Born into a family of clerics, John Ighodaro, better known as Johnny Drille, was a contestant in the 6th edition of the MTN Project Fame Academy in 2013.In this interview with SAMPSON UNAMKA, the Mavin Records act speaks about how a female fan traced him to his hotel room without invitation and his Christian parents’ reaction to his involvement in secular music.
How did you start your music?
Like everyone else, I started in church. My parents are pastors, so at an early age I was exposed to music. First, it was with the children choir. I started to play the keyboard around 2001. I think I was like 11 years then. I learnt to play it to intermediate choir. I first joined a group called’Soul Awakening Singers’ with my sister and some couple of other people and from there, I started to learn music production in 2006.
Because of music production I failed my first WAEC, NECO and JAMB same year because I was trying to do the whole music thing. The following year, I tried harder and got admission into the University of Benin to study English and Literature but I didn’t really push music in school because there was really not that much time but I kept doing music production on the side and I finished in 2012 and went for MTN Project Fame and that’s when I started music professionally. I didn’t win Project Fame. I was like top 12 but the platform itself had already exposed me to how the industry works; the whole pressure and how you needed to perform constantly and create impression.
So I started music professionally and then I already had an idea of how the music works. I was putting out music but not a lot of people were listening. It was just a few friends that listened to my songs. I was just posting on Facebook randomly and I will just have like 10 or 15 people say ‘Hey I like that song’. That was enough for me at that point because I knew you have to start from somewhere to get to that place. So I kept pushing and started to do more covers. I did a lot of covers that a lot of people didn’t even notice and at some point I did a cover of one artiste, I don’t know who asked me but I sent the cover to him on Facebook. I thought I would get a bit of encouragement like ‘hey nice one’ and the guy was a lawyer and he said “take it down if you don’t want a law suit” so I took it down and nobody got to hear it. Anyway, I continued to drop covers and dropped a cover of ‘Aww by Di’Ja’ and this was totally different. She loved it and posted it on her Instagram page and I think somehow that’s how Don Jazzy got to hear about my music. So, professionally I have been doing music since 2013.
Growing up, what kind of songs did you use to listen to?
Growing up, I heard a lot of songs but I didn’t know their names because my parents were pastors. We didn’t get to buy songs, it was just Christian songs that I had access to. I used to listen to a lot of music from Don Moen. My dad introduced me to Dolly Parton and her first song he introduced to me was ‘Coat of many colors’. I also listened to Jolene, Don Williams, Phil Collins. All these songs shaped my childhood but I used to listen to Christian songs. But for me, the one that stuck out the most was Christmas songs because we had this cassette player then and we played Boney M and even though it wasn’t Christmas we would still keep on playing it. It was like the only cassette we had in the house so all those songs together kind of shaped my musical sense.
You grew up in Benin, what was growing up in Benin like?
Because my family was very conservative, there was not a lot of going out. We went out like during Christmas and just have fun and we almost never go out again until the next Christmas. It was a very tight upbringing. My parents didn’t want us to go out so we don’t get injured or socialize with the wrong set of people. We were always locked up inside but it was fun we had ourselves, my brother and sister. I remember during midnight, we had this gates and there would be no light and we would just stick our legs out through the gates and just sing away through the night with my sister and once in a while we had a chance to go out and play with the other kids.
Is Johnny married?
Johnny is not married. He is single.
How did you get the name Johnny Drille?
I wish there was some fancy meaning to the name, but there really isn’t. At some point I was jumping names. I was Johnny Vince and later I was Johnny Wills. It just happened that by the time I jumped to Johnny Drille my music began to gain more attention. I know it’s not a very Nigerian sounding name and then the music itself doesn’t help when you hear its western except for the pidgin English that makes it sound so. Sometimes people think it’s a white man trying to sing pidgin. My real name is not Johnny Drille it’s John Ighodaro but you know it’s going to be mouth-full if the radio presenter wants to announce it.Laughs.
It’s been 2 years with Mavin, how has the journey been?
It’s been awesome. It wasn’t a smooth start you know. Some people have it the easy way, I feel everyone has different journey and everyone has different kind of grace so for me it wasn’t exactly smooth. I had to learn a lot along the way. I had to learn a lot about branding because for me at that time I had zero branding. It took me a while to figure it out because I was that everyday guy and still am that everyday guy I could just work the street but for a while I had to realize that yes you want to be that everyday guy but there’s also a brand attached to the music and you want people to be able to attach your brand to the music. It took me a while to get over it and yes things started to get better and started moving fast and I had my first concert in Lagos and it was awesome.
How many years contract did you sign with Mavin?
I can’t go much into details about my contract but I can tell you for sure it’s a fair deal and the way our contracts are set up, Donjazzy has mentioned it in the past that nobody is tied down, you can leave if you feel like. There is so much more to come and I am happy here.
Tiwa Savage stayed for seven years and Reekado for five years how long do you see yourself being in Mavin?
Well Mavin Records has been like a family to me. They have had a track record of breaking artistes and doing awesome for artistes from Tiwa,Reekado, Korede, Dr Sid,Prince,Po,DNA Di’Ja, to Rema which is the new kid and myself. So, I don’t have any plans to leave right now, am not in a hurry to leave I think we are still in a process. They have helped me a lot in getting my music to be accepted. It’s not a very common place for an alternative artiste to be signed to a major record label, no one wants to take that gamble but Mavin Records did for me and so far, they’ve done so well in pushing my music. We are a family and everyone loves and supports each other. There is so much history to make. I feel that we are just scratching the surface and there is so much more to come. I can’t wait.
