Little Simz is a bit preoccupied. She sits with her phone face-up on the table at a Kings Cross restaurant, nudging the screen every few seconds to make sure she doesn’t lose her data signal. “I’m just tryna… make sure it sends,” she says, crouching close to the tabletop. “I’m literally posting my rehearsals—some pics of what I’ve been working on. It’s exciting. I’ve kind of built my show again from scratch.” Last year, touring her second album Stillness in Wonderland, she found herself stuck in a rut—”the same live set, the same set”—but now arranging new music, from album Grey Area, invigorates like a splash of ice-cold water. So, before we settle into breakfast, she’s making sure the post sends. When I check my phone later, there it is: a series of photos she took herself, shot in black and white in her rehearsal space.
She’s been shooting a lot of photos, actually. Touring with Gorillaz for about a year, and promoting her own material meant Simz needed a boost; a reminder of the jolt born from a sudden creative itch to scratch. She turned to photography, after noticing offhand how one of her friends, a painter, also had a camera in his studio. “And I was like, ‘oh, I didn’t know you take pictures. That’s sick, man.’ Then maybe the week after, I went and bought that exact same camera.” Simple as that. Ever since, she’s learned to pull herself out of the drudgery of life on tour using her camera. In a sense, it adds a visual element to what she’s done for more than a decade, since primary school: document her life, through rap.
Now, leaning back in our corner booth in a black turtleneck beneath mustard dungarees with her faux locs intertwined in a half ponytail, she’s scanning the menu before she’s off to rehearsals, then a week of promo in both the UK and Europe. Once she’s settled into her plush seat, and looks less anxious about the Insta post (she's immensely polite about the whole thing), we jump into the reason we’re both here: album number three. Grey Area, released last Friday, leans between genres and moods, while sounding like her most personal work to date. Simz reunited with childhood friend Inflo, the sole producer on the album. That’s not to say theirs is the only collaboration you hear, pulsing on righteously angry “Pressure” or cooing dreamily on intimate closing track “Flowers.” Instead, Simz brought on the talents of everyone from Sweden’s Little Dragon to fellow Londoner Cleo Sol (check her out if you’ve not already) and past Inflo collaborator Michael Kiwanuka.
Grey Area straddles Simz’s outward-looking sensibilities—the community of creative people she’s built around her, the influences she’s picked up through her own listening and her travels on the road—with tightly, inward-looking and reflective subject matter. From her mental health, to the strain of touring, to figuring out what exactly the fuck she’ll be doing in her late twenties, Grey Area digs into it all. “I had to re-assess a lot,” she says early in our conversation. “Friendships, personal relationships—all those things had to be looked at differently.” She chose to record this album in London to be close to those bonds. “I’d been traveling so much and it was just too much. It was like, ‘I can’t bear missing people and working myself tirelessly.’ I could see it taking its toll. So I just needed to make an album where I’m pouring out my heart and soul, but I’m also eating properly. Taking care of things that I need to pay close attention to.”
I ask how she considers that process, now it’s in the rear-view mirror somewhat—am I projecting by seeing this as her most reflective album so far? “It was… it was definitely”—and she pauses to chew on her smashed avo on toast with eggs—“a way for me to heal from all the stuff I went through. I think… I just wrote the album from a place of confusion.”
Her voice rises on “confusion,” scrawling a line under it in thick, red marker. How so, I ask? “Umm… just like… things that…” She starts again. “Nothing was making sense,” and her voice cracks as she says this and she pushes the words out in a rush, after all that pausing over what she wanted to articulate. She always speaks in a way that’s calm, slightly husky. But it can sometimes take her a few sentences to land on what she really means (perhaps because this is our first meeting; as is so often the case with interviews, she has to ease into it, get used to me). Soon, she gets there, likening Grey Area to “peeling off layers to myself, and feeling like ‘rah—I’m in my mid-twenties. This is strange.’ It was like growing pains, you know? That’s the best way I can describe it.”
Sonically, those growing pains might make you feel aches of your own, though more likely somewhere near your heart. “101 FM” ripples over a floaty, 8-bit and kick-to-the-chest boombap beat, catching Simz in a nostalgic mood. “We used to have dreams of getting out the flats,” she raps at one point, before dropping a “sticking down baby hairs before Insta” punchline later—it’s a classic example of how Simz whips you from a wry smile and joke to an evocative scene from her own life or a story she’s choosing to tell. The megaphoned voice bellowing on “Boss” rides over D’Angelo-like bass guitar lines, while “Wounds” and its strings samples brings to mind Dre anointing a young Eminem with diamond-quality beats. Every track sounds like its own entity.
