Q and A with SuleneMay 15, 2014
South African born, New York adopted, musician Sulene has had quite the journey with her music. This talented musician has quickly come into her own musically and released her first EP just recently. Take a look at what Sulene had to say when she met with BareBones Ent.
BS: How long have you been making music?
Sulene: Making music has been as integral a part of my growth as learning to read or write had been. I don’t really remember when I first started playing music, though I remember learning to play the piano when I was about 6 years old – my mother is a pianist and I grew up with a beautiful Yamaha in our home. Some of my earliest, most vivid memories are those of me sitting indoors for hours, on a sunny day, just pressing random keys until I wrote a “piece of music”. Not much has really changed since then, come to think of it. When I was 14 I discovered the electric guitar, classic rock, and what Woodstock was, and the rest is history. When I was 16 I got my first taste of emo punk rock and I was hooked, and for my Sweet-16 my dad bought me an American strat – which I still play to this day.
BS: Was there a difference in making music in South Africa compared to New York?
Sulene: Yes, there is a huge difference. I’ll be totally honest – I miss making music in South Africa. To be exact, I miss playing shows at home. The venues I played in high school were local hangout spots. You didn’t really need to promote because, first of all, all the moms would come out and have a big ol’ mom party and all your friends would hang and buy you shots after your set. In Cape Town, where I’m from, there is a street called Long Street with bars, music venues, and all sorts of artsy places for blocks. It’s constantly packed with people just out to have a good time. I remember when I was younger, before moving to Boston to attend music college, I used to go out to Long Street and just pick a random place and end up there. That’s how it went with a lot of gigs as well – random people would literally wander in, and then you had a new support or a new friend. The sense of camaraderie is very high. The scene is also very interesting (though I will admit I’m not in the loop as I’ve been out of it for almost 5 years). When I was there, it was all about electronic music paired with rock. Loud, distorted guitars and synths. It was a really good time, and a lot of fun to dance to.
As for New York; I’ve only been here 8 months and I absolutely love it. But boy is it hardcore. Luckily, I’m half crazy, so it works of me. Gigging here is hard. It’s difficult to attract people to a show when there’s SO MUCH happening all the time, at all hours, every night of the week. For my last few shows, it’s been a good crowd, so I’m very, very thankful for that. New York is where it’s at though – I’m convinced it may very well be the cultural epicenter of the world. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”, right? That’s why I’m here.
I’m also fortunate that, by some crazy chance, most of my besties form Berklee are right here in the city. Sirma Munyar, an incredible Turkish solo artist, JP Bouvet, a world-renowned drum clinician who I play in Helicopria with, Drew ofthe Drew, producer and truly unique solo artist, Dave Mackay, one of the most incredible contemporary piano players I’ve ever heard – the list goes on. Not to mention, my band – Jon Greene, Dan Alport, and Emmett Ceglia (who I all went to college with), live within a 20 minute vicinity of me.
BS: What brought you to the US?
Sulene: That is a very good question. No one’s ever really asked me that. When I was finishing up high school I knew that I only wanted to do one thing – I wanted to spend my life making music. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a band, be a composer, be a producer, be a guitarist… it didn’t matter, I just wanted music. I’ve always been obsessed. In the week of finals, I was with my best friend, and we both decided let’s go to music school together. We Googled “best music university in the world”, and Berklee came up. We’re both kind of ridiculous; so we both applied, got auditions, and never applied anywhere else. A couple months later we were both there, and ended up living together for several years, getting that crazy American college experience we always wanted.
At that age, 18 years old, I knew I wanted to do music. Towards the end of college, something amazing happened – I realized why I wanted to do music. I want to make a positive impact on the world, I want to move people, I want to create, and most important, I want to inspire people to live their lives in a meaningful, happy way. I came to the US to be the best musician I could be. When I feel it is time, I will return home and start a record label, a collective, for artists and composers. There are too many talented people in South Africa who are limited by distance and no connection to a broader market. I want more South Africans to have the chance that I had.
BS: What made you choose to go to Berklee College of Music?
