Composition, Style, and “Something New”: A Conversation with Sulene

Sulene © 2017
Sulene’s emotional “Something New” asks if forgiveness is necessary for leaving home behind to follow dreams.

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“Take me to the water cause I wanna rinse my soul,” sings Sulene in her dreamy single “Something New,” a coming-of-self track which speaks of repentance for leaving her past behind. The South African native speaks of the coast she grew up on, wishing to return and be forgiven for missed Christmases and the distance as she’s acquired as she’s taken on world tours and musical success in multiple genres.

In lyrics of piers and childhood games, Sulene’s past is crisp and tangible. It’s a piece of nostalgia, layered with guilt. In her own words, it asks the question “Have I abandoned my home?” and looks for clear forgiveness.

Listen: “Something New” – Sulene
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“Something New” is a relatable, yet personal release. Now, living in New York City and chasing multiple dreams, Sulene has found a community of artists asking the same questions. Is what they are striving to achieve enough to forgive their need to leave their homes behind and pave a new path?

The multi-instrumentalist has not only released a successful artist project, Strange released in early 2017 via Sleep Well Records, but has toured as a guitarist for acts like Nate Ruess and Betty Who. She also works as a film composer whose work has been featured in television series like Ray Donovan and The Affair.

Strange EP - Sulene © 2017
Sulene  © Ivan Clow

Sulene’s resume is impressively thick, with dimensions rarely seen in an indie act. But the versatile artist strives to define herself as more: while she’s got a collection of dance-worthy tracks out already, and plans to release more, it won’t be difficult for Sulene to prove she’s got other sides. She’s already succeeding less than a year after her debut release.

“Something New” is a fitting title for her vision. It’s a step in a new direction, a stripped heart-to-heart with herself that takes a serious tone, a wish for belonging and acceptance. It’s a beautiful ode to her past and her family, a branch of herself she must leave behind in order to prove herself as an artist. It’s a relatable storyline to anyone struggling to make it, but it still feels raw and personal with the added elements of Sulene’s past. It’s a gift of a song, with a simple guitar melody that’s bound to evoke emotion, and a message that’s truly unforgettable.

The track is the first peek into Sulene’s latest work, a version of her Strange EP redone in the tone of her film composition style. Titled Strange (Reimagined) the collection is set to be released on December 8 and promises to be everything the original version was not. The reimagined set is designed to let the lyrics shine with new emotion, layered over string sections and piano bases, a quieter and more feeling-evoking opposite to the room-filling instrumentals that powered on the original version.

“With film composing, most of the time it’s instrumental,” said Sulene. “There’s no singing. You’re just trying to create the certain energy and vibe and texture with instruments. So that’s how I approached this reimagined version.”

The approach is unique. Though there are acoustic and emotion filled takes of nearly every hit song, the idea to rework an entire collection in a new style is rare. It’s all part of the never-ending creativity that is Sulene: she’s got expansive artistic potential that reaches unique corners, those which will give her an edge on anyone trying to do the minimum to get by. It’s what makes “Something New,” a reflective classic, so important. Though it’s a simple song, from little instrumentals to a lyrical progression that was written basically upon its first breaths, it’s a direct piece of Sulene’s creativity, delivered with few frills and pure emotions.

Atwood Magazine spoke with Sulene about “Something New,” her reimagined EP and how much the release of Strange meant to her as an independent artist.

Sulene © 2017

Sulene  © Ivan Clow


Atwood Magazine: Can you start by talking a little bit about the Strange EP and how you created the original version?

Sulene: So the original version was created over the course of probably two years while I was on tour playing guitar for some other artists. It was going on for a while. When I got off a major world tour I had the chance to sit down and actually make this happen. I had written a bunch of demos for it and I brought it to some friends of mine who own a band called Rann and we produced it together. So it’s four of us who produced it and made these songs over the course of a summer. It was something that I’d been wanting to do for such a long time so it was super meaningful to me that it actually happened and that it got such a great response. I had known for a while that I had wanted to have an artist project but I literally couldn’t do it because I was always on the road. Like, I didn’t even have an apartment for a long time. I was in motion all the time. So having the Strange EP come out meant something to me as a person, that I could create this foundation and I could have my own project and stand on stage and front a band. It was a big turning point for me in my life.

