Watch the full interview here:
15 QUESTIONS WITH SARAH-JANE MUSIQ
For the first edition of 15 Questions with PanDam, we spoke to Sarah-Jane Musiq, an Amsterdam-based singer-songwriter who has performed all over the Netherlands, as well as abroad. Starting off as a cover artist, she soon began writing and performing her own music and focusing on her solo career. Among other things, Sarah-Jane has been touring the world opening up for artists such as Billy Ocean and Erykah Badu. Her sound is influenced by all kinds of genres; she uses elements of Jazz, Soul- and whatever inspires her in the moment - and combines them with soulful vocals. Sarah-Jane has won the Amsterdam Pop Prize, and has been nominated for the ‘NPO Radio 6 Soul & Jazz Awards’ for Best Female Artist and Best Single for “Letter To The Moon”. She was a delight to speak to, opening up about the difficulties of the past year, as well as sharing with us the exciting path of her career, and her projects to come. A radiating presence - even through a zoom call - it was a joy to hear her story for our first interview for 15 Questions with PanDam. Have a read (and a watch!) of our interview with Sarah-Jane!
"I started off with a band performing 90% Erykah Badu songs"
1. Could you start by introducing yourself, please?
So my name is Sarah-Jane. I am a performing artist and singer-songwriter based in the Netherlands.
I’m from Amsterdam, I live in Almere right now but I’m still from Amsterdam.
And, yeah, I make music! I create art – that’s who I am.
2. How did you start making music?
Actually, it started off with me wanting to be an actress. When I was a little girl, I always had to be the center of attention. If it was a handstand or anything, people just always HAD to look at me.
I wanted to be the center of attention. When I started off, I knew I was talented, but I thought everyone had that. I thought everyone had the ability to understand music.
There was a lot of music around me, all the time. Every occasion, everything we did – even if it was cleaning, if it was eating – everything was linked with music, so that was normal to me. And we were always singing around, dancing around. So it kind of was, indeed, my upbringing. I was like ‘everybody does this at home probably’ so I thought this is just something that people do. I wasn’t aware of my specific talent. For me, that wasn’t important enough, so I wanted to be an actress. But then when I was 13 years old, I realized that not everyone had that. Then I realized maybe this is something unique, maybe I do have a special talent. I still went to church back then, so I entered a singing contest, like a talent show basically, and I won. And that was my confirmation, ‘oh okay I must be doing something good’. Maybe I should focus on music and see what it can bring me. That’s when I realized, ok, I am good at something and I wanna explore that. I have tried different things like being a secretary and being more on the business side of things. But that’s just me trying to be something that I’m not. So, when I realized that music was so close to me and such a great part of my life, I just realized that I want to really develop in this thing. I want to explore my options and see what I can do for me.
3. How would you define your music?
I have a few words that came to my mind. I would say unique, different, edgy, and touching. It’s a blend of all these things. I think It’s so hard. One day you’re this. One day you feel like: I just heard a rock song and I want to take my inspiration from that and put it in a song. And then, the next day, I hear a jazz song and I hear some cool things. I have so many different influences that combine to one thing. So it’s really hard but those are the words that came up to my mind.
4. Who inspires you?
Musically that would be Erykah Badu. She’s really my biggest inspiration ever. After the singing contest, I just started to figure out everything I wanted to do. When I turned 18, I heard about the ‘School of Arts’ - a school that develops musicians and artists - and I applied and I got in. And that’s actually when my career kind of started. That’s when I made the choice that I'm only going to do music, I'm only going to make music. I started off with a band performing 90% Erykah Badu songs, just covering and getting inspired and getting into her persona and who she is. And what she stands for. That really resonated with who I want to be and where I want to go with my music. I really like how she participates in the creative process, but also the productions. She really produces her songs herself. Everything about her, and the things she stands for, that’s just really a big inspiration.
