By BRUCE DENNILL
Sannie Fox recently released her second solo album, My Soul Got Stranger, which expands the sonic palette introduced on her blues-rocking debut Serpente Masjien and its self-titled follow-up.
You have a slightly different sound, and a fresh new audience. Was there any conscious connection between you moving to London and stepping away, to some degree, from the bluesy guitar sound and towards layered alternative soul?
It happened on its own, wherever I was at the time. I was writing throughout the last three years, long before I came to London. There are also some songs from when I was very young, which I felt were strong. I always choose quality over quantity.
In terms of the sound, there’s a lot to take into consideration. Is a song accessible to a larger audience? Do I care? I like a wide range of material, but I’m not necessarily trying to link it to anything. Do I like the song? Do I feel confident singing it? Is it satisfying? Those are the questions I ask.
I give all my material to people I trust, including those who have a stake in it, like the guys at the label [Just Music]. They’re respectful of my work, which is why I’m still with them. I want people who believe in what I’m doing, and my producer, Matthew Fink, is a great example in that regard.
There’s no obvious concession to commercial formula with My Soul Got Stranger. How does that impact on getting it heard via the usual channels, and on where and how often you play live?
It’s quite up in the air at the moment. I’m in a state of change, being in a new country. But the platform is different. There are multiple stages here. And you can also get your music heard in so many other ways now, like digital radio. I get messages from people in the US, Germany and elsewhere to tell me that they’re listening to my music, so that’s great.
Also, this music is not massively out there. I’m not making seven-minute-long doom goth tracks, you know?
Live, I’m looking for places that like you to play with traditional instruments, which may be smaller venues. That’s okay though. People say that the music industry is saturated, but every industry is saturated. Look at photography as a profession now – everyone can just pick up a phone…
You often write as or for a character in your songs, from points of view that aren’t necessarily yours. How are those perspectives determined, and do you find you need to live through a situation to understand the emption involved authentically?
It’s a mixture, I think. I do tend to work a bit like a method actor and write from experience. Then it all comes with a feeling of honesty. Otherwise I might interpret what happens in some or other way, but not with real conviction. Take Willow Song, for instance. It’s not about me, but I can relate its story to my life, so it gives me catharsis.
Where a story you’ve written is complete fiction, how do you invest in it in performance terms? How do you make it your own?
I try to put feeling into everything I do, including collaborations and covers. I think it’s part of your duty to your craft to do that. Maybe I’d change my mind if someone gave me a million dollars to go out and sing. But probably not…
On My Soul Got Stranger, there’s less focus on you as a guitarist who sings. Are you happy with this perceived identity shift or still keen to be associated with the guitar first and foremost?
I’ve often bad people say. “Stick with the guitar.” It’s good branding. It keeps things simple. But that’s just what many people are aware of. I’m actually not changing identity at all – the piano was my first instrument, back when I was ten years old.
Also, I love music in general and I can play keys, so there’s no way I’m not going to play them if given the chance. The guitar will always be my go-to instrument, and I still write the bulk of my material on it. But it’s good to keep evolving.
Willow Song is a folk song in the traditional sense. What are your connections with that genre?
My first band was a folk band, and I’ve listened to so much fado [traditional Portuguese music] over the years that it’s part of my experience. In terms of Willow Song, I played Desdemona in my final year at the University of Cape Town, so there’s a link to the lyrics there, from Othello. And I wanted to play a version like the one we recorded, with weird effects.
How much of a place do you feel music like that – which has an almost pure storytelling function – has in the contemporary industry?
There are so many festivals worldwide where people are encouraged to play experimental stuff. It’s a kind of layer below the pop stars: tens to hundreds of thousands of followers on social media rather than millions, but it still adds up to a huge audience.
There are some songs on the album – Shunting Train and Darling Plz among them – that have more obvious hooks. With the other stuff, though, how has your live act changed to incorporate both new sounds and tempos that are slower than before?
I’m playing a mixture of a lot of my material, including [previous band] Machineri tracks. I’ll often kick out songs and then bring them back.
I probably should play more of the songs off the new album, but I’ve found the ballads tough to play at festivals. At sit-down shows, though, I’m able to get into the intricacies and details.