A little background…
It feels like a lifetime has passed since I went to a rehearsal studio in Ajao Estate to watch Simi lead her band through her set list for her first headlining show at Hard Rock Cafe. Since then she got married to Adekunle Gold, had a baby, got cancelled and somehow managed score two of the biggest songs in the country in the middle of a pandemic. But even then it was obvious Simi was at the helm of her own career and knew exactly where she wanted to take it.
When I was first asked to write about Simi, it was in December 2016, a few months after “Chemistry” her collaborative album with rapper Falz. The rumours mills were peaking at this point, some arguing that the EP was finally confirmation that she had ‘chosen’ between the two entertainers she had been linked with creatively for the most of her career, others just ecstatic that she had given them a sliver of certainty on which to peg their assumptions in the first place. The noise overshadowed what was an interesting experiment for both artists, and reintroduction for Simi, whose first independently released album, Ogaju was such a deviation from the artist that she’d grown into, it no longer represented who she was as an artist. I wrote a first draft, and let it simmer for a few months. It was missing something, an essence that I became convinced that only Simi could give.
It takes a few months to get that unfinished profile reworked, but finally I find myself in a tiny studio and rehearsal space in the quiet heart of the suburbs in Maryland, Lagos. The Studio, GH Studio is unassuming from the outside, much like Simi is when I enter and introduce myself. She stands in the heart of the room surrounded by instrumentalists and her backup feeling their way around what a live performance of “O Wan Be”, the third single off her sophomore album “Simisola” should sound like. Simi rarely ever raises her voice, and she is patient if somewhat exasperated with the drummers who she has to repeatedly walk through their solo sequences. I sit quietly, in a thrall when the band finally congeals into a single, amorphous organism around Simi’s voice, expanding to accommodate her as she tests the limits of the song. When she finally takes a break to give me her undivided attention, I feel like I have already seen what I need to know.
To call Simi Nigeria’s pop princess would be to severely underplay the scope of her talent and drive.
It isn’t hard to see why anyone would think of it her in that way. Simi has cultivated a brand that veers strongly into ‘girly-girl’ territory. Her signature twin plaits, skater skirts and slouchy vests are all staples of the All-American girl, with a Nigerian twist. It is a far cry from the Simi who fought with her three elder brothers and joined teen choir at her family church, looking for an outlet that was all her own. Her predilection for sneakers are the only surviving memento of her former tom-boy incarnation, one that she was forced to grow out of when her parents separated. The separation happened when she was nine years old, and while the music she makes now celebrates love mutually enjoyed, it also dwells greatly on contemplations of love unrequited. This seems to be her way of parsing through the tumultuous events of that time. Then of course, there was the whole gospel phase with her four member gospel group Outpourings, leaving the group to pursue a solo gospel career and releasing “Ogaju”, her little known debut album.
When I mention that this is what they call her in music circles, she is genuinely surprised. She considers it flattering that people see her in this light but is a little worried that they consider her sound ‘pop’. This a recurring trend with young women musicians, one that she has personally has to deal with. Her entire career, people have tried to hedge her into a genre and shelve anything she creates inside that hedge. She alludes to the fact that the pop princess appellation has a underlying sinister connotation. The traditional princesses of pop, like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera (in the early stages of her career) and Selena Gomez were basically manufactured by a male studio executive, and their careers meticulously stage managed, their hits written by a ghost songwriter, their music contracts elaborate shackles meant to keep them from ever trying to rebel. Not having to struggle with this is a privilege Simi doesn’t take for granted.
She first signed with her label X3M records in 2012, years before her singles Tiff and Jamb Question would turn her into an alternative music sensation and garner her fans across the continent. Steve Baba Eko, who runs X3M was drawn to Simi’s talent and her vision and let her plot the trajectory of her career on her own terms, offering her his network of contacts and his wealth of knowledge in the industry. This patience is rare in an industry where the industry is basically an island of mushroom labels, established to allow artists self manage their careers. When they deign to sign other artists, they do so with the express purpose of exploiting their freshness, forcing them into the trending genre and cash out on them once they get a viral hit. Simi’s slow boil to critical success was antithetical to the prescribed formula and BabaEko often had to defend his decision to not interfere in Simi’s creative process. Simi tells me she understand how privileged she is to have had this so early in her career, an entire team of people who are committed to ensuring that she finds her sound as an artist first, before the stadium concerts and the awards.
