BACKSTAGE: Singer-Songwriter Blessing Offor
"One big break is all I need." It’s what any artist tells themselves every day, that one day they will be a household star. Blessing Offor has been singing for most of his life, even at the iconic Kennedy Center, but has exploded since being on NBC’s "The Voice," where not one, not two, not three, but all four judges turned their chairs around for the 24-year-old blind singer-songwriter. We went to Offor’s recording studio to listen to him finish an upcoming track for his debut album being released this month.
Offor’s producer, who we also chatted with at the studio, had nothing but the most gracious things to say about Blessing: how inspirational he can be by just talking to him, and how his blindness hasn't stopped him one bit from achieving his dreams. While we normally roll our eyes at such a sappy sentiment, the second you talk to Blessing, you get a tremendously good-feeling vibe emanating from him effortlessly. While eating "the best pizza in NYC,” we chatted with Blessing, who is originally from Nigeria, about his debut album, how his blindness actually became the catalyst for his singing, the craziest fan experience he's had since being on "The Voice,” and his surprising pick of who he'd love to co-write a track with.
Labeling Men: Tell us about how you started getting into singing.
Blessing Offor: I started singing, funny enough, when I was probably around 11 or 12. A little biographical information: I was born blind in my left eye and lost vision in my right eye when I was around 10, so right around then, I got shot in the eye with a water gun – way more dramatic than it sounds. So I lost the vision in that eye and I wasn't doing all the running around I used to do, playing basketball and stuff, so I had this extra energy. We got an upright piano for the house and I was picking around on the piano. Turns out I wasn't bad at the piano, and I was like, "Wow, that is really cool.” All my life, all my family played all of the Motown stuff, I was always into music because all of my family was into music. I could pick up songs by ear, just kind of doing things, cause I had all this newly found time on my hands and I thought, "I guess!" A cousin of mine, who is actually a good singer, came to me and said, "Blessing, stop singing, you suck!" I was 10 so I believed him and I said, "Oh no, I should stop!" So then I sang secretly. I would sing first thing in the morning, getting ready for school and would think to myself, "I think it sounds okay, but it’s in my head to what do I know.” We all think we sound good at some point!
L.M: [laughs] Oh, yes!
B.O: So that was kind of the beginning and I kept doing it and I played piano and singing to the point where I was like, "I think I've heard enough songs, I could start writing my own stuff." I then said that I was going to sing songs. It all started in 7th, 8th grade, me and my little cadre of ladies back in the day. N'SYNC was big in the day and they were like, "Blessing, you should sing!" I was like, "I can't sing" But when I figured out that girls really like singing, what is this about?!
[SINGING] "Can't this be true/ can this be for you/ god must have spent a little more time on you and yooou and yooou."
So I remember the first girl I ever asked out, I sang that song to. I was like, "I want to sing you a song," and I sang it to her and then asked if she wanted to get pizza with me and she was like, "yeah!" Duly noted, singing works! I played piano and sang and bam bam [snaps fingers] two girls would appear on each side of me. Purely it was a matter of libido and raging preteen hormones. I was like, "If this means that girls will be around, then I'll be pretty much do anything!”
B.O: Down the road, it became something I really loved and to express myself, and now it’s what I have to do in order to feel sane.
L.M: Absolutely! We know you performed at the Kennedy Center...
B.O: A couple of times actually. I'm going back there this summer.
L.M: Tell us about your experiences with that, including your first time.
B.O: In 2010, I won this award for songwriting. I got to play the Kennedy Center. It’s funny because how do you know when you're actually a professional musician, playing at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. I was like, "Oh, I think I'm a professional now.” It was one of those moments where I went, "Wow, it’s not just a thing I do for fun, this is my life." That was actually very meaningful to me personally.
L.M: How did you enter the competition for songwriting?
B.O: Somebody told me about it in Connecticut - where I grew up. I can't really remember the beginning. I remember the end though, and I was at the Kennedy Center! It was amazing. A few weeks before that, some huge jazz person had just performed, Diane Shore, everybody you can name, James Taylor has been honored on that stage, it’s amazing.
L.M: We know that before you auditioned for "The Voice" this time, you were going to once in the past and backed out. Tell us your thought process about what changed your mind.
