At 9:43pm, on a Tuesday night nonetheless, a crowd of people packed themselves tightly against the thin, black, retractable belt lining the entrance of the Berklee caf. Children, grandparents, college students, cousins, and everyone in between were actively straining to get a glimpse at the 20+ piece band, who were unified in black and buzzing in a way that seemed to reflect the anticipation swelling at entrance. At three minutes to 10, the belt was released and a sea of curiosity seemed to consume the caf all at once, filling every chair, crack, corner, bench, and windowsill available. At 10:00, thunder filled the room—powered by a full band, flashing lights, and the deafening roar of the crowd as they welcomed Damoyee Janai, who graced the spiraling staircase left of the stage rocking a dazzling jet black romper and black heels. In the hour that followed the crowd would experience a stadium-sized concert filled with unrivaled musicianship, choreography, a guest appearance by Funder on the song “Crush,” and gut-wrenching vocals accompanied by a full choir. All of this led to the standing ovation that ended the show and the stream of tears from the woman who orchestrated the whole thing: Damoyee herself. Five days before the show, we caught up with Damoyee to discuss her latest album The Whole Truth, which would make up the bulk of the music performed at what would soon become one of the most incredible shows I’ve seen on Berklee soil.
This is going to be a big show. Is that intentional?
Yes, all of it was pretty intentional. This is my first official caf show and it’s debuting my album, so go big or go home!
You played a show in New York City a few weeks ago; was that to promote your album?
I actually got that gig through my record label. They’re trying to build a base in New York and network out there, and one of the venues had reached out to them. This was my second show in New York, so when I found out that I got the gig I started putting a band together. And when I put a band together, I’m really cautious of sound and personality. I’m not one to think about looks or things like that, but I want the members to be able to work with each other. Prepping for this gig, I think we had three or four rehearsals, so we were pretty locked. As we were traveling, of course we had a playlist of songs from 50’s motown to now, and we really bonded over that—not as a band, but as friends, so our bond as a band got stronger as well. You know, I was nervous going to New York and having our first gig together as a brand new band, but when we got there we were locked in. We were all feeding off the same energy.
Not only are you a multi-instrumentalist, but you’re also a producer on all your works. Do you enjoy being so hands-on, or is that just a part of the creative process?
For the three albums that I’ve made, the connection between them is growth and development. For the first EP I was really nervous to put music out there, so I really just stuck my comfort zone and kept it to vocals and piano. I still wrote the parts for drums and bass and things like that, but I really just kept to my comfort zone.
After I dropped that project I started getting introduced to more sounds and music. I know “From the Bottom of My Heart” takes more elements from R&B; a hint of blues, maybe a little bit of gospel. Then I sort of stepped further out of my comfort zone by two or three more steps and started adding more instrumentation to have the music to speak out a little more. After “From the Bottom of My Heart” I started listening to, playing, and practicing jazz, and really listening to different styles of music. That’s when I decided, “I”m going to start playing some different shit so people stop thinking I’m capping about it.”
In the studio, writing the songs and thinking of the arrangement, sometimes I have it preplanned and sometimes it just comes to me. When it comes to playing other instruments I wouldn’t necessarily claim “I’m a guitar player” or “I’m a bass player.” When it came to playing those songs, I was really thinking about color. I would decide what I wanted it to sound like, and that’s where my process would go.
What was it like going to a performing arts high school?
Going there was a dream come true at first, because before then I went to public school in an area where most people didn't appreciate the arts as much as me. So when I applied, auditioned, and found out I got into the Booker T. Washington art school in Dallas, Texas, I thought, “I’m finally going to be surrounded by people who appreciate the arts just as much as I do.” It had the same effect as getting into Berklee. I was like, “Wow! It’s actually happening!” And going to Booker T. , I loved the community. I loved how supportive the teachers were. I loved the friends that I made, the friends listed on The Whole Truth. I still have that strong bond with them. Some weekends when I get the chance to go home, like with my album release show and breaks, I’m like, “Hey! let's go back to Booker T. and jam!”
How did you get accepted into the Bringing Down the House intensive?
When I first did it I was 13 or 14. I did it twice, but the first time I applied as a solo artist. That was when I had the EP; I don’t think I had “From the Bottom of My Heart” yet. The year I applied, I think there were 4,000 applicants to the program and only six got accepted, and I was one of them. I was nervous because I was like, “Wait. The House of Blues stage. I’m really going to perform on it?!” In the first few months we started doing masterclasses focused on careers in the music industry, from behind the scenes to out in the spotlight. That really opened my mind up to the fact that there’s really more than just the performer and the studio—there’s a whole spectrum of people in the music industry. The day of the show was when I met a really good friend of mine, John Franklin. I made so many friends that night. I did a lot of networking and I’m still grateful for that opportunity, not only to have performed on the legendary House of Blues stage, but to have a whole new community that is so supportive; to sort of have a new family.
Can you talk to me about DiDi’s Garden?
DiDi’s Garden was a band I created right at the start of going to Booker T, and the band I applied with for my second year of Bringing Down the House. It’s named after my little sister DiDi, who helped me write “Crush.” My number one goal at Booker T. was to make a band, so I contacted a good friend who went to my home high school and a drummer that went to my home church. These two guys met at Booker T., and we all became really good friends and decided to start a band. We got together and started doing these rehearsals. It takes a couple rehearsals, a couple of hang outs, for the band to get really locked; then we had our first gig at this Christmas festival, and after that our bond got even stronger. So we started doing more gigs scattered around the Dallas area at places like The Curtain Club, Profit Bar, and Liquid Lounge when it was still there, and that’s when we applied for Bringing Down the House. One thing that made me happy about doing the program a second time was that it made me start thinking about branding myself and the band. After Bringing Down the House we did a couple more gigs, and then towards the end of my freshman year we broke up.
