Joy Oladokun: Sweet Sympathy
When Joy Oladokun started playing guitar in middle school, she wrote songs intended for audiences of one—her mom after a bad day at work, her friend who failed a math test. “I would write songs for my friends who were going through hard times,” Oladoku, who describes herself as the shy daughter of Nigerian immigrants, says of how she found a new way to connect with people while growing up in Arizona. “It was a lifeline in terms of communication, expression and how to be a good friend.”
These days, the Nashville-based Oladokun is writing songs meant for much larger audiences. The 31-year-old musician just released Proof of Life, her second album on a major label, and played her first arena gigs supporting John Mayer. But she’s still sending pals personalized pick-me-ups in song form. Recently, she sent one to her friend, labelmate and Proof of Life collaborator Noah Kahan, who Oladokun will open for this summer at iconic venues like Columbia, Md.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion and New York’s Radio City Music Hall. “I wrote Noah a song the other day because he was going through a hard time, and that’s the last anybody will ever hear of it,” she says. “It’s still this thing that I use to extend an olive branch or whatever needs to be done.”
That’s something the singer-songwriter excels at—making the personal universal and relatable. “It was one of the kindest gestures that I’ve received in my career so far,” Kahan says. “It speaks to her humanity and her all-encompassing kindness.” Despite famous friends like Kahan, Brandi Carlile and Jim James, Oladokun still feels like a regular person with regular struggles, just like all of us. “I wanted to make a record that was a collection of songs where, even if someone didn’t know me, they’d be able to listen and understand what was important to me,” she says. “They could understand what I struggled with or what I was afraid of—any of those things in my life.”
By laying bare her anxieties, problems and worldview as a queer, Black woman in a white, male-dominated world, she hopes her songs—“helpful anthems,” as she calls them—can aid listeners through whatever they’re going through. “I think retaining my humanity is the most important thing to me because that is why I got into music,” she says. “I was working a weird job in LA where I was delivering rental cars to people so I was listening to the radio all day. And I was like, ‘I don’t relate to any of this.’ I wished that I had music that spoke to where I was at and what I might hope for in the future.”
That vision feels fully realized on Proof of Life, an Americana-leaning pop album with big hooks, genre-hopping production, deft songwriting and a lengthy list of features ranging from country superstar Chris Stapleton to indie-folkies Mt. Joy. It’s a bold, adventurous and instantly charming record—a step up from her more downcast, acoustic-driven breakout album, in defense of my own happiness. In short, Proof of Life is a sonic evolution that should help Oladokun’s relatable anthems reach an even wider audience.
Growing up as a loner in a desert city midway between Phoenix and Tucson, Oladokun didn’t aspire to be a professional musician. Her love of music stemmed from her father, a curious listener who was already a fan of country music when he emigrated to America in the ‘80s and continued to expand his tastes as his daughter came of age. “My dad has the best, biggest record collection and VHS collection of concert tapes,” Oladokun says. She and her two sisters weren’t allowed to watch TV during the week so she received a musical education listening to her dad’s records. “On the weekend, we could either watch a movie or we could watch however many hours of concert footage we wanted. We would always choose the concert footage. That’s how I found out about Genesis and Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Dolly Parton. He taught me how not to discriminate as a music fan. Because, if he likes something, he doesn’t care who made it.”
Genesis was a particular favorite of her dad’s because of the way the band borrowed from West African rhythms. When the last Genesis reunion tour swung through the states in 2021 but skipped Nashville, Oladokun flew to Chicago for 24 hours just to catch the show. “It was amazing,” she says. “I cried the whole time.”
When she was 10, Oladokun got her first guitar—an adult-sized acoustic that she begged her parents for after seeing Tracy Chapman perform in front of a massive crowd at London’s Wembley Stadium on one of her dad’s VHS tapes. Almost immediately, she wrote a song about The Lord of the Rings. “I could only play the open E string,” she recalls. “I would just hammer away on this E string and sing Middle Earth folk songs about Aragorn.” She started toting her guitar with her to school, like an extra appendage. “I had this class where I got to do puzzles with a white lady for a few hours and she knew how to play the guitar so she would show me a chord or two. And that was my education for a year.”
An emerging YouTube taught her the rest and, eventually, she started working as a music director at her family’s church, a gig she’d maintain through college. As she came to terms with her sexuality, which both Nigerian culture and her church disapproved of, she had to navigate coming out and risking her job—something she’d reckon with on her moving 2019 single, “Sunday.” “I got to a point where I was like, ‘If I believe all of this is true—and I’m unsure if I do—it can’t be an accident that God made me a Black, queer human at this point in time,’” Oladokun recalls. “I said, ‘Instead of trying to squash that, I’m just going to celebrate it.’ And I feel like my life has felt way more divine than it ever did when I was in churches saying, doing and thinking all the right things, but not being very integral about how I viewed the world, divinity or goodness.”
She left Arizona after college and moved to LA to pursue songwriting, but her style didn’t quite work for other artists. “The feedback I would get often is that my voice was so unique that I should just put out the music myself,” she says. After funding her first album, 2016’s Carry, via Kickstarter, her big break came with in defense of my own happiness, a two-part album released in 2020 and 2021 (and later combined into one release). Her songs started getting placed in TV shows like This Is Us, Grey’s Anatomy and Catfish. High-profile tours opening for My Morning Jacket and Maren Morris followed.
