Dave Okumu and Wesley Joseph Are On a Playdate With the Divine

The friends and collaborators catch up.

Wesley Joseph is a songwriter, producer, and filmmaker based in London; Dave Okumu is a singer, songwriter, producer, and guitarist known for his work with the Mercury Prize-nominated group The Invisible, and now under his own name. As Dave Okumu & The 7 Generations, he just put out the record I Came From Love (out now via Transgressive), which features contributions from Wesley. To celebrate the record, the two hopped on a call to catch up about it, and more.

— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Wesley Joseph: How are you?

Dave Okumu: Oh, man, so good. Are you in the States now?

Wesley: Yeah, I’m in New York right now. I think I’m round the corner from where Everybody Hates Chris was based. [Laughs.] Everywhere just looks like Bed-Stuy. 

Dave: [Laughs.] Sick. And what’s the deal — you’ve done your New York show, sounds like it went really well. How are you feeling?

Wesley: Really good. We’re on the last show of the American tour. New York is the last day, sold out. It’s been dreamy, man. I can’t lie. I’ve seen tears, people have been crying. It’s been a beautiful, reassuring, and just powerful trip. Seeing the world and how music touches people from so far away just is powerful. But how are you? Where are you right now?

Dave: I’m kind of riding a similar wave, to be honest with you. Today I’m in the studio, actually, the first day of working on a record with John Grant. I don’t know if you know John — he’s an amazing singer-songwriter. I’m doing some recording for his album, which is great because I’m a fan of his. But it’s interesting hearing you talk about the experience that you’ve just had. That Roundhouse show [in London] that we did a couple of weeks ago to launch the album, it was a moment like that. It was just such a special celebration of so many things that I hold really, really dear. And it’s so affirming, isn’t it, when that happens? 

I wanted to ask you how you’re feeling in the wake of such significant experiences. Are you tired? Is there a comedown? How are you finding that side of it?

Wesley: There definitely hasn’t been a comedown. It’s only energized every part of me. Literally, the sky’s more blue, the flowers smell better. Because this was just a concept for all of us at one point — you killing the Roundhouse with the ancestors, the orchestra, that moment belongs in a book. Because you spoke to me about that shit, and I was like, “That sounds crazy,” and then it happened and it looked just as crazy as what you said in the very beginning. 

Dave: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah.

Wesley: It’s real life magic, you converting your imagination into a real moment. And it’s not just for you, it’s for everyone there. It’s bigger than yourself. The people who connect with the music and people that are touched in those moments, they take that and they will have it forever. I think that in itself is such a beautiful thing. 

I wonder if you feel the same, but there was this one point with live [performance] that kind of terrified me, because I’m a perfectionist in the process of making the music; I was terrified of that loss of control and the chaos of the live part. But as I’ve done more shows, I’ve learned that that’s the best part. Have you had any parallels with that process?

Dave: Yeah. I think about this all the time: It’s the value of performance. It’s why that experience is so transcendent, because it brings you to that point that is so complex, but so immediate at the same time. Because there’s infinite nuance in those moments. It’s replete with possibility. Anything can happen. There’s so much that’s cosmically beyond our control. Yet because we care so much about what we’re doing — you’ve invested so much in the craft and the shaping of it and the pursuit of that dream — that intersection of those things to me is like a sort of playdate with the divine. Do you know what I mean? It’s like you’re dancing with god or something. It’s so affirming when you actually experience that.

It’s all connected to the same thing, and I think it’s why I feel so passionate about performance, because I think there’s a real danger that we just stay in the realm that you were describing — in that side of the process, perfecting and trying to control every aspect of your dream. But actually, it’s so important to go that step beyond. I think that’s where we grow as human beings and where we really come to understand what we’re doing on this planet, and the fact that we’re doing it together.

And when you describe that thing of, there’s no comedown — after my show at the Roundhouse, that was kind of my response to everybody. The only way I can describe it is: I feel like what you hit in those moments is actually just how things are. It’s like you’re actually embodying the way things are, so there’s no comedown from that, because it’s the natural state. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s not about ego. It’s not about stardom. It’s just about everything and everyone. And I think real art and expression and performance manifests that. 

I feel that through your music, your records. It just excites me so much that that’s now happening in the realm of performance.

Wesley: That was a beautiful breakdown. And within it, you got the title for the piece: “A Playdate With the Divine.”

Dave: [Laughs.] That’s our podcast. Should we just launch it now?

