21st Oct 2022
Afro-Irish singer Tolü Makay on the importance of resilience, her love for the midlands and why she wants to live in a haunted castle.
Home is… Tullamore in Co Offaly.
Where was your first home outside of your childhood home?
It would have to be Nigeria because that’s where I was born. And it was Kwara in Ilorin. It was just gorgeous. I think one of my earliest memories was just the architecture, and the buildings and the structure of like, combining, home and nature together. I haven’t been back since you know, Covid happened, but my mom tries to make sure that I go home as often as I can. At least at Christmas, just to see the entire family.
What was your first job?
My first job… hmm, the first one I can really remember was transcribing for a PhD student that was studying psychology to become a clinical psychologist. I actually wanted to become a neuro psychologist at the time, so I was trying to like get my foot in the door by working with other psychologists. I got that job through someone I met in Tullamore. I can’t remember his name, I think Dr. Byrne or something like that, but he gave me that opportunity because at that time, there was no actual work for part-time or early-beginning psychologists. The year after, Dr. Byrne was on the board and he brought that in as a paid job.
What’s your favourite memory in your county?
There are so many, but I’d say making friends at Tullamore was the first one. I came in at the end of second year I think, because before that, I was in a boarding school. Did not like that! But Tullamore college was the first time I felt like I was you know, part of something, and I felt settled because before that we had moved around quite regularly. So that was nice, to actually have friends, have a school and have a base from second year to sixth year – core friends. I didn’t understand how important that was, like in one’s childhood. So that’s one of my favourite memories, just like having friends.
Where do you go to let your hair down?
I actually do go back to Offaly to let my hair down. I like walking along the canal, or just like just being away and being with family or just being in nature. Honestly, I’m much more of a country girl. When I need to air my mind, my thoughts, I’m just better when I’m in nature. I like to be able to hear the stream of water. I like to be able to hear the birds. I like to be able to hear the rustle of the trees and the leaves. It’s very grounding. Hearing sirens and cars all the time, it’s a bit jarring.
If you could buy any building in your county, which would it be?
I want the haunted house in Tullamore, it’s called Charleville Castle. I want a castle! Even if it’s haunted, it doesn’t matter. I’ll light some sage, it’ll be fine. Enya lives in a castle!
Where would you recommend for a first date?
Oh, actually, Kinnitty Castle is really nice. I went on a date there once. You can go for a hike, it’s gorgeous. There are horses that you can see. It’s actually stunning, the grounds are gorgeous so if you’re into that, I’d definitely recommend it. I think there’s a tennis court there as well. You can go inside and have like, a high tea, it’s so nice. That’s actually the castle I’d like to live in, I change my above answer!
What’s your favourite hotel in Offaly?
I’d have to say The Tullamore Court Hotel, because my sister is working there! That’s also where I did my debs. The interiors are really nice.
What are your favourite local shops?
Oh, there’s an Asian African store there where you can get like African food and groceries. I don’t know the guy’s name. But I love him because I’ve known him since I was a child and he knows me. I remember, someone asked him to get in contact with me about a gig because they know that I go there often! It’s such a local space, everyone knows everyone. He’s incredible, he’s been running that store for like, since I was probably like, 10 years old. So, for the past 15 years, he’s had that space. That’s where we got all our African foods.
During the pandemic, I discovered another shop, right beside there, where you can get kind of holistic things – you know, like sound bowls and incense sticks. That’s actually where I bought my first salt lamp as well. So yeah, I love that shop so much. I just go in there and feel relaxed and at peace.
There’s also a music shop I love, around near where the shopping centre is – not the Bridge Shopping Centre, but the other one. It used to be in there and you could get vinyl and records. It was quite vintage. But Tullamore is constantly changing, hopefully, some of the shops I’ve mentioned are still there!
What makes an Offaly person?
People from Offaly just don’t care. They’re very laid-back and chill. I think that comes down to everyone knowing each other. So it’s just like that community vibe. It’s really nice. No one bothers you, everyone talks to you like they’re your uncle. Sometimes they can meddle a bit, but most times it’s nice. I love that you can walk around wearing a pair of trainers (but still looking fabulous!) and just let your hair down. No one is looking at you.
Who is the most iconic Offaly person you can think of?
Michael Jackson visited Offaly once, so that was cool! From Offaly though? I’m not sure. I know there are quite a few famous people from Mullingar, like Niall Horan. Me?! I’m joking, we’re working our way there. If I get a road named after me then I know I’ve made it. The Tolü Makay N17 would be nice!
Best thing a taxi driver has ever said to you?
I’ve made a taxi driver cry before! They cried when they found out that I was the one who did the cover of “N17”, that was when I was driving up to Cork for Indipendence Festival. We got talking and chatting, and then she copped on to who I was and she told me how that song was really touching and inspiring for her. Because, you know, it’s maybe 30 years old or so but back when it first came out, it was very poignant for Irish people emigrating over to the US and other places. So a lot of people took that song as a way of grieving that loss.
