With singles “Looku Looku,” “Mr. Rebel,” and the viral hit “Try Me,” singer-songwriter & producer Tems has cemented her place as one to watch in 2020.
Tems wants to take on the world. The de facto leader of the Rebel Gang, as her fans call themselves, is determined to remain true to herself by consistently keeping things light while pursuing her undying love for music. “I’m literally just trying to chill. You see me here drinking tea. This is like my second water,” she mentions.
We’re not the same. No, no”.
As sung on her hit single Try Me, Temilade Openiyi, better known as Tems is far from the typical breakout talents in the Nigerian music industry.
Even though her love for music began from age eleven, a time where she describes as having a “very quiet” childhood, it didn’t stop her from wanting to harness it, “I didn’t like to do so many things but I loved music a lot and I knew early that I wanted to develop myself in it”, she says.
Staying true to her talent and the quest to be the best, Tems took a step of faith by joining her school choir, which in one way helped shaped what her sound has evolved into.
According to her, she’s “driven by God and life” and her music, undoubtedly, comes from her soul and written, “for people who feel misunderstood and want to be free”.
Her music teacher also helped by giving her access to professional help with her music: “He exposed me to a lot of music. And that was where I really got the drive”. In addition, she learned how to play the piano, and heavily consumed everything from Asa, Frank Ocean, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Beyoncé, and Rihanna, for their authentic emotional content.
We had a chat below with Tems about her journey thus far, her future endeavors and more. Read ahead for the interview.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
PB: What’s your happy place?
Tems: Music is my happy place. Music is the only thing that makes me feel truly at home. If I’m sad, it’s the only thing I can run to. If someone says to me “here’s a billion dollars, just chill” I would still do music. I mean, I’d collect the billion dollars and then do music. [Laughs] That’s how bad it is. That’s how much I love it.
PB; If you could describe yourself with a song which song would you be?
TEMS; I would say “Mob Ties” by Drake.
Why “Mob Ties”?
Right now, I’m in a space where I need to be super real with myself. This also applies to the people around me. Everyone needs to be on a hundred. I’m just trying to be 100% focused on my work. No distractions. No sentiments. No pretense.
“I’m just trying to be 100% focused on my work. No distractions. No sentiments. No pretense.”
PB; At what point did you decide to pursue music?
TEMS; It was probably when I was 13. I thought to myself “I’m kinda good at this thing. it’s the only thing that comes naturally to me.” I could make a song about Cornflakes if I wanted to, or I could just wake up and see a bird eating a worm and make a song out of that. It was just very easy, it wasn’t something I had to try for. So I understood music to be my thing and no matter what it was going to take, I had to end up in it.
PB; This last decade we’ve seen genre lines being blurred on a big scale. As an artist contributing to this phenomenon, what’s your take on that?
TEMS; I think it’s a good thing. I feel music should be categorized but it shouldn’t be categorized in a way that limits an artist. It’s like telling me what to choose. I like music, that’s it. Before I knew about genres, I knew about music. I remember googling R&B. That’s how much I did not know about genres. Before then, I was already writing songs. Imagine if someone had said “Oh you should do R&B. That’s what you’re good at.” “Try Me” isn’t R&B, reggae, or pop. I mean it has pop elements but it’s not pop. I think genres being blurred means progress.
PB; What is your process like when creating music?
TEMS; Music just comes to me in my everyday movement. I draw inspiration from the things around me and the things I hear. Then I go to my laptop and see what I can do with it. It’s only when I need to record the song that I head to the studio. But most of it happens in my life.
PB; What was the story behind “Try Me”?
TEMS; I was actually freestyling when it came to me. Freestyling, for me, feels like a release. A lot of things I feel, I can’t explain, I just sing it. So it was one of those days when it was just inside me. I don’t know where it came from. By the time I finished, I knew I had something special.
“Before I knew about genres, I knew about music. I remember Googling R&B.”
PB; Did you envision its popularity?
TEMS; Not at all. Even now, it’s still hard to process. But I do remember praying on the release day and saying to God that it doesn’t matter how many people like the song as long as it reaches someone, somewhere. After I record a song, I listen to it a thousand times. When it’s released, I don’t go back to listen to it again. So when everybody was going crazy over it, I was like “Huh is this the same song? Is it that great?” [laughs]. I really didn’t expect any of it. We didn’t spend anything on promotion. Everything happened organically. The fact that so many people resonate with it makes me feel really good. I’m happy they can feel it.
Contrary to being tagged an alte artiste, Tems says she “didn’t ‘choose’ any genre” and is sticking to what she’s good at.”
“I was making the music I make without thinking about what genre it was. Doing that would be me limiting myself. That’s why my music can easily be seen as genre fluid I think because it’s really a mix of different sounds. I make music based on my life and my experiences not so much based off other people’s perceptions or preferences.
I have also tried genres from Afro-pop to reggae to dancehall to South African house to hip hop to R ‘n’ B to neo-soul.”
Even though Tems – unsigned to any record label – didn’t confirm whether or not she’ll be dropping an album soon when asked, one thing is certain – she’s all out exploring how far she can go riding solo and enjoying her freedom.
Asides being a leading vibe in the Nigerian music industry, Tems reveals if she wasn’t doing music, she would be a teacher or professor “because I like kids and I want to be part of something that involves developing minds and helping people grow”.
And when she isn’t busy creating magic in the studio, she may just be ‘enjoying a good conversation over the phone and eating’.