Hip-Hop

How Sinéad Harnett Healed in Order to Step Into Her Light

Sinead Harnett
Ana Tanaka

Sinead Harnett

The British singer-songwriter speaks to Billboard about her new album 'Ready Is Always Too Late.'

Since the early stages of her career, Sinéad Harnett has heard that she deserves her time to shine. Yet she was unsure of when to take that plunge and wholeheartedly embrace her star power. The title of her sophomore album Ready Is Always Too Late, released Friday (May 21) couldn’t be more fitting. The proverbial expression “patience is a virtue” is a bit cliché, but in her case, it’s true.

Growing up in North London to a Thai mother and an Irish father, Harnett got her start after a friend tweeted a video of her in response to grime legend Wiley’s open call for guest singers. She later appeared on “Walk Away” from his 2011 Chill Out Zone EP. Her journey has since blossomed: after establishing herself in the dance scene via collaborations with Disclosure, Ryan Hemsworth, and Snakehips, Harnett released her debut EP N.O.W in 2014. 

She transitioned from cooing over electric beats to fully investing herself in her admiration for soul music, releasing yearly EPs and mixtapes that ultimately led to 2019’s debut album Lessons in Love. While she was growing a loyal fanbase, Harnett still didn’t feel comfortable in her artistry. But with Ready Is Always Too Late, she’s learned timing cannot be controlled. A lush 11-song collection with guests like Masego, EarthGang, Lucky Daye and VanJess, the album is a reflection of her ever-growing confidence in self-love and outer relationships.

“I think all boundaries start to really set in stone where we're like, ‘I used to take that in my twenties?’” Harnett tells Billboard over Zoom, glowing beneath the sunlight from her short stint in Mexico City. “I feel like at 30, life’s just begun. Because in your twenties, you're scared and can't make sense of anything. I feel my youngest now, which is really weird. My inner child is so activated.”

Billboard spoke to Harnett about the album’s self-reflective themes, and what she’s learned about herself.

What makes you stand out, especially with this new album, is the level of intimacy. I feel like I'm listening to a page out of your diary. 

I can't write unless something's happened. I do feel like when it's real and a true reflection of life, then I can't cringe myself out. ‘Cause I'm like, “But it's real, babe. So just relax.” A lot of artists go through the machine of writing with loads of top writers and people with No. 1s. When I was doing that, it was really hard ‘cause it just didn't feel right. So yeah, I think intimate is definitely a good describing word for it. 

For me, the title track has two meanings. On the surface, it’s discussing being hesitant with love and relationships. But I also think about the pandemic because this time taught me that I shouldn't have to wait for things to happen. 

The catalyst for it is when I was kind of into someone and then they were like, “We're not really ready yet.” I was like, “What more do you need?” And then the other side is -- why aren't I ready for my glory? It's a little bit annoying ‘cause I'm grinding, so the time will come. But when you say, “Why is everyone sleeping on her?” It makes you feel sometimes like you're not doing enough. 

So that side of it is also for me to stop using ready as an excuse -- the time is now. Last year helped me to just learn and actually accept who I was and not feel embarrassed or shameful. You've got to be proud because I think we don't have our moment ‘til we really believe we deserve it. And that's a struggle that so many people go through. Have you seen Soul?

Yes, that's the whole basis of the film. Just feeling like you're never good enough until you get a certain accolade. But your life has meaning with or without somebody else's recognition. 

I've seen it twice. I cry at the same point: when it goes in slow-mo and then he sees the leaf falls from the tree. When the other girl was in his body, she actually had fun and would just run around and be like a child. Anyway, I think my point is that I agree. If we want something, we have to just go and get it.

There's this line on “Stay” where you say, “I'm used to disaster.” Whenever relationships end, you often second-guess yourself. It's okay to take that leap of faith. 

I think that we all grow up seeing different examples of love, and they're not always perfect. But we then kind of fall into patterns where we repeat ways that we learned to love. It might be that someone was very absent when you're growing up. And then you go for the emotionally unavailable -- you hear this about women all the time. You know that quote, “Life feeds art and art feeds life”? I wrote “Stay” about no one, then I met someone who it's about months later.