You released “The Whole Truth” on your birthday, October 4th. What was it like being physically surrounded by your audience and watching them react to your new music?
I actually remember doing this with a friend in the 150 gaming lounge. Just out of the blue he said, “I’m going to listen to your album right now.” I was a little nervous, because I do get a little nervous when I see people listening to my songs or when people tell me they’ve listened, and he was just sitting there listening to it, top to bottom. And I was looking at him like, “He’s probably going to say something.” But he got through the whole thing, and his reaction almost made me tear up. He started talking about the whole instrumentation, down to me simply hitting the bass with one finger to slapping the cymbals with my bare hands on “Change.” Just hearing him tell me how that song was his favorite because the music itself tells the story and helps those lyrics be expressed, that was really inspirational. And I am very grateful for the love and support that that album gets to this day. Unlike, “From the Bottom of My Heart,” all these songs are autobiographical, including “Insane.”
When did you start working on The Whole Truth?
That’s a good question. I think the first song I wrote was “Invisible,” around the start of my sophomore year of high school in 2016, and it was sort of based upon the break up of DiDi’s Garden. I finished the album around June of 2019.
What was it like being signed to a record label at 16 years old?
At first I couldn’t believe I was actually signed to a record label. I love the State Fair Records family; the people on the label are super supportive and I still love them to this day. I’m super grateful that they helped me with this project, because it was very for me. The head of the label, Paul Williams, was one of my teachers in high school. He taught music production, so he taught us how to use ProTools with the little box—kind of like MTEC, but simpler. Around the second semester of freshman year we actually wrote a song together that was never released. It was supposed to be the next theme song of the high school, but we just never finished the mixing and mastering. After not getting that finished he just hit me up one day and told me, “Hey, so I have a label. Do you want to get signed to it?” and I said yes!
Do you feel like being signed has helped your music reach farther? You charted in Europe!
Obviously, that has helped tremendously obviously! The day I found out that my music was being streamed in Europe I thought, “I’m going global!” When I found out I was smiling, like I am now just thinking about it! Other countries are playing my music—that’s just wow! I’m super grateful for it.
Who are some of your influences & inspirations?
I don’t like to put myself in a box. I absolutely refuse to do that. I like to experiment with different genres to play around with the sounds and see what blends well, but I do love me some Motown and some funk.
As for inspirations, Alicia Keys is probably the main reason why I do what I do today. Had it not been for my mom putting me onto her music when I was 8 or 9, I wouldn't have the confidence that I do now singing and playing. She inspired me to do it—if a black queen can do it, I can do it too. And John Legend, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John as well. Honestly, the list just goes on!
You have absolute pitch—can you explain what that is?
Absolute pitch is the ability to replicate any note or frequency without a starter. And I’m able to recognize any note or frequency from everyday objects.
How did you get started as a musician?
Well, my mom and dad always told me that when I was barely one year old, I was introduced to Sesame Street and warm milk, and I say that as if it was some magic combination. But I was told that as I watched, I really absorbed the melodies and the rhythms that I was hearing. I replicated those exact same melodies and rhythms; I would just find pots, pans, forks, and spoons all around the house to play them. My mom said, “She’s a musician! We’re putting her in lessons!” So they put me in piano lessons, and I had that same teacher until I left high school.
Are you still studying with her?
Not at the moment, but we still keep in contact. With her I’ve done many classical piano competitions. There’s something called guild where you present a sort of repertoire list, like a recital, in front of a judge, and if you get a passing grade you get a certificate and a few medals. I think I did 14 or 15 years of guild. I got a medal for the ten-year stop and then I did the state theory test, and in almost all of those competitions I won gold. Then I did a few jazz festivals and things like that. I’ve probably put her through the most out of all of her students. I heard I stressed her out a couple of times as an infant—I would try to stick things in the power outlet and run around the studio!
Despite your success as a singer-songwriter, you’ve chosen to major in film scoring. Why is that?
I’ve been looking into film scoring since 8th grade, and Berklee was the only school I had been looking at. I’ve always loved film scores and soundtracks—anything, you name it. My aunt who lives in Los Angeles has done a couple indie projects and pilots, and she asked me to do the music for some of those. One of my favorites would have to be Synchronicity because with that one I started using synth sounds and stepping out of my comfort zone.
Do you want to pursue film scoring as your full-time career, or continue performing and writing as well?
The main goal for me is to become a film composer, but I still want to write music for myself because I know I have a couple more albums in me. I do want to collaborate with other artists as well; write for other artists, produce with other artists. I do want to go on tour day, and I want to go on tour with other artists. But no matter what I’m still going to be in music. There is no plan B. It’s all music.
What do you expect out of this caf show?
I almost said clout! It’s to network, to show that I’m not just a vocalist and I’m not just a keyboardist. I am both plus so much more—I also arrange, I write my own stuff, I organize my own concerts. And really, I’m doing this to share my music with other people. I want people to like my music and share it.
Are there any more shows coming up for you?
I am doing Sofar shows - I’ll be playing with a small and intimate band. I’m a part of Pose Retals’ and Vee’s shows as a keyboardist.