story / Koko Ntuen
photos / Patricia Reyes
Before I interview Swedish songbird Seinabo Sey, I’m sitting in my dimmed living room, candles burning and crying. The serene lighting is a little dramatic, mostly because I blew a fuse trying to vacuum and use the portable heater at the same time, but the tears and emotions I’m feeling are almost too real. The song I’m listening to is “Burial,” off Sey’s debut album Pretend, and it’s one of the most poignant yet uplifting songs about death that I have ever heard. She wrote the song in 2013 after the passing of her beloved father, and the lyrics and melody take you to a place of absolute sorrow, a place where you can wail and allow all the pain and love you feel to well up and make itself known. Later, when we talk and I bring up the song, I begin to cry again. I’m embarrassed. She laughs.
“I can relate to that feeling really. I had a period where I couldn’t sing that song without being too emotional and very unprofessional. When my dad passed away I wanted to sit down and write a song, but I was so sad, I couldn’t write anything,” she tells me. “I was this close to putting a moment of silence on the album because that’s what I felt. I had a person in the studio help and he actually changed the chorus a bit to make it sound more happy and I feel that the point to take away from that song is to understand the beauty of not being able to control the existence of another person, or not knowing… It’s all out of our hands and that is pretty beautiful, even though you get very pissed off and sad or mad or angry that people are taken away from you in that way. It’s just a crazy part of life, isn’t it?”
Indeed it is. And Sey’s debut album seems to captures the eccentricities, turns, and beautiful chaos of it all. A difficult feat for a debut body of work, but she devoutly crafted the LP over the last three years with passion, honesty, and a naivety about the industry that makes for a breathtaking record, completely void of pressure or inhibition. If anything, the album is a just a reflection of her own story: When she was just fifteen she moved to Stockholm by herself to study music in the esthetics program at Fryshusets, with a focus on soul music. From there, she fell into step with other like-minded musicians and started playing and sharing demos through the experimental R&B duo Def Chronic online, and going on to be a hype woman for rapper Afasi, of Afasi & Filthy.
Afasi told her to email Filthy, a.k.a. Magnus Lidehäll — a big-time producer who has worked with the likes of Britney Spears, Madonna, Katy Perry, Sky Ferreira, Kylie Minogue, and Veronica Maggio, to name a few. Sey did so with blind faith and when he wrote back the stars aligned for them; the subsequent collaboration brought about the fast-track to beautiful music that exposed her soul, something the industry welcomed warmly.
How has your Gambian and Swedish background influenced your music?
I’ve been asked that question a lot and it has taken me a year to realize. The one thing I’ve learned from being from two different places is how to communicate with people and how to get my point across, as well as understanding why people do the things they do, and where it comes from and those sort of things. Those are the main things that have helped me in my music career. As far as sound and instruments go, it’s not that clear. I grew up with American music, hip-hop, reggae, and West African music. The Swedish structure and pop [in general] didn’t enter my life until a few years ago.
How have people tried to put you in a box? I think the album does a great job of not letting people define you.
I haven’t really realized how hard my music is to categorize until reading reviews and now that I released the album, I can hear it more objectively – I can hear it might be confusing, but it’s something that comes so naturally to me. I don’t think about it in the middle of working. It’s not an active choice, like “this part is Swedish and this part is Gambian!” I just break naturally into the music, it’s just who I am… I’m from different places. I don’t walk around making myself exotic. I’m a human being, and people don’t really see black people as natural. They probably think “they took that drum from West Africa and put it there,” but it’s just natural.
What about the pop music label?
When you accept that something is pop music, what you’re letting it be is popular music. It’s not a genre – it’s about sounds. You’re just putting it on a platform for the masses. Society doesn’t really let black musicians into that market that easily. It’s a lot harder. I want to open pop music even more and let anyone who wants to be there, be there. I get really confused even speaking about genres. It’s like an old-school radio climate – all kinds of media are kind of built upon those old ways of looking at music. It makes no sense to me really.
It must have been magical to work with Magnus Lidehäll and have Younger be one of your first songs together. What made your collaboration spark?
He was kind of producing big pop songs at that point. What interested me was that we liked the same music, the exact same exact songs, and I had never met anyone who listened to them. I love his beats – they were really random, but afterwards I understood that he gave me all the beats that no-one else could really write anything for, just to see what I would do.
He introduced me to Kate Bush around the same time and it just kind of opened up new doors in my head, about how I could sing and not to be afraid to use all kinds of different voices.
And when I got the mix back with me singing on it I was just impressed – and its pretty hard to be impressed by yourself. Previously, I was impressed if I sounded like the people who taught me music, or like Jill Scott or Erykah Badu, but I never felt that I was original enough to impress myself but that’s what I felt with our production. I never heard it before and I just loved that.
When you are playing live, do you ever see people crying in the audience?
