OkCello: an evening of "Resolve"

Photo: Emef Griffin

Photo: Emef Griffin

When OkCello performed for the release of his latest body of work, “Resolve”, there was a hurricane happening. The downpour on the way to the venue was unfair to windshield wipers. Yet, the release event was full of bodies, warm spirits, and attentive minds.

OkCello’s process-oriented work is well deserving of the release event’s turnout. His melodies transcend what many understand cello music to be, from classical musings to rhythmic inflections, that can easily make one stop to grip their chest.

That night, nearly everyone in the room was dressed to the nines in weighted anticipation of OkCello’s finished product. After everyone was comfortably seated, except for the clenching of anticipation in the air,  the host, Fhena Baht Israel, arrived into the open semi-circle of the crowd. With a bold, boisterous voice she spoke on the resilience and bravery it took for everyone to come out amidst a serious storm to see Okorie Johnson, OkCello’s full name. Her speaking style fell into rhyming as she spoke on everything it took for the crowd and OkCello to be present at the event; the string of events that had to occur,  from everyone’s ancestors to the present. She then led the crowd to chant a rhythmic, “OKORIE, OKORIE, OKORIE” as drummer, Munir Zakee played along with the chants on a pair of bongos. Then OkCello entered and sat in his chair to perform.

As Okcello scanned the room his eyes gleamed as he saw familiar faces that had been witness to his years of progress and process. He wore a matching blue suit jacket and pants, and a white button-up shirt, matching the hue on the “Resolve” cover art. Besides a silver patch in his beard, it’s difficult to tell he’s a day over 28, not even by his voice, which he uses to address the crowd, seated in a crescent around him.

To say the least, OkCello’s craft of performing on the cello is nothing short of brilliant, and despite being considered a classical instrument, a genre most consider both emotional and streamlined, OkCello has the ability to bring his soul into every single one of his compositions. A classical instrument is different than the act of singing over a tune or pressing buttons on an MPC, a looping sequencer. Although both require practice and expertise to master. OkCello uses his years of experience in the creation of his music; from playing the cello from six years old to being a former English professor, a parent, and ultimately a storyteller.

It is clear that OkCello genuinely wants his music to be an experience. At the release of  “Resolve”, the audience was greeted at the door with a piece of chocolate adorned with a flower petal garnish, almost too precious to eat. And they couldn’t...Not until a very specific song played midway through OkCello’s performance. He brings that kind of eye for detail in his performance as well as his recorded material.

Okorie Johnson recently sat down with Plasma Magazine to talk about the difference between his 2014 release “Liminal” and his latest release “Resolve”, his process involving the cello, and how collaboration has changed his process.

On the process differences between “Liminal” and “Resolve”

“What’s interesting about ‘Liminal’ is that it kind of happened to me. I didn't make it happen. I wasn't thinking I needed a CD until someone in the audience said I needed a CD. A few years passed, and as a result I do a lot of work around figuring out who I want to play for, figuring out what songs I want to make, or what do I want my songs to accomplish, and as a result, everything about playing, my performing--and as a result recording, is so much more intentional. I'm happy with what happened, but I wouldn't say that it was definitely intentional...I spent a lot more time thinking about the music. In addition, I've been thinking about layout and imagery...I've just been thinking a lot about it and thinking a lot about the way people will receive it. I'm excited to turn the thinking into doing.

Photo: Emef Griffin

Photo: Emef Griffin

On working with others

“In some ways, this vision, although it is primarily mine, has been filtered through the minds of really capable people. Some artists, some strategists; they've all been supportive and have helped me to bring [“Resolve”] into fruition…I couldn't have made this without the help of a lot of people. I do enjoy sitting in my living room and playing music, and I do have some pretty transcendent moments. But I do know that my work is better once I've had the opportunity to workshop it with people, or once I have an opportunity to play in front of an audience. I think in some ways the difference between the album that might have been released March and the album that I'm releasing tomorrow is that it has really been refined by the thoughtful pushback of many other artistic and creative minds, and I think it's made my communication a lot better and a lot stronger than it might have been if I just rushed for March...I was lucky enough to have quite a few other musical artists, [visual] artists, and strategists, and I kind of put together a brain trust... I asked them to tell me what they thought about it and what imagery they thought jumped through.”

About the visuals of “Resolve”

“I use a single channel looper, which means I don't really get a chance for ABC funk instruction and because of that I kind of describe what I do as painting real life with one color and adjust speeds with that one color. Everyone in the room thought that was a really essential way of describing what I did, and it ended up informing the album image that we have, which was originally black and white. They were like ‘I think you should have that particular image in blue.’ So we ended up going dark blue or just a range of blues that complimented the picture. That image that you're looking at is the direct resolve of conversations with other bright creatives that helped me to understand my process.”

About the process of practice, to finished piece, to performance

“I enjoy talking about that, especially with string players as of late, because I think I have a three-step process for how things are delivered to an audience or other collaborators. I am--you may have noticed, a wordy, verbose person and I am also that way on the instrument. I was that kid in orchestra that if I were sitting on my cello and the professor was talking, my fingers were constantly moving and sometimes my bow would be moving, and I'd be making sounds. When I practice that's pretty much what I do. I improvise. I don't play scales, or do A2s, or play other’s pieces. I have a conversation with myself--pretty much with my cello. That conversation, especially in the most ideal situation, is playful. Let me see how i'm feeling. Let me see how I might express myself on the instrument; What's funny? what's heavy? what's sincere? As a result of this playing, I stumble upon ideas that I like, or resonates with how I feel, or they make me feel a certain way. Then I leave that first stage, and move to refining. I either refine that idea in relationship to the piece, or I refine that idea in relationship to the emotion. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out exactly what the two are saying to each other and then once I have an idea--a refined idea that comes from the playing. I go into practicing. The practicing part is there with the coordination. When do I have to step on my looper? What kid of press do I have to use with my bow? Where do I have to go? What kind of performance is this going to be? Where does this go in a set? How will I be able to execute that? So the process when I’m creating songs in reality--it starts with a kind of the metaphorical equivalent of skipping through the field on my instrument as I'm playing. Then from playing I get to refining, and from refining I go to back to practicing.”

