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Sunday Stockholm

In Stockholm with Seinabo Sey

21 July 2014, 14:01

The evening may be drawing in but the day’s oppressive 28 degree heat still lingers. “It’s never like this!” a 23-year-old Seinabo Sey casually remarks, as we look out across one of the many shimmering bodies of water that tie Stockholm’s clustered islands together. It is pretty stifling, I have to admit, but I know she’s not just referring to the heat.

On our journey from Jamrock – a Caribbean restaurant in the city’s “trendy” Södermalm district – to the water front we’d lost two of Seinabo’s friends to the studio. Leslie Tay – a young rapper from Malmö – and one of Seinabo’s best friends Isak Alverus are writing for a lot of artists at the moment. “He’s not really my best friend anymore,” Seinabo jokes at one point, “Leslie stole him. They’re in the studio every night. Whenever I call him to hang out he’s like, ‘We’re going to the studio!’”

Our view turns from the Royal Palace back towards the Lydmar Hotel and the languid beats emanating therein, their exact location obscured by the fluttering white canvases of the Patio Bar. Having asked me over dinner to join them for the evening, Simon Yemane (another friend of Seinabo’s, and an artist in his own right), leads the way through the gathering crowds towards the bar itself, where a small stage soon becomes visible.

It’s about eight thirty, those responsible for the music are called Sango and Waldo I’m told. They’re from Michigan and “are actually pretty good” I hear someone say over the bustling sounds of glasses and laughter. I don’t disagree but it’s not long before Waldo takes a back seat and Sango takes to the decks and breaks out all the hits a good DJ should. The place is positively buzzing, the ratio of those dancing to those gently swaying soon inverts and by nine thirty there aren’t many left quietly chatting in their seats.

Propping up the bar for the duration, there are at least 10 people who walk past and are greeted with Seinabo’s infectious grin and a hug. The Swedish/Gambian singer, it seems, is pretty recognisable in her home town. There are at least another 10 who Seinabo points out to me: “she is a really great dancer” … “she’s an incredible singer” … “that guy, dancing over there down the front, he’s like a really famous Swedish poet” … “that’s the guy who helped put on tonight’s show, I’ll introduce you later.” She introduces me to many people I can’t really keep up. Zedd collaborator and Gothenburg born singer Miriam Byrant comes over to say hello and when Seinabo’s not looking turns to me and says “she is so great.”

It may be the sunshine induced good will or the enthusiasm often brought about by a third glass of wine, but it’s impossible not to feel like there is something really happening here. To have stumbled unknowingly into a crowd so creative in nature, so vibrant, so individual; it’s also impossible not to feel a little overwhelmed. It’s quite surreal. Sweden’s track record for producing incredible music is no secret but the reasons behind its success are a little more mysterious – the free music schools or the cliché that ‘there must be something in the water’ are the usual suspects. Everyone I meet this evening seems to know everyone else, everyone is collaborating with someone else here. If this is an accurate representation of Stockholm as a city, the reasons behind its creative successes suddenly become obvious. “It is never like this,” Seinabo says once more.

The sun sets around 10 just as the bar closes and the crowd disperses. Some head home (it’s a school night after all) and some move the party upstairs: we follow through the decadent lobby of the Lydmar up the grand, winding staircase to the wonderfully intimate confines of the Terrace Bar (which in case you were wondering, does have its own fountain!) Apparently Justin Bieber stays in the place next door when he visits. Simon talks about the writing retreat to Gotland he’s planning, he needs to get bored and whilst Seinabo talks to Nina Nestlander (her manager), he mentions to me that Seinabo is the only person he knows that sings backwards. She overhears him and glances over as if to say ‘what are you talking about?’ I’m not sure myself so am glad of the repetition. “I was just telling her how you’re the only person I know who sings backwards,” he says, as she smiles. I’m still clearly at a loss but as the two sing “you’re getting so much older, older, older aren’t you?” in unison across the table it all clicks.

