An Interview With Belgium's Rising Soul Celebrity
Belgian chanteuse Selah Sue has been spreading her wings in steady, awe-inspiring increments in the last few years. Her success began in Europe, where she topped charts with her rare voice and soul acoustics not heard since Nneka, or for that matter, the Miseducation days. Her self-titled debut album spread her name like wildfire through France, the Netherlands, through Poland — and soon, beyond.
Just a few years later, Selah was recording a track with Cee-Lo Green, earning the love of J.Cole, signing to Columbia Records, and penetrating the US market — the one that so many artists strive, and often fail, to conquer.
Yet while the hype steadily bubbles around her US debut re-release, Selah remains properly humble, shocked by her success, yet focused squarely on her music. Her talent is astronomical, but her needs are few. Making albums, hanging out with friends, and eventually, having kids is all this 23-year-old really wants from life. But in the meantime, this MySpace upstart turned future megastar chatted with us about major label blues, Cee-Lo’s eating habits, and singing her hits over and over again, this time, stateside.
You started out really DIY, floating around MySpace, did you ever think you’d be on a major label in the states?
I was really really shocked, because I knew Columbia records, and normally I don’t know nothing from nothing. I was just studying and I wasn’t into the music business at first, I barely knew what a label was. So when I got signed in Europe [to Because Music], I mean I sort of knew it, I knew it was kinda bigger. But Columbia records, when they wanted to sign me I was like ‘oof, this is really getting serious.’
Usually when you sign to a major label, artists feel like they lose their musical freedom or they don’t get to have a sense of themselves anymore. Do you feel like you’re still Selah Sue?
Yeah that’s the thing. I’m really going to stick to what I want to do. They also signed me for the first album and that was totally 100 percent what I wanted to do, so that’s already a good feeling. But for the rest I think no, you can’t compromise artistically. I cannot do it. I just cannot. In other things like promos sometimes, sure, you know, things I don’t really like to do and they know what’s best. But artistically they cannot say ‘this is best’, because I just have really strong musical tastes.
What’s it like to re-release an album…you wrote it what, 2 years ago?
No, four years ago.
Four years ago. What’s it like to re-release it? Are you totally done with it?
Good question. In a way sometimes I feel like I want to go forward, because that was only the first album. It’s still my baby, I still love my first album, but I was young, all the songs were put together and there was a producer on it, and now I know what sounds I want. In a way it’s a bit hard to defend something when I know I’m going to do better on my second album…but then again, I cannot complain. I can travel the world so…
What are the other tracks you put on this?
Before, I was on a trip in the US to write with people. That was something I was big on. I was used to writing with friends and people I knew in Europe, but I was open to it, and it gives you pressure to write. They put me together with a few people and one of them was the producer of The Score from The Fugees. His name is umm, oh my God I was about to say Willie Wonka because I’m terrible with names. Jerry Wonda! Yes. Jerry Wonda. So we went together in the studio, and in one day we had written such a cool song, and it’s now on the album in the US and it’s not in Europe. Also a few other songs that I didn’t put in Europe are “Break” and “On The Run.” And the songs that I took off, I really wanted them off. So I’m really happy with the US version.
So are you surprised by your reception in the US?
Well actually I don’t know yet. I believe it’s still building from here, I can only focus on what I get when I play and meet people, and ’til now it’s just been amazing. People say ‘you’re so great!’ and I feel like maybe they’re talking through the mouth? But it really seems sincere, and I really feel at home here. So now I’m really happy, but we’ll see if it’s going to be a big success. I’m not focused on that though.
I know that you’re sticking to your guns and you’re not compromising, but is there anything about the music industry and being on a major label that makes you feel weird or surreal? All the interviews, the photos … whats weird for you?
I think it’s really weird and funny as an artist when business people who are the opposite of me talk about my music. It can be kind of fun to make fun of. Like, for example sometimes I hear people in the business say you know, ‘this would be great to put a Ragamuffin in.’” A “Ragamuffin?” They talk about the songs but they’re in suits, even if the song is emotional. I think the extreme opposite is so funny.
