Jamaican recording artist Omi arrives fresh off the plane, which is likely how he shows up to most engagements lately (this week it’s London, New York and Chicago in a matter of days). He’s also fresh off the news that his pop single, “Cheerleader,” is now certified double platinum in the U.K. – a nice addition to his number one status in 20 countries this year. No doubt 2015 has been a year of big firsts for the artist, who released his debut album, “Me 4 U,” this October.
Today is about smaller firsts – his first trip to Chicago. In a surprisingly quiet and unassuming manner, he talks Chicago-style pizza and Garrett Popcorn, before commenting on the “cold” 60 degree December weather. With his performance at the B96 Pepsi Jingle Bash just a few hours away, we steal a moment of his time for a drink in The Commons Club at Virgin Hotels.
We were taking bets to see if you’d wear sunglasses.
I’m very light sensitive and a lot of times [interviews] have really bright lights. These are okay. Glasses kind of deflect some of the glare. They probably think I’m being rude or arrogant, but my eyes are very sensitive. In my car I have to have a visor of some sort. It’s not really the one that comes down but the one that’s transparent.
Is your car in Jamaica?
In Jamaica, yeah. An Infiniti. I’m a simple dude.
You often say, “Remember the past to ensure the future.” Who taught you that philosophy?
My manager, Clifton ‘Specialist’ Dillon, told me this. My manager is like my dad. He is somebody whom I really admire, somebody whom I really look up to and aspire to so much. He has had so much success in his career. He’s represented Jamaica and Jamaican culture in the music industry since back in the day, and the fact that he is still relevant today as an artist who is doing well is amazing and admirable.
How did you meet Clifton ‘Specialist’ Dillon?
It was about six or seven years ago. He tells this story best; I don’t want to mess it up, but it was written in the scrolls. You know when something just falls into place so organically? I think we didn’t cross paths by chance or luck. I think it was something that was ordained.
What about your past are you remembering to take with you in this next chapter?
Humility. It’s so difficult to get to this place and it’s so easy to lose it. In a minute it can all go downhill and I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people. There are so many examples to follow and not to follow. There are the good and bad ones, but I try to always be analytical about it. I use my downtime to reflect, so I don’t party a lot. Every chance I get, I use it to reflect; I use it to catch myself if I’m doing something wrong.
I admire how disciplined you are. If you find yourself going off track, how do you get your mind right?
Fortunately for me, I have really good people in my life. I have an awesome team and they don’t hold back. They give me the business, definitely. I have my family, who I try to stay in contact with. I love my mom very much. My mom is definitely my cheerleader. I love her so much and I worship the ground she walks on. I’m a mama’s boy. My mom picked up the slack when my dad passed away. She just fell right into place being both parents, and I know that’s not easy, especially for a woman. I remember passing my exams to go off to high school and she didn’t even check the results herself. She asked somebody to go and they came back and told her that I was successful in my exams. She started crying because she didn’t know how she was going to do it. She was crying because she was so proud, and then she didn’t know how she was going to do it by herself.
People see you on TV, they see all of your success now and think it just happened from out of nowhere or you just caught a lucky break, but that’s quite the contrary.
Did you have any aunts or uncles that were around as well?
Yeah, but everybody was minding their own business. I’ve had people who have been very supportive, but, quite frankly, I’ve actually had to work for everything. There was nothing that was handed down to me. People see you on TV, they see all of your success now and think it just happened from out of nowhere or you just caught a lucky break, but that’s quite the contrary. It’s years of hard work, it’s a lot of sacrifices and it’s a lot of toiling away and giving up a lot of things.
Does your mom cook for you when you go back home?
Yeah, when she gets a chance to, but I like to cook. I’m a country boy to the core; I’m not ashamed of it. My favorite Jamaican cuisine is stew peas or kidney beans. I make that with chicken and a lot of vegetables and it’s delicious. You know, in Jamaica… spicy goes deep with us. I also love red bean stew. I love to do rice and beans. I love kidney beans, if you can’t tell by now. Most Jamaican cuisines I can whip up.
I heard you started writing music when you were 14 and that you listened to Eminem. What was your favorite Eminem song at the time?
Oh man. I love his album “The Eminem Show.” A high school friend of mine hooked me up to this album. We’re still friends today. Eminem is a very good lyricist. When it comes to words and wordplay it’s just amazing how he can use words to paint a picture. He really delivers that and gets that across in his music. I always thought that it would be cool to incorporate this in my music. When I was 19 or 20 years old I started listening to more soul music like Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and John Legend, Bob Marley, just throw him in there too. It was a whole compilation. I was like a mad scientist thinking, “How can I come up with something that is unique to me and something that will get a stamp of approval at the same time?”
All of your different influences are what make you so great.
It’s like being the first cowboy over the hill. You never know what you’re going to meet until you come back with a bunch of arrows. You take a chance and you go out on a limb. If you’re as serious and as passionate about music as I am, then you are willing to take that chance.
What kind of topics were you writing about when you were 14?
Basically the same topics [I am writing about now], but you know what? As an artist I think that it’s how you put it across. The topics never change. It’s love, it’s sex, it’s all of the human emotions and human situations, but at the end of the day, it’s how you as the artist articulate the message. I think that’s why you’re called an artist. Just be very expressive with it, and I guarantee somebody in the world can relate to it or you just hope somebody can relate.
Was there a specific moment you decided to go for it?