Simon is, of course, referring to the very song that lead to me joining them here in the first place; Seinabo’s debut single “Younger.” A soulful, quietly addictive number that surfaced online late last year, “Younger” was, for a debut solo effort, an incredible undertaking: built upon lingering organ notes and Seinabo’s powerhouse vocals, it starts off in life as a straight-up soul pop ballad but ends things in the throws of euphoric, trance like sonics - ushered in by the steady hand of producer Magnus Lidehäll. “You’ll meet ‘The Producer’ tomorrow” Seinabo had said at dinner earlier that evening, while Simon did everything he could to make Magnus sound like an intimidating character. “Don’t look him directly in the eye, and definitely don’t touch his head…” he laughed, before I interrupted with a suggestion of my own “only speak when spoken to?” I had to assume they were all joking, but as we parted company for the evening I wasn’t entirely sure.


Photograph by Lauren DownPhotograph by Lauren Down

I meet Seinabo late the next morning, any hopes of beating the heat having vanished. We had talked about her taking me to some of her favourite places in Stockholm but the more she thought about it, the more she realised that wasn’t really an accurate representation of her life so we headed to the Universal office. It’s kind of a ghost town, as everyone is away on holiday, but those that remain are so welcoming that it’s pretty clear why Seinabo would spend so much time here. We’re here largely because Seinabo wants me to meet Jonas Wikström, the man responsible for her signing to Universal and, in part, getting her to where she is now.

“Jonas is really good at asking the right questions. He really makes you think about what you’re doing. He has a lot of patience and faith in us all,” Seinabo had told me earlier whilst also explaining that her and her sister had nicknamed Jonas “the Swan” for reasons I can no longer recall. I’m fine with the mystery though and enjoy the giant swan light on his windowsill. I poke around the building while he and Seinabo chat. When we leave, I get the impression Seinabo found more questions than answers but the fact that she has a lot to think about doesn’t seem to phase her. “So much to do…” she mutters as we head back into the sun. Jonas very much assumes his role as father of the musical family Seinabo has built for herself. Her real father – the legendary West African musician Mawdo Sey – passed away last year, entrusting the families musical heritage to his daughter.

“I didn’t live with him that much when I was a kid because I grew up in Halmstad which is on the West Coast. So I’d come here and hang out with him,” she reminisces as we later make our way to Kungsträdgården park. “He was a really, really brilliant musician. He’d hang out in the park with his friends - sometimes by the fountain, sometimes over in the corner because you weren’t allowed to drink alcohol in the park! I’ve seen pictures of us from like the 90s with my mum and a lot of Gambian people and play drums for hours. People really used to hang out in that park; now there’s no culture left in this town, so people don’t do that anymore, but it was really cool. There are a lot of Gambian / half-Gambian kids here but there isn’t really a big West African music scene going on here. This culture in Sweden kind of kills that spirit. I know it was hard for him to keep going.”

Photograph by Lauren DownBerns. Photograph by Lauren Down

Though music is in her blood, it doesn’t run as deep as you might first assume. “Being a singer in Gambia is not really a good thing. My dad is from a really religious family, and he pissed a lot of people off because he chose to become a singer instead of a big Muslim leader.” “Was that what was expected of him?” I ask. “Yeah…it’s a really interesting family. My grandmother had like 11 kids or something with different men - my dad’s father was a really prominent Muslim leader and my aunt’s dad was like a Prime Minister in Gambia. All the kids came from these really prominent families, so there was a lot of pressure to do whatever your father was doing. So my dad went to a Qurʾānic school for years and he knew the Quran by heart but then he just didn’t want to be there because they were a really strict family. They beat him up really badly, it was just not a nice childhood at all. His dad was very, very, very strict so he ran away back to Gambia from Senegal and found some friends who wanted to make music.”

