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Snoh Aalegra
NR Magazine, Vol. 11

There was a moment last summer when it felt as though one song in particular was seeping from every open window on a warm day; it seemed to be the backing music to Instagram story capturing a stream of sunlight falling upon the interior of an airy apartment. ‘I want you around’, Snoh Aalegra sings on the song of the same name – velvety lyrics dabbling in the simultaneous thrill and uncertainty of a new love, above a pared-back beat. In fact, the entirety of her most recent album, Ugh, Those Feels Again, felt like the soundtrack to the summer. And for Snoh, her music provides the soundtrack to her life; each album or project is a ‘mini movie’ of encounters, experiences and feelings. That Snoh speaks about her music through references to movie soundtracks is testament to a childhood spent watching, and falling in love with, the film scores of Walt Disney movies. ‘The big strings, the orchestras and the choirs,’ she enthuses, ‘they feel so grand; all these instruments and sounds that I love.’ Similarly, the layers and theatrics in the oeuvre of Michael Jackson had a significant impact of Snoh’s taste. It’s clear from the influences she has cited – Lauryn Hill; Nina Simone; Whitney Houston; Stevie Wonder – that Snoh follows in a long tradition of R&B icons. Somewhat fittingly, the album cover for Ugh, Those Feels Again has a touch of Sade about it – something Snoh’s been hearing a lot of. The artistic direction behind the covers of her releases prior to this album, 2017’s Feels and 2016’s mini album Don’t Explain, took a different direction, however. Both covers were designed by the artist Joe McDermott; the pop art illustrations making reference to the movies of old Hollywood. When I first heard Don’t Explain, the combination of McDermott’s album art with Snoh’s smoky vocals over grand orchestral compositions felt timeless. In many respects, it’s only upon hearing features from rappers Logic, Vic Mensa and Vince Staples on Feels that bring Snoh’s music into the present day. It’s fitting, then, that she walked for Thierry Mugler’s A/W 2020 show in Paris earlier this year. ‘It’s a class brand that I’ve always loved, you know; it’s timeless and contemporary at the same time,’ she explains: ‘that’s what I relate to a lot.’ It’s something that she tries to do with her music, but progression is important too. In fact, the day before I spoke to Snoh on the phone, it was announced that she’d signed onto Jay-Z’s Roc Nation – a huge step forward if ever there was one. 

NR MAGAZINE: First of all, it’s just been announced that you’ve signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation; how does that feel, and what does this mean for your music?

SNOH AALEGRA: Yeah, I mean, I’m very happy about it all. Me and my team, we’ve been working our asses off, doing everything ourselves for so many years. And I have a really small team of like three people, and at some point, we were like, ‘Ok, it’s time to expand.’ I mean, we work around the clock and we needed to delegate some of this insane workload. Talking to labels was a natural next step in my journey, and our journey as a team. I think choosing Roc Nation was just the most organic way to go; there’s a pre-existing relationship and respect there already, you know. No I.D. [Snoh’s producer] is close with Jay-Z, TY TY, Jay Brown and everybody, and I feel like no matter how big their company gets, they still operate like one big family. And I think that’s something that’s very important to have for me, in contrast to other cutthroat, hype-driven labels. I look at Jay-Z, his close circle of people and see the insane careers they’ve built for themselves and the help they’ve given so many other artists. And as far as my creative process goes, that will stay the same. I mean, I always strive to evolve and learn, but I definitely have a particular way of how I like things to be done and that will probably never change.

NR: Something that interests a lot of people is that Prince was your mentor when he was alive; what do you think he’d say knowing where you’ve got to today?

SA: Yeah, it’s interesting cos he really told me to never sign with a major label, and when I met him, I was with a major label. He was like, ‘Get out of this deal!’ and I did; I went indie. But, funny enough, I know one person that he really respected and trusted, even with his own catalogue, was Jay-Z. So, I feel like I’ve made the right decision and he probably would have supported this too.

NR: How do you find the space to create new music, and is having a certain space to work in important to you?

SA: I think it’s important to live and to have something to write about; to take your time and have space. Like, I thought I needed more time to start making music again after this album, but I’ve already started making music and I think that’s because I naturally have things to write about. If I don’t, I’m not gonna force it, you know? I’m very real with what I say,  and not say, before I get into the studio. I go in with that mindset like, ‘Ok I want to write about this.’

NR: When it comes to the composition, where do you begin? Do you start with the lyrics, an idea or a sound?

SA: It really begins with me, walking into the room, knowing the mood – there’s always a mood. Sometimes, it’s just only me and an engineer, and I’m there writing the whole thing myself, either to a beat, or I make up melodies and lyrics – and then I have somebody come play for me. Sometimes I like to bounce off ideas with a co-writer or with a producer and work that way. I’m all for either ways. It’s really about myself and my life, so it’s super important that it’s all authentic to me. And if I bounce off with somebody, they need to know that it’s really personal to me. And that’s why I don’t really write with a lot of people. So, sometimes, I already have a lyric idea; sometimes it’s like, I’m jamming to a beat. My favourite is probably jamming to live music where I’m just jamming with live musicians. That’s probably my favourite way to work.

