I’ve organised two interviews with Ady Suleiman for Fault Magazine, one in early 2018 as he prepared to release his debut album, having recently split from his record label Syco, and one in early 2019, shortly before I watched him live. I’m presenting the more recent piece here first, as I think it makes for a better introduction to him and his story, whereas the older piece gives further insight to the way he makes me music. Enjoy…
A single touchscreen highlights a man’s face above me, a white dot set into the elevated navy blue crowd, outside the main stage lights’ reach. Everyone else is smiling and chatting with each other, or singing and swaying along to Protoje’s ‘Who Knows’. Perhaps he’s making a note to share with his therapist, checking flight prices for a long needed break from London, or finishing off an apology text in an attempt to clear his mind before the gig. I’m standing at the edge of the stage, thinking over the interview I conducted with Ady Suleiman three days ago.
This spot means that I can only see Ady’s mic stand – no band gear – but it’s also out of the stage lights, helping my eyes have lose the swimming pool sting that comes from working in bright windowless rooms. Having spent many hours packing boxes for his family’s business before his years of studio sessions began, Ady empathised with the highs and lows of this work; the lack of sun can make you wavy, but repetitive work can be relaxing; ‘it was a bit like meditation, I always thought that if things didn’t work out, I’d rather do something like that than something where I have to smile all the time.’
This lack of social expectation is also something that he appreciates here as opposed to his native Nottingham; ‘every time I jump in a taxi up North they always wanna have a chat, you don’t want to be that bellend in the back of the car, I always have to pretend that I’m making a call or checking mixes on my headphones.’ I asked why he only pretends to listen to music; ‘I think when I listen to music, it’s kinda like I’m still thinking, sometimes if I’m in that creative mode I never switch off, if I’m working on a project.’ The last record that really hit him was Brent Faiyaz’ Sonder Son, an LP that he recommended me the first time I interviewed him back in early 2018, which makes sense considering how busy he’s been since; releasing and touring his debut album Memories, and then creating and preparing to tour his mixtape Thoughts & Moments Vol.1, his first project recorded entirely as an unsigned artist.
Listening to the new mixtape in the context of Ady’s story, I feel so deeply touched by its positivity that it makes me get a bit teary at points, particularly when dancing alone to the Winta James-produced single Been Thru. It’s got this timeless warmth for me, partly because it reminds me of some of my earliest musical memories, pearlescent Soul like Lighthouse Family’s Ocean Drive or Stevie Wonder’s As. Tracks like I Remember made for a great companion to my sunlit walks in the summer of 2018, but the mood and sound of Thoughts & Moments Vol.1 really feels like the bakingly hot days and – in the case of Strange Roses – balmy evenings of that summer.
This is no coincidence; ‘they had this mad heatwave in Sweden during the world cup, and that’s where I started pulling this project together. My first album took up a lot of my life, it was really nice to finish it, I felt freer when making this new project, like this is the first thing where I can just do what I want. There was no planning, whatever the first lyrics come out that’s what it’s gonna be about, they happened to all be about love. I remember listening back and worrying that it was just all about this new relationship I was in and out of, considering adding in some more conscious stuff to balance it out, but I thought no, it is what it’s supposed to be, don’t overthink it.’
In the same vein of Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper and Stormzy, Ady’s independence has been central to this newfound, immediate vibrance of his work; whilst signed to Simon Cowell’s Syco label he suffered a severe breakdown exacerbated by the pressures of promotion; ‘When I was promoting a song, I had to pretend it was the best thing I’d ever done, when I wanted to say I’m fucking fuming, we spent way too much money on this, it should have come out three years ago… I found it really difficult to pretend to my audience or people, and when I did moan about it I was made to feel ungrateful.’
My immediate response was that that was just bad mental health practice from the label, before reflecting that it can be hard to gage the seriousness of what’s going on behind a complaint, an issue Ady also had himself; ‘I didn’t realise how stressed I was until I reached a pressure point and just broke down, I was 24 years old and I thought I’ve never felt this emotion before, about someat that ain’t even that deep, that’s what I felt, and that brought in all kinds of other anxieties and paranoias.’
The lights go down, Ady paces onstage, and everyone sings the first words of ‘I Remember’ together. My side-on angle gives me a clear view of the crowd, some are unconsciously mouthing as they gaze up, some are screaming the words with eyes screwed shut, as the second verse climaxes, ‘I know that we weren’t perfect, BUT IF IT’S EASY IT’S PROBABLY NOT WORTH IT’. Ady stands rooted as he blasts these words out, his face taut with concentration, breaking into an irrepressible grin as the song winds up and he looks down on the crowd that he adores. They’re just as he promised they would be when I told him it would be my first Suleiman show; ‘you’ll see it on Thursday, everyone’s pretty lovely, there’s cool kids and non-cool kids, there’s not really one crowd of people. I fucking love my audience, and I’m happy with that, like I remember in Mike Skinner’s autobiography he said he was surprised that the Streets’ audience was cool kids from Shoreditch.’
