Soleima

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What'd I Say

Soleima

S1, Ep. 7

Danish musician Soleima talks about discovering the Beatles, hip-hop nostalgia, and going out on her own.

Episode Transcript

Intro: Hello and welcome to What’d I Say, where Atlantic Records talks with artists about songs they made, songs they like and songs they’d like to have made. It’s an inside look into the craft of songs from the artists themselves.

Soleima grew up an avid music fan in Denmark, listening to Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and The Beatles. It wasn’t until her mother took her to an African dance that she became fascinated with traditional African drum music. As a young adult, she spent time in Tanzania, did field work in Nepal and started working on a documentary about migration in Senegal.

Soleima played keyboards and supplied vocals for a Danish language hip hop group, inspired by a Tribe Called Quest and the Wu-Tang Clan. She broke out on her own with her genre-bending electro pop release “Number 14,” which explores social issues and human nature. While at the Big Beat offices promoting her new single, “Paper,” Soleima sat down to talk to us.

Tom Mullen: Do you remember your first favorite song?

Sarah Mariegaar: No, but I remember my first very strong experience with a song.

Tom Mullen: Okay.

Sarah Mariegaar: And that was the first time, the first Beatles album I heard was “Revolver.”

Tom Mullen: That’s a good start.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, yeah. Crazy, it’s my favorite. Then I was walking up this very, very long road in the town I’m from. And I had borrowed a friend’s disc man, or something. And we were like, and that was the only thing in there. Cool friend.

Tom Mullen: Very cool friend.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. And then I listened, and the second song is like, it’s this song called “I’m Only Sleeping.” And I just remember having to repeat it and repeat it, and listen to it over and over again. And that was kind of, that was the first time where I listened to music and I was like, this is something very unique. This is something I get very… I feel a lot when I hear it. Because I think before that, I had been listening to more, I was a child back then. And we listened a lot to the Spice Girls, and Britney Spears and stuff like that.

Tom Mullen: In your house?

Sarah Mariegaar: No, my friends, like in my classroom and stuff. And we would dance around, and ah. Have fun with that. But this was kind of like, we realized, I was thinking more about it somehow, in a more emotional way. Not that you can’t do that with the other kinds of things, you can, definitely.

Tom Mullen: But it hit you?

Sarah Mariegaar: It was my first experience where it kind of felt like, this is something that changed me somehow, if that makes sense. Yeah.

Tom Mullen: So what things did you pick out? Was it the song structure?

Sarah Mariegaar: It was my first time listening to The Beatles, for one.

Tom Mullen: Which is life changing.

Sarah Mariegaar: Which is life changing for many people. And then also, it was another kind of … I had been listening to a lot of old school music, I grew up listening to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. But this was more of a …Yes, you know, it’s another way of thinking about writing a song, I feel, than many of those more old school R&B writers. So, I think it was my first time listening to a song that was written in this way.

Really, also, that folkie vibe that it has. Yeah, it hit me, and then that melody. “Keeping alive and the world going by my window.” That was like, I remember exactly that melody, I just had to go back to that and go back to that.

Tom Mullen: Wow, is that the feeling you’re trying to get to, right?

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, I guess. I guess.

Tom Mullen: When you’re making your own music, right?

Sarah Mariegaar: I guess that’s what you always kind of hunt, somehow.

Tom Mullen: And then, was that for playing music, was that an inspiration to start playing? And start with instruments, or start to experiment with the music?

Sarah Mariegaar: No, that was, I’ve always been playing. My mother played and we always had a piano and stuff like that.

Tom Mullen: Oh cool.

Sarah Mariegaar: So I always played. I never learned, what do you call them — chords and theory.

Tom Mullen: Theory, music theory.

Sarah Mariegaar: No, but I kind of learned an acoustic way, somehow. Which is something I think was good for me.

Tom Mullen: Yeah, it’s kind of the, I was pretty bad at music theory and I kind of just listened to music and tried to play it.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. And that was how we were taught, all of us, like where I come from. It was not normal to learn the theory.

