REDWOOD & Ekep Nkwelle Are Musical Soulmates
Written by Vocalo Radio on August 31, 2021
From the ninth grade on, Sequoia Snyder (aka REDWOOD) and Ekep Nkwelle knew they were fated to find one another.
As freshmen at Washington, D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Snyder and Nkwelle felt their musical styles clicked pretty early on. Their friendship, however, didn’t fit into place right away; the two butted heads and even admitted they didn’t like each other at first.
Looking back now, at 22 years old, neither can recall what the root of their feud was — maybe their senses of humor were too similar, they speculate — or how exactly it fizzled out, but they think music has something to do with it.
“We liked the music the other made, and that pull became stronger than whatever pushed us away,” Nkwelle explained.
Their friendship has since transcended high school drama and surpassed five hundred miles and four years in college to emerge where the two are now — on the precipice of moving to New York City together as jazz-focused grad students. With Snyder attending the Manhattan School of Music and Nkwelle at Juilliard, the duo hope to grab hold of any opportunity they have to grow as individuals and musicians during the remainder of their time in school.
Nkwelle and Snyder — who goes by REDWOOD, a spot-on family nickname — joined forces long-distance this summer to release their single “Dub” in July 2021, which earned a spot on Vocalo’s In Rotation playlist and Jill Hopkins’ top five favorite tracks for August 2021. REDWOOD’s track “Work,” featuring Brandon Rose, was also In Rotation and one of Jill’s top tracks for May 2021. We heard from Sequoia “REDWOOD” Snyder and Ekep Nkwelle about their personal histories, experiences studying music, collaborating with close friends and what it was like to record “Dub” remotely.
How and when did the two of you meet and become friends?
REDWOOD: I met Ekep in the ninth grade at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. We were, at the time, both vocal majors, and we had the majority of our nine hour days together. We clicked instantly musically, though our friendship had a rough start! We’re both so alike in our dry humor and sarcasm that we used to butt heads a lot initially. As I began learning piano that year, we would often find our way to each other and create fragments of songs with all the new information about music we were learning.
Ekep Nkwelle: What was once a feud became one of my strongest friendships. …I’m not really sure the details of how or when we transitioned but I feel like it was the music that joined us. We liked the music the other made, and that pull became stronger than whatever pushed us away. She was also hilarious and crazy, which is a mirror of myself, but real low-key too — and, as an introvert, I resonate with low-key people. She was hard-working musically and somehow always still at the top academically. She was all around the exact kind of person I knew I needed in my life.
“It’s so easy as an artist and a young person to get caught up in what others’ opinions may be, but I am so glad that I took that leap.”– Sequoia “REDWOOD” Snyder
REDWOOD — you couldn’t have picked a more perfect play on your name, Sequoia, to use professionally. Who first had the idea to use “REDWOOD”? Do you remember the day you decided to start using it?
R: “Redwood” is a nickname given to me by my family, so I can’t take full credit for the idea! My cousins, grandparents and others have been calling me “Redwood” for just about as long as I can remember, so it was quite a natural transition for me, actually. However, funny story, the first day I had the idea to go by “REDWOOD” was just after I made the beat for “Dub.” I thought about releasing it as an instrumental initially, and had the idea to begin a catalogue under a producer alias “REDWOOD.” After more thinking, and more producing — of music that I wanted to feature myself singing on as well — I decided to go by the name “REDWOOD” for everything music-wise.
I felt that the name held its own swag and personality, and that it would allow me to separate myself as a human from my art and my creation in a way that would be great for me. It honestly took me a while to have the courage to publicly announce myself as such, since I have already done a lot of things under my birth name. It’s so easy as an artist and a young person to get caught up in what others’ opinions may be, but I am so glad that I took that leap, because it’s opened my creativity up in so many ways — many that I can’t wait to share with the world.
“The journey has felt more like a dream than real life.”Sequoia “REDWOOD” Snyder
Give us a brief rundown of your individual musical histories. Why did each of you decide to study music? What were you formally trained to play, and what do you most enjoy playing?
R: I’ve always loved music. Growing up a church kid in the choir and on the dance team, music was always there. In addition to that, my mother was a gospel singer and my father is a music fanatic who’s always tested my knowledge of the classics. I feel these factors led me to always have quite the extensive music library, in addition to loving to listen to it. I began training as a vocalist in middle school, singing in choirs and at school, which led me to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. I was a vocal music major in the ninth grade, being classically trained to sing opera. But this is when I fell enamored with the piano — through a piano elective class. I began to continue teaching myself outside of class, and successfully auditioned to change my major to instrumental music the following year. I studied primarily classical music, but earned a lot of amazing opportunities in the world of jazz during this time, including performances with legendary artists like Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, Terell Stafford and Bobby McFerrin.