Having the right people around him has been crucial to Ady’s return, from his fans, to his band made up of university friends (‘going on tour is an absolute joy’), to the PR team; ‘it’s like when you leave a relationship and it’s like you find that bit of yourself again, you can see a warning sign straight off, nowadays I don’t do certain kinds of press, I know what’s going on, it’s not just shit thrown at me. I remember the first time I’d done this event under my name to promote a single, I was like I don’t know any of these folk, this is not a fucking vibe. It’s just me innit, it’s not to say that I don’t ever want to do any of that again, but I have to develop as a human being to deal with those scenarios better, because if I do too much of them I’m gonna get overwhelmed, curl up and go into myself.’
The first time I interviewed Ady, a year ago, we talked about tracks wherein Ady sings to someone in crisis, intensified by recognition of the similar struggles within himself. Though it sat alongside sunnier cuts on Memories, I turned to the vocal strains of Not Giving Up in moments of personal darkness before the summer of ‘18 began, when I needed emotional catharsis. Talking of the mixtape with Ady, I wondered if its direction was motivated by the desire to properly relax, before tapping back into the darkness. ‘I definitely want to start incorporating what I’ve learnt over the past couple of years on my next project, I think I’ll have more concepts floating around that I’ll add together. It’s not as easy when you’re still trying to work out what you think about it, what angle it is. There’s so many things I want to chat about but those lyrics aren’t gonna be quick for me because I’m not a wordsmith.’
And what about the moments when doubts creep back in, how has Ady maintained his positive energy? ‘Sometimes when I feel a bit shit about music and myself, if I haven’t come up with any lyrics at a studio session or the melodies I came up with were shit, I’ll be going to bed and think “let’s just see how shit I am”, and listen to a voice note of me jamming, and then I’ll be like mate, you’re amazing, don’t give up. I just need a glimpse; everything I’ve put out I’m proud of but I still haven’t made my album, I haven’t done what I want to do, that’s what keeps me so excited to do music. I’ve got a sound in my head, I know exactly how I want it to feel, I’ve just gotta keep chipping away at it. It’s all stepping stones towards that, I haven’t done the bits yet and I’m excited to make em, hopefully this year.’ Looking out across the Electric Brixton’s crowd, it’s easy to see how many lives Ady has touched, but I didn’t need to come to the show to believe he can change the world, I can just hear it in his voice.
And now back to 2018…
Ady Suleiman knows who he is. Since he started singing his own songs aged 18 he’s been through a lot; collaborations with superstars (Chance the Rapper, Joey Bada$$, Erykah Badu), major label deals, and intense promotion schedules. His blend of honesty and groove formed irresistible rolling RnB, that explored the issues of his life in real time. Last year he wrote an article for the Independent opening up about recent mental health issues, a heavy stall on his mind and career that had taken a lot of work and lifestyle changes to release. Today I’m talking to him a couple of weeks before his debut album Memories will drop, and one day before he thinks he’ll be over a flu, but things are calm where he is. He’s enjoyed the excuse to binge-watch tv in his London flat and feels excited to be back on the road. Before getting into the interview we talk about another recent experience he enjoyed; his photoshoot with Fault chief-editor Miles Holder; ‘it’s a skill for the photographer to get a natural look, as standing in front of loads of bright lights is always a bit tense.’
Do you find photoshoots that different from performing in gigs, in terms of aesthetically presenting yourself?
With music you always have the song. Any time I get lost and start thinking ‘oh shit there’s a lot of people in here’ and that’s in my mind, I say to myself ‘listen to the music’ and I can get back into character.
One thing I noticed in your music is that there’s a lot of direct addresses, to friends and lovers, when performing these tracks do you go into that headspace?
I think it’s really good to, as it’s like a scripted performance; you can perform the lines in a million ways, some are right. You can just go onstage and perform, and people would think it’s alright, but I want that extra level; the songs are personal and emotional and quite direct, so I want people to feel that story. I don’t necessarily visualise the person I’m addressing, but I always think about me as a character, what am I showing here to the audience, the emotion I was feeling when I wrote that song.
Do some of your tracks have an element of you talking directly to yourself?