Seinabo herself moved to Stockholm without her parents when she was 15 to go to music school so she also finds herself with a family of friends. “I took a course for 3 years called ‘Soul’: From 15-18 we sang Aretha Franklin songs, and Chaka Khan, and Destiny’s Child and some Robyn too. That was school. I always had this idea that I had to study something serious, like this was for now, but I would go to Harvard and become a lawyer when I grew up because my dad was so like ‘you have to’ but then I realised ‘I just wanna sing and it’s all your fault.’” She chuckles at the hypothetical argument with her dad that I’m sure would have manifested itself in reality at some point in the past.

“I found this diary from when I was like 7 or 8 or something. I’d written down a little poem and I remember the melody to it, so I guess I was trying to write even back then but I never really thought I could. I guess because my dad was the star of the family I was always in the background. But then maybe when I was like 14/15 my music teacher forced me to sing in front of my class. I mean, I sang in a choir but my biggest anxiety was to sing by myself and I remember being really proud of myself because I’d done something I was scared of doing. It took me a long time to get the courage to actually do that. I had so much stage fright, now it’s not even a part of anything.”

Before Kungsträdgården park comes into view we pass Berns, where Seinabo played her first ever show in Stockholm. “The interior of this place is actually really beautiful,” she says before turning to Nina and asking, “Do you think we can go in?” We try the doors and they seem to agree with us, just as I agree with Seinabo that this place is actually really beautiful. Gilded columns climb its curved ceiling vaults, the dark lighting only emphasising the spots that glisten. The creaking floorboards, static silence and collective footsteps reinforce the overall impression that we’re not really supposed to be in there but it’s worth it to see the theatrical setting that played host to Seinabo’s Stockholm debut – a stage that she tells me with the biggest smile once also played host to The Supremes. “It’s really weird that we’re showing you all these fancy places” she muses. “It’s kind of weird, creative young people we don’t have our own spots so we go to the same places that the bankers do.”

Photograph by Lauren DownKungsträdgården park. Photograph by Lauren Down

Sunglasses re-adjusted, we head back out into the stifling midday heat. Approaching the park we hear humming strings in the distance and realise that there is a massive live concert going on. The sun filters through the scattered trees as the sound swells and Seinabo realises that the South African choir and full orchestra on stage were bought there by her friend. I can’t see her face but she sounds like she’s almost moved to tears by how unexpectedly awesome this is. Nina and Seinabo laugh at how it looks like they’d planned this for my trip and as the concert comes to an end and as we make our way to The Studio, to meet The Producer, I’m reminded once more that things like this don’t really happen.


The Studio. Photograph by Lauren DownThe Studio. Photograph by Lauren Down

As Magnus Lidehäll opens the door to the studio, not only is the temptation to touch his head is pretty strong, but it’s very apparent Simon and Seinabo’s intimidating description of him couldn’t be further from the truth. Pale grey concrete slabs masquerading as stairs lead us to the top floor of the building where a heavy security door gives way to a bright studio space, one which Magnus shares with Vincent Pontare and Salem Al Fakir (Swedish House Mafia, Avicii). “We just took over the whole floor beneath as well actually” says Magnus. “Hopefully we’re going to take the rest of the house as well and have a big studio thing going on.” For now though there are two main spaces, joined by a interior window. Vincent and Salem’s is filled with natural light. Magnus has two stand alone lamps at either end of the room. One illuminates his mixing deck, and the other sits next to the burgundy couch that Seinabo has made her home for the last 2 years.

