Fast-rising songstress Lisa Viola shares her journey into the Nigerian entertainment industry with Ademola Olonilua
How did you discover your passion for music?
We always had music in the house growing up. It was never a discovery; more of just an extension of who I was, whether I was singing to it, dancing to it, or creating it. My whole family loves music and my brother is also a music artist.
At what stage in your life did you decide to make it a full-time career?
I did performing arts since the age of five and started working professionally by 14. I’ve worked as a host in children’s shows, cabaret dancer, backup dancer, cover band singer, model, actor, everything. After high school, I knew it was what I wanted to do but to do music full time was hard. I did cover bands for two years and that was good money but lost its spark. I then ventured out in different workplaces and kept writing music in my spare time.
In 2013, I put out my first single as an independent artiste but I couldn’t make a full time living. So, I juggled contracting jobs and did the music part time until I got signed.
How would you describe your music?
Thoughtful lyrics, clean melodies supported by spiritual harmonies. But it’s not genre specific… it’s a real mix. Like me.
What would you say sets you apart from other rising stars in the Nigerian entertainment industry?
Nigerians are some of the most talented musicians and artistes in the world. I would never even try to compare myself with anyone here. But as an artiste, whether I’m here or in Australia, I always come with an international approach. In my art, whether music or visual, I’m always merging worlds. I’ve been lucky to live in Africa, Europe and Australia so my ear and what I like is very unique. I’ve learned that that uniqueness is what sets me apart from all artistes.
You are an Angolan-born, Australian-raised lady. Does your background have any influence on your music?
Absolutely. Being mixed race and bi-cultural expose you to more than the average person. This in turn changed the way you look at the world. And the way you create.
Tell us about your family and educational background
I’m the eldest child and my mother’s only daughter. We immigrated to Australia when I was five. I grew up with two brothers and we were always outdoors. Riding bikes, at the park, at the beach, playing sports. We were super active kids and our parents made sure we had everything we needed. I lost my mother in December just before Christmas. She was a feisty Angolan woman who raised us to be fiercely proud of our African heritage. She wanted me to get married and have a family more than anything. My stepfather is Swiss and so our house was basically the United Nations especially at birthday celebrations as our parents had friends from Mali, Kenya, Serbia, UK, Portugal you name it. My real father was Portuguese. He and my brothers and sister were victims of a rebel attack in Angola in 2000. This being the main reason my mother always wanted to leave Angola. Angola was in civil war until 2001.
I finished high school and was already working as a performer and was a bit of an entrepreneur so I didn’t take on the university. I like to think I got an ‘on the job’ university degree as I tackled running my own business and then going on to work alongside friends and family who were running their own businesses. I learnt a lot. In saying that I always knew I’d complete a degree one day, I’d love to study Theology.
At what point did you decide to move to Nigeria?
I was offered an opportunity in 2020 during COVID.
My friends and family expressed their concern as it was in the middle of a pandemic and also the security concerns they’d heard about on the news but something inside me told me to come. I’ve travelled a lot (around 23 countries all up) so I love an adventure. I was only supposed to be coming for three months to get an album done. I’ve been here since.
What were some of the culture shocks you experienced when you moved to Nigeria?
Everything is very different here compared to how I grew up in Australia. Everything from dating through to politics. But because I was raised by an African mother, there are a lot of things that don’t necessarily come as a shock but can be frustrating for a foreigner. Like why does the invite say 7pm and no one is there until 10pm?
For a while in your career, you were an independent artiste. How challenging was it for you, especially as a young lady?
The hardest thing about being independent is having to work to pay my bills as well as do music. It was exhausting. Sometimes, I worked in entertainment and other times I worked as a contractor in different businesses but that balancing act was always really hard.
Being a lady means having to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. I always knew how to carry myself and I’m very strong-willed so I’m lucky. But the industry is harder on females.
Now that you have a record label deal, are there still challenges you face in the entertainment industry?
I love that all I have to do is focus on music, developing my skills, my brand and my network. It’s such a treat after eight years of financially supporting myself and investing in my art.
There are always challenges. I’m learning to focus on the positives and not speak life into the negatives so that’s all I’m going to say. But I see the gaps in the industry here and I’d like to bridge them.
In 2017, you made a song with multiple award-winning singer Shaggy titled, Show Me Da Way. How did that collaboration happen?
In 2014, I toured Europe with another Jamaican superstar KyMani Marley (son of Bob Marley, may he rest in peace) as his back up vocalist. I met Shaggy backstage at a festival in Germany on that tour. When I finished cutting ‘Show me da Way’ I sent it to him and asked if he’d do something on it. He graciously said yes and the rest is history. The Jamaican dancehall and reggae world is very small. I had worked with his producers and writers earlier that year too so he knew me through the music networks.
Asides from music, you are also an actress. At what point did you switch to acting?
I never really switched; I was just always a performing arts kid. I took my first acting class at 10 years old. In 2018-2020, I went back to acting classes because I landed an agent. It was at a time when Australia (and the rest of the world) was having serious conversations around diversity and proper representation in the mainstream media. So, production houses were specifically looking for people of colour which meant I was going to a bunch of auditions I wouldn’t usually have had the opportunity to go to being a woman of colour in Australia. I was on a roll but then COVID hit.
Which do you love more acting or music?
