“Some days I wake up ready to run,” NNAMDÏ sings on both the first and last track of his new album. It’s one way to clear his mind and shake off the anxiety that pervades much of Please Have a Seat, the Chicago multi-instrumentalist’s sixth full-length record and first for Secretly Canadian – out Friday – but it’s also in line with the frenetic approach that’s characterized his music, which restlessly flits between styles from indie rock to jazz and R&B while expanding upon its own sonic identity. The joyfully idiosyncratic, almost cartoonish nature of his songwriting – since releasing his breakthrough LP Brat in 2020, NNAMDÏ has shared two wildly different EPs, a full-length tribute to Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling, Krazy Karl, and a cover of ‘Kiss Me’ with Lala Lala – isn’t gone on Please Have a Seat, but the prolific artist is more mindful about the pace and structure of his work, allowing for moments of vulnerability and reflection to balance out the sense of nervous, familiar disorientation.
Although he indulges in a couple of delirious math-rock sections and rap flows here and there, this is NNAMDÏ’s most overtly pop album to date, brimming with smart hooks and catchy melodies. But he knows the rush can only last so long, just like your legs can only take you so far – if you really want an escape from isolation, he suggests, you might have to draw up a place of your own. NNAMDÏ’s inventions have always felt distinctly his in that way, but he’s taken the time to arrange Please Have a Seat into his most cohesive statement yet, inviting the listener as much as himself to settle down.
We caught up with NNAMDÏ to talk about Steven Universe, stand-up comedy, fresh fruit, very long walks, and other inspirations behind his new album.
I live in the Portage Park neighbourhood right now, have for the past six years almost. During mid-pandemic 2020, when people were going on walks and stuff but still keeping their distance from people, I feel like that park, particularly since it was right next to my house, was one of the only places I went to. I would have a lot of time to reflect. And it’s funny, that park has three softball fields for some reason and no basketball courts, which got me thinking, “Why do we need three of these and no basketball courts?” [laughs] But yeah, I’ll go there and sit on the bleachers and look at the sky or watch animals, or occasionally other people would walk through the park as well. It just felt like one of my peaceful places that I could go to outside of my house because you couldn’t hang out in stores or go to other people’s places. It was my escape from being inside my house all that year.
Like “a spot to rest and not worry at all,” as you put it on ‘Ready to Run’?
Yes, exactly. That was definitely one of my main sitting spots that year. I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t worrying at all, though. [laughs] I was trying to get to that point, but it was definitely helpful.
Would you write at all there?
Yeah, I would write. Portage Park is kind of small, I used to live by Humboldt Park, so in comparison, it’s a little more compact and less surprises. There’s a dog park there too, and it’s usually a fun place to walk past and watch because truly bonkers energy happens there. But I would go and walk around, do a couple laps and listen to mixes of songs I had. If I just had the instrumental parts, I would listen and try to figure out vocals and vocal melodies and write down ideas as I circled this little loop.
Do you find that it’s better to be moving around rather than sit down and write?
I think both help. I’ll move around because I feel like there’s something about the action of movement that makes you think differently. But also, if you want to really dive deep and be pensive and reflective, I feel like it’s good to sit still. So I would do both. I would walk for a bit, and if an idea came or if something was like, “Okay, I’m almost there,” then maybe I’ll sit down for a second and try to focus. And then I’ll get up to get the juices flowing again. It just depends on what stage of the writing you’re in.
Montrose Dog Beach
A lot of these things definitely came through during early to mid-pandemic when people realized they could go outside but still have to keep distance. I went to the beach almost every day from May on that year. I would drive to the beach very early, sometimes go and watch the sunset and watch people, some people trickle in with their dogs and let the dogs run around on the beach, in the water. And I’d go there and read or draw or just enjoy the water and enjoy the weather. Definitely like a meditation, just to clear my mind. I usually wouldn’t go there to work. Being by the water can be serene and peaceful and put life into perspective, when you see something that’s so grand and massive and beautiful that’s not manmade.
Was that a meditative habit you had before the pandemic?
