NORTHERN WINTER READ:
Interview with Coby Sey.
by Mikkel Brandt
“I think part of my process when it comes to making music is listening a lot. It’s not just putting out stuff. It’s also reflecting and listening. And not even necessarily listening to the music that I’m working on.”
I’m interviewing Coby Sey prior to his performance at Northern Winter Beat 2023. In 2022, the London-based musician released his first solo LP, “Conduit”, and listening to that album – with its multifaceted production and Coby’s powerful, poetic lyrics – it doesn’t come as a surprise that Coby Sey is an artist who’s aware of the power of reflective listening.
Listen to “Conduit” on Bandcamp: https://cobysey.bandcamp.com/album/conduit
“When I’m in the studio, it changes all the time in terms of what I begin with. Sometimes it could be me just recording some drums or creating a beat on the computer or something. Or playing some riffs on the keys or on the bass. But I think it really begins when I start to listen back to what I’ve made and reflect on it,” he explains and continues:
“Then an idea could come instantly, or it could take however long it takes. Whether it’s three days, two weeks, or maybe even more. But for me, it’s so important to keep listening back because I think another idea could come to help elevate it or take it to another place.”
Even though “Conduit” is Coby Sey’s first solo LP, he has been a diligent collaborator through the years, working with artists such as Tirzah, Mica Levi, and London Contemporary Orchestra.
For me, talking to him about those collaborations reveals a special branch of the English music scene that has a special kind of shared sensitivity and where there’s a highly creative exchange of ideas taking place – even though the genres of those artists vary a lot.
So I ask Coby how he would characterize that musical movement.
“There definitely is a community or a scene, and that’s been going for a while. In terms of what to call it, I don’t know. I’ve heard various names, but I like that it’s kind of difficult to define or to name because I think it provides room to foster up new ideas and not feel that we have to stick to something that has been placed beforehand,” he answers and continues:
“I like the fluidity of it, and I think in that way, it gives license to explore different sides of how we want to communicate and how we want to express ourselves through music. And maybe not even just through music, but through other mediums as well.”
There’re also several guest musicians on “Conduit”, but most of it is performed by Coby himself, and the album is mainly made shifting between a regular studio and a smaller one in his bedroom.
And a little production detail I find quite interesting is how Coby often carried a handheld Zoom Recorder with him during the process, recording stuff around him, and that some of those field recordings – in processed form – found their way into the album.
Coby explains how the creative process behind the album was kickstarted by the track “Response”:
”The track ’Response’ actually came from a live jam that myself, Ben Vince, CJ Calderwood, and Biu Rainey did in 2017. And once I listened back to ‘Response’, it occurred to me that we captured something really special, and I thought it would be good to see if this particular live song could be a catalyst for other songs. As a result of ‘Response’, the opening track, ‘Etym’, was made,” he says.
From there, the album just kept evolving.
“As hard as it was for everyone regarding COVID and lockdown, I definitely made sure to use that time to catch up on working on this album because it’s something that I’d wanted to complete for a while,” he says and continues:
“Initially, there were going to be much less tracks on there, but I felt I had more to say, so I made sure to complete more tracks, and also stuff that rose up as a result of COVID made sense to speak about in relation to the overall feel and topics that I wanted to cover.”
Coby describes how it’s important for him to have space for people to insert themselves as well as having space for himself to speak clearly from his own perspective. As he puts it:
“It was important for me to have a nice balance of speaking out about subjects that are clear cut as well as subjects, or actually non-subjects, which could be interpreted in various ways so that people can bring their own experiences in as well.”
He uses two tracks as examples:
“I think the songs that are probably the most clear cut in terms of topic on ‘Conduit’ are ‘Permeated Secrets’ and I guess to a lesser extent ‘Onus’.”
He mentions “Permeated Secrets” as a track where a topic is discussed without any sort of poetics. Especially in the second verse, where the word “pandemic” is mentioned:
“I think that’s very denotative. There’re no sort of metaphors. The first verse is poetic, and it’s not necessarily speaking about a certain subject that’s from a particular point in time, whereas the second verse specifically addresses that.”
Excerpt from the lyrics to “Permeated Secrets”: Now I’m getting reposts (I’ve gotta permeate) / And quotes from others and recommendations / To everything, like signs or symptoms / To even feelings of many distinctions / Yes, I’m aware of this pandemic, moment’s a given / Not just on anyone’s own yet, why / Should we submit to a faceless body whose lack of trust is ageless?
“It was my way of voicing my frustration. I don’t know if this is the case overseas, but within the UK, there’re loads of protests going on for various reasons. And as a result of the protests happening during the pandemic, the UK government have been ushering new laws to attempt to make protesting illegal, using the pandemic as an excuse for that. So that second verse on ‘Permeated Secrets’ was my way of voicing my frustration with that,” he says.
“With ’Onus’, I was thinking a lot about the mayoral elections in London, and I started to relate that to other things that have affected the UK in large as a result of government policy in the past 12 or 13 years. Even more, really. And for me, it was a meditation on the importance of people finding support and finding a way to support each other, regardless of the situation, and realizing that there can be common ground somewhere within these differences. Yeah, so I guess it’s almost like the day to the night on ‘Permeated Secrets’,” he explains.
At Northern Winter Beat, Coby Sey will be joined on stage by Alpha Maid, MettaShiba, and Ben Vince, plus Charlie Hope on stage design. They will be playing music from “Conduit”, as well as music from previous releases and also unreleased material.
“The band consists of people who I’ve known for years and have worked with in some way or another before. It’s not just a replication or a remaking of the music that exists in studio or in recorded format. It’s us giving it new leases of life so that it can exist in different ways in response to the environment that we play in, and the town, and the area that we play in. It’s definitely my way and our way as a band of not only interparent ‘Conduit’ but also giving it different lives so that it can live in different ways,” he says.
During their live show, there’s a lot of improvisation taking place – sometimes even 50% of the time – but they also like to play versions of recorded songs in an improvised manner:
“This time around, I thought it would be good to try to sway the pendulum so that there’s still a sizeable amount of room for improvisation, but having songs to help anchor the improvisational bits. I’m definitely more in a mindset where I’d like to have songs that have a specific structure so that, when the improvisation comes in, it’s more impactful, if that makes sense.”
“We want to be as mercurial as possible so that the music can take different forms, and we see where it goes from there, yeah. It could be completely different within the next month or so. Or maybe within the next year. It’s almost like we’re having conversations with ourselves. That’s at least what I’m attempting to do with this run of shows,” he says.
I ask him how he would describe the sensitivity he shares with the musicians in his live band.
“It’s partly intuition, and it’s also partly familiarity with the musicians that I’m performing with. I think knowing the songs well enough and knowing what they mean to me helps me to remind myself why I’m performing these songs and how they could exist in different ways. With the intuition thing, of course, there’re loads of rehearsals, but it’s also just from having conversations. Like it’s not just spending time rehearsing. Even though I love rehearsing a lot. It’s one of my favorite processes when it comes to playing live. It’s also us engaging in communication so that when we’re doing it in front of people, we’re continuing that communication. It’s just that we’re doing it on stage,” he answers and continues:
“And it’s always open to change. I’m really a believer in that. I think it’s important to keep ourselves on our toes and not always stick to a prescription or a rule book or an orthodox, so to speak.”
Experience Coby Sey at Northern Winter Beat 2023 January 28th at Studenterhuset.