By Tom Lanham-
Exotic neo-soul singer Seinabo Sey spent her early childhood in Gambia, home to her musician father Mawdo Sey, of the renowned Afro-pop band Ifang Bondi.
“It was a very strict culture, compared to Swedish culture,” says the sultry-voiced singer, who moved with the family back to her mother’s native Sweden at age 7.
“They actually beat kids in school there if you were too unruly or you talked to much, so you learn to do what you’re told and stay quiet. When I think about it now, I’m like, ‘That’s crazy!’ But it was normal over there, back then.”
Still, Gambia proved crucial to the music Sey, 24, wound up making on her debut EP “For Madeleine” (dedicated to her mother), which she’s promoting in San Francisco this week.
Yet the gospel rave-up “Hard Time,” the Morricone-inspired processional “Pistols at Dawn” and her first European hit “Younger” (in which she scats over funeral-home organ) weren’t inspired by Gambia’s scales and tones.
“It was the part of Gambian culture where they give each other advice a lot, how they’re always comparing things in order to get a message across .. that really influenced the way I write,” says Sey.
It started when the Stockholm-based diva first returned to Sweden. She bought a diary and began taking daily notes, many of them pep talks to herself, and soon she was penning full-fledged songs.
Raised to be quiet, she was too terrified to sing them for others, until at 15 she was forced to perform in front of a high school audience or risk failing a class: “It was absolutely terrifying,” she recalls.
But she was determined to conquer her stage fright.
“By the second time I sang by myself in school, I just realized that I was more in control of my environment than I had ever been before,” says Sey. “So I suddenly got used to that feeling of being in control, which I never, ever feel when I’m not onstage – a feeling that you’re the master of your own universe.”
After experimenting with Swedish acts Afasi and Def Chronic, she met studio mastermind Magnus Lidehall, who helped her solidify her eclectic sound. Soon, she was confident enough to croon “Younger” at last year’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.
Self-critical to a fault, Sey is over-thinking her upcoming first album, ensuring the mix is perfect. “Sometimes it might seem like I’m using my songs to give other people pointers. But mainly, they’re for me, just little notes to myself that I collected, and the wisdom that I’ve read. I give myself a lot of advice.”