How Beyoncé and a Trip to Africa Inspired Seinabo Sey's New Album: 'There's No Excuse Not to Speak Your Mind'

Märta Thisner
Seinabo Sey

You might not recognize the new Seinabo Sey.

On her critically acclaimed debut album, 2015’s Pretend, the Swedish-Gambian singer battled self-doubt and self-sabotage on soul-pop tracks like “Younger,” which chastised herself for not working harder, and “Who,” a brutal self-interrogation that asked questions like: Who do you think you are? What have you done to deserve that?

But on her upcoming second album, I’m a Dream (out Sept. 7), she’s noticeably changed her tune. The video for the first single, the ominous banger “I Owe You Nothing,” sees Sey posing like royalty as she declares, “I don’t have to smile for you/ I don’t have to move for you/ I don’t have to ‘dance, monkey dance’ for you.” On “Breathe,” which trades booming drums for cinematic strings, she sings movingly about discovering her own beauty and value. Even on the more light-hearted “Good in You,” out today (Aug. 24), she describes catching a sparkle in a love interest’s eye, only to have him say, “It’s your reflection, darling.” In just a few years, she went from telling herself “You ain’t shit,” to telling the world, “I am the shit.”

Two things helped her get there: Beyoncé, whose celebration of black womanhood on 2016's visual album Lemonade inspired the 27-year-old to stop compromising by making her music (and herself) more palatable for others; and a life-changing sabbatical in West Africa, which helped her tap into a newfound self-confidence as she reevaluated everything from Western beauty standards to the ways Swedish society can feel restrictive, especially to women of color. Now, instead of disguising her feelings in complex metaphors, or burying them under an array of busy sounds, she’s leaving her feelings unvarnished and out in the open -- and letting listeners do the work of making sense of them.

“I'd gone a long time without telling people the truth because I always think the truth is going to lead to conflict,” she tells Billboard. “I always think conflict is a lot worse than it is. Now, I'm not scared of conflict anymore.”

Making art still has its challenges: Sey says it's easy to fall back into old, more comfortable habits when it comes to expressing herself, and she still has to work hard to tune out the voices in her ear pressuring her to be or sound a different way. Yet she has zeroed in on the mission of her music -- impart the wisdom she wished she had growing up to others like her -- and she now has “better tools to handle” whatever obstacles come her way.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Sey sat down with Billboard to talk about the difficult journey to her second album, the evolution of her songwriting process, and what she learned on her recent trips to Senegal and Gambia.

It’s been three years since your debut album, Pretend. How are you finding getting back into album mode again as you ready I’m a Dream?

It's weird. I feel like I've been walking around in a one-piece for two years because I live really close to my studio. I've been in my apartment, then going 200 meters to the studio, then back again. It feels like I'm putting on the "extroverted artist" suit again. I've missed it more than I want to admit to myself.

You’ve said that you almost walked away from your music career after your first album. When did that happen, and what caused that doubt?

That was last spring, I think. There’s a lot of stuff that I can’t go into, because that would be unfair to the people in it. But for me, it was very hard to find myself musically. How do you evolve but not stray from what you like and what people like? There’s a balance in that: Am I bored with myself? Did the other stuff suck? I felt like I had to get a lot of ideas out of myself, but I couldn’t get the support that I felt I needed to do that. It’s nobody’s fault -- I should have just gone and did it myself.

That’s what I’m doing now. If I can’t be adventurous with my music and be inspired and try different things, then what the fuck is the point? I don’t want to be a machine. I live in a society, especially the Swedish music industry, where we’re looking for a formula to do things, because that’s the way that Denniz PoP and Max Martin did things, you know?That’s not my thing, so I had to go through all those motions: Who am I? How do I write songs? Why do I write songs?

I was touring so much the last time that I didn’t have a life. I hadn’t experienced anything -- just eating chips and gaining weight and sitting in cars. I didn’t do much but sing. I couldn’t sit there and write a song about myself. It felt pointless. So I had to figure out that out, and now I understand why I made the album and what it’s about. But it’s really hard. It’s classic fucking torture to make a second album, honestly. I get the whole mythology about it.

Well, you had a hard time writing your first album too -- you had so many songs about wishing you were writing more songs.

