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Telling me that basically, you’re not looking out for me

interview: Seinabo Sey

We meet up with Seinabo Sey in the café of the Edition, a grand hotel in the centre of London with 20 feet high walls, paintings all over the place and as much glitter and glamour as one could imagine – a place that would definitely be described as “fancy” by Charli XCX. Just like XCX a few years back, Seinabo Sey has been trying to get a career running for quite some time, fronting various bands and scattering demos recorded with different producers over the web. It wasn’t until she met producer Magnus Lidehäll (Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Katy Perry, Sky Fereirra, Little Boots – all your favourite pop stars, basically) that she finally made the breach from who to woah. We sat with 2015’s biggest star and talked about Magnus shaping her sound, pop-soul music, James Bond and how number one hits are basically like the burgers at McDo.

 How did you and Magnus meet?
“I met Magnus through mutual friends (Afasia & Filthy) in a period in which I really needed to get an EP done. It was a period during which I wasn’t really impressed with myself in that certain situation, working with people with a main focus on R&B and soul music… They didn’t really want to push any borders. I didn’t have a vision as much as a feeling… I wasn’t impressed with what I was doing at that moment and asked myself “why am I not impressed? I love R&B, I love soul, but how do we add to it? We tried to become a bit more fearless.

Magnus, who listens to music in the same way as I do, really wanted the same thing. He gave me a lot of tips of music that I hadn’t listened to, music that isn’t R&B music – I mainly listened to things like Jill Scott (one of my absolute favourite singers), Erykah Baduh, Beyoncé, Mos Def, Questlove, The Roots - all kinds of hip-hop, really. For some reason I had made up my mind that I didn’t like anything but R&B music. But this stuff Magnus recommended me really became my biggest inspiration. Like Kate Bush (I squeak for a bit): I love how she doesn’t really care about formats. Everything is quite weird, but then there’s some beautiful melody some place in the song and that’s the essence of it all. I’m not Kate Bush nerd, but I love the idea of how she does things.

After really taking my time for opening to the door to just listening to that kind of music, I just found it kind of naturally to combine things of this and that. It’s not so much an aim to have several genres clash in one song. Magnus is maybe a bit more genre-oriented and he does things a bit more deliberately than I do. I kind of just put everything into a pot and just open it up and see what comes out of it. Things flow quite naturally. I’m never like ‘I’m going to sing in this kind of way.” Most of the times I go with what comes out of it, I try not to hold on to much to it and dissect or analyse it.”

How would you describe the song or sound that comes out of that pot of things?
“Gosh, I’m so bad at that. Not like because I’m like an artist that doesn’t want to be put in genre, mostly because I’m not a music-nerd in that way – I don’t know that much about genres. I’m not like a crate-digger.

People call it pop-soul, which I think is funny because it’s like two huge genres put together – that should be an indicator of what I’m doing, but that’s basically just calling it “music” – you could put anything under that “pop-soul” category. To me it’s soul music. It comes from that space. Trying to be sincere, singing in a a certain way. I’d love for soul music to become a little bit broader, to become more like pop music. Soul music is a very closed genre, people really want to protect it – we need to open it up, like pop music has been opened up.”

Soul music is a very closed genre, people really want to protect it – we need to open it up, like pop music has been opened up.

Would you consider Magnus as an important part of your sound then? “Equally a big part; maybe even more sometimes! He’s very’s good at finding things and making them work, I’m quite unfiltered and just sing, he cuts it up and puts it in a proper format, he makes a real song out of it.”

(she points at my iPhone recording the interview)

“Half of my songs are recorded on an iPhone recorder. They’re not really demos… I kind of sing whatever I want on that recorder and then I send it to Magnus, and he kinds of cuts and tweaks it. Like the chorus in Younger, that’s from an iPhone recording.”

You clearly have a magic connection with Magnus! Have you worked with other people as well?
“I’ll have written a couple of other songs with other producers. Like You on the EP was written with Oskar Linross, who was part of Snook and has produced quite a bit of (Swedish) rap and hip-hop.

I’m lucky enough for everyone to be friends. They knew each other before they knew me. They all have different methods of working and doing things, but it’s a very accepting and open environment. So everything is going great. I learn every day: music is like so much teamwork, so much communication. I think that’s maybe the hardest part for a lot of artists: to actually be able to communicate, to coexist within music. It’s a challenge every day to make yourself clear and get that to work. The more I think about it, that’s like half the talent of being an artist: being able to work with people.”

