Watch 'Hard Time'
Since she burst onto the blogs with 2013’s immaculate Younger, Sweden’s unconventional, noir pop practitioner Seinabo Sey has been constantly refining her sound, picking up breathless accolades along the way. Not your typical pop artist – she’s too clever for that – Rolling Stone described her as sounding like “Nina Simone and Play-era Moby forging millennial-era natural blues”, while Fader referenced both her emotional and vocal strength with the simple, “this woman has power”. Having scored more Hype Machine number ones than we have space for here with the likes of the heavy-hitting Hard Time and the pulsating You, she’s about to release her genre-defying, emotionally honest debut, Pretend, a pop album saturated in soul and full of big melodic songs that draw on real, sometimes painfully relatable moments. “This album is really all about my life,” she explains. “It’s about everything that’s happened to me”.
Seinabo Sey’s undulating music – created in collaboration with producer Magnus Lidehäll (Mapei, Madonna) – is a reflection of the restless nature of her upbringing. Born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and a Gambian father, she moved to Gambia at the age of four to allow Maudo, who died in 2013, to carry on his career (he was an influential Gambian vocalist). The sudden shift in cultures took time to overcome, with Sey struggling to deal with settling into a new school and a much stricter way of life. “I grew up in Gambian culture and there’s a lot of discipline – don’t be too loud, sit down – and a lot of things you have to know like don’t give a person half a glass of water, you have to fill it to the top. My parents were pretty hippy about it but my dad was strict at times.”
Encouraged to sit and observe silently, Sey steadily built up an eye for detail and an ability to creatively turn painful situations into something positive, a trait that permeates Pretend. She also had to deal with living in a country where her father was famous, the constant assumption that she’d follow in his footsteps initially leading her in the opposite direction (she thought she’d be a lawyer). Younger deals with Sey trying to overcome the disparity between wanting to be a singer and actually trying to make it happen. “It’s about me wondering why I wasn’t doing what I told people I loved doing. There’s always something that can get in the way of working really hard if you let it.” It’s a theme that bleeds into the next track, the dynamic, vintage hip-hop stylings of current single Pretend, a song that hinges around the lyric “Things are going just as they should, knock on wood”. “That’s sort of about the same thing as Younger really,” Sey explains. “It’s a bit more ‘okay, I’m here now, I’m a bit further along but it could still go away at any moment’.”
Just as she was getting used to her new life in Gambia, Sey returned to Sweden, this time to the small coastal town of Halmstad. “I really like moving around a lot,” she says now. “I have a hard time staying in one place. But more than that it’s how moving around is about understanding people. I’ve become really good at realising what you need to do to get along.” So while her experience of Gambia directly was relatively brief – they stayed for three years – the country has seeped into her music, although not in the way most people expect. “The way that Africa is in my music is the way I write – I grew up around people that would give me advice all the time and that’s part of Gambian culture to speak like that,” she says. On Pretend the advice is twisted inwards, with Sey using the songs to help get herself over emotional obstacles, not just on Younger and Pretend but also on the creaking minimalism of Easy, the piano-lead epic Poetic and Still’s delicate lilt (“tell ’em I’m no fool”).
Despite obsessing as a teenager over pop singers not exactly lacking in self-confidence (Beyoncé, Alicia Keys), Sey took a while to find her feet as a singer, a shyness documented in the featherlight thrill of Words. “I didn’t sing [in public] until I was 13, but even then it took a long time. I was scared. I never thought I’d be good enough.” By this point she was writing her own songs and poems and having signed up to legal courses in Halmstad, she suddenly showcased her independence by moving to Stockholm alone at the age of 15 to enrol at the city’s music school, Fryshuset, to study soul music.
The move to a bigger city offered up more opportunities, it was there she was put in contact by a friend with Magnus Lidehäll. “I never thought he’d reply because he’d worked with all these big people before that. I assumed he wouldn’t have time for this little soul singer,” she laughs. Connecting immediately over a mutual love of hip-hop and a dislike of the limitations of genre, the pair’s creativity clicked instantly. “We work so well together because we’re only good at what we do, so we don’t meddle in other people’s areas – he doesn’t tell me what to do with my singing or lyrics and I don’t tell him what to do with the production. I knew what I liked with the production he’d done. I knew he could create something beautiful.”
It makes sense that Pretend would be a focused vision primarily created by just two people. Ever since she was a child Sey’s had to be fiercely independent, fighting hard for what she wanted and sticking to her guns no matter what. She’s also had to be patient, which goes someway to explaining Pretend’s soft hymn-like quality. “I like when you feel that the music is sunk in when you listen to it – not rushed. I want people to have time to absorb it.” It also means there’s a real spectrum of emotion buried beneath its layers, flitting from the more lyrically aggressive call to arms Hard Time – Sey’s favourite – to the more outward looking, electro-pulse of Who, which deals with Sey’s view that anything can be changed if you’re willing to work hard enough.
Perhaps the album’s most emotional moment is the closing Burial, dedicated to her late father. Over plaintive piano and dramatic strings Sey’s emotionally swollen vocal sighs “flowers across the sea, memories aren’t what they used to be”, before the song’s chorus offers up redemption. “I wrote it before he died but then when he passed away I revisited the lyrics. It’s about the way I felt about him passing,” Sey explains. “It’s about feeling joy and relief that somebody’s gone in a way.” It’s the perfect end to a debut album steeped in emotional honesty, offering up succour to the album’s creator as much as it does to the listener. “I’ve been trying to finish a debut album since I was 19,” Sey says. “It would have happened eventually, but I didn’t think it would have turned out how I wanted it to turn out. I’ve learnt that you have to let things grow organically.” It’s been quite a journey.
Seinabo Sey social links
Buy on iTunes, or listen on Spotify.