TOAN Exclusive: A Journey to Sidibe (interview)
It’s a Monday night with particularly nice weather for a LA “Winter” and I’ve just arrived at The York, a gourmet pub in the hilly neighborhood of Highland Park. I sit down and see a text from Sidibe, giving me a heads up that she’s running a bit behind. Right off the bat, the singer-songwriter is overly apologetic and as sweet as sugar.
I assure her I don’t mind and shortly after she floats in adorning the warmest smile I’ve ever been flashed. Still feeling apologetic, Sidibe grabs me a glass of red wine and we begin to chat. Not long after greetings and formalities someone spots the beauty in the fur coat and she steps off to say hello. I’m instantly glamoured by the ravishingly elegant crooner and as I watch her, it seems the effect is contagious.
As I’m waiting for Sidibe to return to our table, I scroll through video of her taken months before at a lowkey spot above a bar. A friend dragged me out to see this chick he couldn’t stop raving about. “You just have to hear this girl, I can’t describe her!” was pretty much all the warning I was given. We grab a seat and a couple acts go on first. I sit still, unimpressed, unsure of what to expect next. Sidibe takes the stage, small in stature but grand in presence, and begins to sing. She grabs the attention of the room in one swift note and keeps hold until the end.
TOAN: Tell me about growing up, and the birth of “Sidibe.”
Sidibe: Sidibe has been a long time in the making… My dad is from Senegal and my mom was a Peace Corps volunteer, so she met him while living there. Her job as a wildlife biologist took us all across the country. Definitely living in smaller cities, its given me a good perspective on people. I chose the name Sidibe after I went to Africa after getting out of my first record deal, I was just at a really low point and I needed something drastic, and in Africa, well in Senegal, they refer to you by your family name so, they’d go “oh! Sidibe!” especially with the griots, and so when I came back I just had a fire and I was reignited and inspired and said, “You know what? Im gonna own that name! I’m gonna go by Sidibe.”
TOAN: What are some of the places you’ve lived and how have those small towns shaped you?
Sidibe: I’m an only child as well and I think that’s been a good thing and a bad thing. Its definitely made me an individual for sure and I think growing up in different places was good because it really allowed me to form my identity based off of just my experiences. I lived on a Native American reservation in Utah, which was really awesome, I lived in Mississippi, I lived in a really rural area in the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern California; it was so rural that our house literally got washed away by the melting snow. Thankfully we weren’t living there anymore. I lived in Oregon and I was born in Louisiana.
TOAN: How long did you live in Louisiana?
Sidibe: Only a year, I was really just born there. All my moms side of the family is [still] there… And I love that! I love having family from Africa because I feel like that is such a root, such a grounding place. And I love having family from Louisiana. I mean, even though the south gets a lot of flack, Louisiana is an amazing place, that’s the first place that slaves were freed and the birthplace of jazz.
TOAN: Is your background in Jazz?
Sidibe: I love singing Jazz, that’s actually my first love, yeah.
Sidibe: Probably something I made up. It was called “Singa Minga.” [sings] “Singa minga minga, singa minga minga, singa minga minga minga minga ming-a.”
TOAN: [laughs] What does that mean?
Sidibe: I have nooo idea [laughs]. My mom just let me really be a free spirit and I really appreciate that. I didn’t grow up with a TV. She didn’t want me just sitting in front of a screen so we spent a lot of time outdoors and she spent a lot of time entertaining me.
TOAN: What were your favorite go-to activities without a tv, without screens?
Sidibe: Just telling stories, making up stories. I would write songs, I don’t know, I was a little kid, you know. I have videos singing like, “There was a beeeeear chasing meeee.” [laughs] — [I liked] Drawing and just being in nature.
TOAN: Are you good at drawing?
Sidibe: You know what, I’m not bad but I’m one of those people where if I’m not really good at it I would rather leave it to those that are. I’m not going to claim to be a good artist in that way [laughs].
Sidibe: They are all in Senegal, but he lives here in Mississippi. Definitely very different; Muslim, African, very traditional but very loving. I love my family in Africa. I think that’s definitely when I’m happiest, is when I’m in Senegal. There’s just a feeling of transparency and you’re definitely in a culture that’s not based on consumerism. So when you’re there you feel like everybody is really present, you just feel like they’re just there with you.
TOAN: What’s the average day like in Senegal?
Sidibe: Family. You’re life revolves around your family and everyone just laughs and talks all day. And cooks! ‘Cause there’s still like, at least in the village, they’re cooking on a fire, there’s no electricity. Man, I respect the women there so much because it takes like four hours to cook a meal. Even if its 100 degree’s they are out there cooking a meal. They’re the most funny and intelligent and gracious people. Senegal is called the land of hospitality, and it really is. I would recommend it to anyone if you go to Africa.
TOAN: How old were you the first time you went to Africa?
TOAN: …And what was that trip like? Do you remember it?
Sidibe: I do, it was awesome, I loved it! I remember getting my hair braided and I did not enjoy it. I was like “This hurts.” And I ended up with the funkiest cornrows you can ever imagine, I think they just stopped halfway.
TOAN: You signed your first record deal early on. What was the experience like for you?
Sidibe: I signed my first record deal when I was 18. It was kind of the classic story, I met somebody in the mall, who I’d known previously, but they had never known I sing and they asked me to sing for them. I sang for them on the spot and that’s why I always tell people, shopping comes in handy, don’t let anybody tell you any different. He was shocked and asked for my material and luckily I was prepared and had some things that I’d recorded. He sent it to Monte at universal and they flew me over, offered me a deal on the spot and it was pretty amazing. I got to live in London for six months and just travel everywhere. I’ve worked with a lot of people. It just kind of came down to creative differences. At the end of like three years we’d spent a lot of money and they were like either release a single or be dropped and at that point I wasn’t ready to compromise at that level, so I decided to be dropped. But I don’t regret it at all. It was necessary in forming who Sidibe is now and I’ve kept some really good relationships. It was what got me in the door and it was a great learning experience.