I notice that Simz sounds a little apologetic about just how many styles she’s managed to cram onto the album’s ten tracks. She remembers how when Inflo (who she calls Flo) first played her clattering, declarative opener “Offence,” “I didn’t really like it,” she says, chuckling. “It was uncomfortable. And it was different, and I wasn’t sure that this was a direction I wanted to go in. But I trusted it,” and the pair went on to make music that echoes long-discarded tracks they’d worked on when Simz was about 12. At one point she mentions how the confusion underpinning the album impacted its almost dizzying variety. “I’m still working out my sound. But I think I’ve come to notice I’m not bound to one. I can dip into jazz, into funk, into hip-hop.” Lyrically, though, “I needed to tap in more,” she adds. “I’ve been making music my whole life, so at this point it’s like, ‘what can I talk about that people haven’t heard from me before?”
She’s not exaggerating. Simz started rapping aged nine, putting music up online and getting on mics wherever she could around London via her star-making youth clubs (I’m talking Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke as other alums). Born Simbi Ajikawo and raised in Holloway by her mother, a devoted foster carer, Simz’s gallons of creative energy needed an outlet. So as a teen she acted too, appearing on TV shows like CBBC’s Spirit Warriors and E4’s Youngers, but music kept drawing her back. By the time she’d started her music technology degree at University of West London, in Ealing, her career was taking off. And she soon realised she couldn’t do both. Quitting uni would show both sides to herself: her ambition, and her insistence on doing things her own way. Really, she’d been like that her whole life. As a child, she remembers, “100% my vibe was ‘I’m just doing my thing,’ literally. And as much as it may be shocking to people that I’m indie and doing music, if you know me from when I was little I’ve always moved in a way that is independent. I’ve always done my own thing. My friends and that, close people, my family, they know this about me: Simbi moves how she wants to move. I’m not following no this and that.”
You can see that in how she’s built a career as an independent artist. But beyond that, Simz has pushed on with unorthodox projects—absolutely loads of EPs, curating a festival, never once changing her sound to please others, slapping away the dreaded “femcee” label—without much initial support from the traditional UK music industry gatekeepers. Yes, she’s received MOBO Award nominations and recognition from ticketing app Dice, for her live shows, plus an Association of Independent Music Award for her 2016 debut album A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons. But it took a good few years for her co-signs to flood in outside the easily siloed world of black music (which now underpins the majority of pop, even when people try to brush it away with an ‘urban’ tag). She still hasn’t received a major award nod.
Even spending a short time in her presence, you clock that she’d rather get on with the work. I mention how Grey Area feels like a snapshot, of her headspace and outlook now. Unlike her past releases, focused on near-fantastical worlds and dream-like states, Grey Area is grounded in today, in London, in her. “It’s funny you say that, cos the other day, I was listening to my old music. My Soundcloud stuff, and that. And I was like, ‘oh my days, I proper remember feeling like that.’ I just… remember, you know? As I’ve continued on my journey, I’ve forgotten some things, 'cause I’m so focused on going forward, going forward, going forward. But what I deeped is that without me even knowing, I’ve been documenting my life for as long as I can remember. And that’s so cool… I’ve had so many streams of thoughts, and I’ve put them all out there.” Sometimes, doing so felt daunting, she adds, but it was all worth it.
Our conversation meanders for a bit, as our food now sits cold on our plates. We discuss how young rappers are now expected to arrive fully formed, engaging on social media and opening themselves up to public scrutiny without much protection. Since she started so young too, I wonder if she ever takes the time to reflect on what’s she’s accomplished so far, as an independent artist in such a wild wild west industry. It’s a few days shy of her 25th birthday. She pauses for a bit, sipping her juice. “You know what’s mad? Last night, I prayed.” She sounds relaxed now, more at ease. “I was praying for ages, it was a long prayer. I was going through points in my life and thanking god for that time when I done that, and done this. And as I was saying it out loud I was like, ‘oh yeah… I’ve done that. I’ve been an award nominee, I’ve played there…’ I can forget those things. Going forward, the next five years, when I’m 30—and I know I’m chilling now—I’m so excited to grow wiser.”
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.