Ahamefule J. Oluo is more than fine
One of the best things about Seattle’s music scene is the way talented artists collaborate to create mesmerizing, memorable art. Bands feature players from other bands, comedians help each other with material and writers love to gather for readings with other writers. The city is fast becoming known for its anti-crab-in-the-bucket mentality and Ahamefule J. Oluo’s upcoming Now I’m Fine at On The Boards is cut from that same collaborative cloth.
One of those musical pollinators in Oluo's show is the fantastic Okanomodé Soulchilde, who is known for singing soulful, love-soaked songs, dressed, as he puts it, like a Glamazon Warrior. I first saw the fabulous Soulchilde perform at Lo Fi Performance Gallery on a late Friday night some seven years ago. From the corner of the room, I watched him preparing to glide onstage, flanked by two beautiful women, feather boa around his neck, bare chest and six-pack abs brushed with gold glitter. As he walked to the mic, the women removed his neck accoutrement. The alluring music began and he belted out sonic lightning bolts.
Aham, whom I knew then as a trumpet player only, was in the audience that night. He stood tall in the packed room and I wondered, as he moved about, what he was working on in his spare time; who he was collaborating with.
Some handful of years later, Soulchilde joined Aham for Now I’m Fine, a show about Aham’s coming back to life from a body-eating virus he’d contracted, a hard divorce and finding out about the death of his father, whom he’d never met. The show featured monologue, jokes, hand-drawn cue cards and music written by Aham performed to a packed Town Hall audience in First Hill.
Toward the end of the show Aham jumped in the air for joy, as he, baton in hand, conducted his backing band. You could feel all the energy that had built up inside him release, diffusing. It was a catharsis.
Soulchilde sang that night and Seattle super bassist Evan Flory-Barnes was amongst the musical performers, face alight.
This week, Soulchilde and Flory-Barnes will be back to play in the latest incarnation of Now I’m Fine. Oluo has been fine-tuning the show since Town Hall and it promises to be spectacular, moving and just as cathartic for the man who has since hit his stride, writing for City Arts and The Stranger and winning a Stranger Genius Award with his jazz band, Industrial Revelation. (Flory-Barnes is also a member.)
From left, Monica Schley, Evan Flory-Barnes, D’Vonne Lewis, Ahamefule Oluo and Okanomodé Soulchilde in Now I'm Fine. Photo: Kelly O.
I had the opportunity to catch up with the three musical magicians to garner some perspective on their working relationship as the opening approaches.
Okanomodé, how did you and Aham become close friends and how does this closeness inform your live performance of Now I'm Fine?
OS: The funniest thing to me is that my first time performing alongside Aham, (which I believe was in Evan Flory-Barnes' Threat Of Beauty extended ensemble) I didn't think he liked me. I was completely intimidated by his silence & felt kind of uncool around him. Never in a million years would I have thought we'd end up writing together.
I think our connection is something beyond a typical closeness that exists between friends. Besides the fact that I think Aham is just an amazing person all the way around, there's a language that we seem to speak to each other that isn't captured with words.
Plus, his music is this symphonic-funk – and I naturally slay when put into a symphonic-funk context. As far as performing live with Aham, I think his level of brilliance both as composer and musician make me go extra hard onstage. There's also something about his excitement when he's conducting or playing his trumpet that I respond to. It doesn't hurt that we play with some of the most badass musicians on the planet.
Aham's compositions are structured, but so expansive, so I feel like I get to return to that playful, childhood place when we perform together – that place of raw emotion.
Aham, what was it about Soulchilde’s breadth as a performer that made you want to work with him?
AJO: Soulchilde and I met through Evan Flory-Barnes’ Threat of Beauty. When I watched Soul sing with that group I would be completely captivated and constantly surprised — his range, how unique yet familiar his voice is. It's a rare skill to be able to wear your influences on your sleeve so honestly and genuinely, yet never seem derivative.
But to be honest, I had never really considered collaborating with Soulchilde — not that I didn't want to, I had just never considered the thought — until I ran into him outside of a Rufus Wainwright show at The Paramount. This was in 2008. I had been in the early stages of conceptualizing this show [Now I’m Fine]. I went to see Rufus Wainwright and it was a solo show, just him and a piano.
I've mostly worked in instrumental music, but when I was watching that show and seeing just how truthful and direct Rufus was on stage, I knew that I needed the kind of personal, visceral, emotional transmission that can only come from a human voice. When I walked outside the theater after the show, I felt so completely inspired and then right there, standing on the sidewalk, was SoulChilde and without even thinking about it for a second, I asked him to be a part of this, to help me shape it and build it.
