Brooklyn-based South African bedroom synth indie pop artist Sulene, signed to Sleep Well Records, has toured the world as Nate Ruess of fun.s’ guitarist. Having scored for high profile shows, movies, and recognizable commercials, Sulene talks a lot about what makes a great pop artist. Her music, sonically depicted on her recent EP Fire Escaping, exemplifies what a great pop song is all about, embedding 80’s influenced drum beats, electrifying dancey vibes, and lyrics that share stories of love, loss, and heartbreak — wrapped up in a way that makes you get up and dance in your living room with a hairbrush. Just listen to ‘Diamond’ and you’ll get what we mean as Sulene dances through the much-loved venue staples of New York City.
You talk about what it means to create a great pop song, “to say what has been said a million times, only in a way that’s never been said before.” Can you speak further on that point and how you put it in practice?
When I think about making a pop song I think about creating something that is somewhat universal and relatable. But the next step for me is usually to think of a way to say something that’s been said before but in my own unique way. I think if you’re able to push yourself into a new territory, that’s when you can really bring something new to the table. A new perspective.
Tell us about the various musical lanes you’ve taken in your career. How did you become a guitarist for the likes of Nate Ruess of fun. and Betty Who?
I got these session musician gigs through recommendations from friends, actually. Both of those recommendations came from people I went to college with at Berklee. While I was never specifically trying to pursue being a session musician, I ended up doing those auditions and taking those gigs because I wanted to have new experience, and I certainly did! So once I got the recommendation and the initial call/audition, I tried to hit a home run with the gig. I learned everything as best I could and prepared a lot. Being a session musician in a band can also come down to “the hang”. You spend so much time in close quarters when you’re in a touring band so you’re also trying to make sure you’re working with like-minded people where it’s gonna be a good time. I really enjoyed making music with Jess from Betty Who and Nate and the whole band.
Your sound is often described as “bedroom synth pop,” but how would you describe it to someone who has never heard your music?
I would describe my music that’s out there as “bedroom synth pop” yes, but I’d describe my upcoming music as “dark gothic disco pop.”
When I think about making a pop song I think about creating something that is somewhat universal and relatable.
What first led you to film scoring? How has your film score/composing background helped you and influenced your solo music career?
I studied film scoring in college and got a degree in composition. I wanted to be a film scorer since I heard Jon Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind. I liked the idea of writing music for a “mood” in a scene of a music. I’ve always been fascinated with how music makes you feel as opposed to the more technical side of it. That’s why I also ended up writing for commercials and TV in the process. It’s always about capturing a “vibe” and really influencing the audience to feel a certain way. Film scoring has made me a better producer and arranging, especially scoring for commercials where there’s a tight deadline. It’s also made me discover new tones and sounds. When I wrote for more artsy films I’m always pushing myself to discover new territory with my synth and guitars and pedals.
You recently released your sophomore EP Fire Escaping. What was the inspiration behind those tracks, both lyrically and sonically?
The inspiration behind that one sonically was many things but definitely True Blue by Madonna. That was a big one haha. Lyrically, the songs are all about relationships. About falling in love, a bad breakup, and dating someone who wanted to be in an open relationship. I guess I was thinking about that stuff a lot at the time.
Describe what happens when you think of a new song, what comes first: the lyrics or the melody? How do you kick off that process?
It’s usually just a concept as first. Like with ‘Diamond’, I just had the concept of finding someone like a “diamond in the rough.” Like a relationship that could be great. Kiss Harder’ was just the concept of “if we kiss harder could it be enough?” Nowadays, I actually start with the production first and then I sit back and listen to the musical idea and see what concepts it brings to mind.
The music video for ‘Diamond’ sees you dancing through different four locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, like Arlene’s Grocery, the BQE, The Three Diamond Door, and The Loft at Elsewhere. Why are these locations so special to you?
They’re all special to me because they’re all places I spent a lot of time at. I wanted it to feel like I’m daydreaming of this person while I’m perusing (or dancing through) all these different spots in NYC where I usually hang. The BQE spot is the most significant to me though, it’s also where I shot all the promo photos. It’s on the block where my partner used to live, and we used to always walk by it and say it looks like such a “movie moment” and take photos of one another. A lot of this record is about falling in love and losing this person, etc, etc, love is complicated.
What advice do you have for someone starting out their musical career?
Be true to yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t worry about what other people think. Be brave.
If you could go back and change one thing about your journey, would you? If so, what would you change?
Honestly, I wish I’d started making my own music sooner than I did. I started in 2016. Up until that point, I was really bogged down by financial and immigration situations. I had to work really hard to make enough to survive in NYC and also had to earn accolades to acquire my US visa. I know I did the best I could under these circumstances but sometimes it saddens me that I didn’t tap into my own voice for a long time.
What is your favorite project you’ve ever worked on across all your ventures?
I would say working on my solo music is the most fulfilling. But in terms of collaboration my favourite projects have been the two short films I scored for the director Jonathan Reyes (one of them is out, called After The End, the other isn’t out yet). My favourite band collab has been the new comedy band I’m in and producing called BRVNCHES which will launch in the new future.
Who are some of your dream collaborations?
Jon Brion, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Grimes, Porches.
What can fans look forward to in the coming months?
Lots of new music and videos!! And a tour once that’s doable again (the tour that had been booked has been postponed for now.)
You have so many amazing talents that shine through your music and career. So, tell us, what’s one of your “useless” talents?
I love this question!! My biggest useless talent is that I know literally everything about King of the Hill. You can ask me anything. I’d win a KOTH trivia contest any day.