“Yeah, it’s been like 2/3 years. It’s only lately that I’ve been here more regularly, I guess like 5 days a week, because I’ve been working on all of that,” Seinabo explains, as she points towards a whiteboard near the door with ideas and song names scribbled across it in green ink. “Nowadays I just come here, have an idea, write it down and we explore it. We have this idea where the first thing we come up with is probably the best so we’re sticking to that a lot more. I’m not very organised so Magnus is like maybe ‘we cut it here, you put that part here, that melody here’. He is really good at sorting that out, which is great, but sometimes I’m like ‘excuse me, I had an emotion I needed to convey’. I think that’s important to an extent, we’re not too precious. It’s always a very clear feeling though. I always say it has to feel like a breath, it has to feel natural from start to finish. ”

The Board. Photograph by Lauren DownThe Board. Photograph by Lauren Down

“We had a mutual friend who thought we should work together,” Seinabo explains when I ask how they met. “I was like ‘he’s too cool’ but then we sent some emails back and forth, he listened to some tracks, I sent him some voice memos.” “Yeah, actually that robot voice in “Younger” isn’t a robot,” Magnus chimes in, “it’s actually the original phone memo that I tweaked a little bit. We tried to redo it but it didn’t really sound as good somehow so we kind of kept it. We thought we might try and do it again after but then it like stayed there for a year. It was funny to see people - when the track was released - speculating about us having to put in a robot voice but it was kind of the opposite, that was the starting point and everything else was built around it.”

Seinabo admits that a lot of their sketches have a similar kind of thing going on, and judging by the board, the pair have quite a lot of song sketches. “Some of them are very sketchy…” Magnus jokes while I wonder which ones will make the record. “I was thinking about this yesterday,” Seinabo says as she stares at the board. “That’s a lot of songs man, that’s a lot of songs. At the moment I tend to like the last song we did the most so it gets really tricky. Maybe if you’re lucky you can pick one and we’ll play it to you!” I say I’d like to hear whatever song is her current favourite, so Magnus puts on a track called “Who”. Shimmering keys, heavy drum beats, fluctuating synths, powerful gospel structures twisted to suit pop’s needs: I don’t want to spoil the surprise too much, but god damn I hope that song sees the light of day. “It’s an idea,” says Magnus before also treating me snippets of “River” and “This Time” (which both feature Vincent and Salem on choir-like backing vocals). “River is an old, old song. It’s the first song in fact!” he explains whilst getting ready to push play. “We’re still trying to fill out the chorus,” adds Seinabo before Magnus’ laughter fills the room, “two and a half years later!!”

“Vincent, Salem and Magnus have artists coming here and working with them all the time,” explains Seinabo, as Magnus leaves the room to take a call. “It’s quite ridiculous that they even have time to make my album. These people are just genius. I’m so spoiled I swear. This is a dream scenario I could never have imagined. Salem particularly is one of my childhood idols. He’s one of the kindest guys ever. I think that’s maybe what is special about this place: they all kind of collaborate and help each other out.”

Later, Seinabo would tell me about the music she grew up listening to and we both agree it has had a profound subconscious affect on what she produces now. “There is this chanting, Muslim, singing thing that my dad did all the time which is a very West African thing where they just sit and chant. They’re like psalms, basically, and they have very beautiful melodies and he’d just do that every day. We’d just have to sit there and listen to him singing, really loud, for hours. I didn’t like it then but now I can really appreciate it. It sounds awesome, really meditative.” Listening to her second single “Hard Time” and the way her lyrics build and repeat themselves I say it is impossible not to draw comparisons. “I hadn’t thought about it but maybe, yeah I guess lyrically definitely.” Though she assures me Lauryn Hill is just as responsible!

Of course everything I hear today could all change by the time it gets released. They have 22 strong sketches and are aiming for an 11/13 track album so there will be some tricky choices ahead. As to what people can expect from the record overall, Seinabo thinks that “it will be a real mix. I want to make songs that comfort people, I want them to know they’re not alone in their problems. Everyone has the same fucking problems, it’s very important to be human about these things – not to make them better or worse but just to be as blunt as possible. I want complexity. I like it when there is a dark and a light side to everything. I also want to incorporate as many sounds as possible because I hate it when you can identify like ‘this is my hip hop song’ or ‘this is my soul song’. If you set off to make a soul song, it’s hard not to conform to what you think you should be doing. It’s easier to not have a specific goal in mind.” Having said all this Seinabo does joke about how “Who” is her country song: “I put on a southern accent for some reason, like I’m so country! I should be scared because it’s going to be all over the place!” With a voice like Seinabo’s though, the album will have a really strong thread to tie everything together. “That’s kind of my aim!” she confirms.