So what made you want to rework the EP?

Sulene: So, I was totally inspired by Pronoun, by Alyse doing the rework of her record. I just thought it was such an interesting thing to do and one of the people who she found through her Discovery Weekly was Charles Fauna who is one of our super homies at this point. That was so cool. And she had been talking with me a bunch about getting remixes made just because, you know, she’s always encouraging me to have more content, especially because I am still touring with people at times. So it’s really kind of difficult, hopefully it’ll get better soon, for me to constantly put out things. I think with the conversation on remixes and seeing Alyse do this really cool, interesting, unique thing, I had thought while sitting with her like “Well, why don’t I do another version of the EP, and do it in my song composing style.” And then I decided to call it Reimagined because it’s not a remix, it’s not a rework.

So when you were originally writing these songs did you kind of have different ideas of paths they could take? Or did you come up with them when you decided to reimagine the album?

Sulene: The songs originally?


Sulene: Okay, so, yeah. The original versions of the song are them in their purest form. This is in no way a re-release or anything like that. I’ve been really careful to gear it away from that. They are definitely in their purest form in that way. This is just something I wanted to do because I know that the songs can have a completely different phase. Especially because I have been playing a lot of solo shows just by chance for a couple months. And I’m a multi-instrumentalist, so I play it on piano or on guitar or whatever. And they sound completely different. I’ve had a lot of people point it out. So it’s just another version of them that I really love that’s a more intimate way of showing the songs. Which I think is cool.

And when listeners listen to both versions of this EP do you hope they get a similar message out of both? Or do you think the production style on each takes the songs in different directions?

Sulene: I honestly think the production styles are pretty wildly different, which is exciting for me because I’m trying to lay the groundwork that I do a diverse amount of writing as an artist. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into this indie-pop thing. I love it so much, and another record is gonna come out after this that is totally indie-pop, but I want people to feel different things. If they listen to the original EP, it’s way more dancy and in-your-face. It’s wall-to-wall sounds. That translates well in a live show with my band. That’s a very specific feeling. But I wanted to give the lyrics a chance to shine a little more with the reimagined version. Lyrics are…that’s my number one thing that I care about the most in songwriting. I want people to experience the songs slightly differently. It’s definitely more emotional in this stripped-down, reimagined, composery setting.

So you're also releasing a new track, 'Something New.' Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind that track?

Sulene: So, that track was pure inspiration. And I mean that in a lot of the times when I’m writing songs, it takes me weeks or months to finish something and I’m constantly chiseling away at it. So with something new, I was working on something else. I wasn’t even…I didn’t sit down to write a song. And I just picked up my guitar and started playing that riff and basically sang the whole thing. It’s a short song, and there aren’t that many lyrics which I love about it. I think it gets to the point. But it just came out of me. I was going through a difficult time missing home. I’d been away for a long time. There was a Christmas that went by that I couldn’t go back to South Africa because I was touring with Nate Ruess. I think I just really started to feel that I was away for a long time and that’s how the song came about. It centers around kind of questioning if I abandoned my home and asking to be forgiven if I did. The whole concept is about going back to the water which refers to South Africa because I grew up on the coast. The overwhelming feeling was let me go back home and go onto the water and wash away these doubts and all these questions so I can feel forgiven and free to do what I want. Obviously, this has been a pretty taxing thing on my family. My family doesn’t live here so I don’t see them very often. Sorry if that sounds like a complicated answer, but I think it encompasses this very intricate feeling of missing home.

I think that really comes across in the track too. Lyrically, it probably can be interpreted based on how a listener relates to it, but I think your point of view is very strong in it as well. And I love that you took the idea of the water and put it into a song based on where you grew up. It's so personal.

