Seinabo Sey: Swedish Countryside Slay
With her forthcoming album, the singer and songwriter gives listeners a taste of her country’s musical future.
When Swedish-Gambian artist Seinabo Sey released the single “Younger” roughly eight years ago, she was just that—younger. Of course, the 32-year-old artist is still young, but nearly a decade in the spotlight has transformed the musical powerhouse, in many ways an anomaly amongst Swedish peers in the industry, into a well-rounded person, no longer laser-focused on pop stardom and only pop stardom. She achieved that, only to discover that acclaim and popularity was not her main attraction to making art; connectivity was.
Upon the release of last Friday’s single, “Suzuki,” we hear Sey singing about someone (or a public) that still doesn’t know her, cannot hold her, cannot contain her. To accompany her first photoshoot for V Magazine, photographed by Arvida Byström, V spoke to the increasingly enlightened star about her new album and life revelations.
V Magazine: The last time we spoke, you were telling me about how you wanted to collaborate with a lot of people on this album. I also know you love Beyoncé, who collaborated with 23 other writers on just a single track from her new album—”Alien Superstar.” I assume you’re not opening it up to quite that many people?
Seinabo Sey: This is the first time in my life that I’ve written and produced with so many people on the same project. Definitely the most challenging part of everything is to understand how that process needs to work in order not to make anyone feel like their idea isn’t worth what it’s worth. Making people feel like they’re not dissected and picked apart. Because essentially, that’s what you have to do then. If you have that many people, you have to have a million ideas that a lot of people think are done and finished, then dissect them and put them back together again.
V: In a way it’s like learning business and team management. It’s not easy to keep yourself happy, and also keep everyone happy.
SS: Absolutely. It’s just like being an editor of a magazine. I’ve gone back and forth with that a million times where I have to check myself. Do I like the song or do I like the situation and the person? Being honest with myself, I think if I’d known how to take myself through that process, it wouldn’t have taken me four years. It probably would’ve taken me like three solid years just like figuring out how to work with people and understanding people and getting to know them. I love Beyoncé documentaries because you kind of get to see glimpses of what she does. She says a lot of times, business and pleasure don’t mix. You have to be willing to kind of go back and forth. I think finding people that are equally willing to question themselves and their ideas is key. Because a lot of people want to believe that the first or the second idea is the best idea. It might well be, but there’s more often so than not an urge to at least explore more possibilities and options. I think most people that are any good at writing songs do that. Then you have some songs that just come to you. You might choose version one, but you still might have to make 10 versions to choose version one, you know? It’s a messy process.
V Magazine: We first spoke about your new album a year ago, and I know the music has evolved a lot since then. Can you tell us more about that?
SS: I think it’s funny how many times I’ve thought that I was done. And the reasons I chose to continue have been really random. I started this thing off making a million songs and then we went off one summer and made the EP and that was a very specific set of songs. Then I just kept on with the same people, but I never really felt like I was really believing the sound. I always felt like I had maybe the songs and I felt like I had vocal takes and harmonies that I loved, but I wasn’t really sure about the sound. You know you make do with what you have after a certain amount of time as well, because I can’t make an album forever. So I was like, alright, maybe I’m done. I think seven months ago a guy that I thought would produce the whole album dropped out. We really realized maybe we weren’t , in a very peaceful way, on the same page with the music, I guess. Then I met up with a producer “Simon on the Moon” that I had been working with a lot. He’s from the west coast of Sweden, which is funny, but he comes from a tiny town very close to the tiny town I come from. He looked at me and went, “Maybe I should just produce this album.” I was so happy, that was really my dream the whole time to be honest. We sat down and kind of talked through our references and realized that we both love folk music, but we both love experimental music and hip hop and R&B and all kinds of new fresh hip hop and R&B as well as some older stuff. I think he just gets the kind of weird juxtaposition of all these cultures that I have in my life.
V: What did it look like when you guys started to collaborate together?
SS: We went off two weeks in the summer and I think one week in the autumn and basically worked 24 hours a day. I fell asleep in front of the monitors every night in the studio just listening and producing. It was really a very special two weeks, I think. A lot of things really crystallized and really became what they needed to be. A lot of old demos that I’ve always felt just had something, but I didn’t really understand what the main buttons to press were.
V: What was it like tapping back into those cultural juxtaposition that have really shaped you?
