Johnny Drille used to think of his music as alternative, but now, he’s embracing the folksy side of his sound.
A true artist whose body of work stands out for his heartstrings tugging lyrics and his soft vocals which sound just as good live as his studio recordings, Johnny has gone from his break out on music talent TV reality show Project Fame in 2013, to being flown out of the country to surprise couples at weddings, and hosting multiple sold out Johnny’s Room shows across Lagos and Abuja. The patron saint of lover boys, Johnny Drille is a fan of fusing different sounds and exploring the blurred lines of music genres.
In this interview with Johnny Drille where he gets open and vulnerable with us, we discuss his 2021 album Before We Fall Asleep, the evolution of his sound, how he navigates his internal conflict with his music, the progression of his career so far, and so much more.
What influenced the production and sound behind Before We Fall Asleep?
For BWFA, I was in a place in my career where I felt quite conflicted, both internally and externally about what direction I wanted to go with my music. I was battling new things and questions I’d never had to deal with before; I was conflicted between making music that I enjoyed and for the sheer love of it, and making music that I believed would cut across and resonate more with people. All of these questions influenced the sound of the album. Looking at the album’s track list, you would see that some are written in capital letters while others are in lowercase. This was supposed to show ‘a fusion’ of the two different parts of who Johnny Drille is. I basically channeled all the internal conflict and confusion I was dealing with into the project, and I hope people who listened were able to get that and see that it was me using music to figure things out and navigate the things I really wanted to with my music and sound. It may not be clear now but I think in the years to come, people would listen to the album again and see exactly what I mean.
There have been different notions about the Johnny Drille sound and under what genre exactly it falls under. What would you say your sound is?
Two years ago, this would have been easy to answer. I would have straight up said my sound is Alternative music, at least in the Nigerian sense of that word. But really, at my core, I’m a very folksy artist. I love folk and live music so much and it really feeds into what I want my sound to be. This is why even when I do music that isn’t necessarily live music, I still infuse those elements into it just to give it an organic vibe. So yeah, I know that’s not technically a genre but if you asked me now what the genre of my sound is, I would say live and acoustic music.
Then again, we are in 2023 and the lines between music genres have blurred a lot. While it would have been easy to hear a song and say so and so the person is a pop artist or R&B artist, there’s a lot more fusion now and it’s not so easy to just label an artist’s music anymore.
It’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of your music and sound from your early singles to this moment. Would you say the music you are doing right now is what you had always wanted to do?
Yes, absolutely. Also, I think we are currently in interesting times and new sounds are popping up every other day which are basically fusions of sounds that you’d think would not merge well, but which have come together to give us some great new music. I was recently in the studio with Kizz Daniel, and I can imagine the reception that would get, with people thinking ‘what business do Kizz Daniel and Johnny Drille have together? What would that sound like?’ But what we made turned out to be pretty interesting, so I’m personally very open to exploring when it comes to music. I think there’s great music in collaboration.
What would you say is your favorite record so far from your discography?
Oh, that’s a tough one. Honestly, I don’t think I can pick a favorite but I know I have songs that are very personal to me. I really like Sister, it hits home for me cos I was telling a story about my own sister. I also really like Only God Knows because I got to address mental health issues that men can’t even acknowledge or deal with because they’ve been socially conditioned to push it down and be emotionless. My 2021 was a bit rough mentally, I didn’t really talk about that or put it out there but anyone who follows me might have had an inkling. To have been able to talk about mental health struggles from my own experience, and have other people connect to that was important to me. I believe the more we speak about issues like this, the lesser the burdens that come with it. So yeah, those are the two songs I’d pick.
Is there a song by a Nigerian artist you think is so good, you wished it were yours?
Oh, yes! That used to be Fireboy’s Jealous. I heard that for the first time and was like ‘Damn! That is so good, it should have been me’. Fireboy killed that song and I was so jealous, man. I was jealous of Jealous.
But the song that does that for me right now is Joeboy’s Body and Soul. Now, that’s a great song. Big shout out to Joeboy, he did the thing with it, but I know, I just know I would have done such a Johnny Drille spin with that track.
Your live shows have garnered a reputation for being an immersive experience, with a rather different vibe from just listening to your records play. Is this intentional and why does it seem to be so important to you?
It’s so interesting that you would say that. For me, it’s very important to bring a personal touch to my performances. I think listening to my studio projects paints an image of this very soft and sweet guy, which I am, that’s me. But then when folks come to my shows, they get this very chirpy and energetic version of me, which I think happens for a lot of other artists. As I said earlier, I was in the studio with Kizz recently but I had a particular opinion about him before we met. Then I did meet him, and he’s almost an entirely different person from what I had envisaged; still a very cool person but way different from the Kizz you hear on records. And it just makes you realize that sometimes, the music can be so different from the artist. The artists mostly just show you what they want you to see.
For me, I try to mirror a lot of my personality in my music, so it’s just the heightened and most alive version of that that I bring to my live performances. There’s something about recording a song in the studio or your bedroom that you can’t compare to performing it live and seeing the crowd respond and sing the songs back to you. There’s certainly a high about that which brings a different part of me out and I’m always so happy to be surrounded by my fans. It’s very fulfilling for me that my music actually connects with people, it makes me feel like I’m doing something right.
Johnny Drille appearances at weddings are a thing, have there been wedding experiences that shifted or impacted your perception on love and marriage?