I continued on to get a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies at Michigan State University, during which time I gained a lot of professional experience as a jazz musician and really began to explore music production. After winning a nationwide contest in December 2018, I performed with The Internet on their national “Hive Mind” tour stop in Detroit. In 2019, self-produced an EP entitled “SEMPERVIRENS” under my birth name — my first serious foray into production, which Ekep is also featured on. Though I’m too young to say for sure, I know that I most enjoy listening to R&B, hip-hop, jazz, soul and gospel music. I love to perform all types of music but I’ve also felt more and more at home in the producer’s chair.
EN: My musical journey started when I was like 5. My mom came to pick me up from preschool one day at Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School, and that was the same day we’d had a small showcase at the school or something. My parents were always really busy, so I guess none of them could make it, but when my mom walked into the classroom the teachers were raving about how beautiful my voice was. “That’s what you’re supposed to say,” my mom thought — as any parent would! But, lo and behold, when my mom skeptically purchased the video tape of the performance, she was shocked; my voice was beautiful. I sang in church and still do since then, discouraged [by] my family to actually pursue music as a career.
Then, my mom’s friend put her on to Duke Ellington School of the Arts during my eighth grade year and she believed I should go for it. I started performing around the district my junior year and have been performing consistently in the DMV ever since. After Duke [Ellington], I planned to go to New York but ended up at Howard. I quickly learned that this was truly an advantage, as I believed Howard University has the best and realest jazz voice program in the country. I studied with greats like Cyrus Chestnut, Christie Dashiell and my favorite teacher, Connaitre Miller. Now I’m at Juilliard. Don’t ask me how, ’cause I have no answer but God.
You both have extensive backgrounds in jazz music. Do you recall the first jazz artist you really loved? What got you interested in jazz in the first place?
R: The first jazz artist I truly loved was Ahmad Jamal. He has an unmistakably unique sound on the piano, and the 16-year-old in me is still not over it! His music was and still is magical for me.
Though I had extensive training in jazz in high school, I didn’t develop a true love and appreciation for it until college. College was when I decided to really dig into the history, the music and the culture of jazz. Prior to then, I didn’t go out of my way to listen to or even practice jazz music. Jazz was not something I grew up hearing, and I definitely didn’t understand it as a concept until my late teens. What really got me — and Ekep, if I may say — into jazz was the curriculum of our high school. The musical focus was classical, and the only option to branch away from that at the time was to be in the jazz band. So that’s what we did! Of course, neither of us anticipated getting into it this much, but here we are!
“I don’t even remember which song they played last … I sat there mesmerized, and in that moment knew that I wanted to be up there with those people, doing that.”– Ekep Nkwelle
EN: My first favorite jazz artist was Sarah Vaughan. The story on that is, one day, at age 13, my younger brother, Edie, and I were watching Baby Looney Tunes at home. It was during the episode where Gossamer, the big red monster, was supposed to be singing in the talent show. He ended up singing “September in the Rain,” and my brother and I immediately took to the song. It was so, so, so good. I’d never heard a melody sit over chords so well.
I researched the song later on, and Sarah Vaughan’s live version at Mister Kelly’s popped up first. From then on, I was completely sold. Unbeknownst to me, I did a full transcription on the tune and started developing my style around her. This is also what got me interested in straight-ahead jazz. My father was into smooth jazz, a derivative of the former. However, I actually knew I wanted to sing jazz at the end of my sophomore year in high school. It was during the Duke Ellington Birthday Celebration at DESA led by my former professor, Davey Yarborough. I was in the show choir who was performing at the concert as well, but we were waiting for the main band, The Washingtonian Jazz Orchestra, to be finished with their first set. I don’t even remember which song they played last, but it was a ballad. I sat there mesmerized, and in that moment knew that I wanted to be up there with those people, doing that. There was no singer — in fact, vocalists were only allowed to sing classical — but I didn’t care at that point! Ultimately, the next school year, I did what I had to do and ended up leading that band for the next two years.
REDWOOD, tell us about your experience performing for NPR’s “A Jazz Piano Christmas” showcase last year.