Tom Mullen: Come from the heart.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, I guess. It’s not like, sometimes I’m like, “What the fuck? Why didn’t you send me to some kind of music school to learn something about this?” But then other times I’m like, I think both ways has their pros and cons.

Tom Mullen: Yeah. There’s some people that can only play sheet music.

Sarah Mariegaar: Precisely.

Tom Mullen: And it’s just, “feel it, get into it!” and they can’t.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, some of my friends that are very theoretical.

Tom Mullen: Like classically trained?

Sarah Mariegaar: Theoretically? Do you say that?

Tom Mullen: Theoretical? No.

Sarah Mariegaar: Like was it?

Tom Mullen: They base their music on theory?

Sarah Mariegaar: They know a lot of theory about music. They would be like, if you put some chords together and be like, whoa, what about this and this? They’ll be like, “You cannot do that. That’s not right.” Or that doesn’t sound right in their ears. So, it can be a limit somehow. But on the other hand, sometimes they can figure stuff out that I could never do. Like so.

Tom Mullen: Or speak to somebody and explain what they want.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, definitely. I would just be like-

Tom Mullen: As a drummer, I was always horrible with that. “Can you do this, this and then this?” Never worked. They’d always shake their head. “Go back to your guitar, Tom.” I will. Were there some other songs that you were exposed to that kind of had those moments?

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, there’s been many songs like that.

Tom Mullen: Like an older one? Maybe something-

Sarah Mariegaar: Something more old school?

Tom Mullen: Or just from that disc man, what was the next CD? Or what was the next one that someone?

Sarah Mariegaar: I think, other songs I was really, for example, I listen a lot to Stevie Wonder. His song “Master Blaster” was one of, that was the song where I would just be a little addicted to it, somehow. But then, I think, we listened to a lot of cool stuff as well as kids, or when I became a little older, we were very nostalgic about hip hop, for example. Even though it was before our time. We listened to People Under the Stairs, and Wu-Tang, and some of those very-

Tom Mullen: How old were you for that? Like high school?

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: University?

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, I guess. Yeah.

Tom Mullen: That’s cool.

Sarah Mariegaar: We were very inspired at my bands, that I just told you about. Like yeah, I had this hip hop band. And we were very inspired by The Roots, playing the instruments, and this dude rapping. We just wanted to be The Roots, actually.

Tom Mullen: I like that. How long were you in that band?

Sarah Mariegaar: Oh, that was a long time. Because we just started out as kids. Like maybe 12 years or something.

Tom Mullen: Wow.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah it was fun. Because we went to this school where we were very encouraged to play music, so we just played in school, we were taught there. Then we kind of started playing outside in our free time and then suddenly, we had this band and we did, it was in Danish. But then we got signed and stuff like that. So it did kind of roll for some years. But it was like, early on. But it was fun. It was really, really, really fun.

Tom Mullen: I bet, I mean, being in a group versus a solo artist now, are there things that you miss, or that you like better? Obviously, calling all the shots, right?

Sarah Mariegaar: Yes, deciding.

Tom Mullen: But then every decision is yours.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. But that’s like, very much what it’s about, actually. There’s a blessing in being many people. I love cooperating and I love that we were a team, taking the decisions together, la la la. But also I think I was just at a place in my life where I needed to be able to try, I needed to try to do it on my own. I was tired of discussing the snare drum sound with six boys. I was just like, seriously, now it’s my turn to decide how my music. And I think it’s a natural evolvement, that’s just what happens, I think, when you’ve been-

Tom Mullen: With people for so long.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, precisely. But then again, you’re the only one who has to take the hit for all of these decisions, and for all of the music. So it’s also something I miss being around. Because I’m around many people, and many people help me with decisions and all of that. But at the end of the day, it is me. I am the one. And when you’re in a band, you’re are more of that. And if someone thinks it sucks, what you’re doing, you’re more like, “Whatever, we’re a fucking gang”-

Tom Mullen: You’ve got a crew with you.

Sarah Mariegaar: -“fuck you, you don’t know anything about this.” But if it’s me, and people are like, “No, that’s not good enough.” Or, “Why did you do that?” You tend to be more insecure, maybe. Or like, I don’t know. Maybe it sucks. But that’s just something you have to work with. Sometimes, I can also be like, “Whatever, dude. This is what I like.” But it’s easier to be in a small army.

