LACONIC, benign, the preternaturally talented musician and writer, Ebe Oke is the quintessential solitary only child, raised on his father´s exotic bird farm in South Georgia, Flannery O´Connor country, in the deep south of America. Described by the ICA in London as having “exotic charms” and being a “unique gem”, the singer-songwriter has been likened to an occult-influenced early American frontier puritan, singing heartwarming Burroughs−esque dream poems.
Calling himself a poet at heart and an artist, the notion of the healing power of music is central to his work. “Honesty is healing and I dare to go deep into my emotional experiences and relive them for others through my songs and performances,” Oke says.
As a child, Ebe Oke (pronounced “eeb oak”) was shunned and ridiculed, “relentlessly” he says, by his classmates in the US education system where conventionality was valued above all else. Having more affinity with the creatures he grew up among on his father’s holding, “Unicorn Farm”, Oke more-or-less raised himself and was left free to follow his own obsessions.
“I was content in my loneliness, constantly drawing in my watchtower treehouse or going on photography adventures with my camera but my father indulged my obsession and it grew to a vast population of diverse species. I had emus, peacocks of white and blue, a trio of mute swans, pheasants, geese, ducks, pigeons and parrots; they all roamed free except for the parrots and emus who had spacious homes built for them and were attended by their ardent devotee,” he recalls.
“Each spring I would be up and out at dawn´s mist to collect the eggs which were incubated. The hatchlings imprinted on me, I was their parent and upon maturity, running free they still followed me. Birds led me to music, birds were very present in my baptism as a poet, birds taught me to make friends with people, eventually.”
Self-taught, Oke´s first excursions into music-making involved him taping his beloved avian companions, creating sound collages “automatic recordings, made all in one go” from the results. These are still in his possession and he is considering releasing them as a future project.
After graduating from high school, Oke enrolled on an art course in a small local college but finding his studies there insufficiently challenging, he decided to move to London, where he planned to make an album, despite not knowing anyone in the UK.
“I wanted to make a clean break from America. I wanted to put myself in danger,” he says about his decision to relocate to the UK where he has now lived for almost a decade.
On arriving, Oke gravitated to east London´s fertile creative music and art scene, where he met and befriended many artists, performers and innovators such as the stylist Isabella Blow, who deemed him “London’s most elegant man”, and Peter Doherty and Carl Barat of the Libertines who he ran into at Five Years art gallery. “I infiltrated the art world,” he says. Doherty and Barat were so intrigued by his automatic sound recordings and his avant garde approach that they asked Oke to join the Libertines. “They were still searching for their sound,” Oke comments. “They seemed to have in mind that I could be an Eno-figure for them.”
This was an offer, among others, he declined prefering to concentrate on writing, recording and preparing for his own imminent solo work rather than collaborating with anyone else.
It was Doherty, however, who introduced Oke to Geoff Travis, the head of Rough Trade, the Libertines´ label, recommending Oke as “the future”. Tjinder Singh of the band Cornershop had also heard a song that Oke had written on the guitar, which he passed on to Travis who was so impressed that he immediately offered Oke a development deal. “I told him that my two favourite bands were Throbbing Gristle and the Velvet Underground and that I was obsessed with Stockhausen and Laurie Anderson, and wanted to make an album using bird song and to replace the synthesizer with these sounds, to explore melody and atonality using sound like a painter works with paint,” Oke recalls.
Stockhausen´s influence on Oke developed even further when Oke had the opportunity to study composition under him at in his school outside Koln. This was a transcendental experience for Oke, which has had a profound impact on his own music-making. “He taught me to write in my own system,” Oke says.
Applying what he had learnt from Stockhausen, Oke continued writing and recording and looking for a producer who shared his vision. And it was Geoff Travis who introduced Oke to the legendary Roxy Music guitarist and producer Phil Manzanera with whom he had an immediate musical rapport. “I played him a new song I had written, ´I Ask´, and Phil added some guitar sounds that mimicked the Butcher birds I had sampled. I also showed him my early sound recordings, which impressed him.”
This year Oke plans to return to the studio to work with Manzanera to complete his album. Meanwhile he has put together a band comprising of himself singing and playing piano accompanied by a cellist and violinist. In future performances he will be using instruments from different parts of the world, particularly the Orient. His band have been playing his enchanting, majestic songs in a series of gigs around the capital over the past year, and continue to do so.
For Oke, however, his ethereal otherworldly and beautiful music is not merely a matter of entertainment, but it seems he believes he is a conduit of something from a place he doesn´t know. Bringing something back from another non-ordinary reality.
by Caroline Simpson
I say we are here in human form to learn by the human hieroglyphs of love and suffering. There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt.It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.