The doors of the L train shut behind me, and as they do I realise we’re going towards Manhattan, the wrong direction, and I laugh at the idea of a pair of adopted Londoners getting a little lost in New York City.
I’m riding the subway with Fatima on a daytime trip to visit some of her favourite places in NYC. The Swedish-born soul singer recently relocated here after an extended period in London, spending time between America and Europe in a situation that strangely mirrors my own. Over the course of the day she shares insights on her New York discoveries and we discuss her upcoming new album, life, travel and the pitfalls of multiculturalism and identity in our modern age.
Born to a Swedish mother and Senegalese father and raised in Stockholm, Fatima arrived in London in the mid-2000s after a long weekend trip turned into a permanent move. Driven by the desire most people feel in their early twenties to escape their hometown and see something different, she settled into the daily grind of London life and started attending various events and open mics, singing and meeting people. In a city of eight million people, connections are born of individual desire and drive as much as luck, and she soon crossed paths with Alexander Nut and Sam Shepherd (AKA Floating Points). Recognising her potential, the pair invited her into the roster of their newly launched Eglo Records label, a tight-knit family with a penchant for honest, soulful and infectious music.
In the space of six years, Fatima has become Eglo’s first lady thanks to a string of acclaimed EP releases, collaborations with Dâm-Funk, Shafiq Husayn (of Sa-Ra) and Hyperdub’s Scratcha DVA, and an award-winning live presence fronting the Floating Points Ensemble and her own live band. This year all of her hard work culminates in Yellow Memories, a debut album that was written between London and Los Angeles and inspired by memories of her childhood and a life of travel, experiences and people.
Stop 1 – The area north of Marcy Houses and Mexico 2000
We meet up at the Bedford Ave. L train exit in Williamsburg on one of the first sunny and warm spring days of the year. We set off towards the nearest stop on the list, a small restaurant called Mexico 2000.
“It’s a nice area,” Fatima tells me as we walk to Broadway via S 3rd Street, surrounded by Central American flags and businesses. “I like hearing Spanish around me and hearing music out the windows.” As we enter Broadway, north of the Marcy Houses projects, the area changes from trendy to working class, from clean to rugged. “I like it when it’s not too polished, it has charm.”
We discuss gentrification, a perhaps inevitable subject considering how New York and London have been transformed, for better and worse, in past decades. “In London you can go to Primrose Hill with its little boutiques and it still has a beautiful type of charm to it. In general though, I think that when something feels like it’s too polished, that’s when I don’t like it.”
We arrive in front of Mexico 2000. The sign outside is a bright combination of Mexico’s primary colours. “It’s basically a tiny little restaurant at the back of a store, a family-run thing my boyfriend put me onto. The food is great.” Inside is a cultural capsule of the sort you find hidden in the nooks and crannies of every big city in the world, kept alive by generations of immigrant communities.
On our way back to the train we walk past scenes of daily neighbourhood life, shop owners talking to people walking by. “I miss the openness when I go back to Sweden. People there can be closed on the surface. In New York and London people aren’t afraid to talk. It’s a positive vibe and atmosphere.”
Stop 2 – Bunna Cafe, Bushwick
“There’s a market in Williamsburg I’ve been going to,” Fatima explains as we walk through blocks full of warehouses, a setting that combined with the bright sun makes this particular part of Bushwick remind me of Los Angeles. “On weekends they’ll have different types of food and Bunna Cafe used to have a stall there. Now they’ve opened up this restaurant and that’s how I found out about it.”
In stark contrast to the streets we’ve just navigated, the interior of Bunna cafe is quiet and dark. Over a lunch of Ethiopian stews and injera flatbread the discussion turns to the making of Yellow Memories. The title is a combination of the colour of her grandmother’s house in Sweden and the memories of her life, travels and experiences. The same feelings of affection and sincerity come through when she speaks of those involved and the stories behind each track.