I noticed the beautiful tattoo on your arm – Madeleine, the name of your mother. Your first EP is titled For Madeleine, which is probably not a coincidence. Your mom is basically your biggest fan, which shows itself in her countless (re)tweets and likes on Facebook regarding everything about you.
“Mom, you need to seriously lay off the internet! (laughs) I’ve been trying to have her stop do it, but then again whenever I want to know what has been written about me, I just go to my mom’s Twitter. The other day she told me how she does it: “I Google and then I just look for what’s new” – seriously hilarious but also amazing. I seriously do hope I can somehow pay her back one day.

People ask me a lot about music, so I talk about my dad cause he was a musician, so my mom gets to be “left out” – there’s no real natural way of speaking about her in an interview, it might not be interesting: everyone has a mother. But that’s just the point: moms actually do the most fundamental stuff, the most important things.

She’s been supporting me for years. Regardless of whatever stupid thing that I’d try to do, that I felt passionate about, my mom would support it. Of course she thought that I was a good singer or that I just loved doing that. Even if I wanted to be a painter and I loved painting, she’d probably support me becoming a painter, as long as I loved it. “Do whatever you wanna do” she always says to me. She’s always worked so hard, never really had any money, but is always “take what I have and try to do what you love with it”.

Quite a mom! Big up Madeleine.
The EP is quite powerful: not only in terms of sound, but also in terms of lyrics. Are you that powerful person?
“I try my best to be complex. Show both a fragile side (like on You) and strong side of myself - that’s kind of my aim. Whenever things become too easy, too accessible, one-dimensional, it’s not interesting anymore to me. I like being a complex person, I enjoy having these double sides. All these songs are really me trying to teach myself to be that kind of person and hope to encourage others to be that kind of person too.”

Speaking of encouragement – is that the message behind the video for Hard Time?
“Maybe you could read some kind of feminist message in the Hard Time video, because there’s just only women. I don’t think of things deliberately: I just try and do what comes naturally and try not to think of it so much. I thought it would be cool to not have any guys in the video. I think the song tells the story I’m trying to tell better than the video does. I tried to tell a story of being used, but kind of getting out of it. Being a nice person, but knowing when to tell someone to fuck off.”

You certainly put a lot of work in your videos. The video for Pistols At Dawn is another beauty.
It’s kind of a wicked video. I made it with a brilliant director named Christian Larson that’s done a couple of Swedish House Mafia documentaries, edited the last Beyoncé Jay-Z concert, and so on. Such a talented guy. He came up with this little story for the video, which made the song a bit more interesting too. We’re in this crazy forest – in Sweden we had this really big forest fire, so the forest is all black and the trees are burned up – abstract setting. I’m wearing this red dress and stroll through the forest while being chased. It’s a bit more artsy-partsy than the other videos, but I love it.

We actually described Pistols At Dawn as GoldenEye fucking with Tina Turner. The song could easily soundtrack a Bond movie. Is scoring a movie, like Lorde did with The Hunger Games, something you’d like to do?
“I’ve never thought about it – I just liked singing low, I think that’s maybe the Bond-connection. I know Magnus likes thinking in terms of movies: he likes that idea of songs becoming movie soundtracks. Vincent Pontare, who I wrote the song with, painted like a movie scene for me while we were writing the song and asked me to write about how it made me feel. It’s funny how people think it sounds like a Bond theme song, especially since we had this visual in our minds when writing it.”

You’ve done the EP you’ve been looking forward to for years. How is the album coming along?
“I am working on it. I’ve actually been working on it, for like 3 years. But November is going to be a hectic month, I’m supposed to finish the record then so it can get released next year, which I’m very much looking forward to. All what’s really left is making decision. We have a couple of songs, I just have to choose which ones I like better. To me, it feels like I still have a long way to go to finish that album, but I can’t have a long way to go: I need to finish it, I can’t take another year.

I need to learn to trust my guts while finishing this record. I don’t want to over-analyse it: if it feels right, it’s probably right. I’m not like tedious, into details too much.

I’m already writing new music though. I’m constantly writing new music, now I come to think of it. My whole life is an album. I’m probably just going to keep on writing: I hate the idea of thinking like an album as this magical thing that’s going to save my life.”

Recently some industry voices claimed the album was dead- is it all about the singles for you?
“It is about singles - it’s always about songs, good songs that can stand on their own. But I love these albums that tell a story, that bring more to the table. Like channel ORANGE: you listen to it and you get the story, it brings all missing pieces together. I’d really love my album to be like that. Try to tell a story, like have the listener stepping into my world.”

