When I was approached to conduct an interview with Ndidi Onukwulu I had no idea how I was going to spin it. Although fashion and music are two very closely knit industries these days, music is not something we have really touched on here at Stylust and I would never profess to have the ability or palette to really write about it. However when I met with the Burns Lake native in Hollywood earlier this month, it just clicked. Not only does she have an amazing singing voice that will no doubt have you hooked at the first note she’s so much more than just a musician and as we bonded over our experience being Canadians living in LA and our love for vintage silk it was obvious that Ndidi was a perfect fit for our November Girl Crush. Her new album, Dark Swing dropped back in October and I highly suggest checking it out but for now how about getting to know this stylish songstress?

Ndidi Onukwulu

STYLUST (S): You’ve lived and visited a lot of amazing places. Which of them has your heart?

NDIDI (N): Definitely LA. LA has always been a special place. I actually recorded most of the Dark Swing album in Los Angeles and I work with a producer based here. And I just met a lot of musicians and sort of feel a kinship to this city. I have for a really long time. There is just something about West Coast cities like Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles that I am always drawn to. My cousin moved here a long time ago and I started visiting her and I remember the first few times I came here I thought, I feel like at some point in time I’m going to be in this city. Something is going to happen here for me. And now I’m here.

S: Excellent choice. You obviously travel a lot for work. Do you like being grounded or do you prefer living abroad?

N: I prefer being grounded, to be honest. I love having routines and when you are in constant flux and living out of a suitcase it’s hard to have routines. So I have sort of developed touring routines for when I’m on tour and then when I’m home I have this routine that I do. But I’ve been on the road for the past four years that only now am I starting to really figure out what my home routine is because now I have one. I definitely prefer to be home but I know with what I do now and the creative things and not necessarily creative things I plan on doing in my near and distant future I will always be someone who needs to travel. But setting up a real base does make things easier. When you have a home and you know what you are coming back to and that’s where you are going to be and you know exactly what you’re going to be doing when you’re back there, it’s much easier to travel.

Ndidi Onukwulu

S: Music was not always your calling but when did you realize and really know that this could be your career?

N: When I was 20. So only six years ago (laughs). A really close friend of mine just had heard me singing and encourage me to do it. I am one of those people who when I get idea in my head and when I decide I’m going to do something, I just do it. It’s not logical, it’s not realistic. So when I was 20 I decided to take a leave of absence from university and sold all of my things and moved to New York. I was going to be a musician and if I was going to do it I was going to go to the hardest place to try to make music and see what I could make happen. And that’s what I did. It was quite an adventure and I ended up in Toronto rather quickly (laughs) which is where things started happening. I still have connections in New York to this day and now we are finding ways to collaborate which is amazing. But yeah, I was 20 and I made a decision and I still make that decision every single day. The music industry has changed, the entertainment world has changed. It’s very superficial and the integrity for writers ceases to exist. It’s all about commodity, quick dollar, sensationalism and putting on a show. It’s all about smoke in mirrors and creating brands and that is what is being propelled and supported in the industry today and it’s really destroying creativity. There are some artists who are doing creative stuff but even that is enveloped in a sense of… falseness. It almost like, I’m being arty because this is what I am supposed to do but this is just the prototype, and it’s not necessarily honest or there is no message and I feel like because that’s not something that people care about it’s a lot harder in this industry if you have integrity. Or if you want to try to do something that helps people. It’s a very selfish industry. It’s about tricking people and keeping them dulled and keeping their eyes closed so other things can happen. And I’ve always been against that and really struggled with that in my musical career and in finding a place that isn’t forcing me to become a prototype of what is immediately expected of me. And because of this, everyday I struggle with should I be doing this, should I keep on doing this? And then something will happen and I will keep on going. But it definitely was not my first choice by any means (laughs).

S: Definitely. I think anyone creative has to … choose it. It’s sad that it just comes with the territory nowadays.

N: Well what about you? As a writer and designer do you ever feel like you have to conform to trends?

S: For sure. Daily. There are a lot of expectations and a lot of it is, you know, I have to do this if I want to be here OR I have to do things the way other people are doing them if it’s going to be work. It sucks because it totally stunts your creativity which is what you start doing this all for is so you can create and do things you love.

N: Certain people get to do things they love and often times the ones who have a secretive support system behind them. And by that I mean money. They might have it or their family has it or you know you’ll notice that in the creative community a lot of people who are able to be more creative are the ones who have the luxury of financial support. You know and it doesn’t matter to them whether people care or not. But if it’s something you are doing on your own and you’re self funding and even though you might get some support here and there if you have to pay for it all yourself its a little bit harder. You’ll be successful if you just keep at it. That’s my theory. Just keep going, keep on seeing what you like and finding new ways to share beautiful things with the world. We need beautiful things – I love looking at beautiful things, you know, it takes my mind off of the ugliness that exists.

Ndidi Onukwulu

S: It’s easy to get cynical with all that’s going on in the world and it’s easy to feel like, this is all I’m doing? But then I’m like, no people need this kind of stuff in their life, too.