Your songs are deeply emotional and when you play them live you’re definitely putting it all out there, physically, everything. Do you find that performing live is emotionally cathartic?
For me, I sometimes need to make it click, because I have to sing them a lot. I sing “Ragamuffin” over and over. So, sometimes I have to make it click to be really into it because sometimes it can feel like I’m just doing it again and again and again and again. Mostly it works out though. Mostly it’s kind of like a meditation. You don’t think about anything else, you just think about the songs. I try again to listen to the words. Some songs, like when I play like “Break” or “Mommy” or those things, I think about my mother and how sweet she is, and if I just cuddled with her — then I get really emotional. It’s really special that I have the gift to do that for somebody. I mostly just really enjoy being on stage if all the elements are there. But if all elements are there, and you know, people are listening to my words, then it’s like, oof, it’s something I hope to do for the rest of my life.
And you hooked up with J. Cole for this? How’d that happen?
Yeah!It’s really cool. I’ve heard that he’s a big fan. He’s had my album for a long time, and he plays it when he’s on tour on his tour bus! I don’t know how he discovered me, through what or who, but he came to me first and said he was a fan, and we discussed making music. I’m not into most of hip-hop, it can be so gangsta, so tiring most of the time, but I think he’s really really quality. His rhyming is really cool and deep and soulful, and it was just amazing that he wanted to do something like that.
And you met Cee-lo in person?
Yes, I did after when our track was recoreded, months after the songs was on the album, because it was fixed in a week. But yeah i met him in Holland when he had to play there, and he was sitting down with a lot of food ['nom nom nom' gesture].
Is he cool?
Yes he’s cool. He was a very typical American, saying you know, “hey baby girl! Where’d you get a voice like that??” But he was really sweet.
Do you feel like there’s a soul ‘scene’ at all anymore? I feel like there hasn’t been a real movement since the Miseducation days. I mean, people like Nneka are amazing..
Is Nneka big here?
She’s got a following, and she’s big to me, but I wouldn’t say she’s Lauryn Hill…yet.
Ah, yes. Okay, well you have a lot of hip-hop here right?
In Belgium you have almost no hip-hop and no soul. I’m pretty much the only one who’s singing soul music and hip-hop doesn’t even get turned on the radio, even though there are a few amazing artists. As for here, I cannot know because I don’t live here, I don’t know if the scene is big, but honestly, I never discovered anyone who was big as Lauryn Hill, so probably not.
Was there anything in your career where you were — and I know that on paper, signing to Columbia Records is probably one of the biggest things to happen for you — but was there ever a moment in your career when you said, on a deeply emotional level, ‘this is awesome. This is what I wanted to do, and I can do this.’”
Sometimes you have on stage these moments. I was in Poland, and I didn’t even know my album was out there. Suddenly there were 2,000 people singing my album from beginning to end. I had to stop singing because they were singing so loud I couldn’t hear myself and I was watching the other guys and I couldn’t stop laughing. I was so overwhelmed, and those kinds of moments are really beautiful. But for me it’s more about the atmosphere, and the connection, which is why I want my guys to come in from Belgium. I don’t want to work with American bands. I want my guys, because they’re my friends. There are moments when we’re on the tour bus and hanging out with each other, you leave all your problems behind, and it’s a vacation. And we’re just having such a great connection and playing intense music together. My boyfriend is on tour with me always, he’s on keyboard actually — those kinds of moments, or having dinner with everybody in the evening, those kinds of moments are just the best.
So this is it, you’re gonna do it the rest of your life.
I hope so! The thing is, I also want babies as well. I have a really big mother instinct already, so what I do want is to wait. I have to try to wait and then, to have a good balance in both music and babies. But I hope I can make albums the rest of my life. That would be so cool.