It’s funny how you mention Frank Ocean… as he attended your show at this very hotel the other day.
"I know! It’s so insane, I kept on thinking “This is not real.” I didn’t say hello to him because I was way too scared though.”

Join the club.
What are the highlights of your thriving career thus far?
I loved the P3 performance, because I always dreamt that could happen but it actually did happen! It was quite surreal. It was fun. But when I look back at it now in terms in the way it looked and what happened on stage.. a lot of things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them too. That frustrates me, I’ll never watch it again. Last minute someone told me I had to walk with this silver dress I was wearing. And I was like “I have to walk?! No one told me that” – that dress weighed like 5 tons.

The show I played at Dramaten in Stockholm is a taste of what I’d like to happen. Having the big screens, a big production, a really big show. When I stood there singing, I realized I really loved that. It’s basically just how I imagined it should have been. It was a very surreal experience. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I keep on asking myself why it was so impressive. It’s old money, old structures, old everything. Just stepping into that room, not being intimidated of the room, is quite the challenge already. Not thinking of the history; people like me -black people- weren’t part of the history, we wouldn’t even be let into that house less than a hundred years ago. It felt great not give a fuck about all that and challenge myself to respect it, but not care too much.”

And you recently supported Ella Eyre on tour in the UK – how was that?
I learned a lot. You always get surprised. You think people that show up for the headliner act won’t really like your music or might want to be entertained in another way. If people like go to a Beyoncé show, they wanna be entertained – and I’m very like… I just stand there. I don’t entertain a lot… which could be boring to some people. But everyone actually listens! You should never underestimate an audience. It was lovely to see everyone enjoy it – it made me hopeful.

It’s so lovely to be reminded that there’s like a world outside of Stockholm. I’ve lived in Africa, in Gambia, so I’ve been in very different environments, but I really like travelling around. See that there’s like-minded people, people that just really come out for music. People are so kind: for people to come out and listen to a new artists, listen to songs you’ve never heard before and be attentive, that’s insane. My attention span isn’t even that good, even though I’m in love with music, but I’m too restless. I’m just so impressed with people’s genuine interest in music, their genuine love and kindness and everything.”

You’ve lived in Gambia for a while, your father is a respected African musician. Are you interested in those kind of sounds and rhythms?
I’m not really thinking about it so much, I’m very bad at listening to things and say I like this or that certain sound. My brain doesn’t work like that. I don’t do things on purpose.. It’s more of a bowl, I just throw things in it and mix it all together. I don’t deliberately try to make it sound like that. Sometimes people say it’s “world music” which makes my music sound more exotic, but it isn’t.“

You’re gearing up for a busy 2015 – do you see time for yourself to write for other artists?
I’d love that. It would be a good challenge – it’s quite a craft, as it’s very different from writing for yourself. If I ever get organised and get my head straight so I can do a couple of things at the same time, I’d love to write for other people. I’d love for somebody that I like to sing my song, even if that person doesn’t necessarily have the best songs all the time. The ultimate dream would be to have Beyoncé sing a song of mine. Or some weird pop voice, like Rihanna, just to hear how they’d do it.

A number one hit is kind of like a hamburger at McDonald’s. Of course you’ll like it, because they put all kind of chemicals in it you’ll want to eat five of those.

Isn’t it interesting how these new voices and songwriters can shake up someone’s usual path and bring something unique to the table?

"Definitely. Like Superpower and Miss You, the tracks Frank Ocean wrote off the not-latest Beyoncé record, those are very interesting tracks. I think pop stars need that, an injection of something new, people that don’t care how they normally sound like and just give a demo and see what happens. I do have to understand that commercial pop music is quite another realm. I need to take a step back and give it more thought, analyse it more in comparison to what I do now (which is trust my guts). But I’ve got good teachers around me, Magnus has worked with lots of those pop stars.

A number one hit is kind of like a hamburger at McDonald’s. Of course you’ll like it, because they put all kind of chemicals in it you’ll want to eat five of those. Sometimes I think number one hits are the same: some of these songs are pressing the same buttons.. they’re not really pushing music forward. I’d love to change that – it’s a crazy task, but it’s something I’d love to try.”

What’s your WILD wish?
Continue to feel like I have something to write about. That’s quite hard sometimes. Just like to live and breathe music, like pay my rent and pay a decent living off singing – and maybe live in a place like this. Just be 60 years old and still be able to sing. That’s my only goal.

For Madeleine, Seinabo Sey’s debut EP, is out now. All pictures by Saga Berlin.
Jarri’s trip to London was paid for by Virgin EMI.