If you told Belgian artist Selah Sue (born Sanne Putseys) 10 years ago that she was going to become a professional musician—at the time, she was studying to become a psychologist—she swears she'd be shocked. But if you sit down with her recently released full-length, Reason, it’s hard to imagine her as anything but a musician. On her second album the 27-year-old deftly executes the tough task of creating a collection that blends genres yet still feels seamless and cohesive—from the grainy, old-school ballad “Sadness” to the delightfully disco-esque “Alone.” There’s something else that’ll convince you her place is center stage: that voice.
Like the record itself, Selah Sue’s vocals on Reason are nimble and multifaceted. At times, she comes off sweetly soulful, like on “I Won’t Go For More,” a mid-tempo, acoustic guitar track that recalls her 2011 self-titled debut LP. But then, out of nowhere, her husky, chill-inducing vibrato—think the refrain of Sia’s soaring “Chandelier”—will stop you in your tracks. And when this happens, it sounds as if Sue is fighting a battle. When you know a little more about Selah Sue this doesn’t come as a total surprise: she’s been fighting battles all her life, and most of those battles have been with herself. Speaking to me on the phone from Belgium she dives into the history of her own mental health almost immediately, detailing multiple bouts of depression as a teenager.
“When I was 14 and 15 I felt so incredibly lost and bad and depressed. I was just desperate for help," she says. "So I went to my mother, but it was not big news: [mental health issues] were always in the family. My grandparents on both sides were psychiatric patients. So my family was also really open and OK with it. I went through a lot of therapy and psychological help and family support. I just wanted to feel better. But then, when I was 18, I really got very depressed and was like, ‘This is enough, I cannot have this anymore.’ So I started to take medicine, and it went ten times better.”
It’s unsurprising then that Selah Sue’s initial plan was to become a psychologist, and even after playing her first music festival while she was still in school, she didn’t give up this imagining of her future immediately: she pursued both paths for two years before music took precedence. But now, as an established artist with millions of YouTube views under her belt, Sue feels strongly about using her music to tell her story. In fact she’s so passionate about visibility, that she hopes to make herself a positive example for people who are dealing with similar issues. Currently, she is the “godmother" or spokesperson, for Te Gek?!, a Belgian initiative that raises awareness about mental health.
“I think in music, you get away with [being open about sadness] easier,” she says. “A lot of my friends say, ‘Ah, you’re an artist! You can be depressed!’” She laughs. Even when speaking about depression, she remains upbeat. “But honestly, I feel that in the world, we always want to [give the impression we’re] happy! Like on television all the lights and the laughing. Everybody wants to put a mask on, but it’s not life. It’s not reality. There’s as much sadness in the world as happiness, so why not just accept it and speak about it and go through it instead of repressing it?”
Even though these days Sue's is largely content, she’s still candid about moments when she’s faltered. Most recently her decision to write and record
all over the world, including in Belgium, Los Angeles, Jamaica, and the United Kingdom, created a challenging environment for the singer. For the self-confessed homebody who prefers to spend no more than three weeks on tour at a time, leaving Belgium had the positive affect of pushing her way out of her comfort zone, but the the stress of constant traveling took its toll too.
“I didn’t really know who I wanted to work with [on Reason],” she explains. “So the only way to do it was just by checking out different options and then choosing. It’s something I would never do again. I felt really bad a lot of those times, I was not always as persistent, or really fighting for what I wanted [sonically]. I was too insecure and too homesick to be really strong. Also, working with different people in different countries, it’s a really hard job to bring it all together on a record. [Reason] took months to have a red line through it.”
But even though the completed album is the sonic equivalent of a series of stamps on a passport, Sue maintains that her lyrics are the record’s through-line: “The words are very much the same, [in that they’re about] learning to accept who you are and battle with yourself … finding balance and searching and sadness and sometimes happiness. It’s just the way I am, so I’m going to write about it for the rest of my life.”
Sue’s complex relationship with herself is also reflected in the music video for “Alone,” Reason’s opening track. An upbeat shimmy of a pop song, which belies the song’s dark ruminations, the visuals feature Selah Sue standing before a mirror, dressed in black, her auburn hair piled high—here she serenades herself. It soon becomes clear she’s in a hall of mirrors and by the time the song reaches the last chorus, her many reflections become infinite, bewildering, flickering, shards of self. Elsewhere, “Falling Out,” is a skittering, dubby electronic track that slows down for a sorrowful, searing refrain: “I’m falling out / Of love with myself / I’ve let you down / In the way that it hurts.”
“It’s really honest,” she says simply. “I really love the lyric, [they talk about how] depression is really genetic.” (The line she’s referring to, here, is this one: “These genes of despair pull me deeper than I’ve ever known.”) But for all this navel-gazing, Reason is not without bright spots, the most appealing of which is “Together,” a hip-hop-infused love song that features Childish Gambino. The collaboration came together swiftly and organically, when Sue was recording in LA, thanks to her producer’s fortuitous connect with Donald Glover. “I thought “Together” needed a cool rap, and I thought Childish is really incredible, so we called him that day! He loved the song and he came over and it was done in a few hours. Really good and spontaneous, and we both felt it. That’s the way I like it. Quick and effective.”
This summer, Selah Sue will spend her time touring Europe, but she’s looking forward to returning to the States eventually. “I think European people are a bit more reserved [at shows],” she says. “It’s not a bad thing, always. It’s different in every country! In Poland, they go really crazy. In Belgium, they are really silent. In the UK, they’re checking you out like, ‘Hmmm.’ But in the States, they’re all like, ‘Yes, you’re so great! Party! Yes!’ It’s insane.”
There is one thing that still unnerves her about playing here: the fact that English is not her first language. Flemish is her native tongue; she simply writes songs in English because of the way the words sound.
She explains: “I’m worried [crowds at shows] are going to notice [if I get something wrong]! If anybody would speak my language and sing it, and it’s very wrong grammatically, I would be like, ‘What the fuck!’ So I’m always really self-conscious when I play in the States. But also, [in America], you have such a big range of incredible artists. It’s the dream of all European artists is to be in the States.”
You'd certainly forgive Sue any transatlantic fuck ups: she's disarmingly sweet, and utterly sincere. Shes also determined: “I think [with my next record], I’m going to be totally focused and by myself and feeling a lot: my best work is yet to come.