I didn't really even know what "it" was at the time but I knew without a doubt that SoulChilde was the right person. I felt it instantly.
What’s the process of working together been like, Soulchilde? Can you give me a sense of the big picture? A singled out day, in particular?
OS: Working with Aham and this project has stretched my abilities as a songwriter and vocalist. I think together we convey the full gamut of human emotion through the spoken and musical stories we're telling. I'm like a kid headed to the amusement park just anticipating rehearsal with this ensemble because we go from laughter to tears and back to laughter with each other just playing the songs & crackin' jokes. And it's not just a group of musicians for hire — we're family.
Was there a moment, when you two were rehearsing, when knew there was something special going on?
OS: I distinctly remember running through “Excerpt from Winter” and feeling the overwhelming beauty of Evan's bass, Monica's harp and my voice together. I got completely choked up and couldn't finish the song, so we took a break for me to collect myself. That was definitely a "Whoa, this is magic," moment for me — a moment where we became one organism.
Aham, you performed Now I’m Fine at Town Hall two years ago. How might the show be different this time around amd what important aspects will be the same?
AJO: The Town Hall show was the best show I've ever had in my entire life. There is no ambiguity. It was a work in progress, put together with almost no budget, no tech staff, very little rehearsal time, no lighting or set design and it was still the best show of my life.... which has made things easier this time around.
The heart and the core of the show is there. It exists on its own and I know what it's capable of. I've seen it.
The process at On the Boards has been centered on using these expanded resources — a real budget, rehearsal time, the best set and lighting team around and also that incredible theater space — to amplify the beauty that is already inherent. If it ain't broke....
What are you doing the performance for — what happens in you when in the middle of Now I’m Fine and what do you hope the audience gleans?
AJO: I don't feel like I have a choice to do this show or not. Like a lot of people, I am just as afraid of success as I am of failure. One of the ways I have been able to avoid facing reality is by setting a standard for myself that is essentially unattainable and refusing to put work out into the public that doesn't meet that standard.
This show is the embodiment of that standard. It is 10 years of impossible expectations being met. It is the moment where I have to accept that, if this doesn't genuinely affect people in a substantial way, a way that truly changes them, then maybe I am not the type of artist I thought I was.
I don't want mediocrity, I would rather be terrible than "pretty good". At least terrible means something. I want laughter, I want tears, I want involuntary reactions, I want people to see themselves altered in real time. Anything less is unacceptable.
Evan, it makes sense for you to have the last word here since you were the force that introduced Aham to Soulchilde – what do you see when you look into the eyes of these two performers, and why do you find yourself working with them often5?
EFB: That's a tough question to answer. Aham and Soulchilde are my family. I have been making music with them in a bunch of different bands for almost 10 years now. They are two of the most engaging and invested artists I know — always diving into every performance with everything they have.
I met Okanomodé back in ‘03-‘04 at a show I was doing with an old project of mine, Threat of Beauty. He and Seamonster Lounge owner and vocalist Andrew Nunez were singing back-up vocals for a Cristina Orbe project called Forgotten Sol. I was struck by the blend and timbre of their voices. I later heard Soul at a number of joint bills around the venue and was struck by his voice, character, energy and presence. I asked him to join the vocal frontline of Threat of Beauty for a number of concerts between ‘06-‘10.
Ahamefule J. Oluo, I met at a wedding. The raw intensity with which he played the trumpet stood out then. A number of years later, we found ourselves in a practice room at Cornish for what was to be the first Industrial Revelation session. We have done countless projects and collaborations since then.
Now I'm Fine started coming together in 2007. The music stood out to me, hit my soul and was deeper than any other of Aham's music at that time. I heard him in that music. I heard the stories without knowing them and knowing only gave the music more power. Soulchilde's collaboration and care with the lyrics and melodies is evident. No one else could have delivered this music so well.
In short, the why I work with them is a feeling. It feels real, deeply human, soulful. I cry every time I play that music. I work with them because they both inspire me! My experience with these two artists leaves me with something essential. Magic, majesty and meaning within the mundane.
Whatever one believes about an afterlife, my experiences with Aham and Soul, as well so many within my musical experience, affirm the existence of something deathless. It truly does mean that much to me.
If You Go: Now I'm Fine, On the Boards, Sunday, December 7, $15-25. (Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are SOLD OUT.) Buy tickets here.