Tom Mullen: When you’re crafting the song by yourself, you have people with you, working on it. But if you’re doing it, that moment when you start it, is there a note? Or is there a piece, that you always start with? I always start with, I think, I do, I’ll start with one note. And start playing with one note, and then build it. And not try to complicate it. Is there a form you start out with? Or, I always start with the drums, or I always start with this.

Because the one thing I loved about the music, which I noticed this morning, too, there’s layers in it that I think I kind of heard as the song was going, that I felt like came in. And I really liked that. So, I just want to know how you sort of started the root.

Sarah Mariegaar: But it’s actually very different, because I write in my different ways, both I get sent beats from people, and I write on top of them. And also, often, I start at home by the piano. Then I’ll start with chords, and then melody, and then lyrics last.

Tom Mullen: Lyrics are always last for me.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: I don’t know why.

Sarah Mariegaar: It’s the same for me. But actually, because I just had my first real songwriting trip in LA, and it was … I realized that many of the people who I wrote with started with lyrics, and that was so difficult for me. It’s so strange how you kind of find your way, you’re like, ah. That’s two ways I write, and also I write in the studio with a producer from scratch, kind of. Then we’ll often start with some chords, or a small beat. And be like, what else? Or how should the drums be? And la la. And then write.

Tom Mullen: Is there one that you like better? Or they all kind of fit however the song starts, right?

Sarah Mariegaar: I think, the song, or the topline becomes strongest when you start with chords and melody. Because when there’s only a beat there. When there’s already a beat that rises and falls and has all of these dynamics, the melody doesn’t necessarily need to carry it all that much. Like for example, if the chorus hits, the beat and everything kind of becomes more intense, the melody doesn’t have to carry that feeling you know what I mean? I, at least, feel that it’s not the strongest toplines.

It’s not that it’s not as good songs, it’s just not as… For example, it’s not a song you can always sit down with a piano and play and sing. And I like that, no matter how produced a song is-

Tom Mullen: That you can play it.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, that I’m able to sit down and play a song, and it has a natural kind of evolvement.

Tom Mullen: I mean, that kind of goes back to the band part, where you wanted to play the instruments of hip hop, and you wanted to play it all.

Sarah Mariegaar: Maybe.

Tom Mullen: I love that, kind of, you feel it more.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, I guess, I feel that way, definitely.

Tom Mullen: Was there a specific song that you wrote, that you feel took the next level of writing? Is there one that said, okay, I know you’ve been writing with the band, whatever. But your personal stuff, is there one that said, “Okay, this is it. I can go to the next level.”

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. That’s a really good question, actually. There are some songs that I’m very… For example, my song “Breathe,” that was kind of the first time I wrote a song with, there was kind of , that was my first pop song, if you can say that. I had written a lot of songs, which I think are super poppy. But that was the first song where like, it got a lot of attention from, for example, labels.

Tom Mullen: Wow.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. So that was, I think, the first time I kind of found my way within commercial pop music. My sound, and my way of structuring melodies. Before that, my songs had been more, quite more left leaning, I think, in the way I wrote. And it’s not something I thought about that much. But now I like it a lot. Yeah.

Tom Mullen: So it turned a different leaf, kind of you’re able to sort of-

Sarah Mariegaar: I think I grew a little bit, as a songwriter, with that song. And also brought it into some of my next songs, definitely. Yeah, and then some of my weirdest songs, like I have a song called “This Life,” and a song called “My Love,” and stuff like that. And they are songs I’m very proud of the lyrics. And the meaning with them.

Tom Mullen: That’s great.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: That’s a thing, it’s like you hit that one, I don’t know, it’s that one line you write, or the chord, or the drum beat, and it opens up-

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: -your mind again.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, and it’s really exciting when you write a song where you really feel like you’re growing with it, or like you’re evolving your skills somehow.

Tom Mullen: Or that excitement, too.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, definitely.

