Interview: Simi On Being A Judge on Nigerian Idol, Music Company And New Album ‘To Be Honest’

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Throughout most of the 2000s, the Nigerian pop music landscape was dominated by men like 2 Face, D’ Banj, P Square, 9ice and more. The women on the scene tended to be one dimensional as a result of the societal expectations imposed on them by society. However, it seems the success of Tiwa Savage opened the floodgates and the dimensions. One of those to emerge was a certain Simisola Bolatito Ogunleye. While she emerged as a gospel singer and her debut project, Ogaju was released in 2008, she re-emerged in 2014 with Tiff and a record deal with X3M Music and never looked back.

Year after year, she displayed her all round music talents as a writer, performer, producer and now, engineer. In doing that, she set herself apart as one of the foremost talents of our age. Of late, she’s been moonlighting as a judge on Nigerian Idol and building music power coupledom with Adekunle Gold.

Editor in Chief, Oluwamayowa Idowu and Writer, Adaora Nwangwu caught up with her over a Zoom and the conversation below ensued;

Like many great artists you started singing in church, could you take us to the moment when you realised you could make music full-time? 

I don’t think it was necessarily about knowing I can do it. For me, it has always been a passion thing. I’ve always been so drawn. It’s weird because I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of music. I just loved the idea of a beautiful melody and words together, creating something. It was just magic to me. There were a lot of things I like to do, but this was the one thing that seemed like it was my destiny. As very rehearsed that my sound, it just feels perfect and because that’s how I felt about this, I knew that I was going to do whatever it took to be this person that I saw myself being. I knew I was going to be a singer for the longest time since I was a teenager.

Your sound has been pretty consistent in the way you have evolved, from the beginning to now. You have been pretty much R&B all through. Do you feel like you have to put on for that genre of music or are you just like, this is what I know, I can’t do anything else? 

It’s interesting that you ask that because I have had people actually underrate me for switching sounds. I have heard people say stuff like ‘I miss the old Simi’. For me, I try to move with time. I also try it in a way that suits me. I’m conscious of the kind of voice that I have. I’ve had people ask me why I don’t take high notes. I can. For example, my voice is really light. There are some pitches that would go on, and I don’t like the way that it might make my voice sound so I’d rather not. I think for me it’s more like, what is working for my voice by the time and how I’m feeling in the moment. I’m not the kind of person that would do something because that’s what everyone is doing, because it’s not sustainable. The trend will always shift and I am definitely evolving and also mindful of my signatures.

You are coming off this album after working as a judge on Nigerian Idols. How did that come about? How did you end up being a television talent judge and how did you find the experience?

They reached out to me. To be honest, I’ve actually always wondered what it will be like to be a judge. I was excited to experience that and I had so much fun. It was fun because I am an artiste and that was like being in an element I’ve never really seen myself in before. So, it was nice to be a part of the journey of the artistes trying to come up and also break out in the industry.

To Be Honest is an interesting name, how did you settle on this album title?

I wanted to give a peek behind the scenes of what’s happening in my life and what has happened. Things that have affected me. In some cases, my reaction to strange things that have happened. I just felt like it’d be nice to do something like that because I’ve never done anything like that before. It’s a different perspective. 

This is your third project since you launched your record label, walk us through your process. When did it start? How did you decide the songs that would make the album? Was it different from your last project?

I have been working on it for like 3 years. I had the idea of the kind of project I would create next but then I wasn’t sure what I was going to make or the sound I would have. I think I went back and forth on that for a while and then I got pregnant. My husband gave me the idea to do an R&B EP then I did Restless II. I was working on it while I was pregnant but every once in a while I would record something for To Be Honest. I just kept going back and forth on that but I really started focusing on finishing the album last year. I designed this album, three-four times. Sometimes I will feel like it is ready and I would be like ‘Nah, I don’t want this song and I would add like four songs and start again. It kept going on like that until I felt it was finally ready then I sent it to my distribution.

I’ve listened to the album a couple of times. And I think one of the things that kind of stood out to me was the single Naked Wire and how it was very revealing by your standards because I think anyone who’s followed your career knows you only let us know what you want to let us know. So I was just curious considering how close you’ve been with your personal life, why did you decide to give us a peek behind the curtain now?

I guess like all the other projects that I put out, I just like to create things that kind of align with where my head is at. I’m much less cautious about doing things now. I’ve always been pretty outspoken. I just felt it would be nice to just share my experiences. For example, the song Loyal is inspired by an experience I have with a friend. I’m giving you some details. I just thought it would be a side of me that people haven’t really seen before. I also thought it would be interesting to create something like that.

There are only two features on this album; your husband and Fave. Why them?

