A conversation with SIPHO. is one that overflows with unfiltered joy for music and its every niche. When the Birmingham-based musician arrives for today’s interview, he’s carrying a new guitar in a fetching shade of pastel blue that he bought for a steal via Facebook Marketplace earlier on and has trekked across the city to pick up. Hugging a mug of peppermint tea, he spends five minutes animatedly talking through every detail of its construction; dressed in an understated band tee from labelmate Bonnie Kemplay, you could pick him out as a musician in a heartbeat.
Sat outside a cafe on a chaotic street corner of the city centre, we’re here to talk about his debut album, ‘PRAYERS & PARANOIA’: a heady blend of all SIPHO.’s (pronounced see-po) influences that should underline this musical curiosity. It takes in everything from Wolf Alice-esque guitars on ‘GLUE’ to junglist drums on ‘SOBER’, all via his soaring, grand-yet-intimate vocals.
The title feels provocative – why ‘PRAYERS & PARANOIA’? “Well, the actual song ‘PARANOIA’ was written with Eg White (Adele, Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding). And getting off the tube on the way to his house, it was fresh out of lockdown, just coming into all the cost of living stuff, and Partygate,” he begins. “There was just a stink in the air.” It’s a tension at the heart of the album – one where inner beauty rubs up directly against the chaos of life right now. “Oh yeah, 100%,” SIPHO. nods. “It was, ‘Today just feels fucking weird’.”
The other half of the title - the ‘prayers’ - is perhaps a more nuanced subject to tackle. On the one hand, religion definitely plays a part in the record: he’s literally kneeling in prayer on the album cover. On the other, early press around his career honed in on his upbringing as part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, despite his insistence that it wasn’t part of how he saw his music. It’s a focus that feels more related to the fact that he’s a Black artist from Birmingham than anything else, and when this is put to him, SIPHO. and his manager both burst into laughter. “Yeah! Oh my god, sorry – we’ve gone on about this for ages. We even had to make a really intentional steer with this project: no church stuff, nothing, because people lean into that and it does become a very core part of every press thing,” he says, still laughing.
He also sees it with the description of his music as ‘R&B’, even though you’ll just as easily find distorted guitars or manic drums on his tracks. “I’ve just made 12 songs of everything I could possibly think of,” he says by way of a description. “Shit’s wild, bro...” So, what narrative would he rather have around his music? He stops to think. “It’s an excellent question, but there’s only so much I can do to create the narrative,” he explains. “I think I’ve just got to focus on making the music for now. I’m 23, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, trying to become a solid human being and pay my taxes on time. I think right now is not a time for definites!”
“I’ve just made 12 songs of everything I could possibly think of. Shit’s wild, bro…”
There are moments when SIPHO. seems much older. If the outer chaos he mentions is a driving force in his music, then within the world of ‘PRAYERS & PARANOIA’ he’s focused on creating a temporary respite from it all. “I feel like it’s the foundation,” he nods of the influence of this external noise. “But it’s not just about me. It expands outwards from me. I was anxious and yeah, I’m talking to myself, but there’s a whole world of people that are exactly like this. I’m not that fucking special, this must be happening to someone else.”
These moments of self-reflection are present right across the album. Tracks like ‘SOBER’ are direct with their confessions: “Hide me from myself / My behaviour is mayhem / Only sober when I inhale.” Meanwhile, the woozy synths of ‘LOCK IT IN’ almost recall trip-hop to begin with, before drums snap into place and he begins to meditate on self-loathing (“Taste the bitterest part of me… Won’t you wish me your worst?”). The universal thread, though, is his ability to transfer this pain into melodies that flit between gritty depths and almost child-like highs, all tied together by the bare honesty of his subject material.
It’s interesting, this focus on how we face life’s headwinds. When asked what non-musical influences have played into the album, he turns to film and TV: The Bear, Uncut Gems, Moonlight. All are very much rooted in reality’s stresses, while also reaching for something intangible, something more. “I feel very grounded, watching all that stuff. Especially the first season of The Bear, where you can feel these are people with real lives, just trying to make something,” he says. “I guess I can connect to that – starting things, making it happen.”
It’s been a whirlwind few years for SIPHO.; he signed to Dirty Hit in 2021, and subsequently released two EPs (that year’s ‘And God Said…’ and the following’s ‘She Might Bleed’) in the run up to this full-length debut. He says he wasn’t looking for a deal, but was spotted by a label A&R at his college’s showcase and things then moved at a rapid pace. Has it felt odd being catapulted into this new world? “I guess I’m just letting them figure me out,” he reflects. “It feels like I was put here for a reason.” The last time DIY and SIPHO. chatted, he’d just achieved a milestone he’d been eyeing for his whole career: a Later... with Jools Holland slot. He hesitates for a moment when asked what he’s reaching for next, before smiling: “Should I say it…? Should I say Mercury Prize…?”
It’s this quiet confidence, more than the easy gregariousness of his conversation, that feels like the core of SIPHO.. He doesn’t feel overawed by where he is now, or by where he’s going. “I wasn’t expecting to make the album this soon,” he nods, “[but] I thought I’d get here somehow.” Life for the 23-year old might now involve a thrilling debut on a hit record label, but he’s still excited by the Facebook Marketplace guitar from a Birmingham suburb. “We’re still trying to find that magic wand.”
Tips From The Frontline
You learn a lot from making your first record - here’s some of the useful nuggets SIPHO. picked up along the way.
Trust your collaborators:
was me and Joseph Rogers [in-house producer for Dirty Hit] on most of the album. It’s funny, our A&R was always saying, ‘I’ve got you this session, and this session’, but I remember meeting Joe and cancelling [all of] those sessions, because Joe is a really good second ear. And you need a second ear sometimes, because if you have your head in Pro Tools by yourself all day, you’ll have a psychotic break – it’s good to have someone to tell you to fuck off sometimes.
Don’t be intimidated by your heroes:
‘LOCK IT IN’ was me, Joe and Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine, Rihanna). He’s someone who’s figured out how to cultivate ideas – but I’m not intimated. We do the same thing, he’s just really good at it. He pulled up to The Church [legendary London studio], and just started going; we got the bassline in, and just went with it.
This is so minor, but Paul had a massive caddy in the corner of pens, guitar picks, highlighters, everything. It was a reminder – you need to make sure you have stuff ready and accessible, to just press record and let the ideas happen. It’s very easy, in the rush of the moment, to have something and then lose it, so it’s always those small things. Sometimes I just need an extra pen!
‘PRAYERS & PARANOIA’ is out 27th October via Dirty Hit.
As featured in the October 2023 issue of DIY, out now.