It’s traumatic, the whole deal. I love performing, so now I remember why I like to be an artist -- I love to stand on stage. But the studio part has always been kind of up and down, left and right, not really knowing [what to do].

Given the struggle that making an album can be for you, why is the LP format still important to you? What makes you stick with that, as opposed to putting out EPs and singles?

Because of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Honestly. I love albums, and I don't give a fuck if nobody cares anymore. When you put on your headphones so you can listen to a story, l love that. I love Kendrick's album [DAMN.] for that. That is my escape. Maybe I'll take a couple years where [my output] is going to be more sporadic, because I’ll feel like I need to get my ideas out there. But this album was super important.

You made most of your first album with producer Magnus Lidehäll, who works with a lot of local Swedish artists but has also produced for Madonna and Britney Spears. Did you expand your circle of collaborators this time?

No, it's the same -- still me and Magnus fighting. [Laughs.] I love and respect that man so much. I think a big part of making music -- and this is what I feel like aspiring artists have to know -- is understanding collaboration. We’re two people who are very dependent on each other in a lot of ways. But you’re not always on the same page creatively when you work together over a span of five years, like we’ve done. Sometimes it’s hard for us both to respect what we want to do individually. We’re in a totally amazing place now where we’re super honest about everything, but there is a lot of pressure all the time. I think pressure made us stop communicating. That’s like death in music. That took me two years to understand.

I feel like a lot of musicians I know are really introverted, feeling a lot of feelings but really ashamed of speaking or talking about them. That’s why you create: You get the pain out of you by making music, so when it comes to talking, it’s really hard for a lot of us. Just to acknowledge that and work on that has been my main lesson from these past two years.

So how did you break free of all that pressure and frustration and confusion? Was there a eureka moment?

Definitely. I really did have one: I went to Senegal by myself. That was the spring where I was like, “Fuck this shit.” I’d been writing the album for maybe six months or so. I went to Dakar. I don’t really understand the way they speak Wolof, the language from that region of Gambia and Senegal. I understand Wolof, but they speak it with French, so I didn’t get shit. I was so lonely, but I still really felt like I was supposed to be there. I was drawn to that place. 

I tried to write down why. I remember I was telling myself as an exercise, “Please stop decorating, just be as simple as you can, just write down why.” So I was like, “I love it here because I don’t have to explain to them why I’m beautiful.” So [that’s how] I wrote “Breathe.” And after I did that, I came back home and was like, “I think I have to write this album for somebody other than myself.” I felt like the people I was talking to this time have to be people that look like me, that are much younger than me, like my little sister. What do I want to tell them about life, much like Lauryn Hill did with me when I was a kid?

I really wanted to be that person that gives advice, because I feel like all of this pain I’ve gone through in my life -- there has to be a reason for it. To share that experience, to tell people my conclusions, that’s what I’ve tried to do. I think I did on that the last record as much as I could, but there were too many metaphors and shit. I just have to stop with that.

So this album is you just spelling it all out?

Basically. It’s really hard for me to sing, “‘Cause I am beautiful.” Not that I feel ugly, but that was the hardest thing for me to say, ever. I was about to change it. But no, I just have to say exactly what is the hardest thing. When it hurts, that’s when you’re like, “No, this is what we’re doing.”

When you came back with “I Owe You Nothing,” it was such a pleasant surprise considering how much of your first album dealt with self-doubt. How did you get to this new confident place?

I've always been so fucking scared of telling people what I think. I started having anxiety attacks, and I never had them before -- when my dad died, I didn't have anxiety attacks. That's new to me. Having my body do shit that I didn't even know? I'd have an anxiety attack when I didn't even know I had anxiety. This grown-up type of anxiety that I’m having is different from a couple of years ago. It was just really dark times, feeling like I was in a box all the time. I never really felt free up until now.

The first step -- because I wrote that song a year ago -- was to say it in the music. I’ve started saying it in real life, too: “Get the fuck off my back, you don’t control me.” That kind of thing. Sometimes it’s to a person, but sometimes it’s to society. In Sweden, they want you to explain a lot of shit you do all the time, because art is never supposed to be mystical or anything. I hate that. I feel like every time I explain things literally, it gives people an excuse to not think and not apply it to themselves.

Has your relationship with Sweden changed since your trip and this breakthrough?

