Swedish soul singer Seinabo Sey is only 24 years old and has yet to release her debut LP, but already she appears on a postage stamp in her homeland. She was one of five recording artists—along with First Aid Kit, Robyn, Avicii, and Max Martin—chosen by Sweden’s stamp advisory committee to represent the country’s success as a pop music export.
“If this doesn’t turn out the way I want it to,” Sey says of her music career, “and I have to convince my grandkids that I was a singer once, they’re probably not going to believe me. But I’m going to go, ‘See. I have a stamp. I did something.’”
Last summer, Sey’s debut single, “Younger,” cracked the Top 20 of Sweden’s singles chart, while a remix of the track by Norwegian DJ and producer Kygo held the top spot on Norway’s singles chart for seven weeks. “Younger,” with its seize-the-day message, fuses elements of R&B and electronica, opening with hymnal keyboard notes that give way to Sey’s rousing, beyond-her-years vocal. The song, which she performed with a 60-piece orchestra at the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo last December, is about daring to be yourself while pursuing your dreams.
“I’d like to write songs that make people feel like they’re not alone, and less weird,” Sey says. “’Cause I found myself feeling weird my whole life.”
Sey was born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and Gambian father, the renowned West African musician, Maudo Sey. She spent her early childhood in Gambia, where she listened to reggae and Sufi music with her family. Her mother’s side is from Stockholm, but she was raised in Halmstad—her grandmother had a house there—after moving back to Sweden. As a youngster, Sey never considered that her skin color might be the reason why kids didn’t want to play with her. Only looking back does she realize that she was dealing with ignorance and prejudice.
“For Swedish people, it’s still kind of a shock that there’s even such a thing as racism,” Sey says. “We’re not vocal about it at all.”
In her teens, she found inspiration in the music of Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, and Destiny’s Child. At 16, she abandoned an academic path to becoming a lawyer and moved to Stockholm to study music, partly because her father had relocated there.
“I was not the best student,” Sey confesses. “I didn’t even get a good grade in singing. I’d come to the concerts and perform well and be very good at that, but I never went to school.”
She also had trouble holding onto a variety of jobs, such as telemarketing, looking after kids at a gym, and working in a coffeehouse, where instead she’d sit and write song lyrics.
“I’ve been shockingly bad at my jobs,” Sey says. “Most people, after a while, you just get the hang of stuff. I do not know how to make a latte, and I worked in a coffee shop for a year.”
Teenage Seinabo would call her mother, crying in a panic over these jobs. She estimates that she was fired once or twice but more often just stopped going to work. Her mother encouraged her to do what was in her heart.
“She’s the most selfless, kind person, and she does everything for her children,” Sey says. “She worked several jobs to pay my rent when I was way too old to not work and support myself.”
The title of Sey’s 2014 debut EP, For Madeleine, is a dedication to her mother. Along with “Younger,” the EP includes “Hard Time,” a stark, rumbling track that HBO used for its season three promos of Vice. Another For Madeleine track, the dramatic lament, “Pistols at Dawn,” yielded a striking Christian Larson-directed video where Sey, draped in a bright red gown, protects a girl (her real-life youngest sister) from a masked assassin as they make their way through a scorched forest. One of Sey’s goals with her music is to “shift the history of my family and women that have sacrificed their dreams to take care of not just kids but other people.”
Sey’s debut album is expected this year on Virgin Records. Swedish producer and songwriter Magnus Lidehäll, who’s worked with Britney Spears and Katy Perry, has been collaborating with Sey from the beginning. For 2015, Sey made a resolution to embrace every emotion, and she expects her album to include a healthy dose of sad love songs.
“Be sad if you’re sad,” she says. “Tell people you’re sad. You don’t have to answer ‘I’m OK’ every time somebody asks. ’Cause it’s not true half the time. I’m sad a lot, but I’m happy a lot too.”
The singer speaks three languages but does not consider herself a good communicator. She’s resolute when distinguishing communication from language. Communication, she says, stems from a desire to open up.
“You can know a thousand words; if you don’t know how to put them together right, people are not going to understand anything,” she explains. “I say that I don’t like talking. It depends on what day it is. Some days I’m better. Other days I’m not. I think I’m just too self-conscious about what comes out of my mouth and take myself too seriously.”
With lyric writing, Sey can edit and revise what she wants to say and how to say it. Her process is informed by her perspective on relationships between people and why they do the things they do. She credits her father for instilling this approach.
“He was always explaining and talking about things, questioning things and getting me to think that way,” she says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone has the same problems. We’re all looking for the same things. Everyone wants to feel like they have a purpose, [like] they’re needed on Earth for something, and that somebody loves them. They don’t want to be alone. And that goes for everyone.”