About being a musician with a family

“I like what I do, and I think they like what I do because they're around it so much and they're bounded from the beginning to the end, but they're not overwhelmed like ‘Oh my god!’ They don't think any of it is magic. That means I have opinions that I trust. I have people that will tell me ‘Nah...doesn't really move me.’ or I have people that will say ‘No. That's nice. Or as my daughter would say: ‘That's fye’. I can trust that opinion because they're not overly moved by what I do. So if I do get some positive feedback that's great. It's nice that they're really supportive, and come to shows, and when they do, they're happy and their proud, and that makes me feel really good.”

About genre

“We live in a world where somehow it seems natural to live within genre. But I'm a child of the 80s, and even though I didn't have MTV in the house, I think I was one of the first generations where we really listened outside of genre. I take that back--I wouldn't say all my friends listened outside of the genre that was associated with your neighborhood or friends. People who were into punk scene, needed the world to know and recognize them as punk. people who were backpack hip-hoppers, underground hip hoppers needed to be identified specifically as backpack hip-hoppers. and it seems that trap is kind of dominant in everything right now. So it seems in order to be hip-hop you kind of have to be into trap. But I think secretly all of those people, are listening outside of genre, because the information is on the internet. It's hard not to. It was a big deal for me to stay up late at night to watch a video show, and Michael Jackson and the Powers were on the same show. Now you can open up your phone and look at itunes featuring 15 different artists across 7 different genres.

I used to be an English teacher. I spent 10 years in the classroom, and a lot of the way that I interacted was with music. So I would have been able to speak to that question with a great deal more authority. I'm out of the classrooms right now. So I don't engage with other students or young people. But I do engage with my daughter. My daughter's very much into trap right now, very much into youth urban culture, but she also listens across genre. My younger daughter loves Hamilton. So I think those two people, my daughters, have an appreciation for genre, being able to listen across genre, and interact comfortably with their peers.”

About being an educator, a performer, and storyteller

“Well my live show is very much informed by my life as a school teacher. One of the things that was a big deal for me as I was learning about being a teacher was that it was the end of the era of the sage on the stage. It was the end of the era of "I'm going to stand up, and lecture and share with you all my brilliance" They really wanted us to try our best to start creating student centered experiences. One of the things that I like to do with my shows is to create these audience interaction features. We usually have three at every show. One is an improvisation and then improvisation is informed by the things that the audience can literally [respond to]. I usually do a sesh which is me playing a series of covers in a seven minute set that I'd imagine my audience get excited about. I actually challenge them to get out of their seat and put money in the basket that I have at the edge of my stage. It's always an uproariously fun time. People love it and then the third thing that I do that is play a song that's actually on the album called "Story Time", and "Story Time" is a progression that I developed at the Center for the Arts maybe almost two years ago now. What's really powerful about progression is that it's really narrative. It's telling a story, but when I was in the residency I couldn't pin down what the story was. Now I ask my audience to close their eyes and imagine a protagonist, historical era, a setting, or a color. And then as I am playing...I ask them to imagine a movie unfolding before their eyes. At the end of the song, I go out into the audience with a microphone and I ask people to share their stories, share the movie that they saw unfolding.

I've gotten everything from stories of animals eating each other, to love stories that take place, World War II bars, to stories of people liberating themselves or escaping slavery. I've heard all kinds of things. I actually had a section on my website called "Story Time",  where people could actually go and read stories after hearing me play "Story Time" so it'll probably be another version of the website as it gets updated or I as get a new version of it to really represent this album. That's an important part of it for me. Creating an opportunity for members of the audience to create their own experience through my music.”

On the meaning of Resolve

“I think stimuli can be intellectually revolutionary or powerful. I think we're constantly taking in information and a whole wealth of information that we take in that we're not really aware of and I think what's powerful about music, especially music without words is that it connects with us. If it connects with us it means some way it's communicating and what I hope that my music is doing is, I hope it's communicating a certain sense of order...a grander order. Not so much that things are moving forward, but things are moving forward with purpose, and in the moment they feel like they are destructive. That there is peace to be had, even in these moments of crisis.

This is a very uncomfortable time. You can cut the news on and...it's uncomfortable times, but what I know my music does is that it brings me peace and comfort. It doesn't bring me peace and comfort in the sense that it convinces me everything is fine, but it does give me peace and comfort in that I do believe that in some way some way things are ultimately moving toward order. Maybe order isn't the best word, but I think things are moving towards purpose. I think I take great solace in knowing that playing my music I am perhaps living into that purpose, and I hope that my music helps people decide for themselves what their own purpose is, and perhaps give them the natural motivation and perhaps inspiration to live out-- “resolve”-- to be in that purpose.”

Regardless of what one may feel, or know about the classical instrument of the cello, OkCello gives it a purpose. Whether listening to “Resolve” to get through traffic, create an imaginary world, find some peace, or purpose, OkCello’s personal style is powerfully capable of evoking emotion from listeners. “Resolve” can be listened to on Apple Music and Spotify, and is worth the time to listen, tenfold.