Seinabo Sey has never want to fit into any one box, any one category.
A soul artist who made pop, someone who expressed her hip-hop influences in an electronic sense, her magnificent debut album 'Pretend' marked the emergence of a brave, idiosyncratic talent.
That was 2015, though, and since then Seinabo Sey has taken a step back, looking once more at her own life, and her own identity.
With both Swedish and Gambian heritage, her place as a woman of colour in Scandinavian often made her feel apart, sometimes even alone.
Rejuvenated by a trip to Senegal, Seinabo Sey reunited with producer Magnus Lidehäll to pen some of her most personal, scorching material yet, covering feminism, love, regret, identity, and so much more.
With new album 'I'm A Dream' on record shelves, Clash sat down with Seinabo Sey at her London hotel to find out more...
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We last caught up around the time of ‘Pretend’ and – to be honest – it doesn’t actually feel as though you’ve been away.
No, I don’t feel that way either. When you put the timeline up, though, it’s a long time.
Did you need to decompress after your debut?
Yeah… but not that much. I was pretty traumatised, and I think stressed, so I just felt like I wanted to jump right in. I jumped straight in to writing my album, and I didn’t really give myself a proper break… maybe I should have, I don’t know. I wanted to make the album in a year… I was determined to do that but it didn’t turn out that way. That was my mindset at the beginning of it.
Have you always been that disciplined in how you would approach songwriting?
I’m from super organised controlled Sweden… so compared to them I don’t have any type of morals at all! But I feel the need to be creative. That’s what I like to do. When I’m happy I want to make music. I have a love/hate relationship with it because I’m more-so obsessed, sometimes, with creating music. I feel like I might be too hard on myself, but I wouldn’t say I’m disciplined compared to some people I know.
So why couldn’t the album be done in a year?
It was a matter of me being more involved in the production than I was before, and wrapping my head around how difficult it can be to get that idea across. I mean, I’ve written quite a lot of songs this time round, and I was really happy with the lyrics, and the melodies. But in terms of finding something that was new but didn’t stray too far from the last record… that was pretty hard.
And I realised again that with all of this new knowledge it takes a little longer for me to write songs, because I didn’t know as much before. It’s not so much that I’m harder on myself, it’s that I know more, and it’s hard to still just have fun when you feel like you know more!
Do you mean the technical side of music?
Yeah… and maybe more about song structure, and more about different kinds of music, and different ways of creating it. ‘Younger’, for example, was one of the first songs that I wrote in my life, so I haven’t been in the studio that much – as much as some people have.
It’s a complicated process.
It is, kind of. And also finding your confidence in there, being aware of what’s happening around you… it all takes a long time, even though you’re in there all the time. It depends on where you mind-state is. If you’re scared half the time you won’t learn anything, so maybe I’ll put in the hours, but I don’t know how focussed those hours were.
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Did you take a break once you realised you couldn’t make the target?
Shit, that’s when I had a total fucking meltdown! Basically. So I went to Africa, and I sat in Dakar – which is the capital of Senegal – for ten days, just by myself… just trying to figure out why. I feel like it’s my responsibility to have fun, because I can have fun in my job – that’s what people want more than anything else.
It’s what people dream of! So I kind of feel rude and disrespectful when I make this a burden. I sat down and tried to find a purpose that was not just about me… and I felt like I found that when I was there. I had a purpose after that.
What was it about your time in Dakar that allowed you to reset like that?
I don’t think it was about music at all. It was about me, and how I felt about myself, and how I felt. I grew up as a black woman in Sweden, so I’m not ever gonna see myself everywhere, that doesn’t happen. But also going from being a black woman in Sweden to becoming famous, and then getting off tour… I just felt super weird about myself. I couldn’t really understand who I was.
Also, this was the first period of time I had ever thought about my Dad dying, and what that meant to me, and how I had become a little disconnected to my African culture in a way, because he was my link to that. It was experiencing that, and knowing that there is this place where I can feel in a different way.
I don’t ever feel like I’m at home – it’s a gift and a curse being from two different continents – but I’m fine with that… I just felt in a different way, and I needed that. It made me happy. It made me feel… not so special! And I really enjoyed feeling like a normal person.
Were you able to put the pressure of making an album to one side and focus on yourself?
It’s hard for me to differentiate my music and myself. I think it just made me a little more reassured in what I wanted to convey and I felt a little bit more confident when I came back home. It made me believe in, lyrically, some of the ideas I had. It made me go for that. And also, just by accident, I managed to write one of the songs that set the tone for that – it’s called ‘Breathe’ - on that vacation.
You can never escape the music!
