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How Selah got her groove back

12:14 06/10/2011
From small-town Flanders to the international stage: Selah Sue reveals how she conquered her demons and took on the world.

It seems to be written, though we’re not entirely sure where, that the success of any female singer will be directly proportional to the size of what sits on top of her head. Think about it: Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé, Adele – all the female music icons of our time have very big hair. This may be good news for Elnett and bad news for the ozone layer, but it’s a great sign for the future prospects of Selah Sue. Her tresses have the kind of morning-after-the- night-before look of a 1960s soul diva who went straight to rehearsals after a really good night out, providing an instantly recognisable symbol of her precocious talent.

Selah Sue is one of Belgium’s biggest stars, and one of the few singers from this country with a real shot of breaking America. That’s if she wants to. As an unsigned artist, she was courted by various major labels and US producers but, not wanting to become a cookie-cutter pop singer, she declined their offers, signing instead with French-label Because, home to artists such as Moby and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Last year, she opened for Prince when he played in Antwerp and teamed up with Cee Lo Green to perform a duet on his hit album The Lady Killer.

In March this year she released her eponymous debut album, which went straight to number one in Belgium, and just a few weeks shy of her highly-anticipated concert at Forest National this month, Selah Sue has just gone triple platinum. On October 17 she will also find out if she’s won the Prix Constantin, a sort of French version of the Mercury Music Prize. Not bad for a 22-year-old from Leefdaal in Flemish Brabant.

But let’s put this in perspective. As impressive as Selah Sue’s achievements are, she’s going to have to sell an awful lot of records if she is going to hit the global big league. It’s possible, but to give you some idea of the task ahead, Selah Sue has gone triple platinum in Belgium for selling 60,000 records. In France she is ‘only’ a platinumselling artist but there she’s sold 100,000 records. To go platinum in America she would need to sell one million records. Considering the fact that Belgium’s biggest star to date isn’t Jacques Brel or 2 Unlimited, but a Belgian-Italian balladeer called Adamo – who, despite selling 100 million records worldwide, isn’t exactly a household name – she has her work cut out.

She does, however, have all the right components. Striking looks? Check. A marketable image? Check. And the music? Definitely worth its weight in platinum. It blends the rhythms and chant-down- Babylon righteousness of reggae with the introspective candour of old-school soul music, a luscious, jazzy voice and a bit of hip-hop swagger thrown in for good measure. It’s radio-friendly without being pop. She speaks of hurt and pain with the wide-eyed bemusement of a young girl who’s taken a few knocks in life and wants you to hear her story so that, perhaps, she can work out some answers. It’s a style that befits her stage name, originally a tribute to her favourite singer, Lauryn Hill, who has a song and daughter named Selah, but one that also serves as a sort of command or ordainment. The word ‘selah’ appears in the Book of Psalms and it means something that roughly translates as “stop, listen and reflect”; it’s no coincidence this is the name that Sanne Putseys chose for herself when she decided she wanted the world to hear her message.

Fame and for tune cer tainly weren’t a given for young Sanne. Growing up in a working-class home in a small town best known for its 17th-century castle, in a countrythat’s hardly renowned for producing internationally acclaimed female artists, was already a handicap. She didn’t go to a performing arts school like Amy or Adele, she hadn’t been hothoused for stardom since she could walk like Beyoncé, nor was she a child prodigy like her idol Lauryn.

As a teenager she simply picked up the guitar, discovered her voice and found her purpose. “I started to play the guitar when I was 15. I really wanted to play an instrument and it was either that or the piano, but we lived in a really small house so there was only room for a guitar. But as I started playing it, I knew it was the instrument for me.” Selah says she practised obsessively for three years, spending four hours every day perfecting her technique. Then she discovered something different. “I started to listen to reggae and soul music because of my brother and my friends at school – Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Damien Marley, different hip-hop artists – and that was it. I was hooked.”

Selah went to the University of Leuven to study psychology but continued with music at the same time, recording in home studios, uploading her music on Myspace and taking part in open-mic sessions. “One night I was performing in a club and Milow saw me singing. He liked what he saw and asked me to be his support act. From there I had to make a decision about whether to finish my studies or do music 100 percent.” She chose music, quickly going from being the “white girl who sounds Jamaican” internet sensation to hooking up with DJ Farhot (producer for another one of her favourite artists, Nneka) and singer Patrice to record her 2008 Black Part Love EP, which spawned the track Raggamuffin, still one of her biggest hits to date.

The youngest of three children, she has said in past interviews that her family supported her decision to quit school for music, but it was a decision she probably would have made anyway. “Music saved me. From the time I was 14 to 18, I was really depressed. My issue with depression is partly genetic. All of my grandparents have psychological issues but as a teenager I suffered from so much anxiety and doubt. I had a big identity crisis. I didn’t know who I was or what I stood for. It was pretty dark.”

You would imagine that entering the world of music in such a fragile state would be a mistake, but for Selah Sue it proved the opposite. Music gave her a voice and a purpose. Today, she is happy to call herself happy, oscillating between a hectic tour schedule (between now and early 2012 she will tour Italy, Germany, France, Switzerland, Russia, Japan and Australia) and domestic bliss.

“I am always on the road so when I am not working I really just like to chill,” she says. “I try to claim two days off in a week and on those days I really try to be at home. I would like to be in my bed but I live with my boyfriend and he has two children. He’s my keyboard player, by the way, so we’re together all the time, but when we’re at home it is usually very busy. It’s really intense but it’s a good life. I like making dinner and helping the children with their homework.”

Alongside her plans for world domination and her role as a happy housewife, Selah also performs with the sprawling Leuven-based dubstep collective Addicted Kru Sound. With them she mainly performs in the kind of smaller venues she would have done when she was starting out, but for her that is no problem. “I am really happy about the success of my solo album but at the same time, this is not the reason why I sing.”

She sings, one imagines, not just because she likes to but because she needs to. It’s been a long road to happiness for Selah Sue but it was music that helped pave the way. Right now she’s in the best place she’s ever been. “I am surrounded by people I love doing something I love. Life is good.”

www.selahsue.com

Written by Tamara Gausi