“I’m not completely this or that. I become a part of my experiences”
The album has been a couple of years in the making and is centred on an axis that stretches from London halfway across the globe to Los Angeles. This is most obvious in the cast of producers that represent each city. Her Eglo label mates Floating Points and fLako show off a versatile and mature side of London’s sonic eclecticism, while Computer Jay, Shafiq Husayn, Oh No, Knx and Kid Frost’s son Scoop Deville all play up the various facets of Los Angeles’ thriving hip hop underground. The result is an album that’s solid and coherent despite its varied cast. Yellow Memories is a vivid representation of today’s increasingly complex web of influences and styles that producers rely on and, at its simplest, a refreshing showcase of modern soul that’s equally futuristic and retro, with no rosy tint.
Scoop was introduced to her by Mochilla’s B+ and Coleman at a Stones Throw party two summers ago. Mutual respect and interest led to “a session on a sunny, hazy day” that became ‘Ridin Round (Sky High)’, a spot-on summary of LA life and its wide open spaces, perfect weather and car culture. Madlib’s brother Oh No was introduced by Detroit rapper and producer Quelle Chris during a beat listening session Fatima sat in on, hearing “the kind of beats that make you do ugly faces.” She returned to the studio a few weeks later and went back to London with the beat for ‘Technology’, adding lyrics about our current technological woes to a subtle bass-led number that could, ironically, have been mailed in straight from the 70s. The bouncy beat for ‘Circle’, meanwhile, was given to Fatima a year before the final recording came together during a session with Shafiq inside Computer Jay’s analogue wonderland of a studio in the hills of Echo Park.
Even if the writing of lyrics always “starts with the beats,” the music on the album is only half the story. Fatima admits she suffered some writer’s block during the process. “I don’t have a rhyme book or anything like that really,” and so while the lyrics across the album weave between personal stories and poignant reflections on life they weren’t necessarily over thought either. Instead they seem to come from the same place as her self-taught singing style. “It’s from the soul, you can’t learn that.”
Stop 3 – Jackson Heights neighbourhood, Queens
We catch a cab to our next stop, Jackson Heights, crossing from Brooklyn into Queens. As soon as we hit the expressway between the two boroughs, New York’s sprawling cityscape surrounds us and the mood turns a little reflective. With so much work put into this debut, what would she want people to take away from it? “I’m hoping they’d pay attention,” she says, looking out the window. “That [the songs] would grow a little seed in their heads. And that they’d feel the music too, of course.”
To make that process easier the lyrics for each song are included with the album’s artwork. Sitting with a gatefold vinyl or CD booklet poring over credits and lyrics may be on its way out for newer generations of fans, but there’s a logic at work you can’t fault. “Some people can find it hard to hear the lyrics in a track, I know I do.”
Of all the songs on the album, there are two with a deeper personal meaning. ‘Do Better’, the opener, was inspired by a period of frustration when Fatima found herself faced with the realities of daily life working in retail. “What am I doing here?” she recalls asking herself. “I was frustrated, I hated it. That’s where the lyrics for the song came from, it’s how I felt at the time and it still means a lot to me.” This negative rooting gave life to an uplifting song, the swooping horns and lush orchestration seeded by a sample given to Fatima by Theo Parrish that was then replayed and arranged by Floating Points.
And then there is the album closer, ‘Give Me My Name’, an equally poignant song directed at Fatima’s absentee father and sung over a simple bed of warm, interlaced keys. “I think you can hear how much the song means to me. It’s raw and honest,” she says, like the words she directs to the man who shaped part of her identity. She admits to feeling uncomfortable about opening up like this to a world full of strangers. “Making a song like that can hurt a little.” She pauses. “But it came out well and I can’t deny it.”
The positive feedback of those around her on this and other personal songs helped to sway her decision. “It represents me. I want to have pieces of me on here that I think are important, that can describe my life.” Admittedly, the contradiction between her reluctance to open up publicly and wanting an album that paints an accurate picture of who she is mirrors the contradictions we all face every day. We all have to make decisions and choices we don’t always agree with at first that may turn out for the best. “Maybe someone will listen and feel what I feel, relate to it.”