Sulene: As I mentioned above, the whole Google thing, basically. Of course, post-googling, I learned a lot about Berklee. I even convinced my parents (bless their kind souls) to fly me to Boston to do one 15-minute interview. Holy shit have I never been more nervous in my life. I’ll say this – Berklee is a once in a lifetime experience. It was incredible. Not only because of the level of musicality you’re surrounded with, or the professors, or the clinicians, but really because of my peers. I’ve never come across more talented, driven, intelligent, wholesome people in my life. I’m so thankful that they still live on my street, in my city, and so close to me. Berklee was a great challenge for me – that most important lesson I learned was to believe in yourself, to not compare yourself to others, and to work really hard for what you love.
BS: Who are you biggest musical influences and why?
Sulene: My biggest musical influence is Jon Brion. He’s a film composer and performer, and most people know him as the composer who wrote the score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I can honestly say he is the reason I first became interested in film scoring. When things get rough, when I’m exhausted, I think about him and his accomplishments as a composer, producer, and performer. Other major influences include Imogen Heap, RX Bandits, Jeff Buckley, The Dear Hunter, Paramore, and Thomas Newman. I like pushing boundaries, I like emotion, and I like rock. The louder, the better.
BS: You recently released your EP, Holding Words Back, what was this experience like for you?
Sulene: Releasing my EP was scary, I will admit. It’s my debut solo work and I still felt a bit shy. I even recorded vocals alone in my bedroom because I was too shy to sing in front of my producer. The night it was released I actually felt a little bit sad – like I’d lost something. I’d been sitting with this music, and this desire to do a solo record, for such a long time. When it was released it was over, and the following day I started my next record. When I write songs I hold onto them like happy little secrets. I record them, listen to them over and over, develop them, show them to friends. When they’re recorded for a record, mixed and mastered and out in the world, they’ve been set free, and are no longer solely mine. This was a big learning experience for me, and it pushed me to be as confident in my music as ever.
BS: What type of feedback have you heard about it?
Sulene: The feedback on Holding Words back was mixed for sure. I think a lot of people were caught off guard – I’d predominantly been known as a guitarist for a progressive rock group (Helicopria) and here I was releasing a straightforward, punk-rock, raw, lyrically-blunt record. Many friends didn’t quite get it, probably because they already had an idea of who I was. But my fan base responded well. The feedback has mostly been about my lyrical content; a lot of people seemed to take the message to heart. That’s all that I wanted, and so I’m happy,
BS: Do you have a favorite song off of the EP, and why?
Sulene: My favorite song is “Purgatory”. Mostly because it’s a lot of fun to play, but also because it’s musicality interesting to me, paired with a foundational pop punk element. Purgatory is also the first song I wrote for the record. I started singing the chorus out of nowhere, sitting on my porch at night, and literally ran back into my room for my guitar and figured out the rest of it. Purgatory was a pure form of expression bursting from me, and I’ll always remember that when I play it. Plus the riff in the bridge makes me feel badass to play on guitar,
BS: What do you feel has been your biggest musical accomplishment so far?
Sulene: In 2012 I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey with Helicopria and we taught a couple clinics. One of these was at a High School – we performed a couple songs and then took some questions. After things were dying down, some of the girls started to approach Sirma (the singer at the time) and myself, and a line started to form. Their questions were similar, most of them wanted to know how to approach the idea of being a girl playing rock, how to tell their families that that’s their interest, and how to get started. I’ll never forget this experience. It reminded me that there are still stigmas in this world, and I love that people are willing to look past a stigma and into themselves and ask what it is they really want to do. This experience really meant a lot to me.
BS: What would you say is your ultimate goal/dream with music?
Sulene: I want to create a platform for young, driven artists. No matter what nationality, no matter your age, your financial circumstances, or musical education. If someone has something to say, I want them to have the means to express it. This may mean a record label or a collective… I don’t know. Only time will tell.
BS: Anything else you’d like to say to your fans?
Sulene: Love what you do, and just do you.
Check out our post about her EP Here