TOAN: How was living in London, at 18?!
Sidibe: I loved it! I had never been to London and I had just turned 18 and I was living in an amazing flat and I met a guy. He was French and I had my little romance and I worked with so many amazing people. Amy Winehouse and I were label-mates so I worked with everyone she worked with. Salaam Remi, and Paul Epworth who did Adele’s stuff and just like the whole London scene. And it was great, it really opened my eyes to different genres, especially house. They’re definitely more… Its not so segregated, the music, like Radio1 just plays everything. They’re a bit more progressive, less segregated, everything can kind of just be together, I loved it.
TOAN: What was your musical influence like growing up, music your parents played?
Sidibe: Initially Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Neil Young, The Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, Deep Forest, which is kinda like a new age… not a lot of people know about them, they’re interesting. And a lot of African music and the bodyguard soundtrack. We got that at a goodwill in Utah and I think that was probably the most soulful music [I heard] but then when I was around twelve I started listening to jazz musicians and vocalists.
TOAN: How’d you get into jazz music?
Sidibe: I just heard, I think, Sarah Vaughn and I was captivated. Her tone is so beautiful and so rich and I just connected with it and I loved it and I started singing more jazz.
TOAN: How many record deals have you had?
Sidibe: I’ve had one record deal and one production deal.
TOAN: What happened with the production deal?
Sidibe: Again, another learning experience. Everything is necessary, its all part of shaping who you are. You can either come out of it a better person and have learned something or you can come out of it bitter and scared and jaded. I loved the person I signed the deal with but it just wasn’t the right business relationship. It was awesome though, because we got to go to Africa, to Senegal and I brought my collaborator Nico, who I’m still working with. I’ve always believed in Nico and I’ve always brought him into every collaborative relationship I’ve ever been in, so it was fun. We got to go to Africa and after I got out of that deal and I was just like, “You know what, I need to just do it by myself, I need to believe in myself as much as these people have believed in me and just release music.” ‘Cause after all those years I never had any music out! So in 2014, it was the first time I ever put my own material out.
TOAN: Was that a single project?
TOAN: …and you’re working on your third?
Sidibe: It’s ready and I’m just trying to get the timeline right and make sure I have PR and blogs ready because this one is really special to me and I just want it to be heard and things to be set up properly and not be impatient. I’m really excited but I don’t have any management, I don’t have any PR its all just been a word of mouth, grassroots thing and that’s hard but I think that’s what’s going to be honestly be the best way to go. It would be nice to do it with a lot more money but it’s a real thing when its grassroots and I think this next project is going to take me to a different place, where I haven’t been. My upcoming EP is titled, You Got The Luck.
TOAN: When did you start working on it, when did you spark the idea for it?
Sidibe: The interesting thing about this EP is that it’s a collection of songs that I’ve written with Warryn Campbell, Jack Splash and my collaborator that worked on the last two EP’s, Nico [Stadi]. Some of these songs are actually four years old and some of them were recorded at the end of last year, so really new. What I wanted to do was bring a collection of songs together that were cohesive but with the different artists and producers that I’ve worked with. And so, in October I was looking at all of the songs I’d written and was just like, wow, I have so many songs that I love that just aren’t ready. Either I wasn’t ready for the song or the song wasn’t ready for me and I think it’s always important to look back at the material you’ve done in the past because some songs are honestly awesome. So I decided, with Nico, what songs made the most sense together. We actually tracked everything, all of the live instrumentation and all of the live vocals, in 10 days. It was a LOT; strings, flute, saxophone, bass, guitar… Luckily Warryn Campbell, who’s so amazing, has a great circle of musicians around him. The talented Rodney Jones Jr. blessed every track with his incredible bass playing. The guitarist is Jubu, he’s amazing. Eric Clapton literally bowed down to Jubu, he’s one of the best guitarists alive. He’s magical. Hamadi, the Cuban sensation as I call him, he played the sax and the flute on my project. I actually met him through my friend Thomas Pridgen who’s an amazing drummer. And I met the string player, Allison, through my pilates teacher. My friend Quique Rivera made an appearance with his sax on “Maybe.” So it was kind of like, it was pretty easy and they were all just so amazingly generous and I think that’s why this EP is definitely different and more special because when you bring other people in, even though we already had the parts written, they just brought their own energy to it and it inspires you to just create something that you wouldn’t normally think of. And of course, there is Nico who brought it all together with his brilliant production.
TOAN: How did you choose the 7 songs from such a large body of work?
Sidibe: There are songs that I’ve always loved, and we just picked the ones that made the most sense together, stylistically. It was a group effort and again I think that’s why this project is so great. I’m so thankful for my collaborators, I couldn’t have done this without them. Everybody chipped in and I think that’s why projects… When you think of Michael Jackson and his work, its because Quincy was such an amazing producer. He knew who to bring in, he knew what musicians to bring in. I think that the best projects come when it’s a collaborative effort, with one united vision.
TOAN: Is there a one song that you feel most connected to on the EP?
Sidibe: My favorite, it always changes, but I think my favorite song is the title track, You Got The Luck. It makes me feel really, really good. I think a special song on the EP is, You Wanna Love Everybody.
TOAN: What’s that about?
Sidibe: It’s about being in a relationship with somebody who really loves you, I think a lot of people can relate to this, but they also really love like four other people. You know, there are some people who are really capable of doing that, they genuinely love you but they’re just free spirits. Even though you love this person, you come to the point where you just accept that they’re not capable, at this point at least, to be able to just be with you. So its about coming to terms with that.