B.O: In 2011, there is the big cattle call at the stadium in New Jersey. I went and tried out and they were super excited, saying, "We want you," and the whole process turns out takes nine months from beginning to end. I was like, I've been a songwriter since I was a kid, I was making records, I had things going on, and I was like, "I really don't know if I want to take nine months off.” So I let it go at that point. Once the record was done, we were thinking that we could use some publicity for this. I had some connections and they were able to cut down the nine months to like three weeks, and it was really a great opportunity. I couldn't deny that. And how often do you sit in front of Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, Pharell, Blake Shelton, Alicia Keys, Taylor Swift, and the cadre – it’s the second time I used the word "cadre."
L.M: It’s a good word!
B.O: It’s a good word! A bunch of musical geniuses, for lack of a better word, and really get them to say what they think of you. Again it was one of those moments where I was thinking, "I can stand with these guys.” It’s funny because when I left the show - I don't know if they put it on air - I think I said, "I can't wait to write songs for you guys and perform with you guys" And I really meant it. No matter what happens, these [artists] are going to be my colleagues.
L.M: Describe when you found that all four judges - not one or two, but all four - pressed their buttons. How did you feel in that moment?
B.O: It’s funny because pre-going on, they were saying, "Blessing, you should tell them that you're blind.” I'm thinking, “Well, it would defeat the purpose of it being a ‘blind audition,’” no pun intended! They were saying they wanted me to introduce myself: "Hi, I'm Blessing and I'm blind.” I was like, "That sounds really cheesy and stupid,” to pull the "woe, is me" card, and I was not about doing that. They were asking me, "How are you going to tell them?," and I was like, "I really don't know, we'll figure it out." Turns out, when you're playing, you really can't hear "bam-bam-bam-bam" [the sound of the chairs turning] because of all the adrenaline. So when I'm done, Adam goes, "What's your name?" I go, "Blessing. I don't know if you know, but I can't see you, so tell me what this is about." He said, "Well, all four of us turned.” I think I did a fist pump or something; it was really great. Just being validated I suppose.
L.M: We know that you chose Pharrell [to be your coach]. Did they give you any time to really think about it or did you just have to...
B.O: No, you just had to pick. Blake Shelton was who I [originally] wanted to go with, and I think Pharrell said more to me in terms of why he was really into this and me as an artist. I think I just had to go with it, you know what I mean. I still one day would love to work with Blake, but in that moment, I was like he doesn't seem terribly interested, so I went with Pharrell.
L.M: So the whole thing [“The Voice”] was a really good process?
B.O: I've got to say, I've heard this from a lot of people, it’s genuinely as positive as it looks. Everybody is friends, all the guys on there right now are friends of mine. Whoever wins, I'm going to give them a phone call and say "Congratulations" because they are all really awesome. I came in positively, left positively and I think that everybody did the same, so overall, man, couldn't have asked for anything better.
L.M: Over the course of this, you've developed a fan base nationwide; what is the coolest thing that you've heard from your new fans?
B.O: [laughs] I hate the word "fans.” I don't know how to address people.
L.M: Fine! People who enjoy your music.
B.O: Fine; let’s just call them fans!
L.M: What was the most interesting thing so far?
B.O: Can I tell you, I was walking off the F train at 14th Street and this girl goes, "You're Blessing, I effing love you!" I go, "Who are you?!" She goes, "I'm blah blah," and I ask, "Where do you know me from?" She goes, "From TV!" I go back, "You love me because you saw me on TV?," and she says "Yeah!" And I go back, "Okay, I love you too." And I was like "Wow, this world is a strange place that we live in." Literally, with all the passion she can muster said, "I effing love you.” I was like, "Woah, who are you!?"
L.M: “Do I know you?”
B.O: “Do I know you at all?” I was expecting her to say, "I'm your child" or something; she loves me from being on TV. TV is this weird medium where it’s a spotlight and given the record we're trying to release right now and the Christmas song that just came out today, it helps. And I think the next thing to do with new fans is to give them something new to listen to. I think we are so ready for that.
L.M: Today, December 2nd, is the release of your Christmas song. Did you write this song?
B.O: I write everything.
L.M: So you write or co-write?
B.O: I write and I co-write. This one was all me, but some are co-written.
L.M: We know your video included a bunch of your fans; was that your idea?
B.O: It totally was my idea. Really because, like we were talking about earlier, nothing is really owed to me. The fact that people think enough of me to go on YouTube or go on Twitter to follow me, that humbles me and I feel a responsibility to make them proud - even if I have no idea who they are - or say thanks and acknowledge them somehow. So I thought it would be great to make a video where everybody who wanted to sends in family pictures and we would pick the best pictures that we could and make this beautiful 'We Are The World' for Christmas. It’s this picture of people with their families and their pets and their traditions and their lives and their loved ones. A little bit of me at the beginning and at the end, but I didn't want it to be about me. I wanted it to be about “us.” I loved the reaction we've been getting, it’s been really great.
