Just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world — in Belgium, with her guitar and a MySpace page. That's how Selah Sue used to introduce her music to those outside her hometown: with short videos made between high-school classes and weekend shows at local clubs, posted to her online journal.
Those videos eventually caught the attention of producers and singers such as Meshell Ndegeocello and Cee-Lo Green, who helped the aspiring musician make her self-titled debut album. The record was released last March in Europe and this past week in the U.S., and Sue has been dutifully touring the material — including one unexpected gig in Antwerp, opening for Prince.
"I heard, like, two hours before his show that I could do a support act, so I just jumped in my car," Sue tells NPR's Scott Simon, adding that she was invited to Prince's backstage area after the show. "I asked him questions I wanted to know, like, 'Prince, are you happy?' And he is, so that's good."
Selah Sue's swift rise is all the more impressive when placed in context: She's 23 now and came to music late, taking up guitar and songwriting in her late teens.
"I studied psychology when I was 18, really in the mind that I would have a job from 9 to 5. I was never the kind of child that had big ambitions and big dreams," she says. "I learned a bit of guitar — I did three years of classical training — so I started to write my own songs and to discover my vocals and to absorb all the things I listened to. And then this kind of sound came out."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world - in Belgium, with her guitar and a MySpace page. That's how Selah Sue used to introduce her music outside of her hometown - in a kind of online journal, in between high school classes and weekend shows at local clubs. Well, these videos eventually caught the attention of producers and singers in the neo-soul world, like Meshell Ndegeocello and Cee Lo Green, who helped the aspiring musician make her first CD, an album called simply "Selah Sue." It was released last year in Europe. The artist had been touring in the United States this year. And Selah Sue, the singer, joins us in NPR's Studio 4A. Thanks so much for being with us.
SELAH SUE: And thank you.
SIMON: Can we ask you to begin with a song? Maybe "Raggamuffin?"
SIMON: First single off your CD.
SIMON: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAGGAMUFFIN")
SUE: (Singing) She never had it easy, no, but I still remember you, and what we used to say, so, say this my song for you my friend, you can only see that I can hardly let things go, no, oh yeah. So listen to the sound of my voice, you brother send him all my love, and he's giving me no choice, oh no, no. Listen to the sound, yeah the boys, raggamuffin is a freedom fighter, and he's handling a choice, and I know that. The raggamuffin is one of the friends, and what you see is what you really need in the end, but what you ever gonna do, I don't know. Still, raggamuffin shall not fall down, 'cause he has the wisdom of not fool around, but why then shove your good sense underground? 'Cause you never had it easy I know, but I still remember you and what we used to have so. I say, this my song for you my friend. You can only see that I will never forget this. So, the raggamuffin is one of the friends, and what you see is what you really need in the end, but what you ever gonna do, I don't know. But still raggamuffin shall not fall down, 'cause he has the wisdom of not fooling around, but why then shove your good sense underground? So, the ragamuffin is one of the friends.
SIMON: Thank you very much. That was Selah Sue singing "Raggamuffin." It's the first single off her new CD. With the advantage of a year's hindsight, how did this all happen to you?
SUE: Well, yeah, I actually really rolled into it. You know, actually I started to study psychology when I was 18 really in mind that I would have a job from 9-5, you know, 'cause my parents - I was never the kind of child that had, like, big ambitions and big dreams that I wanted to be a superstar or something. But in puberty, I had a really hard puberty, and I learned a bit guitar. I did three years of classical training. So, I started to write my own songs and to discover my vocals and to absorb all the things I listened to and this kind of sound came out.
SIMON: Do you think the fact that maybe you didn't necessarily grow up in a household in which there was constantly music, you didn't grow up singing, helped you develop a kind of original, the original style that you have? I mean, you know, there's a little hip-hop, a little dancehall or reggae, but it's a really original sound.
SUE: Yeah. Well, yeah, I think I absorbed all the things I listened to and I listened as much to hip-hop then jazz then dubstep, you know, real electronica music -I'm really into that scene as well - to soul music. I listen to everything, and, yeah.
SIMON: Tell us the Prince story.
SUE: Well, actually, I heard, like, two hours before his show that I could do a support act. So, I just jumped in my car and I...