They are both so different. I haven’t sunk my teeth into any huge acting roles yet so after I get to play a character for months on end, I’ll revert back and let you know! For the last year, all my focus has been on music. I love it even more now. I still have so much to learn in both art forms. I’m a forever student of the arts.
Not many know that you starred in highly acclaimed Hollywood movies like The Great Gatsby, and Helen Reddy’s Biopic I am Woman. How did that happen?
Working on the set of The Great Gatsby was a dream! I went to the audition and they found out I can dance so they cast me as one of the Speak Easy dancers which was one of Baz Luhrmann’s favourite scenes in the movie. We spent days shooting just that scene. Baz Luhrmann is the most charismatic and composed director with an eagle’s eye for detail. We also spent time with his amazing wife who designed our costumes. I learnt so much watching Baz direct. It was kind of surreal being in a scene with Leonardo DiCaprio.
‘I am woman’ was also a great movie to work on. It wasn’t as high budget as ‘The Great Gatsby’ but it was amazing to work with a female director. I didn’t audition for that movie; I just got a call. Fun fact; I also stepped in last minute to do choreography for that one!
We learnt that you are starring in a soon-to-be-out movie, ‘Cold’ which features the likes of RMD, IK Ogbonna. How was the experience?
Yes! That was my first Nollywood movie! So much fun. I couldn’t believe how sweet and welcoming everyone was. The on-camera style here is definitely more dynamic so I was learning on the job. Mr Ik was graciously running my lines and making sure I was good and ready. I got to chat with Ms Hilda and Ms Iretiola who gave me some industry insight as well as our director Mr. Bakia Thomas. RMD watched my music video and was showing people on set. It honestly couldn’t have been a lovelier and more supportive cast.
Do we see you featuring in more Nollywood movies?
I would absolutely love to. I’m already speaking to directors now for upcoming projects. I know it’s serious business and I would never do anything unless I was 100 per cent committed. So, the timing would have to be right. I would only take on a big project if I could add value, not just for the clout.
What roles will you decline without a second thought?
If I don’t feel I’ll add value then I won’t do it. I’m the same with music. If the role resonated with me but there were scenes I wasn’t comfortable with, I would go in and negotiate.
You have an EP in the pipeline, Mixed Feelings. Tell us about the project and what to expect?
At the time we made Mixed Feelings the EP, I was missing home terribly, I’d been through some dating turmoil (Lagos men o!) and I was extremely introspective after spending eight months in Nigeria away from everything I knew. Unfortunately, my mother fell ill in the middle of our writing camp for the EP and it took everything I had to stay focused. She was in a coma for 10 days and the doctors were saying it wasn’t looking good so it was the hardest time of my life. I was working all day then on the phone to family and praying all night. It was tough. The hardest part was that I couldn’t get back into Australia because of the international border closures due to covid. As we lost her, there was also a child born to one of our team at the same time so it was this sad but beautiful circle of life that happened right before us. As you can imagine, there were a lot of mixed feelings at that time.
Duktor Set was the kind of producer that really wanted to know who I was. We had so many conversations and he went through all of my archives of demo songs. He’s the first producer to ever do that. That’s when I knew I was in good hands. His manager Paladin sat in on every session encouraging me and adding the Nigerian nuances to the top lines and back ups. I wasn’t expecting it but he became my co-writer. Basket Mouth was the A&R. He has an impeccable ear. He would walk in and say no that doesn’t sit well or yes! that’s it. He’s all feel. We explored dancehall, reggae, pop, afro beats, RnB, adult contemporary. We all just trusted each other and it was the best collaboration I’ve had musically.
How would you describe your relationship with the iconic comedian, Basket Mouth, who is the executive producer of your new EP?
Basket Mouth has been my mentor. Since I landed here, he’s given me such an insight into the industry, the culture and also business. When I grow up, I want to be Basket Mouth, but a lady version of course.
How did you meet Basket Mouth?
I met Basket in Australia at his show many years ago. To be honest, I didn’t know who he was as I didn’t really follow comedy like that. I remember being introduced to him and telling him about my music. He posted my music video on his then 1M follower FB page. I always remembered that. When I found out I was coming to Nigeria, I messaged him on social media. I really had no idea how much of an icon he was until I got here. He’s a beloved Nigerian superstar!
Where do you draw your inspiration from when it comes to your craft?
Real life. I started writing music to process and reflect on my emotions. I love dancing because I can physically express my emotions. I love acting because I can dive into the human psyche and further understand emotions.
How do you think you can juggle music and acting?
Good time management.
Are you in a relationship?
I’m not married
How does your man cope with your career in the entertainment industry?
I’ll let you know once I’m married but pretty sure he’ll cope very well because I wouldn’t marry someone who doesn’t support what I do 100 percent.
You are widely travelled. What are your thoughts about Nigerian men?
Well… this is a huge generalisation because obviously everyone is unique but, in my experience, I would say Nigerian men are extremely charming! They really know how to turn on the charisma and are very persistent when they see a woman they like. I would also say they are far more on the traditional side in comparison to an average Aussie guy. That can be good or bad depending on what you like.
If I could give some advice to Naija men, it would be that not every girl is impressed by how much money you have. If she likes you and sees you have drive and ambition, that’s all she needs to stick with you. Also, a little old-fashioned romance goes a long way!