Interview | Sulene – a South African songstress in New York

Interview | Sulene

By Lu Makoboka

The moment I came across Sulene’s music, in all honesty, I was met with astonishment more
so than anything else. “There’s a South African artist who’s making music like this?” I thought to myself. A number of questions continuously bubbled up after I heard her latest single ‘Diamond’. Keep in mind that this is not just Pop… There’s a certain level of ‘polish’ which glistens in her works, yet the traces of her Indie and Synth Pop influences can easily be unpacked. Very much like the sounds of Pale Waves and The Japanese House.

Her music is what caught my attention initially, but her story and inimitable image had me hooked. Remember that track ‘Tonight (We Are Young)’ by Fun.? The lead vocalist named Nate Ruess had a solo project and it turns out Sulene would frequent their sessions as a guitarist, and eventually start touring with the Grammy-winning artist.

When it comes to her solo works, there’s a reason why Billboard, Village Voice, and Buzzfeed have celebrated Sulene’s music and it certainly has to do with her distinctive approach to Pop music. Sulene‘s now based in New York and going through the journey of being an independent artist. In this interview, Sulene shares with us why she left South Africa, her influences and the story behind her latest track ‘Diamond’.

LU: For those that don’t know your story, how did the journey with music begin? Were you involved since childhood or was it a passion which bloomed later in life?

SULENE: My journey with music began before I can even really remember. My parents are both musicians and we had a piano in the house growing up, and I saw it like any other toy I had around the house. I don’t remember the first time I played it, but as I became a teen I used to stay in for days at a time while my parents were at work and hammer away on it. I started music lessons when I was really young, don’t remember exactly when, and learned to read music, etc, taught myself a lot of classical pieces and sang along to Beatles and Elton John songs.

My mom taught me a lot of theory and how to read music as well. When I was 14 I discovered my mom’s old acoustic in my basement and a chord chart in the guitar case and taught myself the basic chords, and went on to take lessons with a really influential female guitar instructor named Erin Hobson. From there I played in bands forever and started writing songs.

LU: What was your life like in South Africa, and what inspired you to move to the U.S.A?

SULENE: Life in South Africa was really vibrant. I spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking and on the beach. It was a very social time as well. I grew up as an only child but spent a lot of time (when I wasn’t playing instruments) with my best friends. We’d even make songs and albums on Garage Band and put on musicals in our living rooms.

I decided to move to the US purely to pursue music. I got accepted to Berklee College of Music in 2009 and after graduation got a job and decided to stay and see what I can do in New York City.

LU: You were a guitarist for Nate Ruess for some time – what was the transition like from being a session musician and working on other peoples records, compared to doing things all on your own?

SULENE: The experience was invaluable. I got to play songs written by an incredibly, grammy-award winning songwriter and performer, got to see so much of the world, and play giant shows. I learned a lot about performance and putting on a show, and my guitar-playing skills were strengthened for sure! Doing things on my own feels totally different.

When I make a record, it’s just me alone in my bedroom with a laptop, a Prophet-6 synth, my guitars, my bass, and a bunch of samples. It’s a very solitary experience, but I love it. It’s almost therapeutic. And not having someone to answer to is very liberating for me at this stage. I’m enjoying having a solo project, it feels right.

LU: Since we’re on the subject, how did you even meet Nate Ruess?

SULENE: A friend of mine from college had engineered on Nate’s solo record and had recommended me for an audition. I got contacted by that crew and did a few video auditions, and a week or so later I was on a plane, memorizing his album and writing down chords, on my way to LA for 2 weeks of rehearsals and the start of a world tour in Europe. It was a crazy experience.

LU: I was listening to your previous project Strange EP and I’m quite curious about your songwriting process. There tends to be a structured formula in the arrangement of Pop songs, in which way do you differentiate yourself from other Pop songwriters?

SULENE: Well, my short answer is that my pop songs are different because they’re uniquely me. I don’t follow ideas or sounds that don’t interest me. If I can live without the song being in the world or without it being finished, I don’t pursue it. I don’t write or create songs that are trendy or fit on a playlist because it might be good for the project, I just follow what interests me and make me smile. If I come up with an idea I like, I usually laugh out loud, because it’s this wonderful moment of like
“WOAH THIS IS COOL.” I don’t know how else to explain it.

I also believe that my life experience creates lyrics that are super personal. I try not to over-think it – if it makes me laugh out loud or jump out of my chair at some point, I write the song and put it out for others to hear and hopefully connect with it.

LU: Could you tell us more about your new single ‘Diamond’? From the ‘headspace’ you were in when you started with the project, to the production process?

SULENE: The chorus for Diamond came at me randomly while I was walking around downtown Brooklyn. I recorded it on a voice memo and when I got home I started writing the whole thing. It took a few weeks to finish all the melodies and lyrics and some co-writing. The song is about someone I dated who had talked to me about them possibly wanting to be in an open relationship one day, that they had an interest in this. At the time, we were really falling for each other, and I felt super torn. I wanted him to be who he truly is, and have all the experiences he wants in his life, but I knew deep down that I’m monogamous.

“Diamond in the rough” refers to this wonderful person I’d found and how I could see as developing a future together. I go on to say “you’re not mine, and I already know // pull me close or just let me go” because I was feeling torn and confused. It’s my modern-romance love song for the time we’re in. And it’s a true story.

LU: You have an alt-ego under the name Liefie, why did you feel as if there was a need to split your musical creations into two different avenues?

SULENE: I love that they’re divided. Writing the Liefie material is so cathartic in a different way. It’s all instrumental and really draws from my film-scoring and piano-playing side. The two projects are accessing such a different part of myself, and sound so completely different, that I knew I had to make them “two different people.” It’s been a lot of fun and really rewarding in its own way.

LU: Your opinion on the pros and cons of being an independent artist in the United

SULENE: I’d say the biggest con is that you’re self-funded. Being an artist is so expensive! I can’t even imagine how I’d make this happen if I didn’t do my own production, playing on the record, and publicity. I still have expenses for mixing and mastering, videos, photos, paying for a band… It adds up quickly. Technically though, I was only independent when I put out my first single, “What We Had.” I signed a deal with Sleep Well Records pretty much immediately after that. And while I still funded most of the project myself, having a label meant that I had a community of artists in a similar world, and new, awesome friends.

Sleep Well Records played a huge part in giving me a place in the industry. Without them, now, I can start to feel a little aimless and lost. We’re still all super close — I even play in some of their bands at times, and they all sang on my record. A pro of being independent is that you don’t answer to anyone. You can just make the art you want to make and decide how and when it comes out and what you want it to look like, etc. Of course, there are many labels that could trust you to do your thing, but it can become complicated if someone else is
investing their money in your project, they’ll probably want a say.

LU: Okay so for this question you’re welcome to pick from artists that are dead or alive. 1) An artist you would love to have a D.M.C (deep meaningful conversation) with. 2) An artist you would love to party with. 3) An artist you would spend a week in the studio with?

SULENE: 1) David Bowie. 2) Trent Reznor, because I love NIN and we both party sober. 3) Jon Brion, but only if I could get over how intimidated I am by him.

LU: Out of your selection of artists, which are you inspired by the most and why?

SULENE: Madonna. She’s a badass, constantly re-invents herself, and wrote so many hits. I mean, she’s Madonna, c’ mon. True Blue is also my #1 inspiration for production on the songs on this record.


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