N: Yes, we’ve always needed it. Even in wartime, magazine production and promoting beauty and all the sections sharing how to economical during wartime and you know, we are in wartime. Even though it’s not in our land, there are wars happening continuously. So of course we need beauty and entertainment. It would be nice if there was more of a message of being honest and true injected in the things that are being created but I do think that beauty is important and it creates joy and when we are joyful we make better choices.

S: That is an awesome way to put it. Creatives often aren’t sure how to bring elements of themselves into their work. Did you ever struggle with how far to go and what to keep to yourself?

N: Yes. I do deal with that struggle. With Dark Swing I worked with a producer and writer named Joel Shearer and working with somebody else was interesting. He would come in and sensor or change some of what I was saying and in a way it [helped] with the over sharing but at the same time I’d have to strike a balance because I wanted to still be authentic and sincere. It was a really valuable lesson in finding that line between being almost too honest. You know, you can be too dark and share too much but by tapering back we were able to make it a little more relate-able. And that’s something I learned in this collaboration and it’s something I take with me now you know even in my current project or my writing. It’s just trying to find a way to personalize what it is I am seeing in a way that relates to everyone.

S: On that note, is there something that you wish people knew about you that they don’t already?

N: Yeah, I wish people knew that I am Canadian, first and foremost. That I did not grow up in a musical family. There is always reference to my biological father because he’s Nigerian and he makes music that we are somehow connected, and we’re not. I wish people to know that I am a Canadian soul singer and I don’t believe that I am bound to the trappings of race and music. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize myself in the coloured people music world, I feel that I exist somewhere in between. I’d also like people to know that… I don’t know that I really like cats [laughs]. And that I recently started making beaded bracelets.

S: Since you live a very nomadic lifestyle do you have a go-to uniform?

N: Black. It’s basically what you see here. When it’s hot it’s my cat denim jacket, when it’s cold it’s my leather jacket. All black with some kind of brogue or a boot and that’s it. For stage you know I have a couple of dresses and I’m always looking to incorporate more but they tend to be black because the thing is, I am messy and when you are touring you don’t always have the luxury of doing laundry every week. Sometimes it’s two weeks. So black items don’t show there wear and tear as much as lighter items do. So definitely my go-to is dark denim, dark shirts, some kind of shoe, and jewelry. Jewelry is my passion.

Ndidi Onukwulu

S: Speaking of jewelry, I love your broach!

N: Thank you! It was a gift from one of my family members the last time they were in Paris. She found it in some secondhand place and it was super cheap. I love my jewels. It’s so awesomely costumey. {laughs}

S: Preaching to the choir! I love costume jewelry.

N: Me too. I’m a big fan. I like serious jewelry. Who am I kidding, I love jewels. I love to find things at estate sales. Beautiful pieces [like] old Chanel or even no name. The gold is really good and the stone are amazing and you just can’t find it anywhere else.

S: The way they used to make things – the quality – just amazing compared to today. It doesn’t even have to be designer, mostly everything was just so well made.

N: I agree. I love going to estate sales particularly in the US in the more affluent areas and looking at jewelry and getting rings from there. I also like looking for pendants. In Europe [there are] certain towns that have really good antique stores. You can find really beautiful pieces that aren’t really expensive – they aren’t super cheap – but the quality is just amazing. I don’t know what they were doing with gold back then but it just seems to have a better quality to it. I do like some more local designers like Melanie Auld, she’s a Canadian designer. Dean Davidson, is another Canadian one. And there’s an American designer called AEA that I really love her stuff.

S: Your style philosophy is, “Wear whatever makes your heart happy.” What makes your heart happy?

N: Things that are timeless. I love timeless pieces that are also comfortable. I love Rag and Bone jeans, I love the quality of their denim. I think well made footwear is important. I don’t have a large shoe collection and the shoes that I have were all rather pricey but I’ve had them for years. I’ve had a pair of Frye boots for seven years now. At the time it’s all nail-biting and what am I doing this is crazy but I really believe in simple pieces that are very well made and as conflict free as possible.

Ndidi Onukwulu

S: Do you do a lot of shopping from local designers?

N: I try to. I absolutely do. I know that in Vancouver, Toronto, and France there were some lines that I shopped from. If there is a line I like, I research it. When I buy from H&M for the most part it actually is conflict free, you can go online and source. If I can find out where you source your fabrics from and who is putting it all together and the conditions that they work in and they meet what I determine to be a humane standard, then okay. But, you know, I save up. I save up for a pair of Rag and Bone jeans and good quality footwear. Then I add some vintage pieces to the mix.

S: Do you have any must haves for fall/winter?

N: I think a really good leather jacket is a must have. Myself, personally, I am a really big fan of Cedros leather jackets. Definitely rings from Melanie Auld or Dean Davidson are definitely must haves and if you feel like splurging I am a big fan of the Helix rings by AEA. Geometric jewelry is a big one. And also a big one is a peacoat or like an oversize mens inspired coat, and a low heel boot.

S: Do you have a favourite designer?

N: Balenciaga. I have always loved Balenciaga and Balmain. Because they’re, you know, rock. I will say, Saint Laurent, I do love the classic suit. Le Smoking Jacket it my ultimate dream. And if I wanted to be a fairy princess I’d say Oscar de la Renta, RIP.

Be sure to check out Ndidi’s new album, Dark Swing, available now on iTunes.