I didn’t know much about the business, but I did know that I wanted this to be my career because it felt right. My dad was also a singer-songwriter and I admired him so much. I felt somewhat compelled to follow in his footsteps. So that was a little boost right there. Jamaica’s very musical, so it’s very hard not to be involved in music in one way or another. I thought, “You know what? I want to explore this a little bit more.” I can be anything that I want to be. I have a good brain and there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m healthy. This is what felt natural. I didn’t have a deal and I didn’t have management. I wasn’t doing shows; I wasn’t all over the place, so nobody knew about me. It was just the small gatherings in my hometown that I was exposed to but nothing to put me out there as a brand. So I started developing my catalog and started recording as many songs as I could. Back then I was firing.
How did you stay so focused?
That is very important. As an artist, sometimes you get distracted by the other aspects of being an artist, like fame, money and success, and you lose the artistry behind why you’re here and you totally lose focus. So that’s why I said back then I was firing, I was hungry. You never lose that hunger. I developed my catalog and I met Mr. Dillon. There were some other artists recording at the same spot that I used to record. Producers brought their music to Mr. Dillon while I was away on a course, and he listened to everybody and he was like, “Yeah, they’re really good but I still haven’t heard what I want to hear.” A producer was like, “You know what? There’s another dude but he’s kind of unavailable, he’s away on a course. I didn’t bring a CD for him, but I have his vocals on my phone.” They played it for him and he was like, “You know what? This is the guy, this is the guy.” He heard something and I’m very grateful and very happy that he did. It just all fell into place.
The topics never change. It’s love, it’s sex, it’s all of the human emotions and human situations, but at the end of the day, it’s how you as the artist articulate the message.
Have you had the chance to meet John Legend yet?
No. I was at an award show and John Legend was sitting dead in front of me. I could have reached and touched him. I think I just froze. But you know, it’s not bad that that happened. It means that I’m still humble enough to feel overwhelmed or flattered in the presence of another artist, a great artist. A lot of times you get so hyped up and you think you are the business and that’s it, it’s like you’re not allowed to admire anybody and that’s not the case. I’m still a fan of other people and I still get nervous around other people. It doesn’t matter how many records I sell. If I respect you, then that’s a natural human reaction for me.
Do you have any jet lag tips now that you’re waking up in a different city each day?
Once I get into work mode, I have to keep it up until I get the chance to relax. If I stop moving or talking for a minute, it’s like I’m dozing off. It’s so taxing on your body. Your sleep pattern changes, your eating pattern changes. Your brain is all mixed up. It’s good to have somebody around you who cares enough to make sure that you do get something [healthy to eat]. Vitamins are very necessary. I have vitamins but they smell really bad, so sometimes I don’t want to put them in my suitcase because they just make everything smell like old people in a nursing home.
Can we also talk about you performing with Taylor Swift and going on her private jet?
She gave me a Christmas present. She sent me the photo of her and myself, in a nice frame. It was wrapped in bubble wrap… so she’s now officially my favorite person. Because after I put the frame up, I get to pop the bubbles!
What has been your greatest pinch-me moment so far?
I’ve had so many pinch-me moments in 2015— from breaking records in London to being the first Jamaican to have the longest running single on the charts. Being the first of anything has to be epic for anyone, especially in a business where you have so much competition. From Billboard calling my song Song of the Summer to recently being nominated in the U.K. at the BBC Awards. Hozier ended up taking it home, but just to be nominated was enough for me because I walked away with 2x platinum in sales, 3x platinum in the U.S. and now “Cheerleader” is 8x platinum in Sweden, that’s crazy. It all started in Sweden and before I knew it, it transcended into the rest of the U.K. and so on.
What’s the story behind the name of your album “Me 4 U”?
It was one of those organic things that we talked about earlier that just fell right into place. There’s a title track on the album called “Me 4 U,” but it’s also my first album and I wanted it to be like a gift from me to my fans. I always say I’m a fan of my fans. Originally I wanted to call it that, but then I thought, “You know what? I want it to be a little bit simpler.” So my manager—he’s so smart—he came up with that. He’s like, “You know what? Let’s sum this up, in three little words.”
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
I pray before I do everything. I’m very big on prayer. Backstage, just before I go on, I like to say a little prayer and just make sure what I’m about to do is a success. I feel comfortable going out on stage like that.
Who is your celebrity crush?
I love Taraji P. Henson. She’s definitely my celebrity crush.
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?
2015 has been an amazing year for me. I just want to keep the momentum going. I mean it works, obviously. I just want to keep it going.
How do you unwind at night?
I call my mom up. I use the time to, as I said before, reflect. When you finally get a chance to unwind, that’s when you really need to take it and reflect on everything. It keeps you grounded.
Has your mom been able to travel with you at all?
No, and she hasn’t been to any of my shows! That is something we have to make happen really soon. I should make that a part of the New Year’s resolution for 2016, right?
I read that you like to draw and paint to relax but that you don’t get to do it as often as you’d like. So yesterday I went to the art store and picked up some supplies. I thought we could sketch something fun.
Oh wow, this is awesome. Can I sketch you? This is like so in my zone right now.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
John Legend wouldn’t be a bad start. We could discuss the collaboration people have been asking me about so many times in my interviews.
Where would you want this drink to take place?
Anywhere where there are drinks. Here is cool. This is a nice place.
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KIRSTEN MICCOLI PHOTOGRAPHY / A DRINK WITH in The Commons Club
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