If you haven’t heard at least one song by ayokay, then you might live under a rock. His songs are a staple on almost every “chill” and “good vibe” playlist on Spotify, which makes sense if you listen to his music. ayokay, whose real name is Alex O’Neill, is committed to bringing listeners sincere lyrics whisked with lustrous sounds. His positive energy has radiated throughout the cities various cities he’s performed in on his first headlining tour. I met up with ayokay during the tour before his sold out show at Songbyrd to get the scoop on how his album came to be, relationships, his authentic life philosophy and what’s happening with his hair.
Capitol Sound DC: We’re in DC. It’s Election Day. Why do you think it’s important for people to get out and vote?
ayokay: What makes this country so special is the ability to vote. I think that young people seemed to have made a really exerted effort to vote in the mid-terms, which is awesome. There has been a lot of visibility over the past couple of months with everything going on. It’d be really beneficial if there was always this level of effort to help people register and to bring awareness of ticket items.
You’re out performing all the time, so what piece of advice do you have to encourage those to speak-up or act on something they believe in, yet aren’t confident that they’ll make a difference?
First off, nothing is going to happen unless you do something. It’s always easier to sit on something. If you suppress your passions, that’s not living. In terms of music, when I started, it was such a massive thing to attack— breaking into the music industry. It feels like this pipeline dream that is so far away. The steps from there to where I was going weren’t clear and it was scary, which I think applies to anything that you’re starting. Just start taking steps towards what you want and eventually a path will appear for itself. You just have to act for whatever you believe in.
You just released, “In the Shape of a Dream,” what was the biggest challenge in crafting it and what came naturally?
Ah man, there was really nothing about it that came naturally, to be honest. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s kind of a trend to do an EP because people consume music in a different way now and you can release more music. When I sat down, I knew that I wanted it to be a counter-culture to that practice and to create a full body of work. It was really difficult, but it was also something I wanted to do from the start. It took me about a year-and-a-half to make and I went through this emotional roller coaster of: “Does this suck?” “I hate this.” “I love this.” That’s what was happening during this whole thing. Until six or seven of the songs were done, three-fourths of the way in, I realized that they fit together and the rest of it just came together. From that point it was easy. I would say formulating the ideas and getting enough songs that sounded like they fit together was nearly impossible. Once everything started fitting together and visuals were picked for the singles, the world became clear.
Just start taking steps towards what you want and eventually a path will appear for itself.
You just have to act for whatever you believe in.
As some would say, you just have to start and a “path appears.” Full circle. I think what’s unique about your situation is that you’re a part of a very supportive group [Visionary Music Group]. Do you think that has been critical to your development?
We have this mutual friend, collective thing. We’re a family. It started because Quinn XCII and I grew up together, Jesse found Quinn through college, then once we had the three of us, it was just like family. Whenever we went to New York we’d sleep on Jesse’s futon, best-friend vibe. That mentality spread too, when we signed to a label. Our team at the label is family. They all came to the New York show. They’re genuine human beings and care. The thing that I would preach the most is that you get what you put out into the universe. We’ve come at the music industry with a very genuine, humble approach. I think that energy has spread and has comes back to us. The whole team is incredible and that is worth it. We can all find joy in making music even when times are tough. You asked if it’s important, but to me it’s not just that, it’s everything.
That’s very rare and special. Speaking of your friends, you do a lot of collaborations with them, but if you could do a collaboration with anyone, who would it be?
A dream of mine would be to collaborate with one of the early bands that I grew up with like Passion Pit, Death Cab for Cutie, MGMT, Postal Service- these are the bands that I love. To bring back some of that vibe would be the coolest thing in the world. My approach with the music that I’m trying to make now is to bring back some of the energy from early electronica into today’s landscape. Working with one of them would be a dream come true. In terms of other bands, Oh Wonder or Elohim— a lot of my set is inspired by her setup.
The theme for your album is about a past love, which isn’t a new concept, we hear a lot of songs about heartbreak. What I’m curious about is how do artists make relationships work? You write about why things don’t work, what would make it work, especially given that you’re always on the road?
It’s very, very difficult. I think one thing that is helpful, which is the thing that makes us good at writing lyrics, is that we’re introspective. I spend a lot of time in my own head and I pick apart everything. I’m an overthinker, which is what makes the music so emotional and genuine. When you’re writing lyrics, you’re not always writing about something that is currently happening. You might be writing a song when you’re breaking up, but finish it 2 months later, when you’ve moved on. It’s about being able to practice empathy— to put yourself in a situation that you’re not currently in. I could be writing a happy song and at the same time be writing a sad song. It’s about putting yourself in different parts of your brain or in the mind of someone else. If you have that talent, it can be really good for relationships. With that, empathy is key to building a healthy relationship.
Makes perfect sense. On another note, why are people freaking out about your hair?
My mom yelled at me in a very loving way. She said I need to dye my hair back and I said, “No, mom.” I’m dying to go back to full blonde. It was the best decision I’ve made in a long time. I love it. It’s so fun. It’s stepping into new shoes. If I saw myself two years ago with dyed hair, I’d punch myself, but you change, evolve, and that’s life.
Change is good.
Do you have family plans for the holidays?
Going back for Thanksgiving. I’m the youngest of seven and we have a really close-knit family. Everything that I am has been shaped by being the youngest child. So, any time that I can spend it with them, I’ll take it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
All photos by Raelena Kniff.