R: Performing in NPR’s “A Jazz Piano Christmas” was a surreal experience. I spent many of my high school days after school imitating Cory Henry’s infamous synth solos, and I had just spent a semester learning a transcription of a Kenny Barron solo and a handful of his compositions at the time. It was beyond fulfilling to be on the same bill as them. I’m grateful and honored to be considered a part of the Kennedy Center family and a prestigious lineage of jazz pianists.
What were each of your experiences as music students, both at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and your respective universities?
R: I always say that my life in music has been a blur. In high school, I went from learning basic scales on the piano, to traveling out of state as an orchestra pianist and percussionist, to learning face-to-face from legends like Herbie Hancock, and performing with the like in prestigious venues such as the White House and the Warner Theatre. I was blessed with a generous scholarship to Michigan State University, where my education in music flowered even more. I was selected for the Mid-Atlantic Jazz College All Star Orchestra, directed by Brian Lynch, and the Kennedy Center’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead residency. I also was selected to participate in the JAS Aspen Snowmass Academy, directed by Christian McBride, and Dee Dee Bridgewater’s pilot program for emerging women musicians, The Woodshed Network.
The pandemic changed education as we know it, but catapulted me into a new level of creativity that birthed my stage name and my debut album. Most recently, I completed my first multi-state tour as the keyboardist for Miki Howard and Friends. Before I pick up and move to New York, I will be performing with my mentor Dee Dee Bridgewater at the Detroit Jazz Festival. The journey has felt more like a dream than real life.
EN: My experience with music at Duke Ellington was great! I studied under Dr. Monique Spells all four years and she’s the reason why I have not only vocal technique but the tools I need to continue growing that technique. I also studied with the pianist and composer Mark G. Meadows in his his jazz vocal technique class and became a part of his jazz ensemble, The Mellow Tones. With them, I sang at The Kennedy Center and the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was so fun.
My favorite classes were with Mr. Yarborough. He gave me the platform to share my gifts with the DMV area and meet some great names in jazz — like Terrell Stafford, Wynton Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Herbie Hancock. To this day, he remains to be a mentor and inspiration. At Howard, I further enjoyed studying jazz under the head of the department, Connaitre Miller. During my time there, I had the pleasure of being a part of the premier jazz ensemble Afro Blue. I was also able to study under Christie Dashiell, one of my favorite vocalists, and the great pianist Cyrus Chestnut. At Howard, I also gained two lifelong friends, Halo Wheeler and Indigo Una. During my second year, we decided to form a trio group, The Soul Sistas. This has to have been one of our best decisions. Some of our favorite performances were at Bethesda Blues & Jazz [Supper Club] doing tribute performances, especially the Aretha Franklin one.
“We crave idle time, often even solitude to the constant noise of the world — well, I know I do.”– REDWOOD on “Dub”
In her music submission to Vocalo, REDWOOD said she felt the carefree message of “Dub” is something that reflects your generation’s attitude. In your own words, could you describe what the message of the song is, and what it means to each of you?
R: To me, the song is a message of enjoying yourself, by yourself. Being connected and informed of the present 24/7 by social media has created a unique generation, in my opinion. We crave idle time, often even solitude to the constant noise of the world — well, I know I do. “Dub” is about that desire to chill without any pressure to link up with someone, or put on a front. The attitude is definitely something me and Ekep align with!
EN: “Dub,” for me, is really just an expression of people, like myself, that are homebodies and introverts. We’ll just be chilling and people will think we’re not having a good time cause we’re not out and about. But I’ve found that I have a really good time, maybe even a better time all by myself! Like, we could honestly cut the track at the first line — “I just wanna feel good but nobody will leave me alone.” That’s the essence of the song!
Does your close friendship make it easier or harder for you to work together on something like “Dub”? Does collaborating on music drive you apart or draw you closer together?
R: I always tell anyone who asks, me and Ekep are not friends — we are sisters! After years of friendship and collaboration in music, that is a much more accurate word for how our relationship functions. Because we communicate so easily and effectively, making music together is very natural. Ekep is the first person I seriously made music with … sorry to my sis Sierra, I will never forget our band! We are at a point where we innately understand what we each like to hear from the other and the types of sounds that work well for us separately and together. Ekep is someone that I consider a musical soulmate.
