The cello is a unique instrument. It fits perfectly with the shape of the human body, making it easy to cradle and natural to embrace. Few other instruments boast a range of pitches as wide as that of the cello. And the warmth of its tone often elicits a pure and visceral experience for the listener.
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It is for these reasons and more Atlanta-based OkCello artist has chosen the instrument as his partner since he was just 6 years old. He joined us in-studio for our latest installment of Closer Look’s Summer Indie Music Series.
“You can create really rich dynamics with an instrument,” OkCello told Rose Scott while giving a demonstration. “I’m able to create a huge dynamic range within one bow, some instances.”
OkCello, whose real name is Okorie Johnson, is a master of his instrument. As he walks the listener through the technical complexities of the cello, it becomes clear such movements are second nature for him. But, as he mentions, it’s not the point.
“You want to learn the technical stuff so that you can communicate,” OkCello said. “So you can say things that are human and emotional and really connect with people. You spend a lot time playing scales, in the beginning.”
While OkCello has learned to love his instrument, they came together purely by chance. As he tells the story, Orchestra was the only music class that had room.
“I knew I would play an instrument, but I didn’t really have any designs on any particular instrument,” OkCello remembers. “And the only one that made sense in terms of availability and wasn’t going to drive my mother insane – I think I could’ve done drums, but she wasn’t going to have that – was the cello.”
OkCello admits the union was meant to be. However, his relationship with the cello has not always been harmonious.
“I’ve probably put my cello down four or five times in my life, which is interesting because it’s the only thing I’ve been doing since I was 6,” OkCello said. “I think it’s the only thing that allows me to be speak really vulnerably and honestly. But being a musician is not always the most – at least to the rest of the world – practical or lucrative.”
When OkCello graduated from Morehouse College, his plan was to work at a car wash by day and perform music by night. His mother, he remembers, was not thrilled about that plan.
But then, nearly five years ago, OkCello stumbled upon a technique that would open up his world: Looping. Using an assortment of pedals and electronics, he figured out how to create an ensemble with just himself and a cello.
“So I can create a song, and then create a bass line, and create some interior parts – solo over top of it. It’s amazingly freeing,” OkCello said.
He remembers his 40th birthday, when life was not going as planned. He picked up the cello once again, plugged in the looper, and it changed his life forever.
“I think I’ve got a bad memory, which is part of the reason why I keep putting the cello down, or I have put it down in the past. Because I forget how important it is to me,” OkCello said. “So when I’m having a difficult moment or things are going kind of sideways in other spaces – when I pick up my cello, I’m like ‘wow, why didn’t I do that earlier?’ And very frequently, something productive and valuable comes out of that experience.”
OkCello released his first album “Liminal” in 2016, which can be heard on his website. His second album, “Resolve,” is slated for release on Oct. 9. You can also see OkCello live at City Winery on Aug. 1 as part of his series Epi.phony. More info and tickets can be found here.