Chances are that even if you don't recognize 25-year-old north Londoner Sinead Harnett's name or face, you will have heard her voice. UK dance music duo Disclosure, grime godfather Wiley, Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth, and drum & bass group Rudimental have all called on Harnett to provide vocals to their tracks over the last four years. It was actually Wiley who discovered her via her YouTube channel in 2011, and she's been building ever since. In the past year or so, she's had meetings with super-producer Rodney Jenkins, been given the go-ahead from Sia to record one of her songs, and had none other than Janet Jackson asking if she might like to work with her.
In a world saturated with up-and-coming female vocalists utilizing the featured artist route to success, it's Harnett's voice that sets her apart. Airy and understated on Disclosure's "Boiling" and sensuously gliding around Hemsworth's bubbling production on "Small + Lost," it's like a cooling balm compared to the over the top vocal hysterics of some of her peers. "I'm an understated person and I'm not like 'look it's me!'" she explains. "It's funny because that trait is mirrored in my voice." At the same time she's no meek wallflower either, her laid-back persona and vocal style belying the fact that she's now ready to take that step out of the shadows.
For her debut solo album, due later this year, Harnett's the one pulling in the impressive features: Two Inch Punch, TMS, and Kendrick Lamar collaborator KOZ all provide production, plus there's a collaboration with one of R&B's biggest songwriters James Fauntleroy, who has written songs for Rhianna, Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake. The record finds her broadening out her sound and adding some bite to the beauty: "I definitely had to get out of my comfort zone with the album because it couldn't all be me being calm and ethereal." This new attitude is showcased on the bold kiss off of new single "She Ain't Me," premiering below: a thunderous, attitude-heavy tale about some no good ex sweetened by Harnett's butter-wouldn't-melt vocal on the verse.
Your break came via a guest feature on a Wiley's "Walk Away" (below) in 2011. How did that come about? Basically I went to university and did an acting degree because I just needed to do something involving performing. I'd made a YouTube account and Wiley tweeted about a song I'd done which was me singing over a hip-hop beat called "Lights Off." He was tweeting the video so much and Twitter was new to me at the time—I only got it because my friend was like, "Come on babe, you want to be a singer you need to get Twitter." So I was like, oh my gosh, the godfather of grime is tweeting my name. He got my number off someone I used to go to college with and asked me to go to Jamaica to write this song. I told him to send it me and I wrote it here. I bumped into him about two years ago and I said, "Bruv, I'm here because of you," and he said "Sinead, you're here because of you." He's such a legend. For me, he was the beginning because I didn't know what the industry was about. I found a manager within three months of meeting Wiley and he put me in touch with Disclosure. He had a good feeling about them and in the first session we made "Boiling."
You've done six features since the Wiley song. Did you worry at any point that people would see you as a voice for hire? No, because none of the songs I've been on have been huge number one singles. They've all been part of someone else's journey from the underground to the commercial. I think if I'd been on these massive singles I might think, "who am I?" but I'm still very much coming up and finding out who I am.
Were you itching to get your own thing going? What I've learned from the friends that I've made is that being an artistic person, we're in a constant battle with our expectations of ourselves and finding the balance between doing enough and not forcing it. I definitely did feel frustrated but also maybe it wasn't right for me to launch straight after "Boiling."
Your new single "She Ain't Me" feels like a big step up in terms of going more for the pop jugular. Do you agree? The first EP came out while I was writing the album because I was conscious that there was nothing else out other than the features. I just felt like we needed to put something out there while I was working on the album, so that EP is a particular mood and where I was at that time. It's a groove, it's not like 'let's go raving' or 'let's get fucked up and cry'. But I do think albums should be a step up. I remember I wrote "She Ain't Me" on a sunny day and I'd never written about relationships before really. I was just avoiding it I think. It felt like the first time I'd felt that don't piss me off attitude. It was important to me not to just show that top layer.
Are the songs all based on personal experiences? The attitude heavy ones like "Do It Anyway" are about me feeling a certain way about how I've been treated and how I feel about the way some people behave. Then there are more tender moments like "I'll Remain" which isn't about a relationship with a guy, it's about a family member and the complications of our relationship. I found "I'll Remain" really difficult to sing live because it's so personal, but with "She Ain't Me," which is just as personal, it's different. It's not me feeling sad, it's about me getting over that.
