South Africa born and raised, Brooklyn-based indie electro-pop artist Sulene sat down with Variance’s Ethan Ijumba to discuss her work as a TV and film composer, the refreshing well-received covers of 90’s pop classics she recently released, the time she toured as Nate Ruess’ guitarist, her favorite movies and more. On "We Go Hard," Sulene’s new single, she explores a compelling, underground/industrial side of her experimental art, which she refers to as “gothic-disco-party music” — a sound that incorporates alternative, rock, pop, and dance elements.
After releasing three respective extended plays, Sulene continues to push boundaries and expand an already impressive résumé — undeniably putting her in the artist-to-watch category. To learn more about this exciting rising artist, be sure to read the full Q+A interview below, and don’t miss the visuals for "We Go Hard” below as well.
Ethan Ijubma: I’ve read that some of your notable influences are artists like Sky Ferreria and Nine Inch Nails — who else inspired you to pursue a career in music in a significant way?
Sulene: Jon Brion is probably the musician who inspired me the most to have a career in music. Ever since I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and heard his score, I became interested in composing music for film. Other than that, I’m super inspired by David Lynch, the filmmaker who’s made Twin Peaks, etc, and Mike Judge, director/artist who made King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead, etc. I find myself inspired by all sorts of artists and not just musicians because I think it’s really exciting to see people find their expression through art.
EI: What was the transition like moving from South Africa to New York?
Sulene: I guess the biggest transition was the snow hahaha. I couldn’t believe how cold it was. Other than that, culturally it was different in some ways for sure. Musically, it was quite a shock to be surrounded by so many insanely talented musicians when I first got to Berklee in Boston (where I went to college).
EI: Previously you covered artists such as Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” and Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There”, are you a die-hard fan of both groups?
Sulene: Yes!! I used to create dance routines to Destiny’s Child songs and Spice Girls' songs and watched Spice World many, many times with my pals. When I was probably around 11-years-old I performed a dance routine to “Survivor” in my modern dance group. I totally botched the whole thing, I sucked as a dancer.
EI: Regarding artists you’ve looked up to, how did you link up with Fun.? Do you consider yourself a guitarist first?
Sulene: Yes, I do consider myself mainly a guitarist but that’s probably just because that’s the instrument I picked when I started at Berklee. I linked up with Nate Ruess from Fun. because a friend of mine was working with him and recommended me to audition to be his guitarist.
EI: To have a majority of your work recorded from home in Brooklyn, do you find that the city influences you musically and helps with your overall vision and creativity?
Sulene: I do! A lot of my newer music is quite chaotic and loud and dancey, and I think that comes from the loud, industrial warehouse vibes all around me in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
EI: Strange, Fire Escaping, and he•don•ic, all feature different themes and explore different variations of pop music that intertwine with other genres. Is it easier or harder to diversify your sound with each subsequent body of work?
Sulene: I think it is pretty easy. I try not to overthink it and just write from the heart. So every record is a timestamp in how I’m feeling at that time in my life. And the production is usually informed by what excites me at the time.
EI: Having contributed to TV and film projects from Nike, Dior, and others. How did those opportunities come about? And assuming you’re a fan of the medium, what are some of your favorite films or TV shows?
Sulene: Fave films are Lost Highway, Eternal Sunshine, SLC Punk, I could go on… fave TV shows are Twin Peaks, Black Mirror, Arrested Development, King of the Hill. Most of my initial writing for TV was work that I got going “additional music” for another bigger composer who is on those jobs. My writing for commercials and more recent TV is from the various music houses I write for. So they’re like the “agency” who pitches my compositions. For film, those relationships are usually through friends or randomly meeting at parties or on the internet. Sometimes I meet someone who makes cool stuff and they think your stuff is cool and it’s a dream collab.
EI: Would you consider scoring an entire film down the line? Or even bigger such as working on a Broadway production?
Sulene: I’ve scored one feature film called “Hold Fast, Good Luck,” it was a super special experience. Hard work, but I really enjoyed it. I’d love to score more feature films for sure! I don’t have that much knowledge about Broadway, but I’m so down to making art that feels right.
EI: With that being said, how has everything throughout your career shaped (or revised) your perception of how you listen to music now, as a fan?
Sulene: Damn, that’s a very real question haha. Um, honestly it makes it harder to listen to music. I spend all day making music and listening so carefully to everything and sometimes I just wanna watch a movie or read a book or hang with pals after. Or hear no sounds haha. As we speak I’m in Portland on a writing retreat and I’m reconnecting with listening to music, which has been wonderful. It weirdly takes work to make time to purely enjoy listening to music again… I don’t wanna ever completely lose that.
EI: What brought on the darker, hard-hitting elements that we hear on your new single, “We Go Hard?”
Sulene: I think that’s just the sort of music and sounds I’ve been into lately. I’ve been enjoying darker synth tones and weirder harmony haha.
EI: When writing, do you intentionally put yourself in a specific headspace or mindset to help figure out the themes of your next project?
Sulene: There are two parts to it — a lot of my concepts for songs, whether it’s a melody or a lyric, kinda jump into my head out of the blue like in the shower or right before I fall asleep. Then I wrote those down or record a voice memo. But yeah, to get me into the headspace of sitting down in the studio and fleshing out the song I usually get a strong cup a cold new ready and pull down the blinds and get the lighting feeling nice and vibey haha. I’m a morning writer so I usually write first thing in the morning.
EI: Are there any South African-based bands or artists that you feel deserve a shoutout?
Sulene: Yeah! I just did a fun feature with the artist QUERIDO, I think Diamond Thug is doing some cool stuff.
EI: Are there any specific plans that your fans and new listeners can expect next from you?
Sulene: More songs, more videos, more collabs! And idk maybe some weird, short films, you never know!