I’m about to say something that might be slightly controversial. So, I love weddings and I love being able to celebrate love. I’ve been blessed to be in certain situations where the couple are genuinely so in love and excited about sharing the rest of their lives together but I’ve also been at weddings that felt very performative like everything was mostly for the photo ops. It’s like I’m there performing but it’s not about the moment, it’s more about ‘See, I got Johnny Drille to come to perform at my wedding, yay’.
One of the weird situations I’ve been in included when a groom reached out to me to come and perform at his wedding and I obliged. Then when I showed up at the wedding reception, the groom started acting shocked to see me, like I came to surprise him. It was so funny, I was like ‘Dude, you asked me to come. We’ve been talking on the phone, you knew I would be here, why are you acting brand new?’.
So yeah, while I love celebrating weddings, sometimes I even show up for free, it’s easy to get cynical when you see most weddings be a lot about the drama and attention, but I’m not down for any of that. But then again, I’ve been at some really beautiful weddings where at that moment, you get the energy of ‘this is what it should feel like, this is a wedding’. One occasion that really stands out for me was when a groom flew me out to the US to surprise the bride at their wedding. The fact that the groom thought to bring his bride’s favorite artist all the way from Nigeria to make her happy, was very moving. The whole experience was definitely worth it for me.
A big part of your music are wistful and moving love songs, are these songs and their lyrics a true reflection of who you are? Is Johnny Drille a loverboy?
For the most part, my music strongly reflects who I am as a person, at least 70% of it. But I might not be as romantic as my music would lead you to believe. Yeah, my music is an exaggeration of what listeners might think of me as a romantic person. Of course, I love romance. As a young boy, I spent a lot of time thinking of what it would be like to have my own person, so I grew up being able to make up those flowery and romantic scenarios and realities in my head. So while I am romantic, I don’t think I’m as romantic as my music might suggest.
However, a lot of my songs, even the love songs, have themes of family and even my faith, so I’m very family oriented. My songs do mirror me, the romantic parts are just a bit more heightened.
How Are You (My Friend) turned out to become such a huge song and even went viral on social media trends. Did you expect the song to become so big while you were making it?
Well, I can’t say I expected it to but I teased a snippet during one of my Music Mondays where I encouraged people to share the song with their friends. A lot of people connected and did share it, and I think that was the point where I knew that it was a very relatable track, I just didn’t know to what extent it would ‘blow’. For most artists, you never really know how far a song will go until it actually does. I’m sure that for Kiss Daniel, Buga blowing up must have been a surprise, same way Rema couldn’t have imagined Calm Down doing the numbers that it eventually did, it’s still currently the biggest Afrobeats song.
So no, I didn’t know it would do that well but it has still been such a blessing to see many people connect to the song, as well as the sincere response it elicits every time I perform it live. I’m excited to see how much farther it can go.
Your songwriting has resonated with many people, how exactly did that start for you? Your songwriting and music career.
I can’t remember when exactly I knew I wanted to do music professionally but I know I’ve always been in love with music for the longest time. As a child, I was very involved in the church choir from the children’s choir to the intermediate choir, and then the adult choir. I was the music director for my church up until the time I got signed by Mavin. I got into music production around 2006 with cassette recorders and church keyboards until I convinced my dad to get me a computer so I could record his sermons. But of course, I had ulterior motives, I actually wanted to learn how to produce my own music. So, my music journey essentially began at the church. I’ve always been fascinated by the technical part of the music which was a big driving force in how I approached my musical career eventually.
I also wanted to study music at the university but my Dad convinced me not to because he knew many successful musicians who didn’t have to study music. So I did the next best thing and I studied English instead because I felt it would help my songwriting. I went for Project Fame in 2013, I didn’t win but I got my first 500, and 1000 fans from there and eventually got signed to Mavin. The rest as they say is history.
What are your thoughts on the skyrocketing popularity of African, especially Nigerian music as a cultural export in recent times?
I think it’s an exciting period for African music right now, especially Afrobeats. Afrobeats is now that shiny toy that everyone wants to play with. I really hope that we are able to capitalize on this moment and own it as not just an Afrobeats movement but a movement for African music. It has happened multiple times that the world jumps on a particular sound wave, then it takes on an entirely different identity. I hope Afrobeats stays African, and I also hope there is a spotlight on the other subgenres of African music and Afrofusion so that the music of Ric Hassannis and Johnny Drilles gets their own moments as well.
Do you have a big or life-changing song? A song that truly moved something inside you
The song that comes to mind right now is Coldplay’s Human Heart. Aesthetically and sonically, it’s such a well done song. It is all vocals and acoustics, and the sheer vulnerability of it just moves me. An African song that also did that for me would be Asa’s first album, the whole project was so iconic that I think it will be referenced for years and decades to come. And that’s something I really want for Afrobeats right now, for Afrobeats to have memorable songs that stand the test of time as well, instead of just being wavy for the moment.
What should we expect from Johnny Drille in 2023?
There’s so much laid out, I released my most recent EP Home last year, and right now I’m working on a new album as a follow-up to the 2021 album. I’m very excited about that. We plan to do more live shows this year, especially taking Johnny’s Room to more cities and hopefully, more countries as well. There’s a lot to look forward to, more collaborations with both Nigerian and International artists, so you know, fingers crossed.