Six years since the release of his aptly-named first single Wait For Me, Johnny Drille is finally rewarding his fans' patience with his debut album, Before We Fall Asleep. A long labour of love on a personal level, the effortlessly cool singer admits that he always has the bigger picture in mind when creating his music.
“When I make music, it's for the fans. It's what they want,” he says from his home in Nigeria’s capital of Lagos, keen to acknowledge the dedication of those who've patiently waited for his first body of work. “I've enjoyed putting out songs over the last few years, but it just felt like giving out breadcrumbs. So I felt like it was the right time to put out a body of work. Putting out songs is great but fans only get to see one side of the artist, with an album they get the full experience. And I owe it to the fans, especially to the ones who have been there since day one.”
This collection of breadcrumbs allows his followers to experience his diverse tastes that go beyond his folky beginnings, encompassing a broad palette of sounds that takes influence from his fascination with a broad spectrum of new, talented international talent and peers from Nigeria. “At some point last year I started to experiment a lot. I love folk music, that's the background for me, but I started to dabble more into Afrobeat, which is a big sound in Africa right now. And it helped open my eyes to what the possibilities were and what I could do with music. I didn't think I was this versatile to be honest, until I started to use different kinds of sounds.”
Before referencing his love of recent efforts from Soccer Mommy, Jon Bellion and British singer-songwriter Holly Humberstone, it's evident that Drille certainly has his finger on current pulse, dutifully incorporating into his burgeoning sound. In fact, some of the flavours are such a drastic change from the norm that he's had to almost create an alter-ego. “The fans are used to a certain kind of music from me and so to be able to switch we had to create an alternative Johnny Drille, which I call JD. There's two sides of me: the guy that does the cool music that the fans are used to; and JD, the Afrobeat guy that's not afraid to go into trap, hip-hop and other genres,” he explains.
But whatever the aural outcome, he reassuringly states that it's his focus on honesty and authenticity in all he does that ensures the music will never stray too far from what's important to him and his audience. “At the core of music is the soul, and when the soul is gone the music is not as impactful. So right now if I decide to rap or do something entirely different, if the soul of the music is still there then the fans will connect with it.”
1. M.I Abaga – Talk About It (2008)
“That was the first album I ever bought with my own money. I was listening to music on the radio at the time, when I was about to go to university. Everyone was talking about it, so I bought it and played the heck out of it. He's a very amazing, talented Nigerian rapper, and very well respected here. Every time I think of how I started to fall in love with albums I think about Talk About It. It's an amazing album for the time.
“At the time M.I Abaga came along, African rap music wasn't really a thing. Before that everyone was just listening to DMX or Kanye, but then we had African rap and he was our guy. He made it so appealing that everyone fell in love with it.”
2. LANY – Mama's Boy (2020)
“I just started listening to LANY last year, my manager introduced me to them, but since October to now it's the album I've played the most. Anytime I get in the car and I want to hear music I look for LANY – it's not even a conscious decision. It must help me drive better in Lagos traffic!
“I really like how chilled his singing is, for me it makes it seem more authentic and honest. And I like how it touches on a lot of different topics in songs like Cowboy in LA and I Still Talk To Jesus, but the whole album blends together in one big story. I'm really looking forward to their next project.”
3. Owl City – Ocean Eyes (2009)
“This came out during my second year at university. I don't know what it was about the album but I played it late into the night. It just connected with me at the time. At the time I was pretty sure I didn't understand the lyrics, but over the years it has begun to make sense.
"I really like the melodies and think at that time it was different. Fireflies became such a big song and it was on radio a lot in Nigeria. It was quite spectacular as I'd never heard anything like that on the radio. It's been a huge influence on my music.”
4. Mumford & Sons – Babel (2012)
“I heard this for the first time in 2015 and got Sigh No More (2009) straight away, I loved everything. It's such an energetic album at points and then I saw the live performances and saw how much more energetic they were. For me personally, as an artist, I'm so big on the live performance, and a band like Mumford & Sons has so much energy despite how minimalist it is.
