Soji Otuyelu hadn’t expected his move to Pennsylvania to breathe new life into his songwriting. But from the moment he relocated to York two years ago, he has felt a sense of community that’s moved his output from regular to prolific.
Though the venues and overall environment vary widely on York’s open mic circuit, the thread running through them all is how welcoming and supportive they are. A typical weeknight with one of the veteran open mic hosts will have neophytes and musicians who are new to the area appearing among seasoned performers and those who are fixtures in and around York.
Soji, who was born in Nigeria and went to high school and college in New England, moved to North Carolina for a job in 2006, then transferred to Carlisle six months later. He commutes from York, where he’s lived since February 2012. Over the past two years, he has become so entrenched in the York scene that his most recent album, The Singles, features a veritable Who’s Who of his fellow local musicians.
“I started meeting these musicians,” he says, “and it inspired me to write more.” He tested new songs each week at the open mics, developing them through collaboration with other performers, and “the album just happened.”
Since the songs were written through these interactions, Soji decided it only made sense to include the other musicians in the process of recording them. He headed to B Real Productions Studio in East York, where a very patient engineer/producer named Aaron Wiest spent nearly four months recording the album.
The Singles features contributions from many York-based musicians – about 10 are credited on the back of the CD, and there are others who make cameos. The final product boasts 18 tracks, with the finale being more of a jam session between half a dozen people.
The album doesn’t fall into a specific genre, partly because the songs were influenced by so many musicians who brought different backgrounds and experiences to the recording. The Singles is Soji’s fifth album, and it continues in the vein of theme-albums that preceded it. When he first arrived in town and began writing these songs, he was newly single and learning to “test the waters.” The songs on The Singles all tell that story, but in a variety of ways.
Soji was exposed to musical composition at a young age. His sisters began piano lessons when Soji was about 5 years old, and he would go along and spend some time with the teacher when the girls were finished. He’d play around on the keyboard they had at home, and he and his sisters would make up songs together. It wasn’t until Soji was 15 years old and living in Boston that he picked up the guitar and began writing songs in earnest.
“I went to a church where they were giving free music lessons,” he says. “I remember the first day I went, there were like 20 kids. And the next week there was no one.”
So three times a week for hours at a time, he had one-on-one guitar lessons in the church basement. “And we did that for about three months, [until] the funding went out because no one was showing but just me. But those three months, I soaked up all I could.” The instructor was Argentinean, and taught Soji modern jazz chords, South American scales and other concepts he wouldn’t have been exposed to had he tried to learn on his own. He still uses those scales in his composition.
“I think that makes my music a little unique,” he says. “Especially with the African rhythms I put behind it.”
Soji began to further develop his other writing skills around his freshman year of high school as well. “I’d been writing poetry for a long time,” he says. “I didn’t really know what it was called. I just used to write when I was in Nigeria, but when I was a freshman in high school, we had this teacher who had a poetry club. And it turns out it was something I’d been doing for a whileâ€¦so I continued that habit and some of that poetry turned into songwriting.”
Soji’s affinity for poetry is apparent in his music. It’s not uncommon to hear him inject spoken word lyrics into his live act, or to repeat a particular line or verse several times in the middle of a song for emphasis. As a performer, he concerns himself with connecting the audience with the emotions behind each song.
“I know that when I perform, what goes on in my head is to make sure that I am genuine with the message of the musicâ€¦that I’m able to properly share with the audience,” Soji says.
Since they’re so emotionally driven, the songs – or at least the ideas for the songs – tend to come in waves. A piece of a melody or a phrase comes to mind that explains a feeling he’s been trying to express. “I don’t choose how or which one of those things makes it a song,” Soji says, “but at some point it becomes a song.”
Soji is a man who clearly has faith in the muse and doesn’t worry about writer’s block. “There’s definitely a spiritual element to it,” he says. “These songs – I’ll tell anyone this – I don’t know where they come from. Most times, I use words in them that I don’t typically use in my vocabulary and I haven’t heard in a while. I don’t know where they come from, they just happen. And to me, it feels like there’s sort of a divine power behind the songs because it’s not me.”
Yet the songs keep coming. Soji records what he’s working on and frequently posts videos to his Facebook page. For now, he’s content to be a vehicle for the muse – or the divine – and allow the songwriting to come through without any expectation of becoming a full-time musician.
“If it happened, I wouldn’t say no,” he says. But I don’t feel like I’m pursuing it. What I really enjoy doing is writing songs.”
Soji posts his songs online for others to enjoy; he says he doesn’t feel they belong to him. “There’s no point keeping them in a folder and singing them to myself in my bedroom. I just like writing songs and that’s what I’m going to do.”