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Vicktor Taiwò Takes a Self-Portrait

Hailing from East London via Nigeria, the fast rising 23-year-old's songs articulate both the intensely personal and strikingly universal.
June 16, 2015, 5:00pm

“Your mother’s eyes are filled with grief,” Vicktor Taiwò murmurs into his mic, as pink, blue, and yellow lights illuminate his face. He begins his performance with “Paradise Island,” forgoing the pitch-shifted manipulations of the studio recording, his voice communicates a palpable pain and longing that soars through the first few opening lines. “In love, in love, in love,” he sings repeatedly, before the track launches into cinematic string melodies and vibrating snares.

It’s only Taiwò’s second show ever in New York, but he’s performing to 200 rapt attendees at the top of the Standard in the East Village. The setting is intimate and breathtaking with New York’s cityscape sprawling beneath the hotel’s wrap-around balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows. One World Trade Center is visible at one end, the Empire State Building from the other, and between it all, a hazy sunset brushed in pastel hues.

On “Digital Kids”—the lead single from Taiwò’s forthcoming debut EP Juno—the beat drops slow and falls back as his soulful tones slide in, singing, “And I see you running into the woods / With your bright yellow jacket, you look lost / You look lost.” The fullness of Taiwò’s voice might remind you of Josef Salvat’s (particularly on the piano-driven “Fade”), while his falsettos might evoke James Blake; scattered throughout are simmering R&B melodies reminiscent of The Weeknd.

The 23-year-old Londoner (by way of Nigeria) is the definition of a crooner: His voice is rich and smooth, moving from high octaves to lower registers with ease. As he sings, he withdraws into himself, the emotion visible on his face; but when he speaks to the audience, he’s present and connected. His voice is raw but deftly controlled, which would lead any listener to believe he’s been doing this for years, and, in a way, he has—only now his audience has expanded beyond family members.

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At eight years old, with his parents and two sisters, Taiwò moved far away from home, flying North to settle in East London. Many years later he still vividly recalls that brutal change in temperature, the brittle January snap a shock to his sun-warmed Nigerian-raised system. Taiwò began singing a year later—he knew from the get-go that he could sing well, but when friends and family told him he should hone his talent, their suggestions fell on deaf ears.

“It’s like if someone told you to become a radio host because you talk every day,” Taiwò says, “I sang and people were like you should do something [with it]. Why? It’s just a thing that I did that to me is as normal as talking or any other thing that you do as a human being. So I never, ever, ever considered it.”

Instead, he became a self-taught student of photography after his mother brought home a camera and Taiwò became fascinated by the fact that he could control exactly how an image turned out. His speciality became still life and portraiture, but after a few years of studying the medium, he became disillusioned with how far he could take it.

“It was a point where I thought this is good… but I don’t feel the thing that makes me say, I can express everything of who I am in this medium," he explains. "I didn’t think I had the connectivity with [photography] to do that. Whereas with music, I don’t feel like I’m there yet in terms of my ability to translate everything I want into music, but I feel like I can get to that stage.”

Years of Taiwò’s family and friends telling him to pursue music finally stuck with him and songwriting has become a much more personal outlet. Taiwò already knew how to play drums, so he began looking for someone who could play a harmonic instrument, eventually meeting a guy named Bobby Altman who just happened to live 15 minutes from the singer. They got together the day after the pair connected online and ultimately their collaboration "Curse" (with the help of producer Scholar Holder) wound up on Juno.

Taiwò sheepishly admits that the first song he posted was a One Direction cover of the song “Kiss You,” adding, with a laugh, that it’s pretty good. That was two years ago, and since then, he hasn’t released a substantive project—only a bunch of loosies, with “Digital Kids” featuring the rapper Soloman gaining the most traction—until now. Juno is Taiwò’s first project, a five-song mixtape that is both named after the Roland Juno 106 synth that he loves, and is somehow related to his favorite number 33, though he won’t share the specific connection. (The best I could muster was NASA’s Juno spacecraft mission to Jupiter and the Orbit 33, which occurs before Juno’s mission is over.)

He’s dubbed his music variously “Psychedelic Lowercase Rock,” “JuggleJar-SoulWave,” and “Cuddlecore Folktronica,” terms which he created to give his music room to breath and shirk classification. “If I tell you this thing’s going to be A and then it ends up being B, even if B was something you liked… the fact that you expected something means you’ll probably be disappointed when it’s not that, and it’s something else," he continues. "I don’t like expectations just for that reason alone… I’d just rather create an environment where people can accept something for what it is without needing precursors, and without needing words to be like, this is what you’re going to hear.”

Going off this, you might expect as a native-born Nigerian living in London, his background might have a direct impact on his music, but it doesn’t: rather than using his culture to influence his music, it is the dearth of his culture that influences him.

“I can remove myself from the UK and London and Western civilization and kind of see it from an outside-looking-in perspective. I think that’s played a role in my music, where I seem to talk about what I see and the ways people affect each other, and affect the things that they do… those are the things I notice, the way people just are, just what they do every day.”

Rather than viewing life through the narrow lens of his own life and simply translating his experiences into art, on Juno, Taiwò’s focus is panoramic. ”Digital Kids” is a foray into the loss of innocence, while “Paradise Island” is about a lost love; Taiwò is addressing what is universal. Nevertheless, Juno is still his coming-of-age story and a project of self-discovery, it is evolution to a point, and his talent intimates that it’s also the first chapter to flick through, with many more to follow.

“I didn’t really do music until I was 15, 16 and I’ve been learning so much between then and now,” he says. “I’m still learning how to be myself, how I want the music to sound like, and even being able to express myself and put my thoughts into the type of words that I want to, which is really difficult. I don’t think I could have started any earlier: I had be who I was now to be able to make the type of music that I make.”

Juno is out today.

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