Chicago multi-instrumentalist and producer Jonn Wallen, who records and performs as Oui Ennui, has been writing music since he was five. Working mostly with synths and computers, he makes maximalist compositions he describes as “paintings.” In September 2019, he gave his first public performance in more than a decade as part of the Plantasia event at the Garfield Park Conservatory, and he was looking forward to more. Instead the pandemic hit. In April 2020 Wallen became gravely ill with COVID-19. While recovering from his initial symptoms, he set himself the task of releasing one album per month—a challenge that got even bigger once he realized he was battling long COVID. The most recent, at the time of this writing, is the August 6 album Eros Largesse.
Wallen performs as Oui Ennui at the Empty Bottle on Wednesday, September 22, as part of a preview event for the Plantasia concert the following night at Garfield Park Conservatory. Claire Rousay headlines; Oui Ennui and Fetter open.
As told to Jamie Ludwig
I knew something was very wrong when the COVID symptoms started. As someone who has had chronic illness and had been sick quite a bit, this was next level. It was so bad I called 911. They said, “Shelter in place, or we can send an ambulance. That’s all our guidance.” So I sheltered in place.
It started on April 15. It was probably nine or ten days before I could get out of bed. The whole time when I thought I was going to die, I was thinking, “All of this music that I’ve been making for the last 30-plus years—no one’s going to know about it.” The first thing I did when I could think about anything other than how terrible I felt was to go to my synths and my computer. I started making my album Sirius Bismuth. That was probably the 22nd or 23rd of April, and the album came out May 1, Bandcamp Friday.
Sirius Bismuth was the first Oui Ennui release after Jonn Wallen resolved to put out an album every month.
I just wanted to leave something. I had long-haul COVID, and there were several times throughout my process of releasing an album every month where I thought that I wasn’t going to make it for the next one. I felt like shit for 13 or 14 months in a row. It was as bad as when my first COVID symptoms started, and I didn’t know if it was going to happen again. My mental state was on the edge of a knife.
Releasing that much music is kind of ridiculous, but it kept me sane in some respects. As soon as I released an album, I’d take a couple days off, and then I’d start making the next one. I had my nose to the grindstone, which kept me from wallowing in fear about what was happening to my body. I was on medical leave for a long time. For the first several albums, I was sick all day and doing it when I could. In September 2020, I went back to work full-time, but my symptoms got worse and I wound up going on medical leave again in January 2021. In April I finally went back to work for real.
The experience hasn’t changed my approach to music as a whole—I’ve been in a codependent symbiotic relationship with music for most of my life. I’ve been trying to change, but for most of my life I’ve been a loner and kind of a hermit. I just stay in my house and obsess about records and music, which was probably exacerbated by quarantine. Other than being really sick, I think I was able to handle the isolation better than people that are more social than I was or am.
But it definitely sharpened my skill set. I’m able to be a lot more efficient now because I was practicing my craft. If I practiced the guitar the amount I produced songs, I’d be a much better guitarist—this made me a much better producer, songwriter, and arranger.
After somebody wrote me a note about the liner notes for Sirius Bismuth, I started intentionally making music about something. I began to write music with intention, knowing that I’d need to have liner notes describing my process and support what it was about. It began to be an ouroboros effect. I don’t assume that everyone will read them. It’s instrumental music, so it’s going to create its own meaning for the listener. My approach is like, “This is what I’m going through. This is what I’m thinking about.” However the listener interprets it is out of my hands.
It’s counterintuitive for someone who’s an artist to not particularly like attention. But for most of my musical career—if you want to call it that—my musical life has been 99 percent private. It’s only been in the last year where people are reaching out to me and wanting to hear more, or wanting to know what I think about things. It’s definitely a strange experience, but feedback has been amazing. When you sell stuff on Bandcamp, you get an e-mail, and just seeing some of the e-mail addresses from Cape Town or London, I’m like, “Wow, Where are these people finding it?” It’s been humbling.
The most recent Oui Ennui album came out on August 6.
It doesn’t really do anything to assuage the imposter syndrome, but it feels great that people are reacting to the music. I’ve always thought that if my music helps a single person, then I can die knowing that I did something, even if I don’t ever “make it” in music. A number of people have literally said, “Your album helped me get through quarantine or COVID.”
People have been so incredibly kind and generous. I’m very happy to now be part of a scene; I’ve been in Chicago for 11 years, but I’ve been here alone. The friendships that are now in their infancy, who knows what those could turn into? That’s probably been my favorite thing about releasing all this music—being able to connect with people, new friendships, and community.