Wesley: Yeah. [Laughs.] But I do fully feel exactly what you’re saying. I think performance is the last strain out of the ingredients of being whole. It’s like when you make a film, you make it three times: You make it conceptually, then you shoot it and you make it again, and then in the edit you make it again. With music, the performance is the last part. It’s that last moment that realizes everything in human form, and it’s the closest thing you can get to it. There’s pain in it, imperfection in it. It’s a reset completely. But yeah, I’m so annoyed I didn’t make that show, man. 

Dave: Oh, man. But the thing is, you did make it. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? Even though you couldn’t be there and you couldn’t be on stage… It’s kind of what I mean about how cosmic this shit is. Because I feel like I’m there with you in the States — we’re part of each other’s journeys and each other’s stories. You’re literally in the DNA of what happened at the Roundhouse that day, if you could break it down as as scientifically as that, because I wouldn’t have actually been on that stage doing what I was doing if you hadn’t been part of the fabric of that story. So there’s nothing to be blue about. 

But I know what you mean, because I’m the same — I wish I could have seen your first shows in America, because that will never happen again. But at the same time, I sort of feel like I did.

Wesley: I mean, you blessed me for even involving me on that project. But I just wanted to see it as a fan of you, as a human and as an artist. You’ve already spoken to me about this, but I guess just for the sake of setting context, could you speak me through the original foundations of the concept behind the album, and how it got to that point where you knew who you wanted to collaborate with on the project and where it ended?

Dave: Yeah, it’s been a really big journey. I guess the main touchstones were thinking for a long time about making a solo project — and even that term is so dry. Obviously you’ve got to have these terms for things, but they’re so loaded. I suppose for someone like me who’s a musician first, who’s collaborated with a lot of people, and then I’ve had my own artist output with my band Invisible, then you start talking about a solo project and it just has a certain whiff about it. [Laughs.]

I’ve always had this thing, which I know you share as well — you care so much about what you do — I feel like it’s such a privilege to make things and put it out into the world, and I always have this existential question around making things where I’m like, Why do I have the right to do this? And I suppose the way that you can flip it around is, what I want to do in the world is bring value to the world, basically. I want to actually do things which enrich culture and that actually mean something. I’m not saying that I’ll always succeed at doing that, but that’s definitely the ambition. So when I started thinking about making my own record, and kind of claiming that privilege to do that, it was like, How can I frame that in a way that gives myself the best chance of doing something which feels meaningful? I knew that I had to look out for pitfalls, because it would have been quite easy for me to just make a record of some music that I like, and either do it on my own or ask my most famous friends to be on it. [Laughs.] That’s a tried and tested formula. And I don’t say that with any judgment towards anyone else, but it wasn’t really scratching the itch for me. I guess I was looking for something deeper. 

Many things fed into that, like conversations with people over the years. One that really stands out was with our friend and collaborator Lex, who mixes your stuff and has mixed a lot of my stuff, and we’ve worked on a lot of records together — one of my best friends. He was telling me a story about trying to tell someone who I was, someone who didn’t know who I was, and he was basically trying to say, “Well, Dave was born in Vienna, he’s got Kenyan parents, he’s a sick guitarist,” or whatever. And he was just like, “This feels really unsatisfactory. I can’t really sum this person up in a few sentences.” Which obviously applies to all of us. But the way he was saying it to me, he was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you made a record that was a statement about yourself that was really, really personal, and that basically revealed all those threads of your personality and your identity?” I thought that was such an interesting challenge and way of thinking about it. But I even struggled with that, because there’s this part of me that rails against “the age of the individual,” this whole thing of all the focus being on the individual. Do you know what I mean? It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to tell my story or to draw on my experiences and try to bring that to life through my creations or whatever. But somehow something just wasn’t sitting right with me within that. 

Then the point of liberation came when I realized that I couldn’t really tell my story without telling other people’s stories. I guess it comes back to what we were talking about around performance, where I feel like all the art that I’ve experienced that’s changed my life has a similar quality to it: It’s this intersection between the personal and the universal. And I guess I just wanted to find a structure that really freed me to explore that. 

So I knew that there were certain things that I wanted to look at around identity and ancestry and the minority experience and the Black experience. These were things that I felt I really wanted to find a way of expressing through my music-making, in an explicit way at times, but also in an implicit way. And it really only came to life when I realized that needs to involve other people’s stories as well, and stories that kind of share DNA with mine. 