I do actually, and I find that the number one compliment that people give me is to tell me ‘I started to cry’, but I guess that means it hits home somewhere and I’m very thankful for that. That was my goal – to write things that are honest and therapeutic for people, so I’m happy about that.
The last few years have been good for you. Have you settled into all of the fame and hustle and bustle yet?
It feels like that. I notice little changes in my everyday life but Stockholm is cool, no one is going too crazy, so it’s not that big a difference. I’m very thankful that people listen to my music, it’s very abstract to me getting accolades. I got this Spotify thing today where apparently 13 million people listened to my music this year, which is like 700 years of listening to me, which in itself is very, very random. Things like that are just mind-blowing. To me the spotlight is when I’m on stage – I love that part. I’m pretty good at turning it off when I get off though.
How has your Gambian and Swedish background influenced you becoming a musician?
I’ve been asked that question a lot and it has taken me a year to realize. The one thing I’ve learned from being from two different places is how to communicate with people and how to get my point across, as well as understanding why people do the things they do, and where it comes from and those sort of things. Those are the main things that have helped me in my music career. As far as sound and instruments go, its not that clear. I grew up with American music, hiphop, reggae, West African music. The Swedish structure and pop didn’t enter my life until a few years ago.
How have people tried to put you in a box? I think the album does a great job of not letting people define you.
I haven’t really realized how hard my music is to categorize until reading reviews and now that I released the album, I can hear it more objectively – I can hear it might be confusing, but it’s something that comes so naturally to me. I don’t think about it in the middle of working, it’s not an active choice, like ‘this part is Swedish and this part is Gambian’! I just break naturally into the music, it’s just who I am.
I’m from different places. I don’t walk around making myself exotic, I’m a human being, people don’t really see black people as natural, they probably think ‘they took that drum from West Africa and put it there’, but it’s just natural.
When you accept that something is pop music, what you’re letting it be is popular music. It’s not a genre – it’s about sounds, you’re just putting it on a platform for the masses. Society doesn’t really let black musicians into that market that easily. It’s a lot harder. I want to open pop music even more and let anyone who wants to be there, be there, I get really confused even speaking about genres. It’s like an old-school radio climate – all kinds of media are kind of built upon those old ways of looking at music. it makes no sense to me really.
Was it a pretty smooth ride to get into the industry since your voice is so good?
In the industry I could definitely win people over with the fact that I sing – it always helps that I can sing. But you still have to get your music out. I know a bazillion amazing singers, so the struggle and the quest is always to have a really good song.
What has been the most challenging part about breaking into the music industry?
I think writing songs. I love writing songs and I hope that people will remember me for that. I just want to be as good as a songwriter as I can possibly be.
How do you craft your songs?
I don’t know. They come very sporadically, which is why it’s so hard to control. I’m not a person who sits everyday and just writes and write and writes – it has to come naturally, Being in the studio with Magnus was only the second time I’d been in a real studio, so it’s not like I had that experience. I just get inspired from everything – watching a TV series, people speaking about things, reading signs – it comes from everywhere. I wish I had better structure.
Do you have a special kinmanship when you play in Sweden?
I adore being here, people are so nice to me. It’s crazy the venues I get to play and the love that people show me are amazing. It’s my first album and I’m on the stages that I thought it would take me a lot longer to get on. I love Sweden for that. I love touring in America though, it’s one of those places where I can tour with a guitar and sleep on people’s sofas just so I can tour, because I feel people in American come to root for you at concerts, and the energy is so exciting. I actually said yes to being a supporting act for an artist next year – I looked at the schedule and thought my back was going to break, but every town is different, and there is something to see in every town.
What are some of the highlights from this year?
Winning a Grammy was really special. To me it’s the little things that I overcome in myself, like I’m a lot better at being on time, because I’ve toured so much and airplanes don’t wait. I’ve learned how to wake up in the morning, I moved into my own apartment. I’ve done everything, so next time around I’ll know how to navigate, I won’t be as shocked anymore.
Are you happy that your mom can see how far your music has taken you?
I think I take that for granted, my mom is here and she tells me that all the time, but my parents aren’t hard to impress – they love me for who I am.
My mom gets mad when I’m not a good person and when I’m not nice to people, that’s all that is important to her. They aren’t hard to impress, but in a good way.
Are there any singers that you would like to collaborate with?
I would definitely love to sing with CeeLo Green, he is one of the greatest voices alive and I’m so inspired by his voice, but there are so many artists – I’m just trying to focus on myself and become the greatest songwriter I can be, but anything that happens naturally, happens.
Was it always in the back of your mind that you were going to be ‘the best singer, writer, musician I can be’?
No. It wasn’t, singing has always been very natural, talking about music, talking about all the different things, understanding all the different things about becoming an artist. I have always loved singing and writing, I didn’t grow up in a family where we talked about emotions – that is how it started.
If you could go back in time and give yourself any advice, what would that be?
Very vague but I would tell myself that it was going to be alright, that you’re tough, you’re tougher than you think you are.