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Synthpop Up-and-Comer Sulene Strips Down Breakout 'Strange' EP to Heartwarming Essentials: Premiere

Sulene
 Ivan Clow

Sulene

Get to know the work of an in-demand pop-rock touring guitarist and film score composer.

Earlier this year, we profiled Sulene -- an under-the-radar solo artist and already-accomplished road warrior, who’s played guitar for the likes of Nate Ruess and Betty Who across world tours. Strange, her blissful, sun-kissed synthpop EP dropped this March, but as the months went by, the 27-year old South African wasn’t quite ready to put its four tracks to rest. O

ften, this is the part of the story where the artist goes the remix route, outsourcing the task some fellow creators in order to get a fresh spin on the old songs. But not Sulene. 

The Brookyln-by-way-of-Cape Town maestro has a way of picking the less-traditional route; after all, her résumé includes composing music for a film starring Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig, as well as playing in a Blink-182 cover band. For her EP, Sulene van der Walt chose to completely re-record each of the four tracks, reimagining them in a way that leaned into her film-scoring side. Gone are the panoramic synthscapes, replaced by minimal guitar and piano arrangements that let Sulene’s tender vocals take center stage. 

From her myriad musical projects to re-applying for her visa in an unstable political climate, it’s been a wild year for Sulene. We’re excited to premiere the revamped Strange EP (along with - surprise! - a brand new song), along with a conversation covering her recent endeavors. 

Get us caught up on what you’ve been up to! Have you been touring and playing live lately?

Since the Strange EP came out in March I’ve played a ton of shows in New York City. It’s been great fronting a band all of a sudden -- I’d say equally exciting and terrifying. I’ve had the chance to play guitar for a lot of great artists, and play a lot of extensive tours, but this feels totally different. I even got to go to SXSW and play some solo shows, it was awesome. Playing my music live with my band is some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

Take me through the process of being asked to remix the record and instead “reimagining” it this way. How did you go about revising the songs? And why did you prefer this approach to having someone remix them?

The idea of having remixes made of the Strange EP kept coming up. Nothing against remixes, but for whatever reason at this point in time, the idea didn’t excite me. Around that time, the label I work with, Sleep Well Records, raised this question. I’d stumbled upon some of the EP's original demos. Most of them were piano-based and very minimal. I was also thinking about how to bring more of my film scoring side into my artist project. The idea kind of just hit me that I should remix my own EP, but instead I call it “reimagining.”

I actually re-sang all the vocals, unlike in a remix, when the original vocal recordings are used. I wanted the whole reimagined EP to feel more intimate, dreamy, and show a completely different side of the songs. I think in the end I just followed what excited me as an artist, and I really wanted to challenge myself to do something different than the usual trend. I get very tired of the trends and things “you should be doing."

How did your work in film scoring influence these new versions? 

The textures heard in the reimagined EP are very much like many scores I’ve written. There’s almost no “electronic” element to these reimagined songs -- you can literally hear my fingers on the guitar, every breath in my voice, my own piano playing, my string arranging. It’s very organic.

When reimagining these dancey, indie-pop songs from the Strange EP, I approached them the same way I do when composing a score. I wanted to pinpoint a very specific feeling around each song. When I started reimagining "What We Had," I thought, “What would happen if I played the song on piano and added a string quartet? In what way would this shine a spotlight on the lyrics, how does this texture make you feel?” 

It was a very different process than creating the original EP, which pretty much was crafted to be a huge-sounding, wall-to-wall guitar and synth record that is rad in a live setting. This is something to be taken in alone, maybe with a glass of wine, maybe crying a little… I don’t know, intimate, vulnerable music makes me emotional for sure.

About “Something New,” the one completely new song on the EP… Listening to the lyrics, it sounds like it’s about some sort of cleansing or rebirth. What do you think?

Yes, absolutely. “Something New” was a song recorded during the time we were making the Strange EP, but it just didn’t quite make the cut when we decided to keep the EP to four songs. It was written in a stream of consciousness, in under an hour, about the guilt I was feeling about leaving my home in South Africa. I’d had a particularly difficult couple of weeks, dealing with a big tour ending and feeling lost, very down, and having some clashing conversation with my family back home. The song is a shit-show of emotions -- it’s dealing with pain, missing home, the feeling of abandoning, and also asking for forgiveness. 

The imagery in “Take me to the water” is talking about being baptized, being rid of your sins, and forgiven so that you may be free to pursue what you want in life. I’m not religious, but this is how the song came out of me, and I wanted to leave it in it’s purest emotional form. I think a lot of people deal with similar sentiments when they leave home to follow their unique path in life. I decided to release it so that it can hopefully mean something to those struggling with similar questions.

What new material do you have in the works? Is “Something New” a sampling of what’s to come?

Actually when I had the conversation with Alyse Vellturo (who records as pronoun) of Sleep Well Records about making the reimagined Strange EP, I was halfway through a brand new record that’s set for release in 2018. So, I hit pause on that, made the reimagined EP, and have now started back up on it. “Something New” is definitely not a preview at all of the next record [Laughs]. I’m still currently throwing paint at the wall and piecing the new record together, but right now it’s some sort of pop song-jammed, even more ‘80s, as well as grunge-inspired record. There’s way more guitar playing on it, because when I made the Strange EP I was in love with synthesizers, and now I’ve started to miss my guitars.

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