In the face of personal loss and tragedy, Dave Okumu's quest for honesty and connection makes The Invisible visable.
Text by Hannah Robinson
Dave Okumu is a busy guy. In the last decade he has recorded three albums for acclaimed ‘experimental genre-spanning spacepop’ act The Invisible, all while sharing his considerable talents as a writer and producer with the likes of Eska, Floating Points, Rosie Lowe, Anna Calvi, Jessie Ware and *drum roll* Grace Jones, to name but a few.
Collaboration has always been at the heart of The Invisible, whose members include Leo Taylor (formerly of Gramme and Zongamin) and Tom Herbert (of Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland). Their varied extracurricular activities feed back into the band, which in turn provides a space for them to fully pursue their eclectic and dynamic vision.
Their new album Patience has been rapturously received, and is their most accessible and upbeat to date. Its lightness of touch feels celebratory, reflecting the fact that the last four years have been anything but easy. Their 2012 album Rispah, “a love letter to grief”, was named after Okumu’s mother, who died midway through recording. Not long after its release, Okumu suffered a near fatal electric shock on stage in Lagos. His leg was shattered, but his life was saved by Herbert, who pulled the surging guitar from his hands. Their tour was cancelled and in it's place was a long and difficult road to recovery. “Although they’d been very difficult things to pass through, it also put us in contact with a real sense of joy and gratitude....it was really interesting for me to see how that changed the colour of the music we were making.”
Deptford based Okumu relocated to LA to write for Patience, seeking some head space after a busy period working for others. The change of scenery and climate brought a new warmth to his music, as the laid back creative culture was a welcome surprise. “Sometimes, when I’m in London and I’m talking to people, they're all about ‘yeah when it's finished I’ll play you this thing,’ like when it’s perfect basically. There’s that kind of anxiety. But what I found in LA is everyone seemed to be in a more playful and relaxed place.”
It all comes back to process, a word that comes up often, and is clearly at the heart of Okuma's approach. The album title ties into this, serving to remind him that “patience and process are inextricably linked and really, really easily subsumed in our culture, which is so product driven and instant".
The process of taking traumatic personal moments and making art is something both painful and cathartic for Okumu. Rispah, in particular, was made in such emotionally raw circumstances he wondered if he could even release it. “I’m so so glad to have gone through that process and to have had the courage to let go of it and let it exist in the world, just because of the dialogue that that has opened up in myself and with other people.”
Amidst doubts about recording The Invisible's first album he set his intention early on to prioritise emotional honesty in his work. “That became my benchmark really, it wasn’t whether it was cool, it wasn’t whether it was perfect, it was just if it rang true.”
In collaboration, Okumu thrives on facilitating the vision of others. His work on Jessie Ware’s Mercury award winning Devotion was so successful in part because of his ‘‘profound desire to help her express herself in a way she wants to.” A highlight of making that record was “...Jessie going, ‘we've done it, I basically don't give a shit about what anyone thinks about this record, we've made my record.’ Hearing her say those words, I was like ‘that is what being a producer and collaborator is to me,’ to get someone to the point where they feel so connected to what they’ve made...”
His desire to help artists find their own voice is at odds in an industry where ‘‘there’s this hunger for talent but there’s also this weird drive to kind of homogenize that talent". It’s an approach that seems to work well with female artists. Dave has six sisters and was incredibly close to his mother, so working with women “does feel very natural".
Though not orchestrated, he sees the value his supportive style has in a notoriously sexist business. “Sometimes I’m like ‘who would want to be a pop star, especially a female popstar…’ I feel like it's almost part of my calling or something, to be there for people in that position, and it's something I’m really happy to do, because if I can bring a level of understanding or empathy that is lacking for them elsewhere then it’s needed…”
Okumu’s success on Devotion lead to him working with Grace Jones, an artist whose confounding and genre spanning influence is clear in his own work. “It’s totally bananas, because she’s Grace Jones, and because she's the first artist that I can remember really connecting with in a profound way.” Okumu was a Kenyan kid living in Vienna, feeling “very conscious of being different” when he first encountered the distorted artwork for Slave to the Rhythm. ‘‘The message was very simple and clear, it seemed to be saying ‘be yourself, at all costs, be yourself.’”
His collaborations have brought him into contact with more personal heroes, from bassist Pino Palladino to legendary drummer Jack Dejohnette. "You have these moments where you forget who you’re with, but then they'll do something, they'll say something like, ‘oh you know when I was recording with Miles’ (Davis)...and you're like, ‘you were there! Creating this music that changed the world!’.”
Seeing his own collaborative habits reflected in his idols is “incredibly encouraging". You can also see it all over Patience which boasts many of his talented friends as guests. Producing the album “I took this approach of really wanting not to be precious". For example, Jessie Ware’s vocal on opener So Well, was captured on the fly when she was passing by the studio, and is “pretty much what you hear on the record". The blend of high and low fidelity, with rough phone recordings laid alongside more meticulous production, was a welcome break from major label production. “I just wanted it to be playful...these things you sometimes can’t get away with when you're working with other people!”
As a writer, I wonder if he's ever tempted to keep his best tracks for The Invisible. “My manager, she just said you've got to believe you’re going to have better ideas and more ideas and more ideas...Expression isn’t something to be held onto, It's about the moment.” Saying that; “I have moments where I’m like ‘I love that, and I'm gonna send this to someone and hope they reject it!’”
For someone who values honesty so highly, I want to know where Okumu sees the role of politics in music, particularly in these uncertain times. “There is a real sort of culture of fear around that stuff, and I don’t think it’s healthy at all.” The effect of streaming services is one pressing issue that he feels artists often avoid.
Though he's grateful for his platform and success “the challenge of sustaining that when that is not reflected in commercial terms is really difficult". Then there is the taboo around being seen to struggle. ‘‘The model is to create this sense, this image of success that people buy into, but actually it's something that I see right across the range of artists that I work with.”
While the internet has democratised music making, Okumu fears that the current obsession with likes and followers sucks time away from craft and suffocates new talent. ‘‘Unless we're going to, like, evolve into four armed beasts with two brains...there's a limit. There's a limited number of hours in the day. We're on this planet for a small amount of time. I don’t really know what we can achieve if so much of our energy is absorbed in presenting something that isn't really grounded in anything particularly real.”
Okumu is thankful that he has given into the process, creating work that is his own, and helping others do the same. “It's not dependent, it’s not contingent on how the outside world interacts with it, or what it looks like on a computer screen or a phone.” With The Invisible's first tour in years kicking off in September, a slew of collaborations in the pipeline and a new studio in the works, Okumu is busier than ever. For one of music's brightest team players, it seems his patience is paying off.
Buy the new single here: https://theinvisible.lnk.to/ldfp
Buy the new album here: https://theinvisible.lnk.to/patienceSo