You have a collaboration with BenZel coming up too, which Sia was originally meant to record but she gave it you? Sia wrote it and recorded my vocal and had a little fiddle with it, but as to when it's coming out that's a bit up in the air. Basically it's whenever they finish their album and then start the rollout. It's interesting that you brought Sia up because she's another example of how features can have such a massive influences. "Titanium" was the first major mainstream thing I remember everyone else getting into her through, even though she'd been around for a while. What an incredible artist—she's been grinding for years and that sort of career is inspirational to me.
Is it true Janet Jackson contacted you about writing for her new album? Well, when I was in LA on tour with Rudimental we did about three days there and my manager told me that her management wanted to meet me. So I went to meet them in a studio she works in. But you never know a) how many managers they have and b) if it came from the horse's mouth, but when I met Rodney Jerkins he told me he was just playing "No Other Way" to Janet and that she loved it. So I don't think Rodney would lie. I mean, I died. I was dead. Even meeting Rodney was a big deal. He asked to meet me and talk about some new stuff he's working on.
I was reading Janet's wikipedia page the other day and there was an interesting quote about "That's The Way Love Goes." Everyone was expecting a big banger at that point and instead she went with something more subtle and Chuck D said, "She just slips it out there and you say, 'Oh my God listen to this!?' It introduces itself." I thought that was quite pertinent to you somehow. Okay, I hear you. In this process I've been so worried about whether I'm doing it right and is this the method I should be taking, but when you say that back to me, that's just me as a person. I'm not the diva one, or the demanding one, or the at the top of my lungs one. It wasn't an intention, it's just what I am.
"I'm not the diva one, or the demanding one, or the at the top of my lungs one."—Sinead Harnett
What do you make of the feature culture that's all over dance music at the moment? I bumped into ['90s UK soul singer] Des'ree yesterday and she's had a 14-year break from music but she's back writing now, and she was saying about how different the music industry is now. I was like, "fuck, yeah." Back then I'd be buying Des'ree's album and listening to it over and over again, but now you can just go online and there's so much music that it's almost at saturation poing, so doing a big feature that's going to catapult you very quickly is a good thing. Having said that, I think there's sometimes a worry that if you do [features] your music then has to sound like that in order for you to cut through. It can define you.
Why do you think it's mainly female vocalists that sing on dance tracks? Simply because there's more female artists in general, I think. Certainly that I know of. It's an interesting question.
Some people have been critical of labels like PC Music where the female vocal is sort of just used as decoration almost; sort of hyper femininity but from a male perspective. Are you pretty used to working in a fairly male-dominated world? The production world is male-dominated, definitely. Stereotypically, the guys are the ones with gadgets and the girls are the performers. But I worked with Chloe Martini yesterday, which was amazing, and I love Maya Jane Coles as well. I've raved to some of their tunes. It's interesting what you're saying about whether the girls are just decoration; I think it just so happens that there are a lot of female singers and these writing sessions happen with male producers.
Have you always wanted to be a singer? I started singing when I was 7 or 8. I remember me and my sister used to sing together and obviously I love her to bits but it didn't quite come out of her mouth like it was coming out of my mouth [laughs]. I remember thinking, hang on, how come I'm able to do [does Mariah-esque vocal run] and she can't? It was such a secret because we lived with our mum and she's Thai—not to be judgmental about my own, but often with East Asian culture it's all about doing something academic. My mum worked and my sister went to university so I spent a lot of time alone and music was a way to counteract the feeling of loneliness. But I've always felt like this was my destiny. That is so cheesy but it's true. Have you ever read Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist?
No I haven't. It's a lovely allegory for what our purpose is on this earth. I'm quite a spiritual girl. I knew that even though it was going to be wrong in my mum's eyes, I just loved it. I was doing talent shows at college and then I was a singing waitress at uni and I sung in a club every week. Basically at that point it was like a hobby but I always hoped it would become my main focus.
How does your mum feel about it now? I don't think she agrees with it. But you realize as you get older that we're all separate human beings and you have to do what you need to do.
Virgin/EMI Records will release Sinead Harnett's single, "She Ain't Me," on June 7th. Photo credit: Paolo Zerbini