Mmhmm. Before, I compartmentalized myself a lot. My voice has a wide range, so I always felt like if I sang in falsetto and used my bass voice in the same song, it’s too schizophrenic, it sounds like two different people. Or I felt like I had to tone it down and be simple and easy to understand. I feel like with all the things that have happened, I've just landed [at this place where] I have to express the duality of who I am. I'm not forcing this.

It's still really frustrating to live in a very commercially white world. It's very hard if you look at the amount of young white pop stars, and the similarities they can have that we can't. We have to really stand out all the time. We have to really be different. The world is really a lot harder on black women, and that's a fact. It's still that way, and it's absolute bullshit, but it's getting easier because I'm growing up, and I feel like I have more confidence. But the world isn't making it easier on me. I just have better tools to handle it.

Those who follow you on Instagram know you're a die-hard Beyoncé fan. What was it like watching Lemonade? There are a few moments in the “I Owe You Nothing” video -- like the spray-painted message on the wall -- that felt linked to “Formation.”

She is so cool for that. It's so black and super African-American. We have different culture where I'm from, but it's really cool that she didn't think, “Oh, I might be excluding someone, let me not do that.” It's actually in being yourself where you include people all the time.

It’s weird to say this, but I was just proud of her. I’ve followed her for so many years. I feel like she’s always been personal in her Beyoncé way -- I understand that you have to protect herself when you're the biggest superstar on Earth -- but it felt as honest as possible. It made me feel like, “Fuck it, there’s no excuse not to speak your mind.” I have grown up on Beyoncé’s music videos my whole life.

I tried to [minimize the video in my mind] because subconsciously everything we do comes from a lot of what Solange and Beyoncé do. Their visual language is impeccable. I was like, “Can we just edit out the most Lemonade-y things?” But I realized now watching it that it’s hard for me to even do that because those things are in my blood in a weird way. I love her fuck-shit-up attitude. It's beautiful.

You filmed a handful of music videos in Gambia. Were you also trying to make your version of a visual album?

Yeah. Last time, it was all new to me. The director would create a lot of the content of the video, and then I would jump in after that and forget myself. I'd apply myself nearly as an extra in my own video. That's kind of how I felt. And I was just scared to be in front of a camera. This time around, I felt like I had to do the same as with music: be more honest, be more there, make up the storylines myself and use all the different visual [references] that I've collected. I made a 300-page PDF.

When I was in Dakar, I decided that I should definitely do the video there, because I hadn't seen a couple of things that I saw and remembered all of the beautiful things from when I was a kid. So I didn't think about like, “I'm going to make a visual trilogy.” It was more like, “I want to make one video and I have a billion ideas.” It was just giving myself the biggest challenge that I could at that point.

I was trying to think of how many music videos I’ve seen that were filmed in Africa and make a point of showing off and celebrating the various cultures there. I think in popular media, in America especially, Africa gets treated as this one monolithic entity.  

Honestly, the budget it takes to go to Gambia and shoot three videos -- you probably have to be with a major label, or have made somewhat of a hit song once upon a time. [In the music industry] it’s always like, “What’s lucrative to show? What kind of things do we think are appealing?” We have a tendency to give people more of what they’ve already seen because we believe that’s going to make something a hit.

I feel like there’s a wave here where people are drawing inspiration from the continent, but they don’t know the culture and might not take the time to actually go and [learn about it]. It takes some studying, but people will gladly show you if you ask. There's fashion that's fucking amazing there. Any kind of big marketplace you go to in Lagos or Accra, people will just be wearing the dopest shit. I really want people to just appreciate the culture for the beauty of it. Just like whatever da Vinci painting [society celebrates], the art we create -- the art they create -- has to have a higher status in society. It's ridiculous how little of it we get to see. 

The sound of all the new songs feel very big and grand in a way, from the strings on “Breathe” to the beat on “I Owe You Nothing.” Was that the mission: Go bigger and be more epic?

We both thought about it being, weirdly, more minimalistic. But minimalistic wouldn’t mean that it would be less grand in a way. Before, we had that grand element, but we also coupled it with a lot of other things, so you got lost in it a little bit. Here, we tried to really choose the elements that we thought were actually doing something -- just like me writing in a more simple way.