Before releasing her debut LP, Pretend, in October, Swedish neo-soul songstress Seinabo Sey learned just how beneficial a "fake-it-until-I-make-it" attitude can be. "When you're a kid, you pretend to be a singer and then all of a sudden you are," says the 25-year-old Stockholm native, who now has conquered any self-doubts: "This is what I'm really meant to do. This is what I'm good at."
Indeed, Pretend—one of the year's best R&B albums—leaves no question that Sey is the real deal. Mixing everything from hip-hop and electro-pop to blues and gospel without missing a beat, it's a multifaceted work from a multicultural woman. In fact, she split her early years between Sweden and Gambia, the homeland of her musician father Maudo, whose 2013 death inspired the haunting "Burial."
"I grew up in a household with West African music, and Sweden has all of its pop," Sey says. "But the music that influenced me the most was from America: Destiny's Child, Alicia Keys, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and India.Arie."
You can hear echoes of another idol, Lauryn Hill, on tracks like "Poetic" and "Still." "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was definitely pivotal. It changed my view of songwriting," says Sey. "Cheesy love songs haven't really been my thing."
Instead, Sey's lyrics are "little bits of advice" for the diva in the mirror. "In my mind, they're notes to myself, things to remember when times are tough," she says. "I moved away from home when I was 15, and everything after that has been me on my own trying to figure things out. I'm scared of letting lessons get away from me, so writing them down in songs is my way of remembering—and my way of helping others."
Seinabo Sey's debut album, Pretend, is out now.