Press Play; and Tomi Owó Comes On

It’s a stormy Saturday morning, the end of a long and stressful week. The skies are darker than usual, the rain is starting to pick up pace, and you just want to drift away from reality for a while. You hear the sound of the rain hitting your rooftop, an all-too-familiar cadence mimicking your heartbeat. You see the wet roads through your window and people hurriedly searching for shade to protect them from the punishment of the skies. You like rain and dark clouds, you like solitude and the occasional thunder and lightning, you like this moment.

It is not enough to forget the week you just had, you want something else to get lost in. Music, aha! You are not in the mood to curate any playlist or play any of the trillion playlists you have already created in the past. You need something new and fresh, different from anything you are familiar with. You need to feel something new. You decide to trust your main streaming service to curate something with the power of shuffle. Perfect! You connect your speakers and play the reference song that will serve as foundation for the rest. It’s time.

You sit by the window watching the skies and the roads, watching the rain come down hard. The first three songs play; they are good but they are not hitting you where you want them to, yet. But then, the fourth one comes on. Oh my. Who is this?

“I can give you everything I have…please don’t take it away from me…” are the words you hear, and they instantly pull at your heartstrings. You want to head over there to check what song it is, and who, but you don’t. You do not want to disrupt this experience. The lyrics, the rhythm, the voice; they all have you spellbound.

“Please don’t break me…’cause if you do, you can’t pick up the pieces…” The evocative lyrics continue to pull at your heartstrings as you watch the rain and drift away. The voice is soothing, soft and emotive. The instrumental is murky in a way that sets the tone.

The song ends and you are pulled out of your reverie. You finally get to find out whose voice that was, and the name of the song that ripped you open and took your heart on a trip to Arcadia. Congratulations, you just met Tomi Owó and the song is Pieces.

Pieces was her first official single, at a time when she decided to explore her range as a singer and songwriter. The third song on her debut EP of the same name, it is one of those unique songs that can elicit very contrasting emotions, depending on where your head is when you listen. At its core, it is an expression of love in a way that projects strength rather than weakness; because of course, love does not have to be weakness. But it is easy to miss, even though she says “but that don’t mean I’m weak”, and that is where the genius lies. There is something gloomy about it, almost completely dark, and the instrumental feeds it along with her voice. She sounds sad, like someone who is completely vulnerable to the other person, almost begging to not be hurt like she would never recover. But the words “please don’t break me” are not from a place of weakness. She isn’t actually begging to not be hurt. Rather, it is a warning about where the lines are. “You can’t pick up the pieces” if you break her, things will just never be the same. She might take you back, and her heart might already be all yours, but you can’t pick up the pieces after.

If you thought Pieces was perfect, you would need a stronger superlative for Ilẹ which was released after. Once again, her lyrical dexterity comes to the fore. Here, it seems the lover who was warned to not break her eventually did. But she vows that her heart will never get tired. Maybe that particular person would never be able to pick up the pieces he broke, but someone else would. “This heart of mine was made to get broken but these arms of mine they’ll remain wide open…” she says. This time, it is framed like a song that projects strength, the kind of toughness that people who have been wronged show when it first happens. But like the first stage of grief, it is actually denial. This is vulnerability and pain, this is a sad song. Then the song peaks at the bridge, “o se mi lese…sugbon, mi o ni kigbe”. The instrumental absolutely comes alive here, almost cheering her on as she promises the heartbreaker that she will not wail even though he has hurt her so much. You can hear the pain in her voice as she laments, “O se mi lese..mi o ni beru mo…mi o ni kigbe”. She declares herself fearless.

Well, here is the twist. Ilẹ comes before Pieces on the EP, not after it. And in between, there is Inside Out that talks about a love that seems to be fading because her lover isn’t making enough of an effort. Now, the picture is clearer. Ilẹ sets the tone, giving the full context or just foreshadowing. She has been hurt by someone she loves but she vows to never stop trying, because her heart will never get tired of being open to love and accepting of it. On Inside Out, she meets a guy and they fall for each other. But his love seems rather superficial because he isn’t intentional about getting to know her, unlike her who has paid attention and become invested in knowing him, and how best to love him. She urges him to not get carried away by everything physical between them, her beauty and all the sparks. On Pieces, it is clear that he has listened. Now the love has reached a level where she realises that she is vulnerable and ready to give her heart and trust. But she remembers the heartbreak from Ilẹ and warns this guy not to go the way of her ex. Because unlike before, she has learnt to look out for herself, even when she is vulnerable. She has to warn him that he gets only one shot at her trust. If he breaks her, it will never be the same.

Versus is the fourth track on the five track EP. The story continues. Their relationship has reached a point where a bit of jealousy sets in, because of the attention she is getting from other guys. She reassures him that none of it matters, because she only has eyes for him. She urges him to stop seeing it like a competition, because it is a partnership between two people who are one and growing together. It’s like fighting yourself, really.

The EP closes with Rora, a soothing song with a not-so-soothing end to the tale. “And now she’s gone, you say you’ll never love again…you were warned…” Just like she promised, she was not going to lose the will to walk in order to protect herself, just because she was in love. The lyrics attribute their break up to his itchy feet, wanting too much too soon while not listening to her. It appears the problems from Versus didn’t go away, and his insecurities got the better of him. You know, her with all the attention from other men, and him not knowing how to handle it no matter how much she assured him she wanted only him. Did he want her to dim her light? Maybe he proposed prematurely and spooked her. Maybe he should have paid more attention when she told him to slow down, that he already won the race for her heart and didn’t need to fret so much. The EP that started with heartbreak, ended with heartbreak. The Pieces EP, indeed.

A year after the EP release, Tomi Owó released Night Rain. The song is a continuation of the story of the Pieces EP. But the sound had evolved by this point. While the songs on the EP are dreamy, immersed in a cloud of gloom and pain, Night Rain is upbeat and happy although reflective. There is a joyful undertone here that isn’t on the EP, and the lyrics tell us exactly why. “Darkest beauty I’ve ever seen, you came just when I needed you to wash away the pain…” And it makes even more sense when you hear, “nothing thrilled me anymore, I had shut the door to let fate take me away…but then you came…”

What is remarkable about the music that Tomi Owó makes is how the quality has remained undiluted through seven years, even when she is experimenting or pushing through new frontiers. The sound has continued to evolve, the instrumentation more sophisticated, the lyrics more compelling, the voice more disarming. Yet, nothing gets outdated and the quality never drops. You can discover something new about her songs every single time you listen; a new insight, a new interpretation of a lyric, a background sound you didn’t pick up before. It’s the mark of an artist that puts a lot of thought into her music, and strives for meaning every time. Every song is a story, and the music is the theme music for the story contained in the song.

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon. The skies are brighter than usual, the sun is starting to heat up everywhere, and you just want to drift away from reality for a while. You prepare a playlist this time, of one artist with the range to take you to Arcadia and keep you floating there. You press play and Tomi Owó comes on.

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