Dropping the NBA for Classical play, with OKIEM
“Nobody is coming to save you… you have to be really proactive and create this whole thing yourself”OKIEM
There are musicians who have succeeded in their careers having not necessarily been born with musical talent. Their abilities and successes have been earned through study and many hours of practice, acquiring skills in order to achieve a degree of proficiency in their chosen field. Then there are those born with a natural talent and considered to be musically gifted, where there’s perhaps less reliance on theory. London-born pianist and composer, OKIEM, falls into both categories, and has the innate ability to pull out melodies and sounds from a subconscious state of mind and transform them into majestic, absorbing, emotional experiences for others to be a part of.
He developed an interest in the piano at a young age and was supported by his parents, to guide him through that learning experience by making piano lessons available, satisfying his curiosity, and strengthening his natural talent for music. This marked the starting point for what has become an incredible journey so far. He applied for, and was awarded, a music scholarship at Brunel University and has spent the past few years writing, recording, and performing alongside his hand-picked Infinity Orchestra all around the world.
Like most music lovers, OKIEM appreciates a broad spectrum of music including hip-hop, R&B, pop, and rock though he is well known as a classical pianist. He describes his music as ‘classical crossover’ which incorporates elements of classical piano, orchestral accompaniment, and electronic music to deliver powerful and dramatic pieces to stir the emotions of his audiences.
OKIEM’s extensive resume includes spending a number of years writing for Russian superstar, Sergey Lazarev in Moscow, touring with a number of major artists including Leona Lewis, Tinie Tempah, and supporting such artists as John Legend & Prince and Grammy-nominated DJ/Producer, Duke Dumont. In response to the pandemic, he has turned his attention to creating music for TV and film, counting Lloyds Bank as one of his clients. But all this could just have easily been nothing more than a dream had he pursued his initial goal of becoming a professional basketball player.
We’ve had the good fortune, and absolute pleasure, of speaking with OKIEM recently about his experiences. The full video, with accompanying text, below. Let’s get into it!
“If you’re a great musician, what you can do with your physical instrument adds another layer of emotion. It’s like, you can get incredible technology to recreate as much as possible, and there’s some really great stuff.., but then, I can probably do much more with an average piano than with great technology.”OKIEM
*** Watch. the full video above, or read the abridged version below ***
Tell us some interesting things that describe/ define ‘Okiem’ – where you’re from, childhood experiences, scholarship at Brunel, etc.
I’ve had quite a few unique childhood experiences. I think it’s those experiences that really add to my creative compositions… it’s the people I’ve met; it’s the part of the world I’ve seen. Yeah, for example, I spent three months growing up and living in South Africa. When I was in my 20’s, I lived in Russia for four years. Yeah, my love of travel, and through that opportunity with Russia, I’ve visited Khazakstan, Latvia, Ukraine… all these parts of the world… and growing up, mixing with all different types of people. I think that must filter into my creative work, just that kind of journey of not living in a small part of the world. I was exposed to a lot of culture and energies.
That sounds amazing. So where were you born? In the UK?
Yeah, in London. I was 21 when I moved to Russia, living in Moscow.
How did that feel, did you feel accepted? Obviously, Moscow is a really big city.
It’s very interesting, such a good question because the first couple of months were really difficult. The culture is very different, and it’s just the way they are – it’s not that they’re cold or unfriendly, it’s just certain cultural differences, and I didn’t understand that at first. You know, like, I’d go shopping, and there was no customer service, you go to the till at the supermarket, no smile, no nothing… initially I didn’t know what was like ‘what is going on, and why is everyone so miserable!’ And then you start to learn the language and a bit of the culture… it’s just the nature of the language. So, as I started to learn all this and as I started out to have a conversation, the people were amazing! They were so friendly. I would go out, they wouldn’t let me buy a drink. They’d invite me for dinner with their families; they were really warm. Yeah, I’m still in touch with them now, a decade later.
So, what made you move to Russia?
For music! I did an audition to play keyboards for a Russian pop singer. We didn’t know anything about the guy, but we were told he was famous in Russia. We got there, and it turns out he’s the biggest pop star in Russia – a guy called Sergey Lazarev. Extremely famous. I also worked with a rapper, a guy called L’ One.