Besides that, my mom, she’s really an inspiration for me too. She’s not really into music, at all. She’s into music but she’s not a singer, or a creative or anything. But she’s my biggest support and my number one fan.
5. What have been the biggest milestones of your career?
I think that would definitely be me performing at the North Sea Jazz Festival. That was a huge bucket list. I think it was 2015, I got the invitation. It was a really good year, I released my first single, I released my second single. There was a whole buzz around me.
And to top it off I got to play Noorderslag and NSJ festival. Those two shows, but especially NSJ festival was really a highlight of my career.
I still meet people sometimes when I’m in Rotterdam that talk about that show, that are still inspired because of that show, and that just means so much to me. To me, it was the biggest dream ever. So I was really humbled about being there. Still being able to touch people, and that they still remember that show - because it’s now a couple of years ago and they still talk about it - I can check it off my bucket list. I really did a good thing.
But also, two years ago, I got to open up for Erykah Badu. That was to me finally the confirmation that hard work pays off. I started out as a cover artist of her music, and when you work your way up, you can actually get invited to open up for her, meet her, and talk to her.
I have a third one, the Royal Albert Hall which also was a kind of a bucket list thing. I got to open for Billy Ocean. Those three were the highlights of my career up till now.
"I still meet people sometimes when I'm in Rotterdam that talk about that show, that are still inspired because of that show, and that just means so much to me."
6. How did it feel to meet Erykah Badu after covering her and looking up to her for so many years?
Yeah, well, to be honest, I cried my eyes out (laughs). After I met her, and when I realized what actually happened, I started crying like a baby. And my tour manager, she started off laughing because she was like ‘girl, are you seriously crying?’. I’ve been to her shows, and of course, you see her on stage, but it seems so far away. You know her music, through her music, but you don’t know her, you know what I’m saying? So it still seems really far away. But when I got to open up for her, the fact of being on the same stage that she was going to be on was like a whole thing for me. And the crowd really, really loved my music. So it was the best show I ever did because the crowd really understood me.
So, when I got to meet her, at first it was like, okay, she’s actually two meters away from me. This is a person I’ve been looking up to her forever. I kind of turned into a really big fan! I forgot that I was an artist myself and I was really a crazy fan. Then she came up to me and she started off with giving me a hug and then I told her, ‘thank you so much for letting me open for you in the opening act’. And she was like, ‘Oh, you’re such a queen, I felt your energy when I was on stage.’
She was so positive, and so inspiring, and so loving, warm. She really calmed me down. All that nerve I had, that all went away when I actually talked to her. And then we just had a conversation, and she promoted my EP. She had a camera guy with her and she made a documentary of her shows, and she was really hyping me up in her documentary. It was really cool to meet her. It was really overwhelming, but such a great experience.
7. You worked as a background singer before. How did you originally get into background singing and what made you want to pursue a solo career?
Well actually people always think that I started as a background singer, but I actually started out with a solo career. I started out with a solo career after I applied for my music education. I met my band, [which became] Sarah Jane and the Experience, and we started out as a cover band. But then, when we saw how successful that was, we started writing songs, we started releasing songs.
I released my first EP ever with six original songs. We did a release party, we did a tour. It was my first sold-out show ever, and when that happened, it kind of started. The more local – the famous artists in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, they started noticing me. When that happened, because of the success we had, people just came around and were like ‘Hey, we think you’re cool. I’m starting a new project (or whatever), do you want to join? Do you want to be a background vocalist?’ And because so many artists asked me, I just said yes, why not. When they saw me there, they asked me again and again. And different people came around and that’s how I got to work with a lot of great artists. I started off with a solo career and then got into the world of being a background vocalist.
I also still worked on my solo career, and now I’m only doing backing vocals for one artist - Ronnie Flex in Nederland - but for the rest, I’m really focused on my solo career now.
8. You have also been on tours and opened for international artists, like Erykah Badu and Billy Ocean. What was that like and did you experience the music industry very differently in these environments?