SIMON: Now, what do you mean you just heard two hours before you could do a...
SUE: Yeah, he's really like that. He's really like, yeah, that girl can be my support act, but he says it, like, two hours. He decides it really, really late. You know, I had an off day and I was like, OK, I'm not going to say no. So, I went over there and he saw my whole show, and after my show, he invited me to his backstage and he saw what I did. And he gave me advice. And I asked him questions I wanted to know, like, Prince, are you happy? And he is, so that's good.
SIMON: And Cee Lo Green also noticed you.
SUE: Yeah. I wanted to have a feature on my album, and why not try with the Cee Lo Green guy. You know, he's like one of the most beautiful soul vocals at this time. So, he liked it. And he sent in a few beats and I liked the beats. And it all was finished in, like, a week. So, it was really cool. Like back and forth, he was recording things in L.A. and I did it in Brussels, so it went really fast.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
CEE LO GREEN: (Singing) With tears in my eyes, I realize that it's running away.
SUE: (Singing) It's running away. But with all the wrong I've done, how could love ever love me?
SIMON: That's Selah Sue and Cee Lo Green from her new CD. This, I dare say, is what we'd call a coming-of-age album.
SUE: What is coming - getting older?
SIMON: Coming to terms with who you are growing up, that sort of thing. Often in music, the first piece of music, first album, first collection a great musician does is coming-of-age. Something where they sing about crossing that bridge from childhood into adulthood. I bring that up because if you're going to do a second and a third and a fourth, you have to get over growing up.
SUE: It's true, yeah.
SIMON: What is that in your case?
SUE: For me, I cannot wait to start on my second album. You know, for me, my first album is already old. I mean, it's now getting released in the U.S. but it's already two years released in Europe. You know, so I'm so ready to do something else.
SIMON: There's a song you're going to do specially for us I'm told. It's on the European version of your CD, not on the American version. I want to get you to talk about and sing this song, "Explanations."
SIMON: Anything you want us to know before you begin?
SUE: No. I will first play it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPLANATIONS")
SUE: (Singing) Yes, I'm not feeling so well lately, lying to myself just wait and see, time of the month, so I'll just blame it all on that. But one week later, surprise, surprise, nothing in my pants, tears in my eyes, no reason why I feel so damn depressed. And so shrink tell me what's going on, I hate myself so bad, I just can't hold on, the feeling is that I'm locked inside myself. Yes, but Selah girl, come on, don't be sad, yeah, just be strong. Don't see black or white, but see things more in grey. But I need explanations and some fitting solutions, 'cause I am turning in a stranger more and more, yeah. Yes, I need explanations and some fitting solutions, 'cause my emotions make me feel so insecure. And I'm not being myself lately, so I try to act more naturally, but that story wasn't planned for me. And instead of that, I get more upset, bad thoughts are spinning in my head. Don't say blame it all on puberty. But I need explanations and some fitting solutions, 'cause I am turning in a stranger more and more, yeah. Yes, I need explanations and some fitting solutions, 'cause my emotions make me feel so insecure. But don't fake it, embrace it, 'cause it's just the way you are. And just wait, meditate, and in the end you'll bring it far, yeah. But I need explanations and some fitting solutions, 'cause I am turning in a stranger more and more, yeah. Yes, I need explanations and some fitting solutions, 'cause my emotions make me feel so insecure.
SIMON: That's a nice song.
SUE: Thank you.
SIMON: So much of this first CD is about you kind of peeling back the layers of you. I wonder if the next one is going to be about other people.
SUE: It would be obvious to write about love, you know, to write about breakups, but I never had a really painful breakup. You know, I always had good relationships. And all my ex-boys are my best friends now. You know, so I don't have a lot of inspiration. But now I'm in a really good relationship, and, yeah, maybe a love song or two on my next album. We'll see.
SIMON: Yeah. Selah Sue, who joined us here in NPR's Studio 4A. Her self-titled debut album is out now on Columbia. Thanks so much for being with us.
SUE: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SUE: (Singing) I was never really into music, since I was about 9 years old. But now I've gained control, myself on groovin', it is time for me to show. It's the day...
SIMON: And hear an extra live performance by Selah Sue. You can visit our website, which, of course, is npr.org. And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.