Nigerians mistake you for a foreigner when they listen to your song, how does that make you feel?
Well we’ve tried as much as possible to be able to bring it back home. The thing is our music industry starting up earlier was used to listening to a lot of western songs and a lot of Christian songs.
So, there was always that influence and that’s why people can still relate with my music. The sound has a lot of foreign element and also local elements as well there is pidgin English and once in a while I infuse my Edo dialect as well and there also local expressions, proportion in the music just to bring it back a bit but I get that a lot and it makes me feel good that people actually appreciate it for what it is and they don’t say ‘your not one of us or you don’t belong here’ but I get that ‘You don’t belong here’ sometimes my fans be like ‘we don’t deserve you’ you should be in the USA with them Ed Sheeran and the rest of them but God put me here for a reason and I believe there’s a purpose am meant to fulfill and am sure that maybe from here we can spread across the world.
Do you write your lyrics and what inspires these songs?
Yes I write my lyrics so far for the songs I have put out but recently I have been more open to work with a lot of people songs.
A lot of people have who have heard my song are mostly inspired by love and there is a lot of faith in my music, and I sing about family, about God and life in general.
so far a lot of the songs are love songs; why because it’s kind of easy to sell love songs a lot of people want you to do conscious music of course we know, we do that but it’s just that we haven’t put them out yet but at the same time you are signed under a record label so you have to think of the business perspective as well. You can make an impact with conscious music but you have to get there first get in people’s faces, let them recognize you first. Generally loves song kind of like pop and it appeals to everyone, everyone wants to love. I feel every musician has their place in the kind of sounds they make and there’s a plan actually, maybe right now we are still putting out songs to get people to love Johnny Drille.
My next song is not a love song, but I am not going to tell you; its coming out soon. But I put out a song recently called ‘Shine’ it’s a little bit away from the usual Johnny Drille message it was taking about life in general and just having that positive mindset that things are going to get better.
What inspired Wait for me?
Wait for me was inspired by a girl I met during NYSC sadly there was not enough time for whatever there was, I mean the like or the friendship to grow into something more.
The video makes people think that I lost a girl or somebody died but NYSC service came and went away very fast and before you know it I had to go back to Benin and she had to go back to Lagos and she moved on and I moved on. Such is life.
How was it putting together ‘Hallelujah’ with Simi?
It was both fun and stressful. Simi is a great person to work with. She’s a perfectionist and she takes her time to make songs.
Hallelujah took us almost a year to complete, in fact, generally it took us like two years. The first time I messaged her for us to do the song was like a year before she invited me over to the studio and we vibed and all I had was the chorus then we built the chorus and I started adding verses before you know it, we had the song. It was fun working with her.
When are you dropping an album?
I can tell you that is happening pretty soon, I can’t give you a definite date.
You tweeted and asked Jon Bellion to come over for a concert and he responded. How far with that?
It’s been taking a while, but he has a huge fan base in Nigeria. First of all it was awesome that he even responded, at first he followed me on Instagram and that was a huge deal for me because in my mind, I was like I’m the only Nigerian that this guy knows.
Anyway I hit him up publicly and when he responded, I was like ‘sure I’ll open for you why not’? I will gladly do that but of course he’s having his US tour, so am thinking after he does that then he’ll start to think of international tours but I think he has a huge fan base in Nigeria.
He has no idea until he comes. Am sure Jon Bellion, give or take probably has about 2 million fans here in Nigeria and he doesn’t know, if like 5,000 or 10,000 fans show up for you I mean it’s crazy; I know people who would travel, I mean for my own concert; people came from Abuja and Nasarawa to Lagos for my own concert so imagine what they would do for Jon Bellion so I can’t wait. If he’s taking too long I’ll go down to America and bring him down here. (Laughs)
Last year at your concert you picked two of your fans Gbemi and Celia to sing part of Niniola’s song on stage with you. Was that staged because some people even said they sang it better than Niniola?
Yeah, I saw a couple of that comments, it wasn’t staged. I think I was really lucky because if you watched the video you will see that it wasn’t staged; I just went to the audience and asked if they knew the song and they came out. I had no idea that they could sing and it was a gamble because I tried it in Abuja it didn’t exactly work out like that. Lagos was just perfect, they did great.
At your concert you amazed your fans, most especially the ladies, recognising most of them and calling out their names; how do you do that?
I have been slacking a bit but I have this connection with people and my fans, I may not know them by name but I know their Instagram handles and if I see them especially the ones that interact with me a lot because when fans really connect with you, beyond the music so looking at the audience; I could pick out a fan and tell you she came from Osun state.
You seem to have too many female fans, how do you feel when they mill around you?
You know what’s funny? Somehow people think that I have more female fans than male fans but to be honest yes I have a lot of female fans, they are the ones that reach out. If you look at my insights on my instagram I have 55 percent of male followers and 45 per cent of female followers.
What’s the weirdest thing a female fan has done to you?
She found my hotel room number and came. I thought it was room service and I opened and she threw herself in but I had to be polite about it and found a way to get her out, that was earlier in my career. I have been able to manage such situations now.