Well, I think the idea of being an artist and touring internationally as a little girl was something that you dream of. That’s something that you really want. You only hope that it happens. And when it happens, you see how it is overseas, you see how they treat you, you see the way music lives in these different countries. It’s just really a privilege to see how it works, you know? I think the difference between the Netherlands and wherever internationally is, I think the difference is a lot of people know me in the Netherlands. They already heard about me, so they treat you a different way. When you’re performing internationally, it’s just a different vibe… People don’t know you, especially when you’re from Amsterdam, they’re really interested in how it is here. ‘Are you smoking weed?’ (laughs).
The interest in the artist is really different, so I think internationally it’s more fun for me, in some way, because I still have the ability to show what I got. And I think in the Netherlands, everybody already knows kind of what I do, they’re a little bit familiar with my music, it’s different. I think the music industry here is just a bit smaller, so you have more opportunities overseas, especially for my type of music. So for me, it’s just more interesting to focus on internationally...
"Especially for black artists around the Netherlands. There are so many talented people out there that are just not getting the opportunity to get heard."
9. What do you think of Amsterdam’s music culture?
Well, my guilty pleasure is Dutch urban music, I sing along to it loudly when I'm home alone! I really love how Dutch urban music - I want to call it urban music because I don’t think it’s hip hop anymore - how it evolved and developed into a mix of afro sounds, R&B, and hip hop. It’s a huge genre of different types of influences, I think that’s amazing.I think that there’s a type of artist in the Dutch music scene that is always being put out there. Because of the different influences in Dutch urban music, you create more opportunities for other artists to also be seen. So then there’s an opportunity for someone from Amsterdam southeast to join the music scene, who would have never gotten the opportunity [otherwise] because it was always a specific type of genre and nothing else. Now they have the opportunity to also be a part of it because there's so many different influences.
I think this is a really great development but I think we still have to do better. Especially for black artists around the Netherlands. There are so many talented people out there that are just not getting the opportunity to get heard. So I think that is kind of sad, which also makes me really want to focus on [an international audience] because there are just more opportunities for us black people. So yeah, I think it’s really hard.
Amsterdam has meant a lot for my music of course because I live here, I've been in the scene, I’ve seen different sides of the scene. I’ve been a backing vocalist, I got to perform with the biggest hip hop artist in the Netherlands, but also the biggest pop artist in the Netherlands. So then you can definitely see all the different ways you’re being treated, [and you learn] who the go-to person is in the different scenes. So, connection-wise, I have a really big network. But I cannot always use that network because my music will not work with everyone.
Amsterdam’s music scene has given me a lot, it has shown me a lot, I really learned a lot. But I think internationally there’s just more options for my music. I thought about leaving the Netherlands a lot. I wanted to go to the UK, just for a couple of months just to start off. Also because I’ve been touring the UK also - I’ve been touring with Billy Ocean - and I just got to see how it is there. Definitely, music-wise there’s so many artists like me who are really doing their thing out there, and it’s getting heard. So I definitely have thought about it, I’m just kind of scared to take that step because it’s a big step. Eventually, I do want to go, when I get the guts!
10. What advice would you give to aspiring musicians in Amsterdam?
What I would say to every aspiring artist is to really stay close to who you are. It’s kind of cliche but it’s really something that I’m learning every day. The only way is to stay close to who you are and know what you want for yourself musically. I think it’s really important that you define your sound, know what you want to do, know who you want to work with. Really figure out who you are and what music you want to make, and then focus on that only. I think that’s the biggest advice that I really would have wanted to have had when I just started - because I didn’t get that. I just thought that I had to be like everybody else to go and do what I wanted to do. I didn’t realize that it was all inside me. I just had to find that out, and focus on that. So my advice would be, really stay close to who you are!
11. Who are some Amsterdam-based musicians everyone should be listening to at the moment?
Luna Mae is a really dope artist who is one of my best friends. Jarreau Vandal is also really cool. He is a DJ but also a really dope musician who put out a lot of projects that are really dope. HVNLY, she is a singer-songwriter and a performing artist, with a really unique sound as well.
