Walking into whynow studios in London, Tay Iwar is playing a track he’s been making that afternoon. He’s based in Abuja, Nigeria, but Iwar spends a lot of time here working with artists and appreciating the receptive audiences.
The softly-spoken, reserved 22-year old is, and always has been, a disciple of music. After disliking classical music education as a child, Iwar picked up the guitar, the first instrument he felt compatible with. Then when his school provided laptops, he discovered FL Studio, and with it, his love of production: “Things were just falling into place in my life, leading me towards that direction, so it was hard to ignore. I mean, imagine a Nigerian kid having a laptop at 13. That's rare.”
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From being surrounded by music at home, to a formal education, to self-teaching, Iwar converged all of these threads into his sound: “I think my mind and my soul just understood melodies and how instruments vibrate from a very young age. That edge came when I realized I could channel that knowledge into music.”
Iwar plays multiple instruments, produces, mixes and masters, with writing and singing coming later: “I couldn't find anyone to actually sing on my beats, because I was so indoors. My friends and brothers heard it and they were just like: 'You should definitely finish these songs'.”
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In keeping with this natural affinity, Iwar avoids preparing lyrics; he sings from his heart and head into the mic: “I never write without the beat. I just put the headphones on, listen to the song and hope for something to come, and usually it does. I dig deep and locate that beat to an emotion in my mind.” So as a happy consequence of Iwar’s introverted nature, we have got to know him primarily as an emotionally-charged and delicate singer, despite also producing and mixing most of his tracks.
All of this culminates in a very special sound. Depending on what you hear first, you wouldn’t be amiss in thinking Iwar was an American R&B singer. But once you listen to enough, there is a distinct African tilt: “It's intentional and it's what I grew up on. I guess over the years the sound has been a fusion. I do a variety of sound with an African sprinkle, or finesse on it. The drums, I always try to put that element in.”
We are conditioned to expect an African artist to always include traditional sounds in their music, but this should not be assumed. Like many emerging talents, Iwar tries to “shy away” from genres. This is harder to enforce when he’s heavily associated with Alté artists like Santi and Odunsi the Engine: “I'm more of a distant relative to the Alté scene, like a cousin.”
But this grouping comes as no surprise: “It's expected because we have so much music together. We're all Nigerian, so they're going to put us in the same group.” This is bound to change as the wider world becomes more attuned at differentiating between regional sounds. But until then, Iwar seems comfortable to be categorised amongst esteemed friends.
At his young age, Tay Iwar has already released four albums. The first, ‘Passport’, when he was 16 and the third, ‘GEMINI’, was released in March 2019 under LA-based collective Soulection. Although this partnership makes sense from a superficial level, there is an emotional history that validates it even further.
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The email that changed everything was sent by Montalis 'Monty' Anglade, Direction of Operations & Soulection Records in 2018: “I had been listening to Soulection for five years before that. I had already gone through the phase of saying, "One day I'm going to work with Soulection,” and was now like, "Maybe one day I'll work with them."…They influenced all the sound prior so when they came to me, it's like they had already done the work. We just had to come together and release something.”
After scrapping a project he was working on, Iwar and Soulection agreed to try an EP. This is how ‘1997’ was born, three tracks that would later be included on the full album.
GEMINI put Tay Iwar on the international stage. Alongside songwriter T-Skillz for a lot of the time, Iwar spent a year and a half in Jungle Studios creating it: “I really didn't do much besides make music during that time, if I'm being honest.” As an additional income stream, he was producing and mixing other people’s work, which took its toll: “It was overwhelming, having multiple deadlines and rent and all of that. It was a lot of responsibility, but I don't regret it. It birthed 'GEMINI'.”
The title is Iwar’s star sign, which was the starting point of his self-reflection: “I felt like this [star sign] was so accurate on a surface level. I just used that to channel all my emotions into the album. I was like, ‘now I understand myself more’.”
This is not an uncommon way to find answers about one’s identity, but it’s not quite as common to turn that understanding into an album. Iwar and I share our favourite song on 'GEMINI': “KEEPS is very self-explanatory. A lot of people might think it's a sexual song, but it's just about wanting something and being sure that you can have it.”
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Talking about 'MONICA', the album’s stand-out track, Iwar explains that such a sad song (with a hook that begins, “I fell in love with you and I almost died”) is what he needs to move on from a situation: “If I can talk about it then I've kind of let it go and I'm ready to hear that repeated in my mind.” Despite clear articulation, Iwar repeats how bad he is at explaining his songs: “It’s being able to just have your own [explanation] and know it's yours.” Iwar describes knowing when a track is ready by “abandoning” it. Once a song is out, he doesn’t feel responsible for its interpretation.
The most recent project dropped in December 2019, a joint album with producer Le Mav called ‘GOLD’. After chatting for two years, Le Mav was sending Iwar beats everyday that had instant impact: “Somehow I just had words immediately. He would send it on WhatsApp, I would drag it from WhatsApp into Logic and just go in. It was back-to-back.” Once again, Iwar showcases the cycle from emotion to tangible music that some artists find elusive.
Iwar wishes he could go from, “the studio to the stage, and the stage to the studio”, and is getting closer to achieving this in 2020 working on new music. His goal is, “Being able to translate my mind to the world accurately and precisely,” and he’s re-balancing to reach this: “I've been getting tired of making beats. I just want to focus on lyrics right now.”
Even though Iwar has more than put the work in, there is an attitude of passivity and humility to his current standing: “I've never gone out of my way because I feel like the music in me is from God. Sometimes I like to just let it flow that way and not force anything.” It’s this level of self-belief, self-awareness and spiritual coupling with music, that makes Tay Iwar the dynamic force he is.
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Jumper: Liam Hodges
Long coat: Tigran Avetisyan
Cream T-shirt: Liam Hodges
Stylist: Losh Aje
Photographer: Paolina Stadler
Words: Nicola Davies
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