That was what feeds into my music philosophy; there’s something really special about music. It just kind of breaks the barriers. I really learned that in Russia, because I’d be playing one amazing piano ballad with Sergey, I don’t understand one single word, but I could feel it. He would sing songs in Russian, he’s sing songs in French and obviously English as well… but yeah, that’s what I’m saying – ‘this music thing is very powerful.’ This was a Russian guy singing in French for a Russian audience, and nobody in here actually knows what this song is about.
Tell us about the Scholarship with Brunel.
Yeah, so I went to University with the goal… at that point, I wanted to be a professional basketball player! While I was playing basketball, a friend on the team said, ‘they’re looking to do music scholarships. There’s auditions for it.’ And I said ‘I’m gonna go there!‘. He said, ‘aah, you’ll never get that. They’re all like the top, top, top musicians’. I went along for the audition, and yeah, they were thoroughly impressed… they gave me the music scholarship. I was the only piano player that year to receive it! My friend couldn’t believe it! And that was great, the teachers were amazing, and it was an extra three years of training. I was moving away from music, going into sport, but that kept me connected.
As you were growing up, what drew you into the piano rather than guitar, or bass, or something else?
Piano, for me, was very natural. From maybe five or six years old, I loved the piano… we had a piano in the house. So I was always playing. My parents saw that I could play melodies. Like, I could hear it on the radio or the TV. Yeah, so I had a sort of natural talent, and I was drawn to it very much. I did do private lessons from age nine. I did classical for about 12 or 13 years in the end, which was amazing for technique, for music theory, and understanding. But then, to get to the next levels, I think that’s where the love and the passion has to kick in. Learning the different styles, learning to be an accompanist for a pop singer is very different to playing classical music. You learn about chords, and about how music is written, and then about sounds and synthesizers, and how to build tracks… but at the same time, growing up, I was listening to hip-hop, R&B, dance music, electronic, film music… pop music…
I’ve seen on Instagram you have a lot influences, and you’re hugging a lot of very important people…
Yeah! Thankfully I got to play with Leona Lewis, Boy George, Tiny Tempah, so I’ve played with some top-level pop stars, singers, and artists…and learned a lot through that. Even when I first started listening to rock… You know it’s a bit different now… I think now, listening to many genres at the same time, ten years ago, wasn’t a thing. Ten, fifteen years ago, if you were into hip-hop, it’s baggy jeans… it’s the whole culture of hip-hop. You’re not going to be listening to hip-hop and then going to listen to rock music. That would’ve been rare ten to fifteen years ago. I was like that, so even though I was playing classical music, I was really into hip-hop and R&B.. and then I ended up living in a house with a rock band. Then I started to listen to it. They were in love with this band called the Foo Fighters. Their music is amazing, then I started to think, ‘this is actually really good music’… the chords… it’s interesting lyrically, it’s powerful… so then, as my ears started to open up and I start listening, really listening, to electronic music, dance music… not just classical music.
What is it about Classical music that draws you in?
I love the passion and the way you can express yourself. I love playing pop music, but I came to a point where I wanted to do more, to say more musically… but I kind of have to stay within this smaller amount of music that I can deliver. So with classical, it’s so dynamic, and physically, I love playing it because you’re just all over the instrument. It’s great! Right down to the soft, tender, beautiful melodies that come out… yeah.. you just get to do so much more.
I was just very drawn to how much you can do with it, how much emotion you can deliver through the instrument… how you can really affect people… that is just so interesting to me.
I feel when you’re listening to classical music live, it’s more natural and it gets to you in a different way than if you were listening to a piece that came out of a machine, you know… it connects more with the soul…
It really does! If you’re a great musician, what you can do with your physical instrument adds another layer of emotion. It’s like, you can get incredible technology to recreate as much as possible, and there’s some really great stuff.., but then, I can probably do much more with an average piano than with great technology.
You’ve performed in front of live audiences all over the world – Can you describe the feeling and experience from your perspective, which would you say has been the most exhilarating, and also which has been the most challenging performance so far in your career?
So, the best moment… I’ll call it the best, only because you can’t recreate this. It’s a bit tragic, the whole, the whole scenario around it. But, the short version is I went out to Germany to do a product launch. I was doing a collaboration with a brand called The North Face. They asked me to go and perform. I went out there with some musicians, it was in a nuclear power plant, it was amazing. They said to me, “the performance will be carried out at the end of the conference, and after a long day, so the audience will possibly get a drink after, and maybe listen to a song or two.” Everyone stayed for the whole 45-minute show. Nobody left. It was a great performance.
