Selah Sue: Belgium’s Neo-soul Singer-Songwriter

Neo-soul singer Selah Sue has been a star in northern Europe since her debut album was a hit in 2011. Both that album, Selah Sue, and its 2015 follow-up, Reason, charted in the top 10 in France, Holland and her native Belgium. But when she got pregnant in 2016, she told her label, her friends and her fans that she would be taking a few years off to cope with pregnancy and its aftermath. For someone who had struggled publicly with depression, she was worried that the post-partum slump would be especially tough for her.

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“I had always heard the horror stories of post-natal depression,” she tells me over the phone from Brussels, “that period when you don’t sleep, when the hormones take over and you have big mood swings. I expected the worst: I thought I would be sad and unstable, but it turned out to be the best period of my life. Right after my first baby was born, I took my guitar and wrote a bunch of songs.”

Five of those songs have now been released as the Bedroom EP. The title is appropriate, for the music was written and recorded in her bedroom, while her first son slept nearby and later while her second son grew in her womb. As a result, it’s very different from the often-thumping R&B of her first two albums. This time her emotional soprano and acoustic guitar are out front with restrained electronica burbling in the background.

“I couldn’t sing loud or I’d wake them up,” she explains. “So the music was like a lullaby. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel pressured to make music. I was doing it for myself, not for the label or the public.”

Typical of the EP is the first single. “You” boasts a whispery vocal over a simple synthesizer melody proclaiming, “Never in my life I felt this way, ‘cause you are all I need, yes, you are all I want.” The second single, “Always,” is addressed to her sons’ father. Over a push-and-pull acoustic-guitar figure, she thanks him for calming “the storms of my mind.” That tension between her fragile happiness and her hibernating demons makes it the collection’s most intriguing song.

“It’s not that being a mother makes me happier,” she says in the jargon of her ongoing therapy sessions, “because happiness has to come from yourself, not from other people, not even your children. But I’m happiest when I’m loving other people, and my children gave me more reasons to love. To take care of them and breast feed them completes my life. It keeps me grounded.”

She was born Sanne Greet Putseys in 1989 in the municipality of Bertem, east of Brussels. The small country of Belgium is divided linguistically, culturally and politically into two smaller regions: Flanders and French-speaking Walloon. Bertem is in Flanders, and Putseys grew up speaking Flemish, a variant of Dutch.

Hers was not an especially musical family, but the 15 year old was so taken by Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged appearance on MTV that she taught herself guitar by scrutinizing Hill’s videos on the internet. It didn’t matter that Putseys spoke hardly any English and was a white Belgian teenager; she was so captivated by Hill that she wanted to hear everything her new heroine did—and then maybe do it herself.

“Music crosses borders and that’s what makes it so strong,” she says. “I didn’t care where it came from, it was just beautiful and I loved it. It grabbed me the same way it would grab you growing up in America. When I started writing my own songs, I wrote them in English. Our Flemish language is so ugly, so I’m always attracted to English language and English songs.”

Her brother’s girlfriend encouraged Putseys to perform at a local open-mic series. By chance she was heard by Milow, an established German artist, who invited her to join his tour. By this point, Putseys was studying psychology in college, but when the tour conflicted with her exams, she had to make a choice. She chose music.

“I was really depressed when I was 16 and 17,” she reveals. “I needed a way to find a balance. Other people find other ways, but for me it was music. How to say this in English? Writing those songs was like writing a journal. There’s so much chaos in your head, you think you’re going crazy.

“But once you write it down, it locks it in place and you can see it more clearly. Music made my emotions stronger, but I needed more than that; I needed therapy and medicine. If I take my meds and talk to my shrinks, then I can live a good life.”

She also needed a stage name that was catchier than Sanne Greet Putseys. She settled on Selah Sue (pronounced SAY-lah SOO), inspired by the song “Selah,” Lauryn Hill’s contribution to the movie soundtrack for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Selah is a Hebrew word often used as a refrain in the Psalms and later adopted by Jamaica’s Rastafarians as shorthand for the divine spirit in Ethiopia’s King Haile Selassie.

Selah Sue was a sensation. This waif-like redhead, with the siren voice, the Amy Winehouse bouffant and the piercing blue eyes, managed to combine the intimacy of a confessional singer-songwriter and a dance-floor diva. On the revealingly titled “Crazy Vibe,” the verses sound neo-soul folkie, while the choruses are clap-along party hooks. “I was always on the run I tell ya,” she sings. “It was not an easy road, but now I’m ready to bring joy and fire.”

That single went top-30 in Belgium, and its follow-up, “This World,” did even better. The album included one duet with Cee-Lo and one track produced by Meshell Ndegeocello. When Selah Sue opened for Prince in Antwerp, the Purple One invited her backstage to tell her that he was impressed.

“I was so young I didn’t even know who Prince was,” she confesses. “I don’t have a family that listened to a lot of music. The most important thing was I had a great connection with him, and he gave me some really good advice. I asked him, ‘Should I take lessons to play guitar better and to sing better?’ and he said, ‘I can tell you breathe music, so don’t ever take lessons.’ Which was great, because I’m a lazy-ass person, and I’d rather stay home and write songs.”

The second album Reason did even better, hitting #1 in Belgium and the Netherlands and yielding a top-10 single, “Alone,” in France. The track “Together” included a rap feature from Childish Gambino. The second album, however, tilted the equilibrium between her singer-songwriter intimacies and her dancefloor propulsion in the latter direction. The new Bedroom EP tilts the balance back in the other direction in a big way.

Her as-yet-untitled third album won’t include the five Bedroom EP songs when it’s released early next year. Instead it will tilt back to the hybrid folkie-neo-soul sound of her first album. “I always follow my instincts,” she says, “and now that Bedroom time is past. The new album has some acoustic guitar but also a lot of strong electric guitar and bass.”

The new songs aren’t so much lullabies as they are unflinching self-assessments. “I’ve studied psychology for a good part of my life,” she adds, “and I’ve learned that to be happy, you have to know and love all your different selves. So the new album describes all my personalities: my self-critic self, my melancholic self, my scared self, my insecure part, my self-assured part, my intimidated self. One song, ‘Try To Make Friends,’ goes, ‘I try to make friends with all of my anxieties.’”

Much of Selah Sue’s appeal lies in her ability to blend positive and negative emotions in the same song. Even on the Bedroom EP, a happy song such as “In a Heartbeat” makes a reference to “the darkest moments. It’s as if the bright light of new motherhood can’t help but reminds us of the contrasting shadows: the always lurking depression, the political divide in Belgium as well as the worldwide problem of racism.

“It’s difficult for a white artist like myself,” she acknowledges, “because I wouldn’t be anybody without black music. I realize that black artists didn’t always get all the credit they deserved, so I want to make it clear I wouldn’t be anywhere without them. At the same time, this music gave my life a direction—I love it and I have to sing it.”

Connect with Selah Sue: Official Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube

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