It’s hard to say which was the greater honour for Seinabo Sey. Earlier this month, Taylor Swift tweeted a handwritten page from a notebook proposing 11 “New Songs That Will Make Your Life More Awesome (I promise!)” to her 65 million followers. Sey’s monumental piano ballad, Poetic, was third on the list. It also happened to be the Swedish-Gambian singer’s 25th birthday, so that was a good day.
But surely a thumbs-up from T-Swizzle couldn’t beat the news, late last year, that she was to appear on a selection of Swedish postage stamps featuring the biggest recent successes of her country’s music scene. She looks suitably regal in a pencil-drawn profile on hers, part of a range that also includes Avicii, Robyn, First Aid Kit and Swift’s songwriting collaborator Max Martin. “That was probably the coolest thing that has ever happened to me,” she tells me. “They emailed about a year ago and I was like, ‘OKAY!’”
Surprisingly, she says she hasn’t sent a letter with her own stamp on it yet. I’d certainly be preparing one of those Christmas round-robin letters for everyone I know. But she did get to meet pop giant Max Martin as a result. “Someone came up to me at a party and said, ‘Your stamp friend wants to meet you.’ He was nice, he had kind eyes. He could have been tough, like, ‘I own the world!’ but he wasn’t at all. He just said, ‘Hi, I like your music.’”
So do a lot of people. She won Best Newcomer at this year’s Swedish Grammis and her first single, Younger, was an international success, especially in its mellow remixed form by Kygo. Her debut album, Pretend, comes out today on Virgin EMI, and confidently bridges the gap between swishy digital pop and powerful soul. She’s got a mountain of a voice, trained over three years at a Stockholm music school in her late teens, doing a course simply entitled “Soul”. I’ve no doubt she got top marks.
She meets me in a hip Stockholm cafe which is also home to a backroom recording studio and INGRID, a Swedish music collective that includes Lykke Li and Peter, Bjorn and John. They’ve been involved in producing albums by David Lynch and Chrissie Hynde, and in 2012 released the first song featuring Sey’s vocals: River by MtheM. She’s got big, messy hair and a quick laugh, despite the obvious hardship of having to watch me eat a cardamom bun when she’s just gone gluten-free.
“It’s a good way of going on a diet without saying ‘I’m going on a diet’, because it eliminates a lot of unhealthy things,” she says. “Being on the road really messes up what I eat. It’s hard to eat anything healthy.” She can’t speak highly enough of the branches of Marks & Spencer that you now find in British service stations. “Getting good food on the road – I’d never seen that before.”
She first toured Sweden in her late teens, acting as “hype man” for a Swedish rap group called Maskinen (which means Machine). “I was like the third member, doing the ad-libs and singing the choruses. I was so happy to go on tour because I had zero money. I was so poor.”
In another sign of the tight-knit nature of Sweden’s music scene, one of Maskinen, Herbert Munkhammar, was also in a duo with producer Magnus Lidehall. Lidehall’s star had risen to the extent that he was writing and producing tracks on albums by Katy Perry and Britney Spears. Sey sent a speculative introductory email. “I didn’t even send him any music. I’m not very good at these things. I didn’t ever think he would work with me. He was kind of a mythical figure.”
But he did respond, inviting her to his studio, introducing her to the wonders of Kate Bush and ending up making the beats on her entire album. It’s a sparse sound, mixing piano, heavy drums and occasional electronic splashes, allowing plenty of space for her voice to soar.
It wasn’t a stretch for her to become a singer. She was born in Stockholm to a white Swedish mother, Madeleine, and a Gambian father, Maudo Sey, who drummed with a popular afro-pop band called Ifang Bondi. “He was pretty famous in Gambia when I was a kid, but we weren’t spoiled. We moved around a bit and had a nice house sometimes, sometimes not so nice.” She lived in Gambia from the age of four to eight, moving back to the small Swedish coastal town of Halmstad, before Maudo, preferring city life, left the family. He returned to Stockholm when she was 10. “Seinabo” is pronounced as it’s spelled, with the emphasis on the first syllable. She’s named after the prophet Muhammad’s daughter Zainab. She googled her name once and found that it means “fragrant”. “Is that a word for a good smell or a bad smell?” she asks me.
Of course children are often inclined to pursue an opposite career to whatever their parents do. Maudo had already done that. His father was a prominent Muslim leader and he was expected to follow in his footsteps. But Sey couldn’t help but gravitate towards music. “My parents really instilled in me that anything is possible,” she says. “I understand now what a gift that is, that they’ve never said I can’t do things. They’re definitely the reason I make music.” Her debut EP in Sweden was called For Madeleine. The follow-up was called For Maudo.
The closing track on her album is called Burial. It’s an emotional piece of piano gospel about her father’s stroke-related death in 2013. “It is a hard song to perform on the days when I’m feeling sentimental. I kind of see [his death] as like a body part that you have to live with. I was expecting it to go away, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t get better, not that much.”
At least now she’s got imminent pop stardom to distract her. “I’ve hardly been home,” she says, surprised to note that since leaving home to attend her music school at 15, she’s now been living on her own for a decade. “It’s been difficult to find time even to wash my clothes. My house is a big closet: just racks and racks of clothes. I realised when I last came back off tour, I have no life. I need to get a real life.” In the meantime, though, the singing life is going pretty well. With this marvellous debut album, Seinabo Sey is going to put her stamp all over 2015.