It’s interesting, it was kind of a full circle moment for me because my experience was about coming into Ireland so I was singing it from almost the other side of things. I didn’t even understand the significance of that song until other people started sharing really intimate stories with me, about their aunts and uncles and people that they haven’t seen in years. Now the pens I’ve made. And you know, a lot of people also sadly passed away during that time. So it was a very significant song. Thank you to the Saw Doctors for loving it! And thank you again to Gavin Murphy and the RTÉ concert orchestra, they’re the ones who made the music so incredible.
That song really inspired me you know, it’s definitely influenced my own style and the kind of music I want to make next. It’s gotten me to question, you know, what is it that I want to do, what impact I want to have next time? What am I about? What is it that I want to talk about? It’s made me really sit down with myself and take this year to really reflect and, you know, be mindful of all the opportunities I’ve been given because there are other people who are affected by what I do. It’s nice to be in this space and also have other people that look like me in this space who are recognising that this is something that’s attainable for all of us that are Black and Irish.
Favourite pub in your county?
It used to be called Joe Lee’s and then they changed it to Johnny Lee’s, I was upset about it but I’ m ok now! It’s a really nice bar though. The back space has been turned into a live music area, I performed there once.
Do you have a favourite coffee shop?
Chocolate Brown, apparently that’s the best coffee in Tullamore!
What’s your favourite Irish work of art?
I don’t even know where to start, because there are so many things I’m interested in in the realm of art, like architecture, painting, music. In terms of architecture, I’m really intrigued by how monuments or spaces, especially like castles or even bridges, are made. For example, I was in Kerry recently and seeing how they use the stones from that area to create their buildings was really interesting. I always thought I wanted to become an architect! So whenever I see buildings, I’m always thinking about the landscape and the people that lived there before us. I feel like it’s a way of continuing history or showing how people used to live back in the day. For me, going to other countries, that’s one of the first things I notice – how people’s houses are based on the elements, and I don’t think we appreciate that enough in Ireland. It’s just really interesting to see how people live.
Who’s your Irish hero?
A song that made me cry during the pandemic was “Zombie” by Dolores. And I suppose, being involved with Irish Women in Harmon just made me appreciate the strength and the resilience of Irish women as a whole, throughout history. The strength of keeping a home and raising kids when even you yourself could be in danger if you did something wrong. Learning about all that history has been incredible. And then hearing the history of what the song is about too, I never understood until that moment. It made me reflect on the times that we’re in and the wars that Dolores was trying to explain. That combined with the video – the visuals of that song are just epic – it’s all just so moving. She’s inspirational. She died so young. Artists like that, who are so instrumental to Irish history, you see the importance of mental health and telling your story. I’m so grateful that we do have the likes of Sinéad O’Connor with us who’s able to share her story. But even outside of Ireland, she’s so loved and well-respected internationally. She just proves the point that as a woman, you have to be so resilient. Sometimes when you’re ahead of your time, you’re not accepted within your own lifetime… it takes a few years for people to validate that, yeah you were right. I hope to meet her one day.
My favourite thing about Ireland is… just the richness. You can feel the culture everywhere. And if you don’t run away from it, and you actually want to know more, it’s right there. There are so many things I’ve learned about Celtic life, and not just Pagan beliefs and rituals, but how these people lived. I think it’s so important because it informs you about the richness of Ireland and what’s at the core of being Irish. It helps you to know yourself as an Irish person. That feeds into all different aspects of my work, like working with Irish designers for example. I’ve noticed that they like to incorporate all these different traditional elements into their jewellery and their clothes because they’re all telling similar stories and trying to showcase Ireland through their pieces. So, I think that’s one of my favourite things; seeing people really owning their culture through different types of design.
What are you up to with work at the moment?
At the moment, I am taking care of my mental health, that’s priority number one. I’m just taking things slowly and finding the right people to work with on my next few songs so the vision and the album comes to life… because I want to go big! I really want to show who I am and be honest and vulnerable. So I want to take that time and nurture myself first so that I can do that. My next step is to really explore. I’m hoping 2023/2024 will be a really impactful year for me.
I’m also an ambassador for the Design & Crafts Council “Made Local, Made To Last” campaign. I love working with local designers, especially when I’m performing. I’m a huge champion of Irish design and for my last tour, I worked with African designers from the midlands as well as the likes of Claire Garvey, Colin Horgan, and Lia Cowan – so many different types of designers who are all Irish. I just like to embrace and see what it is that I can find within Ireland and how I can incorporate that into my own art because it’s all art at the end of the day. I’m a lover of all forms of art.