I can’t say that I would really meditate before. I always need moments of silence to kind of gather my thoughts, but it wasn’t as consistent. It was just short spouts when things got overwhelming. And I think that time taught me a lot about consistency and just the repetitive nature of doing things. Not to do things in such extremes – I feel like I always did things to extremes, like wait for things to get so intense before I act on them. I’m still working on that, but I feel like it taught me to space things out more.
It’s weird how we see consistency as a good thing, but repetitiveness has kind of a more negative connotation.
Yeah, consistency does make it sound more spiritual. I don’t know why repetitive sounds mundane, but it’s literally the same thing – just keep doing a thing and it’ll be part of your structure.
‘Water’ by Kehlani
This ties into what you were saying before about water as something that’s inspiring to you in a grander sense, but tell me why you picked this specific song.
I was definitely obsessed with the idea of water. I’m also not a great swimmer – I can swim a bit, but I don’t trust myself to be in the water for too long without easy access to the shore. So I think there’s always a little bit of a fear in that, but my intuition is to want to be inside the water. I’m more drawn to it than I am scared of it, but the fear is always always there. And that song, I don’t know, I think it just hit me. I heard it at the right time, and I would listen to it on repeat for hours. It’s just something about the flowy piano and the background [sounds] in the chorus. That was another thing that was meditative for me. I just couldn’t stop listening to it – to this day, I can’t only play it once. I have to play it twice. It’s also only two minutes and two seconds long.
You’ve cited cartoons and good TV writing in general, but I’m curious why you singled out Steven Universe.
Steven Universe is just such a beautiful show. There’s no other cartoon like that. I feel like it was the first of its kind that talked about all these issues in such a beautiful way. And Steven is always trying to be nice, but still fucks things up. It just talks about emotions and love and relationships in a way that you don’t see and in any other shows, really. I don’t think it’s just for kids to watch, I think everyone could gain from it because there’s such sweet messages. And there’s really good songs that are fun.
Were you watching it around the time you were making this album?
Some of the songs were written when I was bingeing this, I kind of went in a hole and watched a lot in a row. And then I watched the movie when I was starting to put the album together. I’d say it definitely influenced how I think about relationships all across the board, like friendships, learning to listen to people in a different way and accept people’s different nuances, but still be able to set clear boundaries. I feel like it’s a very important show for teaching people how to express yourself in new ways. It’s so sweet. It’s a very good comfort show as well.
Is the commercial jingle that’s peppered on the album inspired by TV or animation?
You know, I hadn’t thought about that, but yeah. [laughs] It 100% is inspired by early morning, old Saturday cartoons and the breaks in TV. It’s one of my least favourite things, especially if you’re watching like a streaming service and you have to pay to get rid of the ads in some of them, and they make the ads louder than the actual programming. Like [makes loud noise], “Surprise! Buy a new car!” “You need this Lexapro!” or something. It’s so bonkers. I kind of wanted to mix in the absurdity of that into album, but I definitely did it in a little more of a playful way. I don’t know, it could have just been an ad to buy the record. But then again, the whole record is an ad to buy the record.
I love the idea of one person going up there by themselves and whatever happens happens. The crowd could be into it and with you one day, or they could be not ready. Having to win over a crowd by yourself, it’s just hard. I think stand-up comedy is one of the only things that you can’t get good at on your own, really. You can’t know if you’re good at it until you do it in front of other people. You can have a sense and you can be a good writer, but the actual experience of doing it is the only way to know if you’re good for real. Music, you can practice at home and become amazing and be like, “I know that I’m great,” and then you can bring that in front of other people. But I’ve always been interested in stand-up comedy. I wanted to do it when I was little, and I’ve watched a lot of very good and very, very bad stand-up. And I think it influences me putting humour in my writing. It’s very subtle in a lot of stuff, but I feel like there’s always an underlying joyful nature to things I’m doing. Also, I feel like my favourite comedians are really good storytellers – that’s what keeps you engaged.
Was storytelling something you were more concerned about with this album?
Yeah, I feel like the album story is there. It’s not a concept album per se, even though there is a clear theme. But I think that every song has its particular story, and then all those stories tie into this grander theme of, like, being able to pinpoint moments in your life and kind of sit and take in where you are each step of the way. I think there’s only maybe one or two songs that are more abstract, but hopefully it’s pretty easy to follow.
