind the song. One line in the song goes, “I follow Yvonne’s lead, her awkward movements…”, and it’s that formless dance that just interprets the life we all go through.
So it’s one big metaphor for how you’ve experienced life up until this point?
Okay, well the KILLTONY EP continues your run of short releases post 2019’s YOUR PSYCHE’S RAINBOW PANORAMA. I was originally going to ask, “has the EP given way to some new musical ideas that may be more fully explored in the future?”, but it feels like what you’ve done here is going to be put on the shelf as you move on to something else.
You know it’s interesting, I’m never sure if this constant moving from space to space helps my general practise. I don’t even like thinking about it because it’s kind of like musical ADD [laughs]. I can’t sit down in one place, because I want to go and explore other things very quickly. Even whilst I was doing the KILLTONY EP I was like, “you know, I really want to write a symphony”. So I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t really have the prowess to do something good yet, so I’m still learning and teaching myself, but that’s where my head has been. Today I’m making a trap beat, but tomorrow I’m going to make a piano ballad, and the next day it may be a sixty-minute drone session. So maybe tomorrow I’ll want to work on the trap beats, but I feel that the next day things may be very different.
Words: Danny Brown // Photography: Jordan Woods
KILLTONY is out now and can be streamed via Tony Njoku’s Bandcamp.