The features on this album have gone through fire. So much has happened and there’s stuff I can’t even say because it might paint some people in a bad light or it might just be weird. For this album, I wanted it to tell the story that I wanted to tell and I also wanted to share it with people that would add to the story, and bring out what I was trying to do. It was important for me to pay attention to the features that I wanted. The song Loyal with Fave still had the same energy but it was a different song and had a different feature. So I changed the beat and had to pull the verse. Because I didn’t want to just go from one to one, I changed my verse because I wanted different energy so I could think and decide who I wanted on the song. I did not mind doing the entire album by myself but there are some songs I felt needed an extra voice. My team and I were just talking and going back and forth. They mentioned Fave and I was like, “oh my god, I love her style. I feel like she’s gonna kill this” and she did. I also like the synergy that we had in the song. As for my husband, he is a baddie. How can you have somebody like Adekule Gold in your house and you don’t feature him? 

What are your favourite records to write and record on the album? What record means the most to you. What record did you enjoy, like, creating and executing on most?

Interesting. They all did different things for me. Some were easier to write than others. Naked Wire was pretty easy to write. I didn’t really struggle at all but some of them have been I’ve been through bigger fires and some have taken different forms. Story Story is the first song on the album. I’ve had one with a different beat and have one with a different flow. I don’t think there’s anyone that I enjoyed writing to. They all came from different places.

You left X3M music to begin Studio Brat making you one of the few women who owns a record label. What inspired this move and how has the journey been so far?

Well, being signed under a record label as someone else is different from being entirely responsible for yourself and your career. I thought that like I needed that challenge. I needed to be able to take more risks that wasn’t dependent on someone else. I felt like I was at that point where I wanted more because X3m was an incredible level. One of the things I enjoyed the most was my creative freedom, which was important to me and it was really amazing but I wanted more. I wanted to be able to do more and take more risks, and I knew that that was going to be dependent on me so I started my own company Studio Brat and it has really been amazing so far.

Do you plan on signing artistes?

I don’t know. Maybe as we go on. I’m a very intentional person and I don’t like to do things because people expect it of me and I think some people underestimate how much of a responsibility it is to sign someone. If I sign you, I’m responsible for your career and your growth. Whatever it is you are going to be as a musician is on me and I feel like for me to take on that responsibility, I have to mean it and be able to have time to dedicate to that person’s career and I don’t feel like I am there yet. 

I was reading a previous interview you did where you talked about the period you were pregnant and someone tried to negotiate a deal and they said “she is pregnant why do we have to pay her that amount?”. How do you think we can make the Nigerian music industry more equitable towards women. What do you think we need to be trying to do? 

Definitely giving women more opportunities, especially women that deserve it. I don’t think people should give opportunities to women just because they are women because that in itself kind of sounds disrespectful. A lot of women deserve these opportunities. They deserve to be in spaces. You have things happening, and then there’s like 20 guys and one woman. That can be really frustrating. I’ve said this before, I know a couple of new cool new artists, but I’m not sure. But it’s like you still have to do like 20 times the work to get half the result and it can be frustrating because people might feel ‘why are they talking about it?’ because we’re the ones experiencing it. 

One thing that kind of sets you apart from most of your peers or contemporaries is how obviously multifaceted you are. You write, perform, produce and engineer.  How were you able to build such unique skill sets? Do you ever feel like within the Nigerian industry you don’t get enough respect as opposed to maybe if you were a man or you were a bit more boastful about your skill sets.

To answer the last question first, definitely. Somebody said to me the other day “Simi you mix too?”. It’s a jamb question. I’ve been mixing all my songs. I am a perfectionist. One of the reasons why I actually learned how to mix was because I know exactly what I want to hear especially on my songs and I know how I want it to go. I also know that it can be a bit tedious when I’m telling someone what to do and because they’re not seeing the same vision as I am, they can be like, it’s okay, is it not still nice like this. I am the kind of person that can record the same line 100 times, to get it exactly how I want it, because I know I’m the only one that can probably accommodate all that. I feel like it was important for me to learn how to engineer myself and mix my songs. I went to production school last year. I’m not as crazy about production. I’ve not produced many of my songs. I feel like definitely, people might have taken me more seriously if I was taking all these things more into account if I was a guy and more boastful.

The last two years have been very exciting on a broader scale for Afro beats. I feel like you’re the type of person who has done her own thing. You’re like building at your own speed. Do you ever feel any pressure?  How do you stay grounded in terms of what you’re doing and not thinking about like the larger world? 

I know that I’m very aware of myself. There are things that are very huge, there are things that don’t last, and there are things that last. I’m more conscious of the things that last because they are most important to me. It’s not like I don’t like the nice award or billboard here and there. It’s just that there is more. It’s so easy when you’re in the limelight, to lose yourself. Because you’re not sure if you should be following what everybody expects you to be doing or if you should stay true to yourself. The noise is so loud. There are so many voices in your head and because I realized how dangerous this can be, I already made a pact with myself to always be true to myself regardless of the consequence. It doesn’t mean I’m perfect, doesn’t mean I still have the right things or do all the right things. It just means I’m true to myself and when I’m in that space or when that’s my energy, it is easy for me to learn in that space. So if I’m making mistakes or learning, it’s on my own terms. I think that this awareness just helped me stay grounded. It helps me know what I’m doing, what I am not doing and what I want to do.

What’s next for you? Any plans for an album tour?

I’m planning a tour in the States. We’re still working on that and then maybe in the UK later.