What’s the first thing you think of when the N17 is mentioned?
For the vast majority of people it’s the classic, upbeat song by The Saw Doctors, as opposed to the actual road running through Co Galway. Blissful memories of arms and legs flailing around country pub dancefloors when it’s played.
This New Year’s Eve a new rendition of N17 was heard on the national broadcaster, RTÉ One.
The hopping and buck-lepping we associate with the song was left behind and Tolü Makay’s version with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra left some quite emotional.
Among them, Graham Norton, who tweeted: “Maybe feeling fragile on New Year’s Day but this has reduced me to a sobbing mess. Huge congratulations to everyone involved in putting it together!!”
Maybe feeling fragile on New Year’s Day but this has reduced me to a sobbing mess. Huge congratulations to everyone involved in putting it together!! https://t.co/2Txavdqsjn— graham norton (@grahnort) January 1, 2021
Possibly it was the year that was in it, possibly it was the slower tempo, but Tolü’s version hit home for many.
“The lyrics are just so truthful and poignant. Also, you can almost visually see what they’re trying to say through the lyrics,” says Tolü of the emigration anthem.
“For me, I just connected with it. I was able to release that connection as I was performing and singing it. Hearing it, playing it back and having to study it a little bit, made me realise how deep it was.”
Interestingly, for someone who can perform so strongly, Tolü says she was very shy growing up and not always confident in her music. Of late, she feels she has found her voice as a singer, but is still working on being confident as a speaker.
Tolü was born in Nigeria and moved to Ireland at the age of five with her family. They lived in Waterford and Wexford before settling in Tullamore, Co Offaly.
Going to church was a big part of Tolü’s family life growing up. She joined the church choir at the age of eight, and attributes this gospel influence to being able to emotionally connect to music.
“Growing up being in the gospel space, for the songs you sing in church you need to be able to connect with the audience, so it has to connect with you first. That’s the way I’ve been taught and that’s the way I’ve connected with music. It has to connect with me first in order for it to connect with other people.”
After school Tolü went to NUI Galway (NUIG) to study psychology and philosophy. During her time in university she won a gospel singing competition, which gave her a real insight into what a professional career in music would be like.
After completing her degree, she went on to start a master’s in Trinity College Dublin (TCD). However, deciding she wanted more time and money to dedicate to her music, she left and got a job in tech sales in Dublin.
She progressed in this career, moving up the ladder and changing to different companies. But, after some time Tolü realised this wasn’t making her happy. In 2019, trying to juggle a full-time job and music took its toll.
“I kind of had a breakdown moment,” Tolü recalls.
There was a week where I literally couldn’t get out of the bed
“I think it was because I was just stressed and burnt out. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. For the two years before that, I was probably only getting about four hours sleep a night because I was just doing everything.
“There was a week where I literally couldn’t get out of the bed, I couldn’t do anything. The next week I just picked myself up and went back to work without thinking too much about it. A few months later, the same thing happened, but even worse. To the point where I just had to get my mum to pick me up and take me out of Dublin. So I could be taken care of, really.”
My happiness is something I really prioritise now
Tolü quit her job and moved back to Tullamore. Looking back on the situation now, she can see her mental health was suffering.
“My happiness is something I really prioritise now. I genuinely felt like I was depressed without really understanding or having a label put on it. Obviously, I think it’s important not to self-diagnose yourself, because there are people who are depressed and have to take medication.
“My anxiety was through the roof, I was panicking all the time and I wasn’t happy. In December, I decided to go to Nigeria for an entire month, just have fun and be in the sun. Not worry about the stress of the world, have the family take care of me.”
After coming back from Nigeria, Tolü made a deal with herself – she would give music all her efforts for one year. In January 2020, Tolü was signed by a record label in Berlin and 12 months on, despite a global pandemic, things have gone very well for her. She has an EP out, Being, is planning an album this year and her new song, Used to Be, is out this week, Friday 5 March on all digital platforms.
As well as her professional development, Tolü worked on her personal development in 2020 too – going to therapy to try to understand the difficulties she was having with her headspace.
Reflecting on herself in general, Tolü says she’s a very independent person, but is learning now to let others help more. This independence, she feels, comes from growing up in a different society to that of her parents.
“I’ve learned to do things and figure things out myself. Having parents where this isn’t their world – they grew up in Nigeria – being a child that has come into a new society with a different culture at home as well, you have to find your own space, your own community and your own network, which is very difficult.”
“The advantage of being in a society your parents grew up in is that they have connections, they know the system and all these different things. There is so much I’m still learning how to do.”
Although, Tolü might feel like she’s still finding her voice to express herself outside of singing, Irish Country Living thinks in both song and spoken word, she’s doing a pretty great job.