The singer-songwriter talks about her passion for camogie, growing up in Offaly and being the highest charting solo female ever on the Irish Homegrown chart
Born in Nigeria and raised in Offaly, Tolü Makay began her musical journey singing in her local church. She studied at NUI Galway and was doing a H. Dip at Trinity College Dublin in 2018 when she decided to pursue a full-time career in music. Her soulful cover of The Saw Doctors’ emigration anthem, N17, on RTÉ’s New Year’s Eve broadcast went viral and made her a household name overnight.
What’s your earliest memory?
A birthday on a beach in Nigeria and I got to sit on a horse.
What was the first book you loved?
Cirque du Freak by Darren Shan.
What’s your best holiday memory?
Barcelona, about three years ago, with amazing friends. Great food and great company.
Were you surprised by the reaction to your performance on New Year’s Eve?
Absolutely. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life and it has just been positive feedback, which is lovely. It’s quite hard to understand it. I was the highest-charting female solo artist since the charts officially opened in Ireland — that’s insane!
Your performance of The Saw Doctors’ N17 was very polished and Graham Norton said it reduced him to “a sobbing mess”. Is it true you are taking acting classes?
I started last year with an acting school based in the UK, and they also have a branch in LA, so it’s all new. I suppose my performance skill comes from church and having to perform and sing, and being very in tune with what I’m singing. I have been doing that since I was 15.
Had you heard the N17 song before it was given to you to perform with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra?
It’s one of those songs you hear, but I hadn’t paid attention to the lyrics. The more I sang it, the truer it felt to me because the lyrics are so poignant. December is normally the time I go to Nigeria to see my entire family but last year I couldn’t, so that was a really sad time for me.
You moved to Ireland when you were five. What was it like growing up in Tullamore?
Offaly are really mad for their sports. When my mum was my age, she was scouted by an agency in America to play softball so she got us all into sport and the sport I loved the most was camogie. Camogie is just awesome to me. I find it really riveting. It was just everything, and I could kick a ball, catch a ball, swing a hurl and I could run. When I was younger, I trained with Tullamore Harriers and I was running 800m and long-distance. Nowadays I run for fitness and for mental heath, when my body is calling me to do so.
How have you managed during lockdown?
I’ve kept very busy and focused on what brings joy and peace of mind to me. What happened last year with the pandemic and also the whole Black Lives Matter movement, and seeing some of my friends just getting heckled on Twitter... I felt that something had to be done and the mental health of Black artists in Ireland needs to be protected at all costs. I want to create events for the minority, just so they know they can have access to seek mental health therapy and they don’t need to bear these burdens by themselves.
How did you enjoy living and studying in Galway for three years?
Oh, I love Galway. It felt like it was a second home. It was small and big at the same time, and me growing up in Offaly, everyone knows each other, so being in Galway just felt quite familiar, and bigger. I got to meet more people, and people from different walks of life, so it felt comfortable. Back then, I was really into church, so I was at church quite often. I know it sounds boring but I was in the library most of the time. It was only into my last year that I got into music gigs. I went to the Róisín Dubh and I did an open mic.
What’s the first thing you’d do if you were Taoiseach?
I would do something about homelessness and rents.
What music are you listening to?
I’m currently listening to Sauti Sol, a Kenyan group that have won Grammys, and they are amazing.
Do you have daily rituals to help with your very busy work schedule?
One thing I always have to do is have a little prayer in the morning. It’s just a habit and I don’t feel good if I don’t. It’s for peace in my heart, protection, guidance for my day and for my loved ones and friends. I do it morning and night and during the day as well — I call them “check-ins”.
Who would you most like to go for a pint with?
The first person that pops into my head is Rihanna because I think she would be crazy and it would be fun.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
There have been a few, but one that comes to mind is that I shouldn’t rush for things or go out of my way to get things. The more I work, the more things will just fall into place, so if I put my head down and keep working, the right people will find me.
If you had to choose only three adjectives to describe yourself, which would you choose?
Creative, caring and bubbly.
What is your greatest passion in life?
Singing and being able to connect with people — to relate to others and for them to be able to relate to me through music.
What is your most treasured possession?
It would be my mini studio and, not only that, I’d say my salt lamp, incense sticks and peace lily plant. They just help me stay calm.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I just know people are going to say, “What are you doing?” — but my guilty pleasure would be watching shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
What one piece of advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Believe in yourself first. You don’t need someone else’s validation to live your life.
Do you believe in a God?
Yes. My understanding of what God is... is like everything that’s around us and within us at the same time.
Tolü’s debut EP, ‘Being’, is available on all digital platforms. See details of her upcoming tour in Dublin, Galway and Cork in June at tolumakay.com