Oladokun spent most of 2022 on the road, but she never stopped working on new music. Proof of Life was written and recorded in famed studios like New York’s Electric Ladyland, as well as tour buses and a Holiday Inn in Iowa. She jokes that she would choose recording sessions over naps, which is how she ended up spending a particularly fruitful “day off” at Dan Wilson’s LA home studio. Wilson, who fronted Semisonic and co-wrote Adele’s “Someone Like You,” produced and co-wrote “Changes,” a shimmery slow jam about finding yourself among the chaos of the world. “We sat in his studio and we talked about life,” Oladokun recalls. “One of my favorite things to do when I’m in a session and we’re talking is to pick up a guitar, keep the conversation going and see what music or chords take form.”
Collaborations were a central part of Proof of Life. Though she wrote or co-wrote all 13 songs (the physical version of the LP adds three extra tunes), guest spots from Chris Stapleton, Noah Kahan, Mt. Joy, indie-rockers Manchester Orchestra and rapper Maxo Kream help enhance the album’s sonic palette and reflect Oladokun’s wide-ranging tastes.
Stapleton, for example, adds gravity and weight to the instant-classic “Sweet Symphony,” which pushed Oladokun to stretch her vocals. “I wrote about my parents because they’re so cute and old and in love,” she says of the soulful, country-ish ballad. “I feel really lucky that I got to grow up watching two people that love each other so much. My dad would sing all these Motown and country-western love songs to my mom when he would get home from work. I wanted to write a song that he would sing for her.”
Kahan adds a verse to “We’re All Gonna Die,” an upbeat anthem about the inevitability of death: “We’re all gonna die trying to figure it out,” they sing. “We’re all getting high every way we know how.” It’s a fun song that serves as a way for Oladokun to work through her struggles with mental health. “I have anxiety, and it’s sort of cool that, on the record, I deal with it in this ‘Eleanor Rigby’-meets-Weezer-moment with one of my best friends.” Kahan, who had previously tapped Oladokun to duet on his single “Someone Like You,” admires her passion and down-to-Earth persona.
“She’s a rare type of person in that she’s incredibly kind and easygoing but also totally focused and hardworking,” he says. “She inspires me every time I’m with her.”
Oladokun discovered Houston rapper Maxo Kream—also a child of Nigerian immigrants—by chance on a YouTube deep dive, and he adds a verse to Proof of Life’sbiggest outlier “Revolution,” which nods to Genesis in its synths and ‘80s-style production. “It’s one of those lyrics that you’re going to read a few times, and then go, ‘Holy shit, I didn’t realize that was all in there,’” she says. “The way that he hits racism and wealth and opportunity in eight bars is freaking incredible.”
Proof of Life’s standout single might be album-opener “Keeping the Light On,” a catchy mission statement of sorts about trying to find the light in the darkness of the world. “The first verse talks about how I grew up, and then there’s this line, ‘found a girl and found a job just like they say good people do.’ And that reminds me of a country song,” she says. “Some boring white dude could sing that same line and millions of people would relate to it. But for me to sing it, KurtMAGA6969 has to now pause and think, ‘Hey, I relate to that entire sentiment: I work hard, I love my wife.’ I try to create work that is conversational and opens people up to the idea that, maybe on paper, you think we wouldn’t get along. But in reality, we’re all dealing with the same difficult stuff.”
On a windy spring Saturday in Cleveland, Oladokun played her second of seven arena shows opening for Mayer on his current solo tour. Wearing a hat with the words “Keep Going” and a Bryan Adams T-shirt, Oladokun also performed solo, flanked by just an acoustic guitar with “Keep Hope Alive” written on gaffer tape and an electric guitar. The self- proclaimed “sensitive stoner” admitted that she was anxious for these shows and punctuated nearly every bit of banter with a nervous laugh—a tic that only made her commanding performance, in which she stripped down a few Proof of Life songs, even more endearing. “If I’m at Target, no one gives a fuck that I’m opening for John Mayer so I shouldn’t carry myself that way,” she says. “I can value what I do and be confident in it and also be a human. Keeping my feet on the ground has been really important.”
That last bit is something she’s had to do a lot of lately. In March, Oladokun became an honorary member of country supergroup The Highwomen during the Love Rising benefit in Nashville, a concert organized to protest Tennessee’s recent anti-trans and anti-drag laws. “What I try to remind myself is that the people who are enacting these laws are selfish and stupid,” she says. “A powerful, stupid minority is taking advantage of their power to create this fear-driven agenda.”
Last December, the White House invited Oladokun to perform during the signing ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act—a surreal moment for a person who still considers herself to be a shy loner from Arizona.
“Right before I played, I kicked everybody out of the room and I looked in the mirror, which is a thing my therapist tells me to do,” Oladokun recalls. “I was thinking of that kid version of Joy between 13 and 16, who is sad and confused and lost and didn’t know if a world in which the White House would be protecting my ability to love someone existed. So it was really beautiful on a human level. It’s crazy that they asked me to perform— I feel like Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper are more than enough—but it felt beautiful and powerful. For me, as a person, it was a really encouraging moment. There are people who think that you deserve to have good things.”