100%, it works in both ways. For example, with Why You Runnin Away, it came about from me being frustrating with someone close to me, I was like why the fuck are you doing this shit. As I wrote it I related it to myself; maybe me running away doesn’t have as much consequence as yours does because you’re in a more severe matter, but I can still apply this to myself.
I recently read an article that connected the rise of quiet-storm style RnB in the US with political tension, as it’s a time when people need help with pessimism and anxiety. Do you think about your music as something that could help people like this?
Definitely. It always depends on the concept, sometimes it is just a story, but sometimes I think what am I trying to say with the story? Why am I telling it? Music is stuff that you say, you know everyone goes through, I can get away with saying it by singing it. Like with Running Away maybe I didn’t actually say that stuff to my friend. Some other people are comfortable just saying that stuff normally, but me not so much.
Do you feel like, this ability to express yourself more through song than through spoken word is aided by your musical lineage? Do you think that, in comparison to other genres, your style empowers you more?
I don’t think so, because I don’t really think of genres as doing a specific thing. I think I’d still be direct if I was into metal. If someone gave me a hip hop beat, a reggae beat, a soul beat, a jazz beat, what I’d do on top of this would be similar in terms of my delivery. Genre for me is more the instrumentation and what you put around it, rather than delivery. I think I got that from Amy Winehouse, because she was doing Jazz on that first record, but her lyrics were like ‘I need to get the right angle so he can fuck me right’. That’s why I really liked it, it was contemporary; she spoke the same way that we speak. I wanna talk the way I talk and speak freely.
So is she the GOAT for you?
Vocally, yeah 100%. She made me believe in myself, because she did that jazz/hip hop cross when I was wondering if I’d be able to the music I wanted to make.
She gave British music more hunger for that kind of direct honesty and strident character, that broke away from the semi-American ambiguous Simon Cowell delivery.
Yeah absolutely, I feel like I knew her, like she was my mate. When I went to see that documentary about her everyone in the cinema left feeling the same way, and I felt annoyed, like ‘you don’t know her better than me!’ I don’t think we’ll see anyone like that for some time.
Listening to the 6 minute version of Need Somebody To Love makes it clear how central rhythm is to your voice, even the acapella section keeps a headnod going, and I could tell when the track’s end came without checking my phone screen because your voice broke time and curtails off. Where do you think that flow in your voice comes from? I’m assuming it’s not Amy Winehouse.
I don’t know, maybe hip hop, I listen to a lot of stuff like Damian Marley and Lauryn Hill. This is just me making sense of the question, it might not be true, but I think it’s because of my dyslexia. My reading comprehension is actually quite bad, so when I write something I freestyle. The freestyle has a specific flow, and I write to that flow. Some people can write something and then change the melody afterwards but that’s not how my brain works, it’s too fucking slow. I wish I could, because it takes ages to write this way, but once I’ve written something it’s already got an accent. Because I write in this instinctive manner I feel stuck to this flow. The music’s put around that; I don’t write to beats, it always starts with me and the guitar. It’s always so natural, which can be a fault sometimes because I want to just write a sentence, but at the same time it helps bring that uniqueness. Like I don’t focus on that flow in my music, it’s not a conscious thing, it’s just me. If you really want to be unique, even if you can’t sing, just crack your voice on a record, because no one else has your voice.
You sing about your social anxiety in Pass The Alcohol; is it difficult to re-access songs that are about being in that dark place?
Absolutely not. Those songs written about my mental fragility, I find it really easy to slip back into them, probably because I still have those thoughts but I respond differently to them. That song was about a time when I was using alcohol to deal with social anxiety, and I can still imagine doing that, but I’m choosing not to. Serious and State of Mind can be harder because they’re more about me having a theory, and I’ve developed on those theories now; I see naivety in them.
Do you wanna keep it that way, or would you consider rewriting songs to fit where you are now?
The only thing I sometimes do is in the outros, I’ll add little bits on, it’s a reflective period. And that’s actually how Need Somebody To Love was, the rappy part after the big chorus when it’s like *sings ‘bam bam bam bam’ beautifully*, in the story it’s like ‘cool, now I’ve met that person.’ But because it’s all me it’s not hard to go back to those places.
Do you think that your ability to slip into the mindset of something that’s been hard for you is easier once that you’ve solidified it into a song?
There’s a sense of that, because there’s a distance from it. When I come offstage I’m not still in that song, it’s over, though that depends where you are in your life. When I wrote Drink Too Much and performed it in those months, I’d come offstage and think about it, and I’m having a fucking drink. This is why I called the album Memories, because these songs are like little segments, little thoughts. Have you seen that Harry Potter thing, where he pulls memories out and puts them in a bowl? I can go into the songs and then come back out, without it sticking.