Watch 'Do It Anyway'
There aren’t many new artists who’ve featured on two multi-platinum UK number 1 albums (Rudimental’s Home and Disclosures’s Settle), collaborated with everyone from Ryan Hemsworth to Goldlink, and who’ve been tapped up by the actual Janet Jackson to work on her new album. Actually there’s only one artist to fit that bill and that’s your new favourite singer, Sinead Harnett. Born in north London to a Thai mother and an Irish father, 25-year-old Sinead’s music is an intoxicating blend of laid-back featherlight soul, 90s-referencing R&B bangers (think Timbaland-produced Aaliyah tinged with UK garage) and delicately swooning slow jams all tied together by a versatile voice that coaxes and teases one minute, and delivers a withering put down the next. The latter can be found in abundance on the percussive stomp of the excellent new single She Ain’t Me, an attitude-heavy change of pace from the cooing collaborations she’s done so far. A sign of what’s to come on her forthcoming debut album I’ll Remain, She Ain’t Me captures an artist stepping up to the next level. “That was one of the earlier tunes I did for the album that featured this new, more feisty side to me,” she explains. “I knew it needed to be on the album and I actually fought for it to be a single. It’s still quite restrained, but there’s attitude in there too. It’s still me but a step up.”
Sinead Harnett’s been singing since the age of seven, she just couldn’t let anyone else hear her. With a strict mother who’d often have to work away from home, Harnett spent a lot of time by herself or with the musical family friends she now refers to as her second family. Growing up she’d perform impromptu gigs to no one in her living room, singing Michael Jackson’s Bad or Tina Turner’s Simply The Best. She’d also absorb the songs coming from her older sister’s bedroom, with albums by the likes of TLC and Destiny’s Child played on a loop. “I wasn’t a confident kid really,” she says. “But then again I feel like I’m a juxtaposition – I’m either the class clown entertaining everyone or I’m a little bit sombre, but if I got into that state of comfort I could entertain. I’d go to my auntie’s and perform sketch shows or sing for them.” As she got older, this dual personality found its kindred spirit in the music of Lauryn Hill: “I think because I was a moody kid and teenager, I remember hearing that soul fused with that pain and just latching on. It just really resonated with me.” Slowly but surely she started singing in places people might be able to hear her, taking part in college talent shows and writing and recording with friends in makeshift studios. While her mum wanted her to study for a psychology degree, Harnett had other ideas. “At the last minute I was like ‘nah, I’m 18, I’m going to do what I want and if I don’t I’ll regret it’. It was a milestone for me. I realised it was my life.”
Instead she enrolled to become an actress at the Arts University Bournemouth, with music still something she loved passionately but that she just did on the side. “It was such a hobby,” she laughs. “I knew that all of my energy was going into it but I didn’t know why. There wasn’t really a motive and I had no idea how to go about it all. There was no recipe.” Not that she was sitting around doing nothing mind you – as well as singing songs in clubs for £40 a pop, she was also on her way to becoming a full-time singing waitress. “At the restaurant I worked at I’d do Motown tunes because it was an American Diner, basically,” she says still slightly surprised by it all. “That came about because they found out I could sing so they turned the whole place into a musical restaurant.” Then, just as University was coming to an end, the godfather of grime, Wiley, literally came calling. Having tweeted asking for new female vocalists to make themselves known, a friend who’d happened to record one of Harnett’s college talent show performances messaged him the video. “He somehow got my number and rung me,” she laughs. “I had just finished my last acting assessment at Uni and then I had to get out of the role and be like ‘oh hey Wiley’. All my friends who I was drinking wine with were like ‘the godfather of grime is calling your phone’ and I was just like ‘what on earth is going on’.”
What was going on was the start of something special. From there Wiley used the vocal Sinead had recorded in a mate’s bedroom on his track Walk Away. Upon returning to London she then found herself with a manager and shortly after that she was in the studio with then relatively unknown producers Disclosure, creating the subtle, percolating majesty that is Boiling. “I think Disclosure was maybe the third real session I’d done and it was good because I didn’t have a rule book and neither did they,” she explains. “We were just having a laugh – we all put wigs on and did a shot after the session.” From there she found herself in the studio with Rudimental, eventually appearing on three songs on their Home album, including the title track, as well as with Canadian wonderkid Ryan Hemsworth. Suddenly everything was starting to fall into place. But in a music world saturated with featured artists, Harnett was wary of becoming a voice for hire and was keen to press on with cultivating her own sound. “At that point, in 2012, I liked being part of other people’s journeys because I don’t think I knew exactly who I was at that point. Exposure’s great but the pressure and expectation can be quite pigeon-holing I think. For me though, I didn’t change who I am or my sound when I was featuring, so I didn’t do a big commercial drum’n’bass song with Rudimental or a big hammering house song with Disclosure. I don’t think it would have suited what I do.”
Peppered with low slung grooves, subtly entrancing vocal melodies and lashings of smoky soul, 2014’s N.O.W EP was an introduction to what Harnett could do outside of the features. “The EP was very much me at that time,” she says. “That was where I was at, I was writing my album but I wanted to give people a hint of what was to come. I wanted to share where I was at that time.” It’s a sign of how confident she is in the new material that none of the songs from the EP made the final album tracklisting, especially when you consider that one of the songs, No Other Way, was picked out as a favourite by childhood hero Janet Jackson, whose management, and then later super producer Rodney Jerkins, had been in touch to see if Sinead might like to write for Jackson’s forthcoming new album (talks are ongoing).
Thankfully the subtler side of her musical personality is catered for on the album by the silky soft Enough, the softly devastating title track and the gorgeous swoon of Let You Win, a song recorded in LA after a three day writing session with Beyoncé and Rihanna collaborator, James Fauntleroy. “His way of working is so relaxed and it was such a pleasure to work with him,” she says of the sessions in his studio in Inglewood. “We had three days together, which I still can’t believe. I remember him asking me what I was feeling from the instrumental and to me, instinctively, it was just a sexy song.” Other collaborators on the album include the likes of MOJAM, Two Inch Punch, TMS, Chris Loco and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Koz, each helping channel Harnett’s ideas and songwriting into an eclectic, multi-layered album that showcases more than one flavour. “There are lots of layers on the album and I’ll Remain, the song, is the heart of it. That was the song I’ve put under the carpet for years. I wanted to find peace with the situation it touches on,” she says. “The top layer is the more fun songs and there are also the sexier moments too.” Then there’s the drum clap heavy minimalism of the amazing future single Do It Anyway, a song “about me getting a high out of doing things the way I want to do them and not being influenced by people who maybe don’t have my best intentions at heart.”
Despite it being her debut album, it’s been constantly steered and shaped by Harnett herself. Talking about the session that resulted in the attitude-saturated She Ain’t Me (key line: “go ahead and have her darling, but don’t come back to me”), she says: “I remember when I got in there not feeling pressure but thinking it felt like a new step production-wise. I want people to feel the different moods on the album with me. I’ve taken on the other sides to my character and experimented more. There’s more of me coming out of my comfort zone and pushing myself vocally on the album. With ‘She Ain’t Me’, I pushed myself to be a bit more feisty and open up about the subject matter, so I went in there and just told the producers what I wanted”. There’s a pause, before Sinead adds something that’s true of her entire career so far. “I was the driver and they just got in the car.” Make sure you come along for the ride.
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