See, the power of the tongue is so real. 

You know when you asked me what I learned from moving through 2020? I realized that my inner monologue was so negative. Not all the time, but I just had these patterns. When you let that go and you start demanding what you feel you want, it can happen. I wrote the song, I was a bit like, “But who is this about, guys?” So I think some songs do actually become reality before reality.

Did you draw from any particular influences going into this record?

It's always been about the soul, the story and the truth for me. Obviously, I had my girl band phase, which is where the love for R&B comes from when I was a kid and a teenager. My sister used to listen to Destiny's Child, Aaliyah and TLC. There was also Tina Turner and Etta James playing. And that was like literally “heart on sleeve” voice. Amy Winehouse, just literally one of the best. Her lyrics just kill me. D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill. 

Nowadays, I don't know if I'm influenced, but I'm just so moved by Jazmine [Sullivan] and seeing her get her flowers. I think people are awake now and it's really inspiring. The rasp in her voice and every ad-lib and trill just feel like she didn't plan it. So people that do that with their music inspire me.

Your first album was called Lessons In Love, and I wonder what you’ve learned since its release?

I toured that album in America and I finished in New York. Had I known you I'd have been like, “Please come!” My biggest lesson was learning that self-love is the most important thing. Everyone's trying to figure that out, really. I think our whole life is like a work in progress. I feel like “Ready Is Always Too Late,” “Like This” and “Stay” are more celebratory. I know who I am and know that I just love to be loved by myself. And for the first time, I talk in a tone where I'm like, “You are as lucky as I feel.” It's not just about, “Oh, I'm so glad I found you.”

Exactly, get on my level!

Yeah, it was a self-assured tone, which I don't feel like I had on Lessons In Love because that was more like a bit tumultuous and searching for answers. I feel like I've caught some of them on this album. 

I hear that. You’ve also been very interactive with fans on Instagram and not afraid to let your guard down, especially talking about your anxiety.

Yeah, definitely. I had to find a way to like social media because it was the only way to grow in a climate where we can't tour. So I just try and have fun with it. I don't like being on my phone much, I like being present. But what I do share, I try and keep it uplifting and lighthearted because I don't want to be standing in front of a limousine and being like, “Try having my life!” Nah, f--k that. I just want to have a blast and help spread the music through that. 

At the peak of the pandemic, we were all feeling like sh-t. And last May’s “Quarantine Queen” was an “it is what it is” moment.

Thank you. Do you know what's funny? I actually thought that that would be the last song that I released because I thought it was the apocalypse. [Laughs.] Who cares if it's not a conventional song? ‘Cause I say, “Are we all just pretending that the world isn't ending?” I don't know if you've seen it, but there's this video that shows my voice memos with the producer. And I just really saw the height of my lunacy.

Looking back at that video, what are some things you’ve learned about yourself? 

Well, I was supposed to move to L.A. in April to be with my team and start doing the second album, but obviously, the one time in my life I've got the guts to move [out the] country was the one time in my life a pandemic happened. So then I was stuck in the four walls of my flat. Eventually, we found out that I'd be allowed to go if I went via quarantining outside of the U.K.

So I went to Antigua on my own and there were loads of couples there. They were like, “Oh my God, are you here on your own?” Any time I got lonely, I’ll just be in nature. Then eventually I got to America and then two months became four, and four became six because if I was to come home and see my family, I would have not been able to go back. 

So then there’s this real mission to get the album done and just be a nomadic loner, but like in the best way. I have friends dotted around different parts of America, so it was nice to see them. I finally started asking for what I really want because I used to say things like, “Why would you talk to people like Billboard? They don't know who you are. That's not realistic.” The more we focus on what's realistic, the less likely what seems impossible can happen, you know? 

So I think it was just me accepting that I do deserve to get my flowers. There's always fear in all artists: “Will anyone care?” or “Who do I think I am to do this?” I was quieting that voice and being like, “But this is my purpose. If the world is actually ending, make your fans happy with the new album.” It was a journey of inner healing and finally just being like, “You're pretty cool. Don't worry so much.”