Harry Nilsson’s The Point
The movie is about a kid that lives in a town, and everyone has pointy heads, but he was born with a round head. It’s kind of like a Dr. Seuss-type movie. And basically, he wears a cone cap because he’s trying to fit in, and people find out that he doesn’t have a pointy head and they ostracise him and ridicule him. And he has to go off and kind of figure out his own path. It’s a very sweet film about embracing your differences, and everyone’s differences can be a superpower in a way. The fact that we all have things that we’re good at and things we’re bad at helps us build community, and everyone is important in their own way and can contribute something that’s unique to their own life and unique to their own experiences.
And I think that’s how I approach music as well. Everyone that makes music has the opportunity to make something completely unique from their perspective. Obviously, there’s going to be overlap because there’s so much music and people and only so many chords. [laughs] But I feel like if people really embrace and look within themselves for inspiration for their music or their art, there will be a lot more unique takes on things, even if they’re very subtle. Harry Nilsson is also very inspiring, I love his music. ‘Me and My Arrow’ is one of my favourite songs – in the movie, the main kid’s dog is called Arrow. Really cute song.
It’s kind of like a smaller tennis with a wiffle ball and you have these plastic paddles, smaller and wider than rackets. And it’s slower-paced than tennis, but very fun. I would play with the people that I’ve lived with over the past couple of years, we got really into it. Usually, I feel like older people are really into it. [laughs] But I love it. There’s these courts that are not too far from where I live. It’s just another thing that we added to our routine to break the monotony of not doing many things. The majority of these were inspired by the isolation but have still continued after that because it was just so fun to be doing this activity with people. It’s a little bit of exercise but not too strenuous on your body.
Who doesn’t love fresh fruit?
Yeah, biting into like a mango that is perfectly ripe? I feel like there’s nothing that makes me feel that way, that type of happiness and joy and just love of earth, when I have a real good fresh fruit. It makes you appreciate the earth.
You talked about having that joyful feeling in your music, but I do wonder what made you include this in the list.
I think that’s a very important thing to me. I usually remember where I am when I have a really good fruit usually. I feel like it ties into nostalgic moments for me very importantly. I think if I was sad or depressed, and all the times where I’d have a good fruit during those times, it’s like I can pinpoint all the things around it. I don’t have a great memory in general, so to be able to tie something as, I guess, small as a good fruit to memorable moments, I feel like that’s important. And that’s what most of the album is about, being able to reflect on moments and not just be continuously moving, to have those moments where you can sit down and be like, “Oh, this is where I was at this time, this is how I was feeling. Wherever I was is where I was supposed to be.” Even if you’re working towards goals, just to appreciate the moments where it’s just, “Here I am, in my backyard, sitting on the porch, eating a kiwi.” I think those parts of life are just as important as when you’re making something or working.
Very Long Walks
I think when I’m in movement, it’s the best way to get rid of anxiety and not overthink. Sitting can be calming and pensive, but usually when I’m sitting, I start to think about something, or try to think about nothing. There’s more effort, mentally, that goes into it. When I’m in motion or moving, I don’t necessarily focus on what I am or what I’m not thinking. People go on runs, and just getting your heart rate up and running and moving is good for stress, good for anxiety and stuff. Me? I just love to walk in a direction, and walk for hours. Sometimes I would walk until I was just like, “Okay, my legs hurt.”
“Where am I?”
Yeah. And then I would turn around. So the walk back would take me three times as long as the walk to wherever I went, just because I would walk to the point of exhaustion. But whenever I would return home or to wherever I was going, it’d be such a refreshing thing just to, like, shower. It’s one of my favourite moments, is going on a long walk and then get home and just sit down and read or sit down and watch something that I love. That exhaustion, and knowing that you went on a little adventure, that energy afterwards is a very calm energy. One of the calmest points of my life is after a long walk.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
NNAMDÏ’s Please Have a Seat is out October 7 via Secretly Canadian/Sooper Records.