“I know there are a lot of things going on, but there were always the four or five core instruments creating all that energy and power. Because I produce my own music it's very easy to go crazy with lots of different ideas and instruments, packing everything into one song. So I try and remind myself that if Mumford & Sons can create an album with four instruments, why do I need 10 or 20? Less is more as they say, don't overdo it.”
5. Jon Bellion – Glory Sound Prep (2018)
“For the last three years Jon Bellion has been my biggest influence, musically. It's just how he puts his music together. I've watched lots of videos on YouTube of him making music, seeing how into the music he is and how much fun he has making it. I was privileged enough to attend one of his shows in Nashville in 2019 and it was the best show of my life. I got to meet him backstage and it was one of those moments you wish you could keep and then consume bit by bit.
“He's such a great musician and Glory Sound Prep is so experimental. He doesn't want to be boxed into anything and he's such a free thinker, it makes music that comes from his heart and how he imagines. It's one of the things I want to do: not be influenced by what others are doing but make the music that I want from my heart, like Jon Bellion.”
6. Ed Sheeran ÷ (2017)
“I'd listened to + and × but on ÷ Ed Sheeran (opens in new tab) had come to a point where there wasn't so much over-thinking. I'm not saying the previous albums were not as honest, but ÷ just seemed more honest to me. And he experimented with different types of sounds, for example Bibia Be Ye Ye sounded like an African song! I never imagined what Ed Sheeran would sound like on an African beat, but he was able to kill it. And it opened my eyes to all the different possibilities and fusion, but still being authentic."
7. Holly Humberstone – Falling Asleep At The Wheel (2020)
“I think her song Deep End popped up on my recommendations on YouTube and then I started to find more of her music. She's very talented and her voice has that originality and authenticity to it that I really connected with. Deep End had these baritone guitars with low notes and big sounds, but when her voice came in it all blended together perfectly. I've never heard a singer like Holly Humberstone, she's unique and special.”
8. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory (2020)
“If there's one thing I noticed it's that it was paying homage to 90s alternative rock music. I like it when people don't try so hard to be something, and it comes through in the lyrics. One of my favourites is 'I'm not so pretty when I'm naked'. That's just so truthful and straight to the point, she isn't trying to mask anything. It's not like anything that anyone is putting out at the moment, and out of all the albums in this list this is the most unique.”
9. Coldplay – Everyday Life (2019)
“For this album it seemed like there was a purpose behind it, to raise awareness of certain issues in society. For example the song Guns talks about how countries want to fight each other so badly at the detriment of the people they're meant to protect; they'd rather give guns to kids than let them grow up in a war-free environment. Not every album has to talk about issues in society, but especially the times we're in with all the crazy things going on, it was nice to see a band be able to bring up issues in their music.
“When I think of Coldplay and that project I think of Fela [Kuti], who was an Afrobeats legend from Nigeria. He was the one person at the time that was fighting the government for change, and was very vocal about it in his music. And interestingly enough his son, Femi Kuti, is on the album as well, on Arabesque. So it made sense, having that link between Fela and Coldplay drawing attention to issues.”
10. Burna Boy – Twice As Tall (2020)
“I'm not sure if I love this album because I like the album, or because we as Nigerians all love this album. We're all very proud of what he's achieved. Twice As Tall is an inspiration for myself and other Nigerian artists to think big and dream big, not just inside Nigeria and Africa, but outside as well. Burna Boy has been making music in Nigeria for ten years without people paying attention, but he continued to put out music. And now he's the first Nigerian [solo artist] to win a Grammy.
“I love all the songs, and again I like the authenticity and uniqueness. Burna Boy is not a typical Afrobeats artist. Nobody had ever had Chris Martin from Coldplay on an Afrobeats song before, and the album is also very vast sounding.
Before We Fall Asleep is released on 3 September via Mavin Records (opens in new tab).