Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: George Voronov
For forward-facing creatives seeking to reconnect, collaboration is key. That’s why Jameson is bringing together Irish talents from all sides of the music spectrum as part of their ‘Widen The Circle’ campaign. Ahead of a collaboration with Biig Piig, Monjola spoke to Dylan Murphy about his desire to become a hometown hero and put Dublin on the map. Book your tickets to watch Jameson’s St Patrick’s day event here.
More often than not, good music is the product of even greater relationships. Acutely aware of this, Dublin neo-soul artist Monjola is keen from minute one in our conversation to celebrate the people around him. Having shared a steady stream of feel good singles and become one of the country’s most exciting new artists in the process, he reiterates the importance of his main musical partner and brother, Moyo in this journey.
“This guy is mad. He’s produced five of my songs, five of Aby’s [Coulibaly] songs. He’s produced all our songs.” Whilst we talk about Monjola’s forthcoming collaboration with Biig Piig,
Moyo is actually sat across from us in the city centre basement bar with his headphones glued to his skull. The sibling’s relationship feels reminiscent of producer-singer duo NxWorries. While Moyo poses a reclusive, knxwledge-like figure, uninterested by what’s going on outside his headphones, Monjola cracks a huge Anderson .Paak-esque grin when asked about working Jess Smyth AKA Biig Piig.
“We are trying to work on some sh*t, for this collab. I’m doing a verse on ‘Feels Right‘, just trying to make some sh*t with jess ’cause I love her stuff. We’re hopefully going to write to that” he says throwing his head towards the television playing a J Dilla beat in the corner.
Having come from similar musical backgrounds and with both releasing songs named ‘Feels Right‘ it’s as though they were destined to work on a new version of Jess’ song. Whilst it would’ve been convenient for MJ to continue creating uplifting music indefinitely, he doesn’t want his output so far to define him.
“Someone once said to me, ‘You’re that ‘Smile’ guy right?’”, he says, referring to his sophomore single. “My friends always say to me ‘aw man you have to stay on brand and smile all the time’ [Laughs]. I wouldn’t mind being known as the person that makes uplifting music, I wouldn’t mind that, but I don’t wanna just release that kind of music.”
With this in mind, his most recent single, ‘The Pain Don’t Die’ landed as a bit of a surprise for listeners who were conditioned to his positive mantras and vibrant instrumentation. The melancholic track proved he does anything but make formulaic music and marked a new level of vulnerability for MJ, who even shed genuine tears in the video.
“I released ‘Where You At’ and it’s obviously upbeat and stuff but I go through sh*t too. I made that song with Moyo and I forgot about it, we weren’t going to release it. That [The final version] is the first take, we tried re-recording it in London but it didn’t hit the same.”
I wouldn’t mind being known as the person that makes uplifting music, I wouldn’t mind that, but I don’t wanna just release that kind of music.Monjola
His five releases have been part of a whirlwind two years for Monjola. Before he started releasing singles properly, he flirted with the music industry through his own series of club nights and half-hearted releases on SoundCloud while at college. Since then, he’s committed wholeheartedly to music and doesn’t hesitate when asked what pushed him to take it seriously.
“This guy man…” he says, pointing again at Moyo. “I was living with a producer so it made sense and it was during lockdown. Our friends would come over and we were making music everyday, so we’d literally had a studio and we had Moyo – it just made sense. We were actually just doing it for fun. I remember before I released ‘Know You‘ I was like, ‘Ah man if I put this out, as long as it as over 1,000 streams I’m happy’”.
Predictably, it got a lot more than 1,000 streams. Around 390 times that, not that he really cares about the numbers though. What is more interesting, is how his bright start fits into a wider trend of DIY artists on the island making music on their own terms. Following in the footsteps of acts like Rejjie Snow and inspired by artists as varied as The Neptunes and Two Door Cinema Club, he’s part of the first generation of artists from Ireland making black music with global reach. What’s more is, with the hip hop and RnB scene in its infancy, acts can be the first to lay down the blueprint for future generations.
Before I released ‘Know You‘ I was like, ‘Ah man if I put this out, as long as it as over 1,000 streams I’m happy’Monjola
“It’s Ireland. It’s a blank canvas” MJ says with the appetite of a stoner in a burger joint. “It’s on the come up. I feel that. I’ve been saying it for such a long time, but part of me didn’t believe it when I said it the first time in 2015, I was just saying it. I feel like it’s happening right now. There’s so many talented artists here”, he says before he Name checking Bricknasty, Gaff and childhoods friends TraviS, Elzzz and Zack Oke. “We’ve known each other for time, so it just feels like we are doing what we used to do except we’re taking it more seriously.”
That’s not to say it’s plain sailing from here on out. For all his optimism, MJ is acutely aware of Ireland’s limitations. Punctuating his detailed listicle of Irish acts you need to know with an honest caveat, the singer admits that doing what he loves in the city he loves isn’t a simple equation. Sure, he’s getting love from his hometown, receiving nods from tastemakers and even getting booked for festivals, but sustaining a living as an artist in Ireland is continuous struggle.
It’s Ireland. It’s a blank canvas. It’s on the come up. I feel that.Monjola
“To be a creative person in Ireland and make a living out of it, you have to be so vulnerable to the rest of the world, you know what I mean? ‘I’m going to do this stuff, sing into the mic and actually make a living out of it’ it’s actually a bit bizarre”, Monjola says. When local artists want to progress their career, moving to London becomes the logical next step. It guarantees nothing, but it’s where the opportunities are and as far as calculated risks go it’s a sound one. It’s why Irish acts like Kojaque, Yenkee, Fontaines D.C. and April have moved to London in the past couple of years and it’s a trend that doesn’t appear to be dying anytime soon.
Conscious of this development, MJ explains that while there will be trips to the UK and further afield, he plans to stay in Dublin. Not because he’s waiting for divine timing or his career to fully take off, but because he wants to rep his city to the fullest.
“It’s home. Nowhere else feels like this. If I had a fanbase everywhere in the world but didn’t have one in Dublin, that’d be the worst. Music is nerdy about where you are from. If you don’t have the backing of your city, what are you doing? Music, hip hop, RnB, the culture is literally about where you are from. Dublin has to be my base. I want to try and build something here and for people that value it. Dublin is actually where it’s at, people just don’t really know it yet.”
It’s home. Nowhere else feels like this. If I had a fanbase everywhere in the world but didn’t have one in Dublin, that’d be the worst.Monjola
Evidently, it’s all about authenticity for Monjola. Whether that’s collaborations, the way a song hits or making authentic connections with listeners, it’s all grounded in a sense of staying true to himself.
“A lot of musicians say they make music for themselves, but it’s one of those careers where to make a living everyone else has to care about what you are doing”, MJ says, unravelling the paradox. “But first and foremost, I want to make it for myself and other people as well. The messages I get everyday like ‘Man, I just heard your song ‘Smile’ and it really helped me get through something’. That means a lot. If someone I don’t know heard my song and it helped them out then it’s already accomplished something amazing.”
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