While Simi has been romantically linked with Folarin ‘Falz’ Falana and Adekunle Gold (and she has even played up these rumours to promote her creative projects) there is no contention that Simi’s creative process is all her own and has always been. Subverting the trope that female musicians only take interest in production as a way to gain more creative control of their music, Simi has left the production of her music in the hands of Oscar, her long time producer while she took on sonic crafting the albums of other artists. Her production credits on Adekunle Gold’s debut album where she samples classic Bollywood show tunes, Jazz trumpeting and classical music, helped set Gold apart from the Yoruba kitsch we’d come to expect from YBNL signings.
Her producer in particular, Oscar, has been instrumental to making her sophomore album Simisola as accomplished as it is. They first started working together on the album in 2014 when they recorded “Tiff” , and since then they have grown together, forging a bond so strong that Simi trusts him enough to let him influence the general aesthetic of the album. Oscar went on to produce the bulk of Simisola, and while they aren’t as publicly touted as well as other high profile producer singer duos (think Niniola and Sarz and Dj Yin and BankyOnDBeatz), they have had the most successful run. When I ask her to describe their relationship, her delight is like a tuning fork, pitching her voice up an octave.
“When he is making music for me, he is not trying to kill it. He only cares that he composes music that is focused on what I need to be my best self.”
Like her music and her album, stubbornness was what drove her out of the booth and behind the mixer and kept her at it till she became one of the first female producers in the country to master the production suite GarageBand.
Created by Apple to compete with Fruity Loops and other Microsoft native music production applications, the production and mixing suite GarageBand has become a way to unshackle musicians from the need to learn to play instruments or become proficient in music theory before they can create music. The name itself is a bit of an homage to the punk bands of the late 70’s and early 80’s across Europe and America formed in repurposed garages, a good number of which grew to fame without any external help or input. As music became progressively technical, the bands grew smaller and the instruments made way for booths and expansive midi-players but the sentiment has remained the same. Music that defies the popular trends at the time, reflecting the aspirations and angst of the generation who creates it.
No demographic has benefited more from this phenomenon than the new crop of female musicians completely bypassing the patriarchy of recording studios and music booths and creating the kind of music they want to make. It is common knowledge that even the most successful female musicians have to defer to the overwhelmingly male technical industry that turns a demo and a few chords into a mastered record. So to be afforded a way to bypass this dilemma entirely is an opportunity many women have never even fathomed. Insanely popular musicians like Claire Boucher (otherwise known as Grimes) and Lorely Rodriguez (better known as Empress Of) have both seen meteoric fame with self written, composed and produced albums, leveraging the successes of female bands like Sonic Youth and Riot GRRL.
Simi alludes that Oscar’s work isn’t as well known in producer circles because he is fully invested in the idea that the music they create together should be ‘timeless’. This was the guiding principle behind Simisola: it guided every part of the decision making process, from song writing, composition and post production, it even guided the minimalist album cover with no memorabilia that could date the cover in any way. Simi wanted the album to find its place in the world on its own merit. She talks about changing two songs on the original album track list with songs she had even written yet because she felt they didn’t fully represent the vision she had for what she considers her proper debut.
Having a second first impression isn’t something many artists get, and Simi was stubborn about making sure it was truly her on the record.
Now that the album is done and making its own way in the world, Simi feels she can focus on touring and promoting the album, and return to her less recognized but just as accomplished career as a sound engineer and producer. There are a handful of albums all lined up for her to produce in the next year, and she is determined to find between touring to get around to mixing them. She also wants to write a novel, she is undecided on the genre, but like in production, she is excited by the challenge of feeling her way through it.
After, Simi lets me sit in while she and the band push through with the rest of the rehearsal. It is something to behold, Simi the artist. A litheness spreads through her, rising up from the soles of her feet, her shoulders shimmy in time with the staccato beats of the talking drum and she closes her eyes as she feels her way through the first notes. Her voice has a tortured quality to it, like a songbird nursing bruised vocal cords, even on a song as happy as ‘O Wan Be’, there is a gravelly undercurrent, a melancholy that threatens to send the song plummeting into sadness. She uses this to her advantage, dipping into minor notes and pitch bending the major ones for that extra twang, playing up the forlornness that creeps up on you as you listen to her sing about throwing herself at a man who seems to have eyes for everyone else. A soap box, no matter how small is all Simi needs to become the version of herself that is most vulnerable, most open, most fragile. I can’t shake the feeling that it is this person that the reticence of Simi’s public persona and the great lengths to which she has gone to keep her personal life private is all constructed to protect. We are all drawn to fragility, and we seek it out even in our pop stars.
Simi has come a long way from the girl who left church to build herself a career in secular music, and picked up a few skills along the way to ensure that the music she made was all hers, and no one else’s. It might have taken her a little longer than usual to get there, but she did, under her own steam. The satisfaction is so much better that way.