On the back of that, there was someone in the audience that was an elite rock climber, David Lama. He was one of the top guys in the world, was going to make documentaries, etcetera. A few months after, he passed away. There was an avalanche, this freak accident, which took out three of these top, top climbers.
His family, and his manager, got in touch with me and said David was so moved by that performance at that launch that he wanted to have my music in his documentary. So they asked me if I minded going to perform at his memorial. Of course, I didn’t mind, and I went out there again to perform at his funeral.
We were up at the top of their favorite mountain. There were about two to three thousand people there, as it was open to the public. I think because there was such high emotion anyway, because of the nature of the event… his family was so amazing… and to play my music up there, it was just to support what was happening…
You have already accompanied a number of major artists… but if you had total free reign to choose three musicians/ bands or artists to work with, who would you choose… and why?
I’d love to accompany Coldplay. I would love to just feel a stadium full of people… locked in for a whole concert. I’ve played a stadium before, but for one song. To do your whole show and have that experience, and there’s just so few artists that can sell out stadiums. So yeah, Coldplay would be one.
I’d love to do a duet with Ludovico Einaudi because he was a big inspiration for me when I first began composing my music. And then I heard his stuff… his is the closest thing to what I hear in my head. It’s great to hear this is already out there, already extremely popular. When I first started writing, I thought, yeah… this is really ‘in my lane.’ A duet with Ludovico would be quite cool.
Then, you know I’d love to work with Hans Zimmer. I want Hanz to do what he does on one of my songs… just a humongous production with 300 musicians. Whatever he normally does with all his moves he scores. Yeah, I love just how big he goes with the sound. That would be a really interesting collaboration.
How has the global pandemic impacted you as a professional artist, and how have you spent your time with regards to writing/ recording music over this period?
It had a massive impact. The two things that were impacted were events and travel. Before the pandemic, I was doing a lot internationally. That’s just how we were. I had a huge concert booked for the Sheik of Dubai. There was an award show at the Dubai Opera house. I had one song to do. They’d written a song and asked me to come and perform it. I said, “that’s great, but have a listen to this. I’ve got something I think would work really well”.…. And they heard Purple Sky, a song from my album. They said, “that’s perfect! We want it”. So they flew me to Dubai to do this one song with dancers, aerial lights, there was a big water theme, so we had a water curtain around the podium…live TV for the Sheik of Dubai… I flew out to Dubai, and on the night before, they said, “sorry, because of everything that is happening, we have to cancel the show… the trucks loaded up with lights and stage ready to go, but we’ve had to cancel everything”. That was my first taste of losing a lot of work and a lot of these opportunities from all the lockdowns and the whole pandemic.
Essentially when I got back, I finished writing my second album, which is going to come out in February. Then I built a log cabin studio in my garden, where I’ve been writing music for TV and adverts from here. Because I was performing and travelling so much before, I could never really write for TV and film, which I always wanted to do. Thankfully, now that is happening. I just did the music for the Lloyds Bank adverts, that was a great thing to do.
You’ve talked previously (in other articles I’ve read) about hearing music in your head before recreating them externally? Do these sounds comprise all the other parts of an orchestra, or at this stage, are you primarily drawing out the piano?
It varies. Sometimes it’s everything all at once. But, what I found is to recreate it effectively, I need to just get the piano locked in first. If I’m sleeping or something, or if I hear a song in my head, before… I’d try to record a voice note or my voice. I’d hear the melody, then I’d wake up a few hours later and hear that, and I’d be like, ‘what… what was that?’ Now I run downstairs in the middle of the night and at least record the piano, so I have the song. Once I have the piano, I start hearing the counter melody, the violins… and I can go back to the piano.
Are there times when you experience an unexpected silence – and how do you typically combat those creative blocks?
I have a couple of techniques just to get things in flow, just a few things I do to get into a good creative space. I make sure the piano has a really beautiful reverb on if it’s that kind of song. If I’m going to start on a synthesizer, I make a really interesting sound to have a good start point. Another thing I learned from a songwriter that used to write pop songs for China and Korea (K-pop)… one day, we were in a writing session, and it wasn’t a very good backing track he was sent. He wasn’t getting inspired. He kind of just stopped and said, “No! No. If you’re a good songwriter, you can write any song any day of the week, and it will be amazing!”. And I liked that, just to free your mind and instead of thinking ‘oh, I’m blocked, I don’t know what it is,’ think, ‘I’m a composer… I’m going to find something, I’m going to write a piece today, and it’s going to be amazing.’ Having that as a starting mentality is very freeing.
