Interviews

Seinabo Sey Is Off to a Fast Start

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Photo: Eva Tedesjo

Seinabo Sey: "The artists I love, like Jill Scott and Common, they are great storytellers who help people with their songs."

When Seinabo Sey was 21 years old, she felt like she was running out of time. Would this music thing ever work out? How was she going to pay her bills? Out of personal crisis came inspiration — the song “Younger.”

“You might as well get it while you can, babe/ ‘Cause you know you ain’t getting younger,” she sang.

Written in 2013 in collaboration with Swedish producer Magnus Lidehall, “Younger” became Sey’s breakthrough song in 2014 and anchored her acclaimed 2015 album, “Pretend.” It’s a pep talk and self-critique, a way of assuring a worried parent that also motivated Sey.

“It was the second song I ever wrote,” the singer says. “It was written out of frustration, out of the feeling that I wasn’t writing enough. Magnus had asked me if I’d done anything with this beat he had sent me, and I hadn’t. I was angry with myself, and depressed because I was out of money. When I focused on what was making me angry, the words started to come. The first verse came fast. That line, ‘There is a conclusion to my illusion, I assure you this,’ was written for my mom, telling her that it’s going to be all right, I’m going to be all right.”

Sey was born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and Gambian father, Maudo Sey, who was a drummer in an Afro-pop band. Hanging around her father increased her passion for music, but she always thought she was too shy to be a “superhero,” which is how she perceived people who could get up on a stage in front of people and perform.

“I knew I always wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t believe it could happen,” she says. “We were poor, so I thought the only way for me to make a living was to do something ‘proper.’ I felt I had to get an education to survive. I thought maybe I’ll be a lawyer, because I watched too many ‘Gilmore Girls’ episodes. But I wasn’t very good at anything besides music.”

The family moved between Sweden and Africa, until Sey left home in her mid-teens and took the plunge. She entered a Stockholm music school and studied soul music. The performance-heavy curriculum got her over her stage fright, and she immersed herself in the vocabulary of neo-soul singers such as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott. More doors opened when she was invited to tour with a Swedish rapper as a back-up singer and ad-libbing emcee. It was all about teenage kicks. “I went on a summer tour and we drank and rapped our way around Sweden for like a year,” she says. “It was a good way to pay the rent.”

The rapper who hired her had worked with Lidehall, a prominent producer who had worked with artists such as Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue, and suggested Sey reach out to him. “I thought he’s not going to care — he just made a Britney Spears song,” she says. “But he cared. I’d never been in a studio with a real producer before, but he asked me a lot of questions about what kind of music I like, what I wanted to sound like. He was working with people like Katy Perry and other artists all the time, so it took a year to focus on my project. That was a good year because it taught me a lot — I had to do the songs on my own, working with his beats. It was the first time I understood what it took to make a structured, well-written song.”

She wrote a batch of material in the wake of “Younger” that paired her emotive vocals with introspective and socially conscious lyrics. A 2014 EP included “Younger” and “Hard Time,” about a relationship with a friend that had soured. “I write about feelings I am not comfortable expressing to other people,” she says. “I want to write songs like (John Lennon’s) ‘Imagine’ or ‘Crazy’ with Gnarls Barkley, the ‘Formation’ song from Beyonce — songs that have a message and also have a catchy hook. I want both. Being a hitmaker like Max Martin, you can’t take away what he does, it’s an absolute art. But making a hit, it’s not rocket science. I want something more.”

The final song on “Pretend” is “Burial,” which became something of a tribute to her father, who died in 2013. “I started on that song before he died, it was like I was imagining my own funeral, and it was pretty spooky,” she says. “When he died, I tried to write a song about it, but I was sad and tired, and couldn’t come up with anything. I wanted to put three minutes of silence on the CD. But then I found ‘Burial,’ tweaked a couple of words, and then gave it to a friend who changed a couple of the chords to make it sound more hopeful, the idea that my dad is in a better place. So when I sing it now, that part of it is therapeutic for me because it’s beautiful.”

It also cuts to the heart of why Sey sings, and why she embraced music as her life. “To me, ‘soul’ means to tell the truth,” she says. “The artists I love, like Jill Scott and Common, they are great storytellers who help people with their songs. I want to make music that makes me feel the way I felt when I was a lonely kid and listened to Destiny’s Child. I felt empowered, even when I lived in a town where nobody looked like me. I hope when people hear my music, they feel less alone.”


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