Selah Sue’s home country of Belgium isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking of soul music. But somehow, the 24-year-old managed to grab hold of music from Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu at an early age and began to develop a smoky, soulful reggae sound all her own. After opening for Ed Sheeran last year, Selah Sue is breaking out with her band and making waves from coast-to-coast. We talked with the singer about vacationing in Tokyo, writing in English, and her occasional bouts with depression. Selah Sue plays with Bushwalla at the Crocodile this Wednesday (8/21).
Your publicist says you’re in Tokyo. I’ve been here a week. I did one show but then I took some vacation. It was amazing.
What was the highlight of your vacation? When we went to the special hammam, which was amazing. We went there the whole day and did massages and foot baths and everything.
I read that you used to dance. When did you turn to music? I did ballet and hip-hop, but it was just something I loved to do. I’ve never been the extreme ambitious type of person who wanted to be the biggest dancer in the world, not even with music. It all came about. I was about 14, 15. I always had really good hearing, but I started listening to music and develop a taste, listening to Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Damien Marley. I did two years of classical training on guitar, which got really boring so I quit it. Then I had a really hard puberty. I had a big depression, and I didn’t know what to do and how to get out of it so I started to make music. Words meant a lot to me. It’s a diary.
Is writing in English difficult? Not so much. If your native language is English, if you come from the States or anywhere else, you’re not obliged to learn other languages. With me, it’s different because I speak Flemish, and six million people all over the world speak Flemish. To come abroad, it’s not good if you only know Flemish. I was really young when I got to learn English. It’s the most beautiful accent. [Flemish is] just not beautiful if you put it into a song [laughs], so it’s really obvious to sing in English. It’s not always easy because I don’t have a really big vocabulary. Finding the lyrics to have meaning, that’s the hardest part.
What’s the Belgian music scene like? You have a lot of talent, but the most known genre is rock and a bit of electro and soft rock. Soul is not really big in Belgium. I think I’m the only famous soul artist in Belgium [laughs].
You performed solo while opening for Ed Sheeran. Do you play with a band now? Now I have a band, so that’s nice. They’re our own shows so now I take my whole band, my whole crew and we all went to America and play my music, which is amazing. I did already a small tour on the East Coast, and now we’re going to do the West Coast. Every day I was shocked that there were people coming for me [laughs].
I also read you went to school for psychology. What attracted you to the subject? When I was 15, I had a really big depression but also before that, when I was 7, I wanted to become psychologist. I really love to talk deep and about emotions and what’s the point of all this and the psychology of people and psychiatry. Also because I went to a lot of psychologists, and it really helped me out, so I was like “I want to be the same.” I’m also a really good talker so it would be really something for me to become psychologist.
Can you see similarities between music and psychology? Of course for me, it’s everything. My first album is all about self-acceptance. I already once was playing in psychiatries and talking to people. I feel I have an influence on that. It would be nice if you’re an example for so many girls. They know that also me, I had a really hard time, I still have, with accepting who I am and difficulties in personality. They can learn something from it or be happy that they’re not alone. I feel I do a bit of psychology by singing.
Are you working on any new music? Two or three months ago I worked on my second album, and it went all so good. I have 20 demos so I’m going to finish this tour until 1 October. I’m also going to play Poland and Eastern Europe. Then I’m going to start recording my second album, so I cannot wait.