I was laying at the pool and I was having this really bad day… the pool guys were hitting on me and I hated it so much! It was so different because nobody in Sweden hits on anyone. I was laying by the pool and he was being obnoxious! I was really alone. I thought, why do I want to be here? So I started writing it down, and all of those lyrics came out. And then my mum sent me a clip of my old teacher, who has become the Minister Of Education in Gambia, and he held a long speech, and at the end of that speech he said: Forwards Ever, Backwards Never. And he dropped the mic! So I put that in the song too.
Do you feel like the experience of making the debut has allowed you to find new focus on the sound of Seinabo Sey?
I mean, it’s always different. I wish I knew what comes first in music. But for me, it’s kind of a blur. I don’t focus on anything but trying to keep my mind clear enough to feel emotion. If that makes any sense. Sometimes a beat makes me sing something, sometimes the lyric makes me want to choose a beat, sometimes a little melody makes me think of another melody that makes me think of a word. I don’t know! It’s this abstract thing in my mind.
I’m always focussed on my own voice because that’s what drives everything, and I’ve always known that. I think that’s why I’m not so scared about everything because that’s the only thing I’ve trusted since I was a kid – my own voice, and my own intentions. I don’t think about it that much… because I take it for granted, in a way.
Which studios did you use during this process?
I started off in a studio on Gotland, which is an island outside of Stockholm. I sat for a couple of weeks just writing. At that point I didn’t even know who was going to produce the record, it wasn’t set in stone or clear to me but then I re-connected with Magnus Lidehall.
I couldn’t really find myself sonically at all at that point. I was being pretty easy on myself as well because I just wanted to sing soulful songs. Cleanse my palette a little bit. I started in Gotland, then we went back to Stockholm to Magnus’ studio, this very central place. I also live 10 metres up the hill from the studio, so that’s basically where I’ve been for two years!
Does the intensely creative music community that exists in cities like Stockholm inspire you, or are you more insular as an artist?
It is kind of inspiring. It’s cool because people are confident but you also feel a sense of ease. There’s a lot of great producers, a lot of great people, and a lot of great songwriters. It’s a nice vibe. I’ve never felt a part of it… It’s a thing that can suffocate music, sometimes, the way we create it.
I’ve always disconnected myself from it because I’m not interested in writing that way. So I think I can just step back and be inspired. It’s cool – we’re such a small country but people make so much music. It’s interesting to me.
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Jacob Banks is on the record, someone you’re close to. How did that relationship come about?
I saw a clip on YouTube. This COLORS clip, he was singing a song called ‘Mercy’ and I was just blown away. I felt like for the first time in a long time I had heard someone I thought maybe had the same influences as me. I could hear something similar in how he wanted to sing.
I think I sent him a DM, said I loved his song, and we just took it from there. Then he came to Stockholm for a show, came into the studio… he’s a really nice guy – very, very talented – and I just love his voice. I adore his voice.
Does it take someone special for you to share your music?
I love collaborating with people! In Sweden, I’ve made quite a lot of rap choruses… maybe too many! With rappers I like. I really love the creative exchange. I’ve made my music with the same people, which has been great, but my only real experience of other musical situations is when I link up with different artists. And it’s been easier for me to link up with artists than producers.
Once you’d processed those emotions did the record click into place?#
I think so. I’m not sure if it worked, but I tried to go back to a feeling that I had when I was a kid. I felt like the problem would leave my body if I sang about it. So if I write it down and get the wording right then the problem ends in me. In order for me to write a song I have to kind of see the light somewhere, and I have to write about something hopeful somewhere in a song.
It’s therapeutic in that sense, writing about my own problems because I force myself to see an end to them, if I decide to write about them. But then, I don’t feel there’s a magical anything to creativity in that sense because it never stops. A lot of people when I feel bad tell me, oh you’ll be happy when it’s done! But there’s not feeling of anything being done because I want to be an artist until I’m old, and creativity continues.
What helps me is: take care of my health, learn how to communicate, drink water, put cream in my hair. The basic things! Wash my clothes. Those things are things that make me feel really proud of myself, or make me feel better. I don’t think anyone taught me that growing up, and I’ve kind of realised it these last two years.
Artists are forever moving forward.
I love what I do. And that’s the gift of my life, and that’s my responsibility to operate and understand how remarkable and weird and lucky I am. I don’t give a fuck if I’m famous or not – to even pay my rent singing… that’s a miracle! It is, it’s crazy!
How did it feel when the album clicked in to place, and you listened to the final mixdown?
First of all: I was pissed because two years amount to 32 minutes of music which is crazy! But I was happy because I felt like I had really done what I set out to do, which was make an album which was a bit better put together than the last one, and I feel like I told my truth – as much as I can – and I haven’t shied away or been scared to try any of my ideas.
I’ve pushed through all of it and forced everyone to try everything. I guess I’m proud of myself. But that’s it: I have a million more songs that I want to release, and a million more ideas. It just all flows and continues.
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'I'm A Dream' is out now.
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