Tom Mullen: Like you have this energy where you were going to stop 20 minutes ago and eat, and then you found a note, and you just kept going for another two hours.

Sarah Mariegaar: That’s the best. That’s so good.

Tom Mullen: Is there a song that, do you remember hearing your song for the first time in public? Have you heard it live anywhere? Or in the mall?

Sarah Mariegaar: Actually, in Denmark and in Scandinavia, they’re playing it quite a lot on the radio, luckily. But actually here, in this fucking city-

Tom Mullen: Not yet? You did hear it when you walked into my office.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, but I heard it in a fucking H&M.

Tom Mullen: You did?

Sarah Mariegaar: This week.

Tom Mullen: Yes.

Sarah Mariegaar: And it was so amazing.

Tom Mullen: Were you with anybody? Did you go, “Oh this is me, by the way.”

Sarah Mariegaar: Actually, I was alone.

Tom Mullen: Oh no.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. But it was so funny. I filmed it, though.

Tom Mullen: You did? For Instagram? Or was it? That’s good.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, it was so good.

Tom Mullen: Anyone nodding their head while they were picking out sizes?

Sarah Mariegaar: I fucking hope so, man. No, but that was really big because there’s something about this city, and you’re a long way from home and that’s such, like, a humble feeling. I get very humble about it.

Tom Mullen: I think that’s a good feeling about it. I mean, it almost says, “All right, I’ve got more work to do. I’ve heard it here, now where’s the next place I can hear it?”

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, definitely. That’s how you feel very much when you’re at my stage of a career, I think. You’re very hungry.

Tom Mullen: That’s good, you didn’t say, like, “I heard it in H&M, it’ll be there again.” No, what’s next? I like that. Is there a song, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, that you’ll stop anything to listen to it?

Sarah Mariegaar: Actually, I have this Jai Paul song, we just heard it today. It’s like my favorite song in the world. It’s this English artist called Jai Paul and it’s a song called “Jasmine.” And it’s very much like, what I am musically inspired the most by. Yeah, there’s so much in his music that just turned my world upside down.

Tom Mullen: So anytime, you’ll stop-

Sarah Mariegaar: Whenever I hear that song, I’m just like, I have to dance and just, I forget everyone around myself. It’s too good. You should hear it.

Tom Mullen: Done, I’m going to listen to it right after this. We’re going to listen to it when we’re done.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, let’s.

Tom Mullen: Is there a song, a recent song, that you discovered that you had to share with your friends?

Sarah Mariegaar: That is one of them. But we have a lot of very, very cool stuff going on in the Copenhagen music scene right now, actually. So whenever I’m outside of Denmark, I really, I’m so proud to show people, my friends at home, doing music and doing really well. And I think, we are very much inspiring each other back home, right now. And it’s such a small music scene. We all know each other and work with each other. It’s very motivating.

Tom Mullen: What’s coming out right now? What kind of sounds, or what kind of things are coming?

Sarah Mariegaar: It’s very organic. It’s like, electronic music but with many organic instruments, and organic inspirations.

Tom Mullen: Cool. So that was a change from, did it get too computer-based?

Sarah Mariegaar: No, I think we have been going through a very, like a period where very electronic, very EDMish period where there’s a drop in every song, and chopped vocals.

Tom Mullen: Got really formulaic.

Sarah Mariegaar: And I think we’re coming out of that somehow. Or at least in Scandinavia, it’s starting to go in another direction, definitely. Which I think, it’s always exciting when you’re coming from something and it’s kind of evolving into a new thing. That’s what it is all about, I think.

Tom Mullen: But that’s exciting, you’re going to a venue, and you see somebody, and they do something new and that inspires you when you go home. That’s great.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: And in a small community, too, having all of those people with you to support and you’re sort of again, that little band of people.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. It’s amazing, yeah.

Tom Mullen: That’s great. Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. Yeah.

Tom Mullen: You said Spice Girls earlier, but that was a long time ago.

Sarah Mariegaar: Musically, yeah. A music guilty pleasure. I don’t know if, I feel like there’s even, like I like most stuff and I think a lot of stuff is cool. I don’t know what a guilty pleasure actually is. What is that?