NR: Ugh, Those Feels Again was a year or so in the making: How do you know when something’s complete and ready to go?

SA: I think it’s just a feeling you have. Like, I’m ready to put this out; I’m ready for people to hear this. And it’s not always that it’s perfect, or that you feel like, ‘Oh I have a hit, I have this, I have that’. I had no idea how people would react to the album. All I knew was how it made me feel and that it was, you know, a good feeling. For me, it’s about what I want to have said on a project, and if I expressed these emotions. My projects are like time capsules of my life. So, this album that’s out right now, was the sum up of what happened after a break up and what I was going through – reminiscing back on why we broke up, how we broke up. Songs like Charleville 9200, Pt. II, songs like Love Live That and You, reflect on the break up. And then, I was single for a whole year making the album, experiencing new love or situations, so songs like Situationship and I Want You Around describe that feeling when you just met somebody new, and you want them to be around them, but you don’t really know where it’s gonna go. So, that’s a mix of a whole year for me.

NR: Once you’ve put an album out there, do you move on, or do you look back at that period and remember how you felt?

SA: Well, in real life I move on. I’ve moved on from those relationships and stuff, but I can never escape it all the way because I have to perform! But sometimes, I’ll channel another feeling, or I’ll think about something else. Every time I’m performing certain songs, I’m not standing there thinking about my ex, do you know what I mean? But some songs, like Time, every time I’m thinking about my dad. So, it can be hard because I’m always thinking about something – cos I really get into the vibe when I’m performing.

NR: Your lyrics are very personal to you, but I think people connect to them because you really capture emotion. How does it feel that people might listen to your songs and put their own experiences and feelings onto them? 

SA: And they do, and I notice that they do, which is really surreal. I grew up listening to music as a fan, and I know what music does to me so, to be able to do that for other people as an artist is kind of unreal. But, I think that was a part of why I wanted to become an artist, you know. I want to inspire; that’s why we do music I think. But it’s kind of crazy; there’s been people come up to me saying I’ve saved their life, and that listening to my album has stopped them from doing something. That’s feels crazy to me – that that’s helped even one person. It just shows how powerful music can be, and how it can connect people at the same time.

NR: In a similar way, you’ve previously mentioned some of the musicians that inspired you growing up. But, for you now, how does it feel that your music could inspire a young generation?

SA: I mean, it’s surreal because I just know how I was feeling as a little kid listening to artists I looked up to. I was inspired by Whitney Houston; when I heard her voice, that’s when I knew that I wanted to be an artist. So, it’s crazy if somebody feels that way hearing me. At the same time, I would feel nervous for them because I know how tough this industry can be, and what a tough journey I’ve had to get this far. It’s all been worth it, but I don’t know how much I would advise somebody else to get into this industry! But, you know, if I can inspire somebody to do their own thing- no matter what it is – if they want to be an artist, a lawyer, or a nurse, whatever they want to be; if I can inspire that, that’s a beautiful thing.

NR: Being able to look back on the journey you’ve taken, is there anything you would have done differently – or something that you’ve really learned from that’s shaped who you are today?

SA: I’ve learned to not be a people pleaser; I used to be a people pleaser because, you know, I was signed for the first time when I was thirteen. And, I had a lot of respect for authority, listening to people telling me what to do, and what not to do. I didn’t have my own voice. Things were really different when I was thirteen, or even when I was eighteen, to being a teenager now. We’re way more educated, smarter, we have more access to information, to make music and to have a reach. When I was a growing up, there was no SoundCloud or Instagram. So, for me, I had to go through labels –that was the only option. I put a lot of trust in other people around me and I didn’t know what I was doing; I was a kid. So, I think yeah: that’s something I’ve learned – stop being a people pleaser. Do your own thing. Life’s too short to do something you don’t want to do. And, I stand up for myself more than ever and I don’t take things personal. It’s a whole big game for everybody in the industry; it’s not just about the artists – there’s a whole political game. For artists, nothing is set for us, basically. It’s crazy how it’s a whole world of politics, and artists get really affected by this. And now I work with family so I know that they would never fuck me over.

NR: Finally then, if you were to work on a film score of your own, what would be the ideal project for that?

SA: James Bond. 007. That’s always something that’s been on the bucket list; if that were ever to happen, that would be super crazy. It’s been a goal of mine cos I’m a big fan of the James Bond soundtracks. License to Kill - Gladys Knight, Golden Eye - Tina Turner, or like, Gold Finger - Shirley Bassey: they’re some of my favourite songs and compositions. So yeah, that would be a dream cos I would want to make a song like that.

April 2020