on the rise | 

Singer Tolü Makay says her career 'blew up' covering the Saw Doctor's N17

Singing sensation Tolü Makay started 2020 unsure whether to return to her office job or pursue her dreams

Tolü Makay in a stunning outfit for one of her gigs

Tolü Makay performing N17

Tolü is working on a new album

Galway band The Saw Doctors hit it big in the 90s

Eddie Rowley

Tolu Makay became an overnight star in Ireland after performing her spine-tingling version of The Saw Doctors classic song, N17, with the RTE Concert Orchestra on the station’s New Year’s Eve show in 2020.

It got a million views and an incredible response. Graham Norton summed up the reaction of many when he tweeted “this has reduced me to a sobbing mess.”

Tolu’s star has been on the rise ever since and she is set to be a featured artist on many Irish summer festivals this season.

In an exclusive interview with Sunday World Magazine+, Tolu (27) admits that she’d never heard of The Sawdoctors when the N17 song was first suggested to her. It was a hit back in 1991, four years before she was born.

“I hadn’t heard of the Saw Doctors before that. They weren’t my time,” Tolu says on the phone from a London studio where she’s working on a new album.

Tolü Makay performing N17

“But I think what was incredible was just receiving amazing messages from people all over the world telling me how the song affected them and how it really tugged on their heartstrings.”

A song about emigration and separation, N17 also tugged at Tolu’s own heartstrings. “It felt like a song that was moreso for others than it was for me, but I did find my own piece of story in it.”

And what was her own emotional connection with the song?

“It was basically that I was missing home because December is always a month when I travel back to Nigeria to see my mom and meet the other side of my family, and I wasn’t able to do that that year,” Tolu explains.

The singing star, who was born in Nigeria, came to Ireland at the age of five and grew up in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Her mother has since returned to Nigeria.

In the aftermath of her success with the song, Tolu met The Saw Doctors.

“They are such good craic,” she laughs. “They are really lovely. I got to sing the song with them on TV, so that was lovely.”

Tolu tells how in 2020 she had decided to focus on her singing and songwriting in the hope of getting a breakthrough in her bid to become a music artist.

“It was an odd year for me because I was going back and forth trying to decide whether I should go back to a corporate job or put my head down and just be stubborn for the year and see what comes out of it,” she says.

“Susan Scannell from Kite Entertainment, a production team that was helping me, introduced N17 to me, and then I was introduced to Gavin Murphy from the RTE Concert Orchestra who is a phenomenal arranger and I’m so glad to be still working with him. He is the one who did the arrangement for my version of N17.

“I had no idea how that performance was going to blow up for me. I still look back and am surprised that ‘oh yeah, that happened!’

“That opportunity really made me realise what I want to do for the next set of songs that I want to put out myself. I’m going to be playing some tunes that I haven’t released yet at the festivals, so that’s going to be fun.”

Her success as an artist has come out of the pandemic, and Tolu reveals that another personal surprise was finding love in lockdown with a childhood friend.

“I found someone I really liked during lockdown,” Tolu tells me. “Because of the pandemic I had to move back to Tullamore. It was someone I’ve known since the age of 13, which was hilarious. I was laughing at myself, ‘oh my God, who would have thought!’ I have to keep reminding him, ‘You’re very lucky you know,’” she laughs.

Galway band The Saw Doctors hit it big in the 90s

“I have a demo dedicated to that experience. I’ve been contemplating if I want to release it as a single. It’s so different, but I can see it working on radio. It’s a really good song. I think it’s the day I realised that I actually liked him that I wrote a song about him, so I thought, ‘ok, I guess there’s something there.’”

The loved up entertainer says her partner is very private, so she’s keeping his identity under wraps, but adds that he’s very supportive of her career.

“It’s a matter of finding someone that balances you out,” she adds.

“He works in tech, so he’s very logical and focused. For him it’s about doing rather than saying. Having a partner like that kind of drives you and motivates you. Letting you know that each step will get you to where you need to be is really, really helpful.”

  • Tolu Makay’s festival performances this summer include Sofft Nights in Dunderry Park, Co. Meath (June 4-5), Carlow Arts Festival (June 9-12) and Electric Picnic

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