Seinabo Sey Is Singing Herself Into A Better Person

The Swedish pop powerhouse shares the personal stories that have shaped her songwriting.

November 12, 2014

Seinabo Sey—pronounced say-na-bo see—gingerly approaches the couch in The FADER's office, walking with the poise of someone who is concerned even her own footfall could cause injury. What did she do with the Sey in the "Hard Time" video? Her massive summer single—produced by acclaimed Swedish producer Magnus Lidehäll—had placed an image of a booming, no-fools-suffered powerhouse in my head, which the singer's shy smile is now swiftly shooing away. The reason for the hesitation quickly becomes clear: it's the morning after a late night—her first gig of CMJ week—and only the second day of her very first trip to America. There's a lot to process, and she's soaking it all up with a patient eye.

Sey was born in Stockholm, but grew up in between two west coasts: Gambia in Africa, where her father is from, and the small town of Halmstad in Sweden, where she lived with her mother. At age 15, she struck out on her own and moved back to Stockholm to start music school. Artists like Erykah Badu and Destiny's Child fueled her imagination, but she also gives props to CeeLo Green for his songwriting style. "He preaches, he writes songs about life," she says. "He's not scared to get intricate, and doesn't really care if you don't understand." Sey's own songwriting—as evidenced by her debut EP, For Madeleine, out now—is bold and fiery. She writes songs that address fear and regret head-on in order to "teach myself what I wish somebody would have told me."

Moving to Gambia from Sweden must have been a big change. Yeah, definitely. I moved to Gambia when I was 4 or 5, and came back to Sweden when I was about 8. So yeah, I started school there and all of that. It was definitely different. But now I'm incredibly thankful, because it taught me a lot about life. Just their culture and the way they speak and all of the wisdom. They have traditions of giving each other advice. And I think that kind of plays with how I write songs as well, because my dad speaks like that.

Is the tradition of passing advice a religious or a cultural thing? Even though my father's family are very religious Muslims, I actually think it's more cultural—the stories, always speaking of things in fables. Everything is so direct. It's a beautiful way to learn.

Is that something that you consciously took on with your songwriting? I just think it seeped in. I haven't thought about it that much until now, when people ask me questions about it. I've heard like one-liners and wisdoms all my life, so that's why I kind of write that way.

Did you always know that this was what you were going to do? I've always done it, but I haven't really accepted it as my main goal. I think I've been scared, too, so when I was a kid I had a really long period of, "I'm going to become a lawyer, and study, study, study. I'm going to do everything that my parent's didn't do." Then I turned 15, and I went mmm... Now I'm moving to Stockholm. I'm going to sing.

Where did you live in Stockholm? I lived with a lady that my uncle knew. I rented a room in her apartment and I thought it was cool. I had cousins there and a couple of uncles, so it wasn't too bad. It's even hard for me to remember that period; the first couple of years weren't that nice. Now I realize I've lived there for like nine years, which is crazy.

Doing anything on your own, like moving to another country or city, is always a massive test. The good days are great, but the bad days... When you're in it, it's ok though. But thinking back, I don't understand how my mom could let me move. I don't get it. How do you let somebody move when they're 15? But I'm thankful for it, of course.

Could she have stopped you? No, probably not. I would have been so mad.

Pop music is big business in Sweden. Where does that come from? There's a lot of free music schools in Sweden, which could be a part of why a lot of people actually create music. Everyone's encouraged to be creative when you go to school. There's also a solitary culture as well. People are alone a lot. Maybe that brings out a certain type of lyric.

Why is it quite a solitary culture? It's a big country with very few people. We also have this thing called jantelagen that's really like seeping through every part of Swedish culture, where you're not really supposed to think that you're anything.

Do you feel a resistance to this feeling? Yeah, I had a very proud dad, and a kind of rebellious, free-thinking family, so it hasn't affected me. I mean, I'm all for being humble, of course, but there's just another level to it sometimes in Sweden. I think because I've been a part of different cultures and been to different places, I see myself as quite free from that thing.

What drives your songwriting? I start with lyrics most of the time, and I write it down without singing. I guess you could call it poetry. The lyric always comes first and it always comes out from nowhere. Most of the time, it's just a feeling—maybe thoughts that you've accumulated and you have to get them out and write them down. When the time comes to write a song, if I get a beat or something, I look everything through and then start to decorate from that kind of abstract mind-map.

With all the change you've experienced in your life, are you singing these songs to give yourself strength? Yeah. All of those songs. Because sometimes I get a bit apprehensive and people probably think I have the answer for this, but it's mostly me trying to teach myself what I kind of wish somebody would have told me.

Photo credit: Saga Berlin

Seinabo Sey Is Singing Herself Into A Better Person