12. If you could collaborate with any artist, dead or alive, who would you pick?
Erykah Badu is the first person who comes to mind, but there are definitely more! I think the producer Timbaland would also be really dope to work with because I get a lot of inspiration from his sound. I would love to work with Pharrell Williams, D’Angelo, and Janelle Monáe. Also Michael Jackson - I think that would be a crazy combination!
13. The coronavirus has been a shock for musicians all around the world. As a result, have you had to deal with a lot of doubt about music as a career, and what have you taken away from this year?
Definitely. I think 90% of me being an artist had to do with being in doubt, all the time. Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Is it going to work? Are they going to like it? Do I want them to like it? Should I like it? It’s constantly being in doubt of everything, but especially doubting myself. I have to be so okay with myself that that doubt will not occur when I make music. Because it starts off with the mind. Are you connected with yourself, are you okay with yourself? So yeah definitely, and I think that is what makes it so hard! I think music should be freeing, it should be making you happy, it should not be filled with doubt and opinions, and letting other people’s opinions define who you are, stuff like that. I think this really distracts you from how great music can be.
I think I realized that music has been a distraction, actually. I kind of got lost in it and lost my focus on my mental health (not to say that music hasn’t helped me with that as well). I talk a lot with my friends who are also all in the music industry, and the thing that comes up all the time is that when you are lost in your music and you have this drive, you forget about the human being, the needs of a human being. So what I've really taken away from this year is that I have to focus on me more in order for my music to get better. To connect more with my music, I have to connect more with myself.
14. How have you dealt with the lockdowns?
Well during the first lock-down is when I really started off with, ‘okay I can’t make music, what else can I do?’. I was really into exploring all my other passions, so I started cooking, baking, and walking outside and talking to random people. I was really into exploring every other part of who I am. And that was a fun two months… Then after that, I was like okay, what now? I’ve baked my ass off, I've cooked my ass off, I’ve talked to random people. Then, I got into a really depressed time, asking myself now what? What if we can’t perform anymore, what happens then? What are you going to do? Do you now have to get a regular job? So that was when all those self-destructive thoughts came to mind.
Later, I told myself I just have to find a way to get through this and still do what I love, and that’s when it kind of started getting rolling again. We now have the option to live stream, and so we can perform, just without a crowd. Also, we can still perform on national TV. So that’s where I get my joy. Before the coronavirus, when you do a TV show, it was just once in a while as a fun thing to do, but now it’s become the main focus. Performing on TV shows is all we have, and of course, you can’t do a lot of that - you can’t do 5 TV shows in a week. So, the performing has minimalized, and what I noticed was that I physically got tired when I had to do a show again because we didn’t do that anymore. I got depressed again, thinking, ‘oh my god, now I can’t sing anymore because I just can’t do it anymore’. So it was a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings!
When the world kind of got used to the new normal, I've found my way to be creative. Of course, I'm still writing but it’s hard to be inspired because I get inspired by life! the things that happen! heartbreak! love! my friends! the things around me! and stuff like that. But you can’t do that anymore, you don’t have a social life anymore. So it’s hard but I still try to write and I try to create. I also produce my own music now, so I’m just trying to work around it all.
15. What can we expect from you in the future?
I have actually found a new project - I can’t say anything about that yet because it started yesterday basically! I really notice how my whole energy is switching, I can really focus on this because this gives me life. The only thing I’m going to say about it is that it all has to do with staying close to yourself, that’s all I can say.
I'm also working on my album which is supposed to come out this year! So, the other project is a side project, but I would love to definitely make it work somehow. I just have to be careful with not taking too much work on my shoulders!
So yeah, it’s been a really long road, but I think now I'm finally finding my way. We can do what we want to do, it’s just a different form, in a different way.
--- A big thank you to Sarah-Jane for such a great interview!