SS: That was quite a healing experience for me and I didn’t understand that I needed to go back to my roots again. I definitely didn’t understand a year ago that I needed to understand the Swedish part of my heritage as well as, maybe more so, thinking about Gambia and that stuff from my last album. I’m a little bit back to square one because I remember when younger, that was my exact idea. I wanted to put my mixed heritage in the center with Swedish culture and see how that would look. I think, to this day, what I want to show, if I’m being honest, showing people my part of the world. You know?
V: It’s funny to think about how when we’re young, we want to expand and grow big, and then later we often find ourselves needing to go back to where we started.
SS: Yeah, exactly. I think 10 years ago or more when I was younger, my train of thought as a 21-year-old wasn’t clear. I couldn’t look at it from a distance enough to really understand what was going on naturally. I feel so much more in control of that narrative. I feel like I understand myself in a way that I didn’t think was even possible. I love being older, man. I love growing older. I feel like this youth culture is just so overhyped.
V: How has your relationship with yourself and even your career choice changed over those years?
SS: It’s a great question, because that’s the thing I think about, basically every day. I think it’s not a given anymore in the way it was when I was younger. I’ve never been a very goal-oriented person. It’s not that I’ve been super-duper focused. I think the older I get, the more I open up. The better I get at things, the more I have to actively challenge myself to learn things. I’ve gotten the hang of it, I believe. I’ve gotten the hang of a lot of parts of my job. So I have to now actively find new things that really make me interested in the craft of being a musician, to be honest. Being able to just make an album for four years is one of the greatest luxuries of my life. I don’t think I’ve understood that enough, but I understand that now. What a blessing it is. I have to find things that make me interested for me to work. Being famous didn’t really do it for me and I thought it would. At some points in my life I hoped it would. As long as I feel there are things and ideas that I want to explore and people I want to meet, there’s always a reason to continue creating music. But as far as being a woman on earth as a normal human being, I feel there is definitely stuff that I have missed out on doing and learning skillsets of life that I’ve missed, because of the way I’ve been working.
I feel like what I’m trying to figure out moving forward is, what do I want? I think goals will vary and I’ll give myself some slack. Maybe I’ll change my mind. It is very interesting. I think motivation is totally an everyday thing and is something that you have to feed. It’s nothing that I just have. It’s not like a magical switch that I was born with to be super motivated to make people money in this way as well, because there’s a huge difference between loving music and wanting to have a music career.
V: With this album, what do you think you are trying to say? What message did you want to express or get off of your chest?
SS: I went into it, to be honest, with less emotional goals; more so very technical goals this time because I was tired. I was tired. Half of this process, for two years I didn’t want to write. I didn’t know what to write about. God knows I tried to write, but I didn’t have anything flowing out of me. Now I realize that I was probably depressed and I was probably the closest to being burned out that I’ve ever been in my life because the last seven or eight years have been more overwhelming than I even could understand. Things had been accumulating in my body. I had a chronic pain thing going on for two years as well. That stopped when I started taking care of myself better. The stress of the situation affected me more than I understood. So I was trying to get out from that. So I set goals to learn to write songs that are less emotional, more descriptive. Learn to produce something or learn how to write with other songwriters and if you can’t write, learn how to talk to people and have them write songs for you. I think my motivation is not so much motivation itself, but more an absolute fear of failure.
But accumulating all the things and putting together all the songs, I guess at the end of the day I realized that this is probably a record about my relationships, you know? The songs are really about men that have fucked my life up, in different ways. It’s really 90% songs about just relationships and shit that happens in relationships. There’s not songs about life that much anymore because I also had my first long relationship during making this album. I also had a couple of romances that were intense and mad in a way that I’ve never had before in my life. I’ve always been so scared to let that happen to me. I’ve just wanted to express the griminess of it all, the honesty, and darkness, but also the beautiful and simple beauty of really being in love. Even just thinking you’re in love can be quite a beautiful experience sometimes.
V: What have you maybe learned about yourself in the years you’ve been putting together this album?
SS: Understanding that most things in life, you just have to put in a lot of work and then you get glimpses of ecstasy. Really, the reward is just to have an everyday kind of thing that works. I guess being more gentle with myself when I don’t have things figured out, because I now see how much of my life I’ve put into making music, which is the greatest luxury. I can’t call it anything but a miracle that I could sit for four or five years and think about melodies and songs and worry about productions. People are out here living really tough lives. I mean it’s crazy. I’m thankful.