by Eric Althoff
Kemi Adegoroye hadn’t written a song in over a decade. With less formal training in composition than in performing, she had worked on melodies in her youth but, by her admission, she suddenly stopped at the age of 14.
“I felt if I couldn’t write anything worthwhile, then I didn’t want to write anything” at all, the Northern Virginia singer said recently. “I didn’t want to do ‘pop’ or just be another teeny-bopper writing another song about a crush on a boy.”
Fast forward to her early twenties, when Adegoroye was watching “Despicable Me” with a close friend. She found herself chuckling at a line by Gru (Steve Carell) about wanting to be the greatest villain of all time, which he would accomplish by “stealing” the moon.
“He said he wants to be known as the ‘man who stole the moon,’ and I turned to my friend and said, ‘That sounds like a song.’”
Though it took her some time to complete, Adegoroye went to work on a composition of the same name, a whimsical song that is part fantasy and part lullaby, with Adegoroye’s dulcet vocals acting as narration. She said she aimed to have her song be in the same vein as Judy Garland’s “The Man Who Got Away” and Barbra Streisand’s “My Man,” but its form continued to morph.
“It was supposed to be a very languid ballad at first, but I started to play with it, and it felt like it could have a really fun Motown feel,” Adegoroye said. “It reminded me of a lot of Motown songs that are really upbeat and fun but are actually covering really sad material.”
Motown is among Adegoroye’s influences, which also entail everyone from Aretha Franklin to Randy Crawford. And with her own background in theater, Adegoroye also found herself drawn to the voices of Heather Headley, Julie Andrews and Bernadette Peters. While developing her own style, she at first imitated some of those chanteuses, but rather than try to precisely copy those heroes, Adegoroye says she modulates her own instrument in both her covers as well as her original works, including “The Man Who Stole the Moon.”
“As a songwriter, it was a journey that was a little bit more involved and took more time to figure out,” she said. “But I have a better footing now than when I first started.”
Adegoroye said the dichotomy of “The Man Who Stole the Moon”—between languid and uptempo—mirrors the emotions of heartbreak and anxiety that people so often go through when experiencing something like a romantic breakup.
“People, myself in particular, can be so dramatic: The world is ending, and my life is over, and there’s no purpose in the world anymore,” she said. “Of course, that’s ridiculous, but that’s how it feels. I like (that) these are really honest lyrics, but I’m also able to point out how ridiculous it is.”
“Even if those feelings don’t last, it’s acknowledging they did happen at some point and they were valid to a degree.”
Heartbreak is endemic in songs from another of Adegoroye’s favorite genres, jazz, which has informed her singing as well as her composing.
“I’ve heard people compare me to Sarah Vaughan, who is amazing, when I’m singing jazz. Or, because I was obsessed with (Broadway performer) Audra McDonald, I found I was (singing) similar to her because I was listening to her so much,” Adegoroye said.
Another reason for her long break in songwriting, Adegoroye said, is that, by her own admission, she had a comfortable suburban upbringing and didn’t have to face obstacles such as addiction or other troubling circumstances that so often become the foundations for a great deal of songwriting. But with “The Man Who Stole the Moon” under her belt, she felt the time is ripe for her to continue on.
“Since ‘The Man Who Stole the Moon,’ I’ve written almost 300 songs!” she enthused. “I just felt I needed to give myself permission to try.”
She certainly has the time now, with her live ensemble, Terra Firma, unable to perform publicly, and Adegoroye likewise unable to share her voice in any fashion that isn’t virtual.
It’s an especially hard time for musicians, Adegoroye said, but she’s continuing to keep busy composing new works as well as working more on the arts company she founded, Alveo Creative, which aims to assist creative performers on navigating the business side of the industry.
“Marketing is so time-intensive, but it makes the difference between no one hearing your project and many people hearing your project,” she said. “It’s so much work to even get a project to the finish line that the last thing on your mind is a whole marketing strategy.”
She’s also pushing ahead on an EP of songs to share with her fans later this year. Hopefully, she will be able to perform them live when the pandemic is astern, but by her own admission, Adegoroye hasn’t performed live as much as she might have otherwise.
“For me to do one substantive gig a month for five months in a row was pretty awesome. And that was a mix of me doing solo acts and with the band,” she said, adding that the coronavirus has forced her to postpone previously scheduled engagements.
She also had big plans for her April birthday that had to be changed from a night out dancing to a virtual concert shared online with friends.
“I know people have lost so many more serious things in this pandemic, (but my birthday) was one of those things I was really looking forward to, and it was an occasion I didn’t want to let pass without marking it,” she said, adding that the online concert provided her a new way to market as well. “I think people are finding new ways to share what they have and try different things. And that’s not as dependent on being together in person.”
She also believes that there will be a new normal when and if concert venues open up once again this year. Partly that will depend on a viable vaccine becoming available down the line, but even gatherings of a few dozen people to enjoy music seems almost unfathomable at present.
“Our band Terra Firma played Union Stage in January. … There were over 400 people there, (but) it’s hard to see that happening anytime within the rest of 2020, if not next year, until something drastic changes.”
Meantime, she is putting more energy into live streaming and sharing her music as widely as possible via the internet. It’s the perfect time to increase “brand awareness” online, Adegoroye said, with live performances and touring currently impossible.
“In general, you see a lot of people being experiential. I saw a post about drive-in concerts, which might be a thing,” she said. “There are definitely options, but the landscape is going to look very different for a while. It’s hard to deal with, but I also think necessity is the mother of invention. People are going to come up with really unique ways to share their art.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing what those are.”
Meantime, she continues to work on her EP and says she will get the band back together to record those new songs as soon as is feasible.
“We’re laying the groundwork and making sure it’s solid so that the second people can get to the studio, everything is ready to go,” she said. “I really hope (the songs) will resonate with people, and they’ll hit at that substantive feeling that I always wanted to give people whenever I put out anything into the world.”
Check out Kemi on social media:
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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