Seinabo Sey. Photograph by Lauren DownSeinabo Sey. Photograph by Lauren Down

As we climb into the cab and make our way to Södermalm for lunch, Seinabo kind of nods and smiles, as if sharing an inside joke with herself. “These phrases come back to bite me” she explains after catching my inquisitive look. “Every time I’m like ‘I don’t want to do something’ my friends are like ‘you’re not getting any younger’ and now this song [“Who”] - I played it for my friend and she was like ‘I’m going to start asking you who do you think you are? That is what is going to happen!” But then, that’s what friends are for right? “Definitely my friends. Oh man, you only met the guys yesterday but you really need to meet the girls!” she gushes. “They’re remarkable. I look around and everyone is really talented. I’m really lucky. They’re so supportive of everything. Everywhere, always helping. They’re magical people.”

Despite clearly being surrounded by people she cherishes and people who in turn think she is really special Sweden’s culture clearly frustrates Seinabo. “We have this wide spread philosophy in Sweden that you’re definitely not supposed to think you’re special,” she continues as we sit down to eat, looking disheartened by the words that just came out of her mouth. “You’re not supposed to change anything, people tell you you’re not supposed to change the world but at 23 how can you not think you can change the world?” Seinabo’s sentences dance around this subject for 10 minutes in our final hour together; stoping and starting, spawning tangents – all as if she’s censoring herself. It’s only later, with my feet back on UK soil, that I realise she’s introduced me - whether she meant to or not - to the first of 10 rules; rules so deeply ingrained in Scandinavian culture that the nature of our conversation surrounding them was only ever going to be reticent.

The ideals governing these rules were given definition by Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose’s in his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks but Jantelagen – or The Law of Jante – was a part of the nation’s psyche long before then, engendering a sense of humility that eschews overt self-promotion in favour of modesty. Looking over the remaining 9 rules now only serves to make the fact that Sweden has such a rich musical heritage more of a mystery: “You’re not to think you are good at anything” being the most damning. Of course, they don’t rule Seinabo’s life but it’s clear from our conversation that they are something she has to contend with.

“Thinking outside of the box here is a really big deal. I’ve always thought about what it would be like if I lived somewhere more open minded, with like minded people and we’d get better together, and grow together. Who would I be if I were in that environment? Here it’s more about making your own path. We have no culture here. Being brown or multicultural in general we’re still dealing with a lot of ‘don’t touch my hair’ issues. My click of friends is the biggest click of brown people I’ve seen. Here everyone looks the same, everything is the same. When you don’t see yourself anywhere in society, don’t see yourself in pictures, don’t see yourself on the streets; it’s really not that inspiring. I’m happy to kind of maybe be that for someone else but we need some inspiration man, we definitely do.” She kind of sighs, takes a sip of the melting Mango Lassi in front of her and says in the warmest way possible “I don’t know, I don’t really have much love for this city.”

It’s strange, because if the last 24 hours have shown me anything, it’s that Stockholm has nothing but love for Seinabo Sey. And why wouldn’t they, her heart is clearly just as big as her voice. I ask if she thinks that perhaps her constant assertions that the city lacks culture are a result of her being right in the middle of it. “Mmmm, maybe” she says with a long drawn out breath before reminding me that things like our evening at Lydmar, our accidental concert in the park, the supportive network of creatives that surround her and the collaborative experiences that have led to the production of her album “happen very seldom.”

“But you’re right,” she finishes “you get a bit .. it’s called ‘home-blind’ in Sweden, when you can’t really see what is in your face.”

Seinabo Sey plays Notting Hill Arts Club in London tomorrow (22 July). Her debut album is due out later this year.

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