Tom Mullen: I don’t know, something you’d be a little embarrassed to talk about.

Sarah Mariegaar: To say?

Tom Mullen: Yeah.

Sarah Mariegaar: I listen, like I love country. But I don’t know if you would be embarrassed.

Tom Mullen: What kind of country?

Sarah Mariegaar: So many different styles. Like I can definitely listen to Dolly Parton over and over again.

Tom Mullen: Legend.

Sarah Mariegaar: But that’s not a guilty pleasure. But I also like more corny country, like Conway Twitty, and like-

Tom Mullen: Classic country.

Sarah Mariegaar: Really like-

Tom Mullen: I like that.

Sarah Mariegaar: -southern stuff. I, yeah. “Mississippi woman, Louisiana man, we get together every time we can.”

Tom Mullen: I like that.

Sarah Mariegaar: Do you know that one?

Tom Mullen: No.

Sarah Mariegaar: You should hear it, it’s fun. But that might be a guilty pleasure. Or that’s also, it’s your folk music. So maybe people in the U.S. would be like, “Oh that’s disgusting.” Or, “Oh that’s so weird.” But when it’s folk, like when it’s not a tradition in your own country, maybe you have another relationship to it. I don’t know.

Tom Mullen: I was going to ask you about that. Experiencing music, and being able to hear everything you want now. Versus maybe when you were younger, and it was CDs or downloads, how is it, in a different country, hearing things from a different place, from that earlier point? Where it’s a burned CD, or a friend, you’re borrowing something. To now, where, just tap a few buttons, and you’ve got everything.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: Do you think about that?

Sarah Mariegaar: Actually I don’t, really. Yeah, I don’t know. I didn’t really realize the change, maybe. Which is actually really weird, now [that] you’re saying it. Because I remember, as a kid, we had CDs, of course. We had them. But then, suddenly, we didn’t anymore and everything was-

Tom Mullen: Available.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: But sort of that consumption of how did you, like, I was only getting things that I was told, or read in a magazine, or a friend of a friend. And that friend thing is still, I still think is so powerful. When if you tell me to go listen to something, I’m going to listen to it. But if I’m scrolling through Spotify and I’m reading a name, it’s harder for me to get the full context or understanding of it, versus maybe something earlier. So I try to think of that consumption of being in a smaller country, away from, maybe, where that scene was happening and how you were exposed to it.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah that’s true. But I think we were just very exposed to what everyone else, that’s also what was different back then. Because there were these 10 superstars that everyone was listening to, it seems like.

Tom Mullen: Yeah.

Sarah Mariegaar: Spice Girls, Britney Spears, I don’t remember them all.

Tom Mullen: Nirvana.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah. And then, now it’s like, there are many superstars in different leagues. Many of the people, I see a star, so I admire or I look up to. Many would not even know them.

Tom Mullen: Do you have any hopes for this year?

Sarah Mariegaar: Many. Hopes and dreams.

Tom Mullen: What’s one? Could be music, could be something else.

Sarah Mariegaar: I think, my, in general, my hope and dream is to be able to do this for as long as I want. Which is something that I just know that when I’m the most happy is when I do music. So it’s such a blessing to be able to do what you actually like, in life. And I think that’s something, yeah. It’s so, it’s more lucky than we even realize, us people, I think. When we’re able to be, actually, really, really happy and content in a job. Because many aren’t. And many don’t even have that possibility, or you have to think about giving your kids food. Or like, working in a factory. And that’s so lucky, I think. Yeah. I was born in the right place in the world, definitely.

Tom Mullen: I love that.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: Cool.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: Thanks. Did you have fun?

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah.

Tom Mullen: Great.

Sarah Mariegaar: I felt like I spoke a lot.

Tom Mullen: That’s what you’re supposed to do.

Sarah Mariegaar: Yeah, I guess.

Tom Mullen: I’m not supposed to say anything. This isn’t my interview.

Outro: Thanks again to Soleima for coming on What’d I Say. Our theme music is by Max Frost. Be sure and catch up on all of the Atlantic Records podcasts at AtlanticPodcasts.com. Thank you for listening.