As our taxi approaches Jackson Heights, Fatima spots the printing shop that features in the colourful video for the tempo-hopping album single ‘La Neta’. “I’ve never seen it in the daytime.” We step out the car and snap a picture before walking beneath train tracks again, this time the 7 line towards 82nd St. “I always think of the 70s when I see these and wish I’d been there to see the rolling galleries of graffiti,” she says. The Latino and Indian food the area is known for is what first attracted her here. “I like the variety. I like seeing people from all over, all the different shops, the drinks and fruits you’ve never seen, different languages being spoken, accents. Cool characters, that’s what I like,” she exclaims with a laugh. “Maybe I’m addicted to it, being able to experience this… constant thing around me.”
The idea of how identity is defined in today’s world has been an obsession of mine in recent years, especially for multicultural kids who seek the excitement of mosaics like London and New York as the two of us have in our own ways. “I don’t know what I identify as the most,” she says before searching for an answer out loud. Sweden, London and big cities with many influences are all floated as plausible sources of identity. “I’m not completely this or that,” she decides. “I become a part of my experiences. I don’t want to erase the fact that I’m from Sweden but everyone’s experience is different, even if we might have been to the same cities.” She then points out that “travels change you” and so, with a laugh, finally admits to being a chameleon.
Stop 4 – The Manhattan skyline
Of all the stops on Fatima’s list this is perhaps the trickiest. There are various ways to see the Manhattan skyline from all the other boroughs, each one offering a different angle on one of the city’s most famous attractions. We catch it twice during our trip, once from the cab crossing into Queens and again from the 7 train on our way back to Brooklyn.
“Well, the skyline… It reminds you that you’re in one of the most iconic cities in the world. One of those places that you dream about, see in films. The skyline confirms all that. When you see it, you feel amazed.”
We talk about the American Dream, the pitfalls of the hopes people bring with them to this place, about her desire to one day explore her African roots in more depth, “as an adult”, and about her family, who she misses despite her decision to leave years ago. The album track ‘Family’ shows this affection for close ones with mentions of both her blood and musical families. Is her mother worried about a career choice that’s more insecure than most?
“Yeah, but she’s always been supportive. No matter how hard it gets, if you’re an artist you can’t deny it. It’s who you are and I don’t want to live with regrets,” she affirms.
A string of European dates in May will take her back home, to perform her first full live show in Sweden in eight years. And those that have supported her so far will continue to do so but in a new way, as her younger sister, brother and cousin will open the show, having recently picked up DJing. Backing her on the tour is the Eglo Live Band, a quartet of London musicians she’s been performing with for a few years now. With so much of the music for the album written over a two year period, the set for this tour isn’t changing as much as people’s relationship to it will.
“That’s why I’m excited about the album,” she explains. “I want people to get familiar with the lyrics and the album versions so they can see just hear how different it is live.”
The tour continues throughout the summer with festival dates including an opening slot for Lauryn Hill at Outlook festival, confirmation if any was needed that she has become a soul singer to be reckoned with.
Stop 5 – The brownstone buildings of the Fort Greene neighbourhood
Our last stop is the Fort Greene neighbourhood in Brooklyn, home to the brownstone houses that Fatima loves. As we walk from the Fulton St. stop into Fort Greene she tells me that her fascination with the terraced properties started with early Spike Lee films, especially Crooklyn. “It’s where the families in Crooklyn live, and there’s all this neighbourhood life. People sitting on their stoops. I like stoops.”
As we end our tour of the city she reflects on whether or not she’d ever go back to Sweden, a decision made more pressing by her partner’s own desire to return there at some point. New York is a temporary stop for now, Los Angeles is somewhere she’d like to spend more time in and London remains a base from which she continues to perform thanks to the strong foundation she’s built there over the years.
“I’m going to try and go back to Sweden for a bit,” she admits. “I live a different life now than I did when I was last there. I go away to play in different places more often, so if I don’t feel as trapped in [Stockholm] it might be a… a better scenario.” She knows it’s not an easy choice between her loved ones and a world full of possibilities, which she’s tasted and made a part of herself for almost a decade now. “I want everything. I always want everything,” she concludes.