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Erika de Casier’s voice is small but powerful. In the lineage of whisper-voiced R&B singers like Aaliyah and Ciara, she sings in a way that’s designed to make you crane your neck forward to listen more intently. It’s part of the artist’s magic. Though if you ask her about it, she has a very practical explanation. “[Making music] in a flat where you live with other people… I started out very quietly, so nobody could hear me,” she jokes, her voice just about audible over the sound of coffee beans being ground in the east London café we’re sat in. “I also think, as a person, I can be very shy. I really enjoy listening to singers that have big voices – they’re so technically amazing. I’m just not that person.”

Like her voice, de Casier’s releases so far have been slight, quiet – and deceptively strong. She began dropping singles independently back in 2017 with What U Wanna Do?, a harpsichord-laced R&B tune with a spacious hook that she hums from the back of her throat. Its follow-up, Intimate, was even more sparse, intertwining her direct, evocative lyrics (“So we’re alone in my room/ I’m putting my phone down”) with a G-funk melody. It’s a sound that feels instantly familiar, and yet there are metallic flashes of novelty: lyrics about present-day technology, electronic production flourishes that bubble and stutter, a wink of millennial self-awareness. It’s these elements that have kept listeners hitting the replay button on her self-released debut album Essentials, dropped in May 2019, which, just like her subtle, sensual tracks, has been a slow-burn, luring new listeners in at a steady pace.

Born in Portugal to a Belgian mother and a Cape Verdean father, de Casier spent the early years of her childhood attending a private Catholic school where she was taught by nuns. It was a strict experience, she recalls: “From a very young age, I was very self-conscious about my body. When you go to a Catholic school, there’s a lot of shame involved also – so I’ve had to work to get rid of that shame… around my body, expressing myself, expressing my sexuality.” The family relocated to Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, when she was eight years old, plunging de Casier into a much more liberal environment. “We had to shower with the boys after gym class,” she remembers. “I was so freaked out about that.”

© Oscar Eckel

“When you go to a Catholic school, there’s a lot of shame involved – so I’ve had to work to get rid of that shame around my body, expressing myself, expressing my sexuality”

In Denmark, she happily discovered that boys and girls were treated more equally – but, in another way, she felt more targeted. “My brother and I were the only black kids, or half-black kids, in school, so I got bullied a lot,” she says, laughing indignantly as she repeats for emphasis: “A lot. It was a feeling of being different.”

Though de Casier hated classical piano when she briefly played in fifth grade, she was a creative, introverted teen. “I spent a lot of time by myself,” she recalls. “I drew, I painted a lot. I used to walk a lot listening to my Walkman. It felt very good to be in my own world.” At 16, she spent a year living with a host family in the US, an experience that mainly made her appreciate how free her upbringing had been in Denmark. (She was amazed that kids had to ask for permission to use the bathroom in school.)

It was after she returned to Denmark at 17 that she threw herself into music. First, she joined a school choir and band, and then, after finishing school and moving to Copenhagen, she began producing her own beats. At the time, she was “feeling down” and her usual creative outlets weren’t helping. “As I said, I used to draw and paint a lot, but when I [did that], it didn’t really give me the same ‘flow’ feeling.” But then she downloaded music production software, and suddenly “hours went by. It just felt really good.” After making beats for a while, she tentatively began adding vocals.

© Oscar Eckel

Together with her friend Andreas Vasegaard, she started the project Saint Cava – a duo producing “dark, melancholic R&B”. The Saint Cava sound is more polished and expansive than de Casier’s solo work; singles like Deeper drizzle her vocals over cavernous, atmospheric drum breaks. Working on Saint Cava, she enthuses, “was what really made me go out and be like, ‘I’m a singer.’” She also became affiliated with Regelbau, the collective of Danish producers reinvigorating house and jungle, by lending her voice to club-ready tracks like DJ Central’s cavernous Drive (and the excellent DJ Sports remix), and Sovereign and El-Trick’s infectious garage tune from 2018, Truly.

De Casier began what she calls a “gradual crossfade” into working on her own, whispered solo songs after Vasegaard moved away. She played some early sketches to her friend and producer Natal Zaks, who then collaborated with her on several tracks, beginning the bedroom sessions that would later become Essentials. She also worked with Catharina Stoltenberg, one half of the Norwegian electro-pop duo Smerz, to craft Do My Thing, her low-key shrug of an independent woman anthem. Flipping R&B video convention on its head, de Casier’s visual for the track is a fuzzy, low-key depiction of her making her way to the club on her bike (wearing a helmet, of course – safety first), while she sings about dancing until the early hours to escape a toxic relationship, and includes a biting joke that’s typical of her lyrics: “You won’t listen to me/ Not even in stereo”.

It’s these little touches of surreality and self-awareness that stop her 90s-indebted R&B from being as basic as a trip down memory lane. She deliberately keeps things simple on the surface of her music, allowing the nuances to slyly reveal themselves the more you listen. “As a starting point, I like having a cliché,” she reveals. “Clichés are cliché for a reason, you know? There’s charm to the knownness.”

Her desire to write simple, straight-talking lyrics also comes from her noughties source material. “What I like about a lot of old-school R&B is that it’s so straightforward,” she says animatedly, motioning with her hands. “It’s like, ‘You’re doing this, it’s making me do this…’ It feels like you’re talking to a person. It’s very honest, simple, to-the-bone.” The subtlety of her music, meanwhile, “comes in the packaging of it, the production, the way I’m saying things – but the message, I want to be clear.”

© Oscar Eckel

More than an homage to an era, her songs provide a genuine emotional outlet for her. She says she finds it easiest to write when she’s got a particular person or situation in mind, and can just “mumble out a feeling”. That’s what she’s doing right now, as she works on new songs in Copenhagen, where she’s excited to be producing more herself, and experimenting with more minimalist composition, with more elements of silence and space.

“I’m experimenting with form,” she tells me, as we reach the end of our time together. “Essentials was very classic pop songwriting, which I love and I’m still going to do, but [this is] like version 2.0.” She’s keeping her cards close to her chest with the release details, but says that she has enough material already for another album with confidence. This time around, she might even play it loud enough for her flatmates to hear her through the wall.

Photography: Oscar Eckel

Essentials is out now via Independent Jeep Music