L.M: We watched it today, it was really great! [click here to view the video]
B.O: Thanks, man!
L.M: We're here visiting you in the studio, tell us about the album. We hear it’s taken a while to make, tell us about that.
B.O: I've known Mark Esposito for probably three years now…
L.M: Who is your producer, correct?
B.O: Yup! The thing about record making is that you can get plugged into a machine and there is nothing wrong with the machine, but it will make you a product. Or you can figure out the difference between art and entertainment. An artist is someone who goes through the process of figuring out who they are as musicians and singers and songwriters and what they have to say, regardless of how many people are listening. I really want to be an artist. So when I first met Mark, he was like, "Listen, Blessing, I can't promise you that you'll be Justin Bieber, I can't promise you a bajillion dollars in sales, but I can promise you that if you're into it, we're going to work really hard and figure out your sound, figure out where your strengths are and maximize those strengths, pull the best songs out of you as a songwriter and make a great record...The message on that record will be authentically Blessing, and we are going to push it the hardest we can and see what happens.” That seemed like a realistic, no B.S., no salesmanship, a good idea. I remember early in the process I thought we weren’t on the road and I said, "Mark, we're not on the road, let’s just throw away all the work that we ever did." That was maybe nine months of work and we just started fresh again. That’s the beauty of an Indie label; he owns the label and he's the producer so there is no pressure, it’s family, I'm in my jeans and t-shirt, there isn't anything super chic going on right now, we're just making music right in there. Got Gino's pizza right over there!
L.M: [laughs] The track that we just heard you lay down...
B.O: It’s called "Bad."
L.M: Just "Bad,” we wrote down "Bad For Me" as a guess.
B.O: Yeah, you pretty much got it.
L.M: If you don't mind, tell us about that track, we were really digging it.
B.O: “Bad” is just a swangin' stanky, dirty kind of funk. It’s like the 2015's version of a soul singer. But like soul singer, not like pop wannabe soul singer. I'm talking about Bill Withers soul, Lionel Ritchie, James Taylor. I want to put out music that sounds as good 50 years from now, you know what I mean.
L.M: Timeless music.
B.O: Timeless music, that’s it! Well put.
L.M: Thank you.
B.O: The thing about it is, yes, I love the timelessness, but we have to nod to radio playability, you know what I mean. So we got the great song - I hope - the drum has a little "808" on the bottom so when you hear it in your car it goes "zzzzz" and shakes you a little bit. It grooves, it’s got a message, it’s got some horns on it, a great feeling kind of thing. The whole record, I wrote out of the desire to be timeless and current all at the same time.
L.M: What topics do you like writing and singing about?
B.O: Ladies comma love. Love AND the ladies.
B.O: Relationships. I think a lot, so I write about the world at large. I'm a huge John Mayer fan really. It's interesting to see, half of his songs are about relationships and every so often, you'll get one with [starts singing "Waiting on the World to Change"]. There is so much going in the world and back in the day, in the 60s and 70s and 80s, art was a vehicle for social change. Art was the “Occupy Protest,” art was in music and people took the feeling of that day and put it in music and made it popular. People would be singing [he sings] "Mother, Mother, there’s too many of you dying,” which was a protest song but it was popular on the radio.
L.M: Because it sounded good too.
B.O: Because it sounded good. Right now, nobody is singing anything that has to do with anything right now, and that is horrible that with this world and all the tragedies and issues and injustices - don't even get me started - there is nothing on the radio that people can listen to on the radio and say, “Yes, I know what that’s about.” So this record will deal with that in my own humble way.
L.M: That is powerful, a lot to think about. Lastly, you met a lot of big names, if you could collaborate with any one of them on this album or a track in in the future, who would you choose?
B.O: I always like to go with the unusual, and I would love to write a song with Taylor Swift.
L.M: Taylor Swift!
B.O: I think Pharrell and I would just get along, that's basically a given. But Blake or Adam or Gwen Stefani, any of them. Shoot Pharrell, let’s go, call me!
L.M: We are choosing Pharrell?
B.O: We are choosing everyone and anyone and their mom!
L.M: Once the record drops, should we expect a tour?
B.O: There will be a tour. We are doing a lot of events right now, but I will be going to California, Pittsburgh, Boston, but there will be a whole thing we are putting together; next year is going to be pretty exciting!
Visit www.blessingoffor.com to find out more and to see upcoming tour dates
Interview by Nisim Frank