Sometimes when you’re having those dreams, you go, I need help with this. I know there’s a lot I can do on my own, but it’s going to be more effective if it involves collaboration. And so that became really clear as well. I followed my instincts, but I knew that there was probably a very small handful of people who could fulfill that role. It was about a connection that I have with them and about the art that they make. And that includes you. Literally the people who were on that record are the people that I dreamt would be on that record. So I feel so, so lucky. But that’s that’s kind of how it came about.

I wanted to ask you a similar thing: Why are you like this, man? Why are you so special? 

Wesley: [Laughs.] 

Dave: No, but seriously. It’s crazy to me, because I feel like I’ve waited, I don’t know, 20 years to meet you, basically. I’ve been looking for you, like, for 20 years. There’s many things about you that I find so compelling and amazing and inspiring. But one of the things is the way your vision is so clear. I think of you primarily as a storyteller. It takes the form of film, music. But your commitment to telling stories and the vision that you have and the way that you see that through is nothing short of inspirational to me. 

But one of the things that really impresses me is the fact that you know what you need to do what you need to do. Do you know what I mean? Even from when we first met and the way you involved me in your creativity, there’s a sort of maturity with that, that actually kind of freaks me out. Because I feel like it’s quite a rare quality for younger people. And it’s through no fault — I feel like it’s the culture that we live in. A lot of people are on a kind of solitary hero mission. They’ve got the technology, they’ve got the internet, they think they can do absolutely everything. And you do so much, but you also know when to bring in the salt and pepper into the meal. How did you learn to do that?

Wesley: You know what it is? I was making basically everything myself out of necessity for such a long time, and that helped me to excel at all the things that I do myself to this day. It allowed me to become good all those things. But it also gave me this really sharp awareness when it comes to how good other people are at what they do. And ultimately, the art comes first — I don’t come first. So if someone else is going to realize the art better than I can in a section of this world, if I’m fortunate enough to work with that person or they understand the vision, such as yourself, I want to work with those people. I mean, you and Avi [Barath] were one of the first people I ever got in the studio with. And, again, that stems back to Lex. If this was Drink Champs, we’d be like, “Let’s make some noise for Lex!”

Dave: [Laughs.] Come on, Lex!

Wesley: Lex is like the definition of a facilitator, in every sense of the word. Before I even had any music out, I had one scratch demo, which was “Imaginary Friends” — my manager sent it to Lex, because he just loved Lex’s work, and he told me about what he’d worked on and I was obviously like, Well, this is the guy I’d like to mix my album. Too bad I’m broke and I have one scratch demo. That would be a dream. And then Lex got back and he was like, “This is hard. Let’s meet.” 

So I met with Lex, and we took a drive through the hills to his beautiful studio — and I was wide-eyed as hell, because I’d never even been in a nice studio. Lex’s complete engrossed vibe in the potential of art is so powerful, because he’d just be asking questions you haven’t really even thought about. I remember on the drive, we drove under some phone lines and there was a row of birds — and this was the moment where I knew I wanted him to be my engineer, by the way — we were driving underneath it and then he was like, “Did you know all the birds in the middle are asleep? The one on the right is awake and the one on the left is awake, and they’re both listening on either side of the spectrum for predators. It’s kind of like music.” [Laughs.] Then he just goes on and I was like, Wow. Anywho, working with Lex was a perfect example of that because I was trying to mix my own songs at that point, and he was the first person where it was like, OK, someone who’s a master at what they do is willing to work with me on my music

One of my lecturers at uni once said to me something really cool. I studied film, and I was trying to do everything for a long time, as I said, out of necessity — I was editing, color grading, DPing, I was directing, I was doing sound design, I was doing everything. I believed at one point that to become a master of a craft, you have to put in the hours into every facet so you can understand and do everything holistically at once. That’s what I thought when I was younger and I was immature and didn’t understand. And this lecturer said something along the lines of, “A good director knows what they need and understands how to communicate what they need incredibly clearly. It doesn’t mean you have to be technically even accurate with what you’re saying, as long as you can emotionally translate what you want.” So when we’re in the studio, you know how it is — I’ll literally be dancing around the room saying, “This is the part where you feel like we’re in the clouds.” And then you know what I’m talking about, and you literally just plug in five pedals and you then do exactly what the vibe is like, and then you take it further. 

But the vision thing, that’s realistically my only skill. I know exactly what I want at all times, song-wise, cadence-wise, beat-wise, aesthetic-wise. Everything else is just me trying to hone my skills as much as I can, so I can do that thing that’s in my brain. But realistically, the most beautiful thing of all of this is the collaboration and realizing something bigger than just that, with other people — as your record beautifully demonstrates. I’m looking forward to pushing that further.

