A discussion with Snoh Aalegra
R&B singer talks Toronto shows, "Feels" and unfinished project with Prince
Leaving a major label is a risky task, but R&B singer Snoh Aalegra isn’t scared of change.
Aalegra dropped her debut and second independent project “Feels” on Oct. 20. Her self-described “romantic soul record,” executively produced by Grammy-nominated producer No I.D., is already making waves.
Aalegra will open for rising R&B star Daniel Caesar from Dec. 16 through Dec. 20 at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall. The soul singer spoke with The Spectrum about her upcoming shows, her debut album and her friendship with the late, great Prince.
Q: Your recent album, “Feels,” is gaining a lot of traction. After you left your label, did you anticipate seeing such a rise in popularity?
A: I wanted to be an artist since I was a kid, so the goal has always been to reach as many people as possible. The funny thing is that I’ve reached more people being indie than when I was with a major label. I did one EP with them called “There Will Be Sunshine.” Then I did “Don’t Explain” and “Feels” independently with my team. The goal is still to reach as many people as possible, obviously.
Q: Ever since you decided to take an independent route musically, your project covers are illustrations of you rather than photos. What’s your reasoning for this?
A: When I was at my major label, there was so much talk about what I looked like and how it was something negative. People would always judge me about my style or whatever. People would be judging me off my looks which is really stupid. It was a thing everyone was talking about at that label and I was really sick of it. Naturally, I had a single cover made by this guy before and I love his work. His name is Joe McDermott and he’s from New York. It’s more about the music [now]. It’s not like I’m trying to hide myself, but with my new music you can just press play first then maybe you can go discover who I am or what I look like.
Q: One of your more emotional tracks, “Time,” was written about your late father. Drake sampled it as the outro to his “More Life” project, which was made in dedication to his own father. Knowing the similarities, are you glad that a song so dear to you made it on Drake’s project?
A: I’m such a big fan of Drake’s so I’m just happy it happened. I love that it was his outro and it was a serious song because my song is serious. I just appreciate the fact that it happened. You can never plan who’s going to sample what. I just thought it was a cool thing and [“Time”] is really personal to me. It touches me that people can relate to it so much and that it helped them go through something difficult as well. I get a lot of people telling me that they listened to it and they also lost somebody.
Q: Do you think there’s one characteristic about you specifically that helps you mesh with people who are all over the map musically?
A: I think every artist is super sensitive and emotional, just like I am. For me, what would make me want to collaborate with somebody is if it makes me feel something. With John Mayer, we literally met outside of the studio. I was talking to his manager and No I.D. and I just walked up to them and I was like “oh s***, it’s John Mayer.” And then John just curiously was like “can I hear your music?” Then I just played him my music and I think the second song I played for him was “Under the Influence.” He loved it and was like “can I play on this?” He did his thing. I saw him record this whole thing and I couldn’t cut it out so I let him have his own track with “Under the Influence Pt. II.” With Vic [Mensa] it was the same thing. We were in the studio and we saw each other a lot and talked about working with each other. I was in a meeting playing “You Keep Me Waiting” and Vic knocked on the door and was like “I love this song.” With Vince [Staples], I’ve been on his album before. When I was doing “Nothing Burns Like the Cold,” I was like “Vince is perfect for this.” I sent it to him since we already approved of each other musically.
Q: You were close with Prince. Is there anything you took from your friendship with him that translates in your music?
A: I was very mesmerized by him and he’s one of my biggest heroes of all time. I listen to him almost daily. Just to see him in person performing, being around him, seeing how hard he worked. He would always practice two or three hours a day with his band. Until the day he passed away, he was still working that hard. A lot of people in this generation –– they’re kind of lazy. They hide behind their computers. They put out their music. They don’t really work on anything else but the songs.
… I was going to do a whole project with Prince. He was going to produce a whole album for me. He just wanted me to get out of my deal and I did and then unfortunately he got sick. But now there’s stuff I don’t have access to because his vault is secret. All I really have access to myself is all of our conversations and a jam that I have on my phone that he allowed me to record. You were not allowed to have your phone around him. There was one time I was jamming with him and he was like “record this.” All the other stuff is his stuff so you can never access it because they’re Prince’s.
I really respected him and I know he wouldn’t want me to put anything out unfinished. But maybe for my own usage. But I have so many emails from him because he didn’t have a phone. I have so many emails back and forth from him and they’re so amazing. At some point I’m going to print all of them and just make a little book for myself. They’re funny. They make me smile.
Q: You open for Daniel Caesar for five days at the Danforth in Toronto, starting next Saturday. Do you think crowds like his –– where there are marriage proposals in the crowd –– are meant for someone who’s as emotionally invested into their music as you?
A: I’ve noticed his crowd appreciates my music. I’ve gained a lot of fans from his crowd. I definitely think we have a similar audience. There’s a lot of couples going to his shows so that’s a cool thing and three couples have gotten engaged to “Blessed.” But I think we have a similar audience. I will never know until I do my own tour actually.
Q: What’s up next for Snoh Aalegra?
A: I want to work on new music. I’m going to work a lot with Boy Wonder, No I.D and some of the Toronto people. I just want to put out a lot of music next year. I was going to do the three EPs this year, but then it became an album. But now I’m more clear with my vision. I just want to do more projects. I want to be in Europe a lot and I haven’t performed in Sweden for many, many years. You could say I haven’t in 10 years. So I want to go back to Sweden and try to build myself there.
Brenton Blanchet is an arts editor and can be reached at Brenton.Blanchet@ubspectrum.com.