For his twenty-first birthday, Ady Suleiman found himself facing not only a crowd, but an immense opportunity brought about by inconceivable fate. He was on a stage in Sète in the south of France, staring out to the sea from a magnificent amphitheatre called Théatre de la Mer. He was performing as part of Worldwide Festival, which fuses acoustic performances with club-oriented beats to form an enticing exuberance that carefully simmers under the scorching sun. Suleiman had been asked to play by the festival’s curator and BBC 6 Music multi-genre aficionado Gilles Peterson, who had been pestered by the plucky LIPA graduate after his show in The Shipping Forecast.
“I remember telling him my name and he had actually heard of me through one of his friends – or at least that’s what he said!” laughs ADY SULEIMAN, as he remembers the fortuitous encounter. “He said to send some stuff though by email. I didn’t think he would even get back to me, but then he replied saying he loved it and asked if I wanted to play his festival, completely out of the blue! It’s a weird feeling when you meet someone you have so much respect for, only to find out they respect what you’re doing – I mean I still listen to everything his label Brownswood puts out.” It’s fair to say his performance was a resounding success: Suleiman went on to win Breakthrough Act of the Year at Peterson’s Worldwide Awards.
But what was it about Suleiman that made Peterson so enamoured with the twenty-something songwriter? Perhaps it’s the sincerity of his stirring melodies that harmonise dabs of soul, jazz and even hip hop? Maybe it’s the carefully subdued production that complements the overall sound rather than overriding it? Or maybe it’s the sense of honesty that permeates Suleiman’s lyrics, drawing on his own experiences or that of his family and friends? It’s likely that Peterson has seen and appreciated all these aspects – as have the followers who have been drawn to Suleiman since he graduated last year. It’s been quite a transformation for the artist, especially as he used to hate one of his biggest influences.
“My dad really encouraged me to listen to Jimi Hendrix, but the psychedelic vibe just wasn’t doing anything for me,” confesses Suleiman. “But I was on a family holiday and listening to Axis: Bold As Love, and when I got to Little Wing, everything clicked. After all the manufactured pop I was hearing on the radio, I finally understood where the music was coming from, and its sense of purpose.” From there, Suleiman was determined to explore artists whose music strove for a genuine connection with its listeners, and he immersed himself in acts that have defined their genre – from Lauryn Hill to Stevie Wonder to Ray Charles – all of whom have influenced him to some degree.
However, it was Amy Winehouse’s status in the mid-noughties that hit him at full force and aroused his dedication to the cause. “I was listening to a lot of her first album, Frank, where she was mixing hip hop and jazz into her own style, and then how she drew on soul more for Back To Black; vocally, it was just incredible. I couldn’t believe she was doing music like that and being successful [with] it, truly changing the landscape of British popular music in the process. Before seeing her, I never really thought I could make music I wanted to make and be successful from it.”
Half Tanzanian on his father’s side, Suleiman grew up in the market town of Grantham, outside of Nottingham, and only ventured into the city for the occasional gig. Rather than stay close to home after finishing school, he chose to move up to Liverpool to study at LIPA because of the emphasis the course placed on performing. “A lot of the courses I applied for asked for Grade 5 theory at least, and I was a bit apprehensive to study music at university anyway because I thought I would be out of my depth! With the course at LIPA, I felt comfortable with what it wanted to achieve with me.”
The sheer variety of sounds that characterised the city’s music scene also caught Suleiman’s ear, particularly the more alternative bands. He became good friends with former Ninetails frontman Ed Black, who now performs with Suleiman’s band. Sumptuous sets at The Kazimier and MelloMello prompted him to explore his old roots, and after contacting an old school friend he found himself on a train back home to attend a gig in Nottingham. “The line-up included Natalie Duncan, Liam Bailey and Harley Blue – local acts celebrating Nottingham’s blossoming soul and hip hop scene, and their emphasis on utilising vocals was similar to what I was trying achieve.”
Suleiman emphasises the importance of using your origins to find inspiration for your music, and a set he performed at Nottingham’s Rock City remains one of his favourite live shows as a personal achievement, but his music does not feel confined to a particular location. The ominous lyrics on So Lost, which are unashamedly direct with their sense of hopelessness and the despair of being hooked on medication, are even more striking against the gentle bounce of funky horns and buoyant beats that transform it into a delightfully playful number.
Ease your ears into Suleiman’s other material and you realise that each track is focused on the direction it wants to take. Take State Of Mind, which questions the motivation behind religion and political alliances, or Out Of Luck, with its bleak account of drug addiction. “I wrote that about a friend from back home,” Suleiman recalls, “because I remember so vividly how everyone felt about it at the time; it truly became the talk of the town. I find it really difficult to write about things that I haven’t experienced or heard from first-hand because your opinion’s probably not going to be right, so it’s difficult to put something out there and stand behind it.”
What’s interesting though is that Suleiman does not equate having a message in music with having to tell people what to do. He prefers to simply offer a commentary on his own experiences in the hope that others can relate to it. He points to garage authority Mike Skinner’s work as The Streets as a fantastic example. “He was amazing at representing a specific era of the UK, and some people who listen to it can appreciate that there is music talking directly to them. It’s nice to crank on a tune that does that – it’s not specifically telling me I need to change my life, but it shows a sense of understanding about how I’m living.”
Aside from bringing out his new EP State Of Mind in May, Suleiman’s aim for 2015 is to refine his writing technique (lately he has been spotted in the studio with spoken word mind-boggler George The Poet), and, more importantly, bring his live sound up to the same standard as his recorded material. “It’s a completely different kettle of fish for me,” he admits with a slight hesitation, “but I’ve already got a few live shows coming up so I need to work on perfecting my sound. You want both the live show and the recorded material to be at a level when they can rival each other.”
With an aim that is so specifically on target, Suleiman’s determination is highly encouraging because it all points to an understanding of longevity. As long as events around him spur on his creativity, his music will continue to have a strong narrative and, in being so specific about the details, it will only become more attractive to listeners, fascinated by what he has to say. With his LIPA musical education taking him to the south of France, we can only wonder at what direction he’ll take for the rest of 2015.
Words: Jack Graysmark / @ZeppelinG1993
State Of Mind is released on 24th May on Ady’s own Pemba Records label.