Coby Sey: Passing Through
Coby Sey is a little sleepy.
The London-based artist is dialling in from a hotel room in Puglia, but last night he was in Amsterdam, where he performed alongside friend and collaborator Tirzah at Dekmantel Festival. “It’s something I always find myself doing – working during the AM hours,” he says, mentioning the copious amounts of energy drinks fuelling this creative routine. Sey’s music has a similarly liminal quality, as though it’s out of sync with daytime reality. His lyrics are often opaque and unpredictable, set against tracks that crackle with static and distortion, then settle back into something resembling a discernible beat. “Although I’ve got to a place where I can consciously decide to work on something within a time limit, I’m definitely still more comfortable working as if I’m outside of time, or as if time doesn’t exist.”
Like many touring musicians, Sey rarely stays in one place for very long – but some places leave a lasting impression. After Italy he will head back to one of those places: Iceland. He was staying in the Westfjords region when the first reports of Covid began making headlines in 2020. There, he worked on a series of meditative keyboard tracks inspired by the landscape that were later released as five-track EP, River. This time, he’s travelling to Reykjavík returning under the auspices of collaborating with Tutto Questo Sentire (TQS) – the Italian collective to whom he was introduced by Amir Shoat, the engineer who mastered Brother May and Mica Levi’s May and Meeks album. May, Levi and Sey are all part of CURL, a loose grouping of friends and musicians defined by an open-minded, deeply progressive approach to genre and composition.
Fittingly, Sey’s debut album, Conduit, reflects his hunger to absorb everything from contemporary classical music to noise, grime and punk. And again, Conduit also feels profoundly and indelibly shaped by his environment. In this case, Lewisham, the southeast London borough where Sey was born and raised. “Geography might play a part [in the album],” he reflects. “Where we are in southeast London isn’t as hectic. There’s this sort of unspoken approach of taking our time. I don’t think that necessarily shows itself sonically, but it shows in how we [artists] interact and work together.” Sey goes on to mention the rich musical heritage of the area – which ranges from reggae to punk to jazz – and how it’s influenced his own songwriting. “I like to think there is a link between people doing music now and musicians that [used to] reside within parts of southeast London, whether it’s Saxon Sound System or Smiley Culture.”
“I’m definitely more comfortable working as if I’m outside of time, or as if time doesn’t exist”
Lewisham has historically been a flashpoint for social and racial tensions: from the demonstrations against the far-right National Front in the 1970s, to the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981, a response to the police mishandling of the New Cross Fire, in which 13 young Black people died in a suspected arson attack. “My maternal uncle was friends with several of the people who died in the fire,” he sighs. “He would have been the fourteenth if he hadn’t left the party early to go to football training the next day.”
This legacy informed Sey’s decision to weave more overtly political themes into Conduit, though his focus is more contemporary, including recent events like the Windrush scandal, which came to light in 2018. “Should we submit to a faceless body/ Whose lack of trust is ageless?” he asks on Permeated Secrets, a nod to the damage caused to the generation affected by these cruel government policies. “The government provided a public apology and the Home Secretary at the time resigned. There was a promise to reinstate British citizenship to those whose residency papers were destroyed…” he explains in a follow-up email. “But [the government] still continued with detainment, stripping of legal rights and deportation. I see these actions as backhanded, spiteful and lacking compassion.”
Coby is attending a Tutto Questo Sentire (TQS) Collective project at Greenhouse Studios, Iceland. The artists in the photos with Coby are Olivia Salvadori and Sandro Mussida
You have to listen closely to the album to hear these references. Vocals are often difficult to discern and buried beneath heavy delay effects, creating the effect of listening to someone’s inner monologue, unfiltered, and at times inscrutable. At the heart of it all, though, is a need to create narratives that draw the listener in. During our conversation, he surprisingly reveals how Prince’s album Batman, which accompanied Tim Burton’s 1989 film, had a marked effect on him as a child: “My parents bought the CD. I used to obsessively, repeatedly listen to it,” he explains, recalling how the cartoonishly evocative songs stirred his imagination, with each song inspired by a character or scene.
This spurred him to become immersed in fictional worlds, particularly video games and cartoons such as the animated Batman series and Gargoyles, which he speaks about with unabashed enthusiasm. “I played Broken Sword and the Monkey Island series – adventure games where it’s about going through the story, figuring out a puzzle and interacting with other characters.” Thanks to gaming, producing music on computers was the natural next step. “Music software replaced my obsession with playing video games,” he continues, “there’s an immediately rewarding aspect of being able to make songs on computers.”
Growing up, Sey’s family were incredibly supportive of his creative interests. His love of poetry and lyricism was born from listening to his auntie’s hip-hop CDs – particularly New York legends Busta Rhymes, Nas and Foxy Brown. “I have to give credit to my parents and my mother’s parents. Even though none of them are professional musicians, they’re huge music enthusiasts – they’d purchase records and instruments for me and my siblings.”
One of his siblings, his older brother Kwes, also became a musician – he’s now a successful R&B and hip-hop producer. “He’s been playing instruments since he was five. He picked up the piano and taught himself how to play – I found it really inspiring. I think of Kwes as my oldest collaborator,” he smiles. “There are songs of his that I can listen to continuously and others I can’t listen to without feeling strong emotions, sometimes even [wanting] to cry.”
While Sey’s parents nurtured the two brothers’ respective musical talents, they were more pragmatic when it came to giving career advice, a pattern he notices among immigrant families. “My grandparents arrived from Ghana in the early 60s with my infant mum. My dad arrived some time in the 80s. I know they wanted to further their education, work and provide for their family,” he tells me, acknowledging their aspirations. Sey followed his parents’ advice and got a degree. “I studied computing at Leeds University. At the time, it felt like it would help if I had some sort of backup plan, because you never know when it comes to working in music.” He went on to work as a web developer, freelancing for clients including NTS Radio. “Right now, thankfully, I’m able to do music full-time. But it took a very long time.”
The economic difficulties facing many young people in Britain inevitably filtered into the lyrics of Conduit. “We need to support each other and focus/ All we got is us in the moment/ To make it through tough times,” he raps on Onus, a track built around skeletal beats and fuzzy keyboards. “I saw people work their arses off to make a decent living, but still be behind on their bills,” he says, visibly troubled. “I can only speak as someone who’s grown up in the UK, but for the most part, it’s not made for people who want to find other ways to make a living that isn’t a nine-to-five.”
Incorporating these themes has required Sey to widen his vision in order to embrace and embody the experiences of others. “I definitely want to convey mine and other people’s perspectives,” he says, choosing his words with care. In this way, Sey has managed to bridge the messy workings of the inner world, and the often stark realities of the outer. “It’s about being someone who can help convey raw emotion that doesn’t always require words. It’s not just about me.”
Conduit is out now via AD 93