Sulene: Yeah. That’s just totally how I was feeling. I mean it can  be really frustrating for a lot of people, especially in this city. A lot of my friends, most of them are not from here. We’ve all moved away from home to follow this nagging thing. To follow our ambition. And I think a lot of us have a percentage of our thoughts be like “Did I fuck up? Is this the right thing?” You have moments of asking these questions. So I do think a lot of people can relate to this. Especially if they’re in the arts in this city.

Definitely. You mentioned that you've got another...did you say EP coming out after this?

Sulene: I totally do. I’m halfway through a brand new record. And then when I had this conversation with Alyse, I literally pushed hold on it and just spent like a month making this. Which was a nice little brain break actually. It’s good to step away from the brand new songs. So that’ll be wrapping up in the next two or three months.

Did writing the reimagined versions of your first EP help with the inspiration of the second at all?

Sulene: Oh my gosh, totally. Like I said, stepping away from the new songs is really good for me as a writer because I lose perspective sometimes. The amazing thing is that I’m not sick of these old songs yet. I think that was inspiring to me because they obviously mean something to me and I really stand behind the writing and it made me excited to get back to the new stuff. So, this EP I produced all on my own. I played every instrument. It’s completely me. Which means something to me as well because it’s the first time I’ve done that and I think that also proves…I’ve been wanting to produce this brand new record for next year. And this definitely just shows me I’m totally capable of that.

Without giving too much away about the new EP, can you describe or give a little information about what listeners can expect?

Sulene: For the one next year or this one?

Both, actually!

Sulene: Well, with this one, I’ve been telling people it’s a stripped down, lush, more intimate version of the Strange EP. That’s all I’ve been saying. With the new one for next year, I mean it’s still in the phase of paint being thrown at the wall and it hasn’t quite become a picture yet, but it has a lot of the same sounds from the first EP that I love. It has those 80s  synth lines. It has a lot more guitar. I think I’d say it’s a little more grungy. Which I’m excited about. It feels like a lot more fuzzy guitar stuff going on. But it’s definitely pop, dressed up in that grungy thing. So by the time it comes out, it could be the opposite of what I just told you [laughs.]

So, those are all the questions I had prepared for you. Is there anything I didn't mention that you wanted to talk about?

Sulene: Yeah, I think I just wanted to put emphasis on the fact that this is not a re-release. I’m usually leading with saying that I live in two worlds and one is that I write for my artist project and I write songs, and the other world that I actually moved to New York for, is film composing. I’ve worked on a ton of TV shows like Ray Donovan and The Affair and a bunch of films. So I kind of had these two worlds very separate until now. And this was my way of unifying them, or combining the two things. It means a lot to me because it’s cool to bring those two worlds together. It was so enjoyable to make.

So your background in film contributed to the idea of the reimagined release?

Sulene: Oh, absolutely. That was the idea that I brought to Alyse. She was so excited about it, because you know, Alyse runs the label that puts out my music. That’s why I keep bringing her up. She was so excited about it because she knows I work day and night as a film composer. She’s like “It’s a side of your writing that you haven’t been able to show.” I think we had both been trying to figure out a way for me to do that. It’s absolutely inspired by that.

With film composing, most of the time it’s instrumental. There’s no singing. You’re just trying to create the certain energy and vibe and texture with instruments. So that’s how I approached this reimagined version. Like “If I use a piano on ‘What We Had’ and I add a string quartet, what kind of feeling does that evoke, and what kind of light does that shine on the lyrics? How does it make you feel?” Some of these songs…like for “Haunting” reimagined, I had to do about four different versions until I found the right one. It was definitely approached from a film composing standpoint.

That's very cool. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Sulene: The only other thing I would add, which is kind of a fun fact, is that “Something New” was written for the Strange EP originally. It just didn’t quite make the cut. Though, I love the songs equally, it didn’t quite fit with that EP. So I was really excited when I came across the session for it randomly, like three weeks ago, and realized it would fit perfectly on the reimagined version. I’m stoked that it still made its way onto something.

Just waiting for the right fit.

Sulene: Yeah, exactly. Sometimes it can be so hard to have that patience as a writer. But I’m glad that I waited to put that out.

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Strange EP - Sulene © 2017

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