You’ve talked about playing with other musicians. What are the most important factors to you personally when selecting musicians to play alongside you?
Probably the biggest is personality. Obviously, musicality… and generally, you get a lot of excellent musicians. Very occasionally, very rarely, you have a completely exceptional musician, but because there are a lot of excellent musicians who can really play amazingly, the big thing is personality. It’s energy on stage. Because we do over 130 performances a year, it’s a lot of time with other people, a lot of time travelling. And, because of my experience touring for so long with Sergey in Russia, and different artists in the UK, I know about a band… and a group of people. And if that falls apart…
You can’t control everything but good personalities from the start, people that are there for the right reasons… they enjoy music, they care about it, they want it to grow and be a part of something. There has to be an underlying love for music in order to get across the right expression. We are trying to deliver this experience, you know, so it’s the people first.
Is there a particular piece of music that you are most proud of, or has special meaning for you? Is it XIRO?
XIRO is the title track of my first album. When I wrote that song, I felt something very special about this piece… to me is very emotional. It’s just something I really connected with, that piece of music. But as I started to perform the music live, the stand-out song to this day that everyone connects with the most is Fifty Horses – anywhere in. the world, Fifty Horses just seems to touch people differently, so I’m really proud that I’ve got a piece of music that can do that. I think I’ve got a few… but that one, in particular.
Also, because I was in such an emotionally intense place when I was writing it, one called Mercy. When I played it live last week, I tried to push it even more to an emotional place, so we actually handed out blindfolds at the start of the performance, and I blindfolded the whole audience for the whole of that. It’s very intense because then you’re forced into your own minds and imagination… then the music starts, and it’s got this hypnotic rhythm that just carries it.
What would you say is the best advice you’ve been given in your career, and what advice would you give musicians and artists that are yet to be discovered?
Mmm… The best advice is some tough love… Nobody is coming to save you. When I first started writing this music, I did a few shows, and the reaction was amazing, people were crying, people wanted to take pictures afterward… and I thought, “this is great, all I need is one record label to see this, get a massive record deal and tour the world.” I was putting all my energy, or my hope, into someone discovering me and hopefully taking it to the world… I think the best advice is, nobody is coming to save you. You have to do all of that yourself. If someone comes along the lines, along the journey, then discovers you… But if you’re just waiting for that… releasing one song here, doing a little bit there… you have to be really proactive and create this whole thing yourself. Especially for me because with this genre, it’s a contemporary, classical crossover. It’s not really venues requesting you. Venues are looking for bands. It’s not an easy genre to breakthrough in.
What are your priorities for the future?
The big one now is, we have to go on tour. Everything is ready, music and performance-wise. I’d like to take this throughout the UK and Europe. The Infinity Orchestra and the musicians I work with, after last week’s show, had an amazing reaction to going back to performing live. When the musicians and audience are all saying the same, and the energy is there, the next thing is to carry on with tours and make the moment last.
Building an orchestra started with respect for music. My music couldn’t be restrained. I needed to make the best music ever. Forget about social media, Instagram, etcetera… I started hearing everything live with the strings, violins, cellos, trombones… it sounded so good. I needed to build it. The music deserved it and deserved to be performed like this, and people had to experience it. I wanted it to be pure and real with great musicians, real music, great personalities that had an outstanding love of music.
At the moment we have 18 members at the Infinity Orchestra that combine violinists, violists, trombones, cellos, bass, trombones, vocalists, flutes, percussionists, and of course, piano.
If you were to look 15 years back, would you have imagined that you would be here, at this level, today?
That’s a very good question. No, it’s only developed as it’s gone on. I’ve got such passion for it, and I think it’s developed naturally. The more we do, and I do, and the more people engage and feel with my music, the more I want to do. Let’s do it even bigger. Start on a song, carry on with an album, follow up with an orchestra. Let’s keep going.
Last week we hired out a venue, arranged the lights, the orchestra, sold the tickets…and it was such hard work! But it’s so worth it in the end when you see that reaction that you just want to do it all over again and do even more.