Dave: That’s so beautiful, man. And what a gift to have — I love that you can own that, because I think that’s wonderful to see. It’s so valuable in this day and age. I think clarity of vision — an authentic vision — I don’t want to say it’s rare, but it’s almost like no one’s out there really cultivating and nurturing that stuff. So it’s amazing to to encounter people who who have that in such a special way. I just really want to acknowledge that in you, man. It’s very inspiring. But then one step beyond that, to be able to carry that with grace and humor and that feeling of inclusion, I just think those things are incredible. I’ll always support that, in whatever form.

It’s funny because there’s been points in my friendship with Lex where he plays me something and I’m just so I’m genuinely vexed — I’m like, “I can’t believe I didn’t get to be involved in some way.” Even if it was just like being, like, the person who just sat in the back of the studio and said, “Yeah…” It’s just like, “You did all of that without me? How the hell—?” But the feeling it gives me, it’s a sort of childlike joy where I don’t care, I’m just there for it. Whatever needs to happen, if it’s just popping jokes or if it’s shredding on guitar, I just want to be on the journey with you, because I love it so much. 

Wesley: I feel our creative journeys are in parallel, because I don’t think there’ll be a record where we aren’t somehow in the business of the creativity together. 

Dave: Completely. And it’s amazing when you feel that. Sometimes when you meet people, you just never know how relationships will evolve, or if they’ll evolve at all. But through the commercial structures and capitalism or whatever, you can feel like, Oh, you’ve gotta grab this moment now because it’s going to go away. But literally even before I met you, the feeling I had just listening to your music, it felt like it was about a bigger process. It’s bigger than a record or a track. It’s like an open-ended journey. And there’s all these points of confirmation of that, whether it’s the times when we are together in a studio or the way you responded when I showed you the record that I was making. 

When you sent me that voice note where it was just like, “black firework” — I was like, Wow! I was like, I don’t understand how you understand this better than I understand it. It’s basically like a member of your family telling you about yourself or something. When I heard you just say, “black firework,” at the beginning of the track, I was like, This is like my uncle sitting me down and saying, “This is what you’re like.” 

Wesley: With that though, you directed the whole vision so perfectly and set up the landscape. It’s what I was saying earlier about what you do for me in my music: that was a beautiful moment for me, because it was a moment where I felt like I could do something for you. You had a landscape, a very specific, dark, twisted, beautiful, deep-rooted thing that was completely original. And you laid out the foundations for me, but then you also gave me freedom in a way where there was no restraint. It was like, “Yo, this is what I need you to do.” 

Let me just open this up: Dave broke down this concept of his ancestors having voices, and the generations of his family line and where he comes from, and even on a wider context the idea of voices through the album that weren’t his own almost being spiritual replications of deeper concepts. And then Dave was like, “I want you to be one of the voices of the record.” I was like, “Hell yeah, bro.” I was just so grateful for him involving me. 

Dave: I wanted to leave it open, because it’s a high calling that I was giving you. I was like, “Yeah, step in and be the ancestors on my record.” You know, it’s a big ask. And you fully had permission to be like, “Dave, you’re crazy. Please, can you step away from me? This is a bit much.” But you just were like, “I get it.” And I love you for that, man. 

Wesley: Working with you has taught me the power of being at one in moments and accepting things for what they are and adapting and changing, and at the same time being yourself and evolving. From the point where we first met to the point where I’m at now, it couldn’t have happened without me being around you — even just on a human level, giving me advice, and then just watching how you make records, how you produce, how when you’re making music, everything stops. It’s like nothing else matters. Like, “Yo, we’re going to make sure the temperature is right and we’re not starting this hungry…” And when the moment happens, it’s sacred. There’s so much learning in the process, through just literally watching you and having a you as brother in this whole thing. I owe a lot to you, and I’m super grateful to be a part of your timeless record. As soon I touch back down in London, we gotta link up and eat more jerk. [Laughs.]

Dave: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’m going to fast off the jerk until you get to London. 

Dave Okumu is a London-based singer, songwrite, producer, and guitarist, known for his work as part of the Mercury Prize-nominated group, The Invisible. He has also worked with Amy Winehouse, St Vincent, Theo Parish, Anna Calvi, Adele, and many more. With his latest project, Dave Okumu & the 7 Generations, he released the record I Came From Love, which is out now via Transgressive.