EN: Our friendship definitely makes creating music so much easier. We’re always like, “I wrote this song and I want you on it!” I enjoy best when Sequoia produces a song and wants me to write lyrics, a melody or even harmonies to it. I think the lyricism aspect of songwriting is where I’m most in my element, and the production aspect is where Sequoia finds her true joy. We come together and complement one another so well because, not only does one of us have strength where the other is weaker, but we encourage and inspire each other to grow in those weak areas.
Aside from physically working in the same room, how does your collaborative process differ when you’re in person compared to long distance?
R: I think, as many musicians have learned throughout this pandemic, collaborating can be even easier sometimes when working long distance, thanks to technology. Being remote didn’t impede our process at all, it rather made it more natural to bounce ideas off one another, keep records of old ideas and mix and match. We haven’t been able to really sit down together too much to create since graduating high school, so we’ve definitely developed a flow of creating together even when we’re apart.
EN: We definitely play too much in person! We’ll spend just as much time laughing or being foolish as we do creating music. Personally, it does add some pressure in person, ’cause of the spontaneity of in-person creation or recording. I like both forms equally as long-distance recording, though. It allows me room to express and create as freely as possible — as most of us do when we’re by ourselves. I don’t have the opportunity to get immediate feedback or bounce ideas off of another person.
What, if any, challenges did you have to overcome while recording “Dub,” and how did you find solutions?
R: “Dub” is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever created. The whole song came together pretty seamlessly on my end. I created the beat in the summer of 2020, held it for months, until I had the epiphany to bring Ekep into it. Our only challenges came mostly post-production, in trying to find the perfect mix.
EN: The challenges I faced while recording “Dub” were more personal, as it pertains to my voice. For a lot of the takes, I was unhappy with my the tone and texture I used. Although I wanted to have a spacey sound — I used Erkyah Badu’s “I’ll Call U Back” as our effects reference — I still wanted the warmth of my natural voice to shine through. Moreover, I went through what all creatives go through when we overthink our work before a release. Eventually, I just had to tell myself that it was okay, that I gave it my best, and would need to send the work out into the world secure in that … only hoping that others would enjoy it as I’d intended while making it.
What is your biggest hope for this next year living together in New York City and attending music school?
R: My biggest hope for this new journey with my sister is the same as always, to grow! I know the location and school will bring a growing experience, and I’m just excited to see all the things we will learn, create and see together. Of course, we are both very eager to connect with the New York music scene and incorporate ourselves with unique communities and audiences.
EN: My hope is that we take advantage of every opportunity. Opportunities to get out on the music scene, to perform, to practice, to create separately and together, to try new things, to meet new people, etc.
Why is making music important to you? What do you feel the purpose of music is?
R: Making music is what gives me life and light in this world. It is my gift from God and the passion that ignites my heart. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life — I would hate to do anything else. The purpose of music is equivalent to the purpose of love for me. Music heals hearts, music opens hearts and minds. Music connects people from all walks of life. Music gives life to us all. Music makes us move. Music is such an essential and divine fact of life. I take being a musician, a performer very seriously, because I am responsible for dispersing this very important joy and light to the world.
EN: Making music is important because I’ve found that to be a tool [which] I’m called to use in fulfilling my purpose on this earth. One morning, God asked me, “Ekep, what is that in your hand?” and I said, “Um… a mic!” In my head, of course. His response was, “Use this that they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers has appeared to you.” From then on, I knew that this music thing I’m doing isn’t just for fun and games — though it can be at times, as shown with “Dub” — I knew it was an assignment for me to reveal to the world the Truth.
What’s one song that always makes you feel a little bit better?
R: “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness.
EN: Anything Alex Isley. Thank you, and goodnight.
Do either of you have anything you want to plug, anything listeners should know about coming up on the horizon?
R: I always have something new and exciting up my sleeve! Follow me on social media to stay up to date on my releases and performances, and check out my debut album Red 2 Go on any platform! Thank you so much for the love.
EN: I’d be remiss if I used whatever platform I have all for myself. So, there’s two phenomenal vocalists rising out of New York City. One is named Samara Joy who just released an album entitled “Samara Joy” and I just need everybody to listen to it. The other is Georgia Heers, who is attending Juilliard with me, getting her masters in jazz voice, too. She’s an amazing vocalist and songwriter and everyone would do well to be on the look out for her.
Follow REDWOOD on Twitter and Instagram and Ekep Nkwelle on Instagram, and stream “Dub” on Spotify below.
Interview edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca & Ayana Contreras
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