Having grown up with her Nigerian immigrant parents in rural Arizona, Joy Oladokun has gotten used to not always fitting in. First inspired to pursue music aged 10 after watching a video of Tracy Chapman, Oladokun, now 29, began to build confidence and discover herself through learning to play the guitar.
This eventually led to her leading worship at her local church. That was until an unceremonious parting of ways when she publicly revealed her sexuality, which she poignantly recalls in the song ‘Jordan.’
After subsequent moves to Los Angeles and Nashville, Oladokun is finally beginning to find her place in the world; following the success of her pop, R&B and folk infused debut in defense of my own happiness, which was re-released in June by Amigo Records, Verve Forecast and Republic.
Catching up with Holler backstage after a blistering performance at Railbird Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, Oladokun talked candidly about learning to open up during co-writes, how meditation and nature have kept her grounded and being an inspiration to others as a queer Black woman.
From what I’ve read, and from following you on social media, it seems like you’re quite the homebody. With that in mind, what has the last 18 months been like for you?
Yes! I’m super comfortable in my own house. Quarantine was an interesting time for me - I felt really happy being hunkered down, even though others didn’t.
But there are ways that I can feel at home on the road too - I’ve been doing a lot of meditating and getting out into nature. Both have taught me a lot about music because that mental space is essential to what you make. Something about being a tiny person on a massive hill out in the middle of Tennessee reminds me of my own place in this world, under the scope of everything else going on.
As far as meditation goes, I do it because I have anxiety. To have a moment where you’re able to relax and focus on nothing but your breathing is very powerful. It helps me a lot during performances too; if I get nervous I start to focus on my breathing.
When it comes to my writing, meditation helps me when I’m stuck and struggling to generate ideas by keeping me from growing frustrated with myself. Just getting outside and away from music helps to refresh and expand my thoughts as well.
When you’ve gone out into nature, have you mostly stuck around Nashville and Tennessee, or have you branched out into other areas?
A little! My partner and I recently bought a 1978 Ford Club Wagon. It’s got a bed in the back, so we take it camping a lot. We’ve even been to some different spots in Kentucky - the south is just so beautiful. Yes, it’s green and hot, but there’s also lots of hilly terrain with the Appalachian and Great Smoky Mountains.
We’ve also gotten down to the Carolinas and Alabama, trying to explore as much of the beauty around us as possible.
Moving onto your album, in defense of my own happiness - what’s it been like having such a well-received breakout album, yet essentially having to sit on it until recently?
It almost felt like I was having a birthday party that nobody could come to. The timing felt quite anti-climactic. But, it also helped me to prepare for getting back into shows, whenever they would inevitably return, meeting new people and everything else that comes with that.
It’s been interesting as a homebody navigating that tension, because I didn’t necessarily mind celebrating the album over Zoom like we did.
But things are changing. I think life is meant to be lived in this community way, where we can sit at a table and talk about stuff like we’re doing now, or where I can play my songs for an audience and share with them what was on my mind, in a way that’s not possible when you’re just pressing play on a record.
A lot of your songs seem to tie in well to themes of growth. One of these is ‘Bigger Man’, which you co-wrote with Maren Morris. Do you mind telling me about the song and how the opportunity with Maren came about?
I actually have a publishing label [in Nashville] that helps me book writing sessions, among other things. A while back they organized something with Maren, Jimmy Robbins, Laura Veltz and I. I compare co-writing to a blind date. It could go great or it could go poorly. In this case, it went great, with us writing ‘bigger man’ on the first day together.
We’ve all grown to be good friends since. Laura and I still hang out and Maren and I text often. It was one of those bizarre instances where the chemistry worked and the song flowed effortlessly. It was so cool to be able to put words to it.
Prior to your recent move to Nashville, you hadn’t done much co-writing. Has it been a challenge for you to adjust to that process?
The hardest part has been finding my voice and role in the process of co-writing a good song. Once I found that, it became really easy to sit down, write and create something I could be proud of.
Co-writing is an immense gift. I still do a lot of writing alone, but I think it’s really beautiful to go to someone, or have someone come to you, and say, "I have this feeling but I don’t know how to express or communicate it. Can you help me?" It’s a huge honor. Even when the experience is bad, you learn something.
You also co-wrote ‘wish you the best’ with Jensen McRae. Did that opportunity come about from your publishing label as well?
We actually met on Instagram. To this day we still haven’t met in person, since everything happened over the pandemic. I’ve been a big fan of Jensen, so I just shot my shot and DM’d her one day saying that I had a song I thought she’d be perfect for.
I didn’t even realize it at first, but she called me back almost immediately. We became good friends and she wrote an amazing verse for the song.
You’re doing a bunch of shows later this year opening for Jason Isbell. What are your thoughts on the efforts he and others are making to try to make country - and the music industry as a whole - more open and inclusive to all?
I respect what he and others are doing so much. It’s long overdue for people to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Right now is a time for listening, because the reality is that musicians of color have been a part of country music since it began.
For example, my parents are from Nigeria, and they have country music there. It wasn’t brought over by someone else. People there actually make Nigerian folk music that sounds like country music. It’s a cool moment happening now, where people are acknowledging both our history and the future of roots music in our country. It’s very exciting.
You’ve always been very open about your identity as a lesbian and African American. You once said that as a child you were inspired by a video of Tracy Chapman, in which you saw someone that looked like you singing. Is that something that you’re hoping to recreate for the next generation of musicians who may be watching or listening to you?
Yes, 1000%! I’ve had a lot of moments since coming out of the church world and embracing my sexuality where I’ve found people who’ve felt like me but didn’t know how to say it, or couldn’t until somebody else did. I think there’s courage in vulnerability that sets other people free.
I hope that my music, my presence or the fact that I’m a black girl wearing a Mac Miller shirt, playing Nirvana and talking about Star Wars, helps kids like me - kids who are growing up in small towns looking for someone to give them a chance – to be set free and to feel less out of place in this world.
in defense of my own happiness is out now. Read our review of the album here.