“There’s sometimes a misconception that this is an uplifting show,” Ahamefule “Aham” Oluo says. A smile curls at the edges of his deadpan voice, but it comes from a place of sincerity, not scorn. His tall frame folded into a café chair at a coffee shop in his neighborhood, Columbia City, he is discussing his new show, Now I’m Fine. It’s a sort of jazz performance memoir, a dark and funny pop opera that shrinks and swells from intimate portrait to sweeping emotion. “I would say it’s neutral,” Oluo continues. “It’s about the momentary pacification of the things that are tearing you apart. It’s about just making it through stuff.”
At 32, the musician/composer/comedian/writer has already made it through some major stuff. Now I’m Fine chronicles the specific six-month period in 2006 during which he went through a difficult divorce, learned of the death of his Nigerian father (with whom he had only ever spoken once, on a brief and crushing phone call), and experienced the sudden onset of an autoimmune disease that caused his skin to dissolve, leaving his face, hands and feet raw and blistered.
But this is not a sob story. In fact, the show, in which Oluo combines monologues with original jazz compositions performed by a live orchestra, is at times very funny. A longtime fan of stand-up comedians, he found listening to comedy albums a great comfort during the breakup of his marriage. (“I was basically listening to comedy albums alternating with ‘Golden Slumbers’ on repeat,” he says, not entirely joking.) Although he’d never even been to a live comedy show before, upon hearing Todd Barry’s Medium Energy, he felt gripped by a certainty: “I have to do this.”
He found an open mic night at Comedy Underground in Pioneer Square and despite a serious case of nerves, got on stage, told his true stories and was hooked on the high. (Also on stage that night was Brooklyn-based comedian Hari Kondabolu; the two hit it off and are now writing partners.) “Humor is what you do to deal with trauma. It’s distancing,” Oluo says. “It’s a defense mechanism. I can’t tell these dramatic, vulnerable stories without balancing them with humor.”
Amplifying the emotional ups and downs of the performance is the music, which pulls the audience along on waves of aching strings, bursts of horns and the soaring vocals of collaborator Okanomodé Soulchilde. Music has always been essential to Oluo, who grew up knowing his mother had studied opera singing and classical guitar, but was forced to quit due to unfortunate circumstances. “I knew it had been such a big part of my mom’s life and then it just wasn’t there. I felt a musical void,” he says. “There was no time that I didn’t want to play music seriously.” He picked up the trumpet and played in the high school jazz band at Mountlake Terrace, a competitive environment he says made him start taking music more seriously. “It was so great to compete at the national level,” he says. “High school jazz bands are like the Texas football of Seattle.”
Being in the band gave Oluo a powerful affection for large-ensemble music, which he incorporates into Now I’m Fine by way of the 17-piece orchestra that includes Evan Flory-Barnes, D’Vonne Lewis and Josh Rawlings, Oluo’s cohorts in Industrial Revelation, the avant-jazz band that recently won a Genius Award from The Stranger. Oluo wrote about half of the compositions during his darkest days, when the skin disorder caused so much physical pain that he couldn’t play trumpet, and his vision had deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t read. But he rediscovered an old Baldwin organ that his sensitive fingers didn’t have to push too hard to play, and focused on simple chord progressions. “At that time, I was in a mentally and physically dysfunctional state,” he says. “All I could do was create the idea.”
He held on to that idea until his health improved, and later brought rough piano demos to local vocalist Soulchilde, who added lyrics. “Soulchilde transformed that music into what it is,” Oluo says. “The way he interpreted melodies became a huge part of how I arranged the music.” Eventually, Oluo tried some of the songs out at a few intimate shows. His girlfriend, writer Lindy West, helped him with the narrative portion of the performance (“Her fingerprints are all over this thing,” he says). Then, in 2012, Oluo was invited to be Town Hall’s first artist in residence, where he performed a work-in-progress version of Now I’m Fine.
“Before the Town Hall show, I’d never combined my comedy and my music—I had no idea if it would work,” Oluo says. “But it turned out to be the best show I’ve ever been a part of.” Since then, he has edited and refined the show, and at On the Boards, it will have a more theatrical set, designed by Seattle pro Jennifer Zeyl. Oluo is simultaneously releasing a studio album of the music featured in the performance. While he’s excited for this month’s event, he’s also eager to dig into new projects. “I’ve been working on this show forever,” he says. “I love it so much, but I can’t wait to move on. I’d like to tour it outside of Seattle and put it to bed.”
His current state of affairs seems to be inversely proportionate to the depths in which he once found himself. “I feel like I’m entering a period of productivity like never before,” he marvels. “With Industrial Revelation, the show, the album... In January I’m playing with Frank Boyd at On the Boards, and in a contemporary opera by Heather Bentley at The Chapel, and I have a backlog of my own stuff I’ve been waiting to do…”
Talking about his upcoming plans, he gets flummoxed for a moment—like a cat running so fast its back legs start to overtake those in front. He stops and shakes his head. “This is definitely the peak of my career so far, so it’s kind of hard to be cool about it.”
Aham Oluo in Now I’m Fine. 12/4–12/7. Times vary. $23–$25. On the Boards, 100 W Roy St.; 206.217.9886; ontheboards.org