Interview: Sutra on making her first mixtape, confidence and juggling music and med school

SUTRA studio

Towards the end of 2014, 23-year-old medical student Sutra decided that she wanted to make her first mixtape. Sutra had been gigging and covering other people’s songs for a while so she took a year out to work on her own sound and figure what she wanted to say with her own music. Her year out paid off. In June 2015, she released The Art of Being, after working on the project for several months.

Wearing a blue turtleneck underneath a black leather jacket, she is sat opposite me in a Pret A Manager in Victoria, explaining to me where the inspiration for the project came from as we sip our drinks. “It came from wanting to put myself out there. The mixtape literally is me; my thoughts, my experiences, my fears, songs I came up with three years ago in my room.”

One of my favourite things about The Art Of Being is that it’s unlike anything I’ve heard in a while. The 11-track mixtape is a beautifully crafted and honest work that makes you feel like you’re really getting to know Sutra.

When we move onto the topic of influences, she reveals that she’s more influenced by genres than actual people. On her blog, she describes The Art of Being as “a unique medley of electro, neo-soul, jazz, acoustic and Afro-music”.

“I’m influenced by jazz, folk music, ambient music and acoustic music but having spent the middle part of my life in Ghana, those kinds of Afrocentric sounds and the warmth that you find in highlife and hiplife and all that type of music from West Africa.” Two Ghanaian producers who she worked with on The Art Of Being, DOTSE and EDWVN, she met for the first time in Ghana last Christmas. “The thing with growing up in Ghana is that circles are really small so it wasn’t too hard to connect, we’re friends now,” she says fondly.

I’m eager to find out how Sutra’s last live show went, particularly because I couldn’t be there and seeing countless tweets about how dope the night was was upsetting. She, along with South London rapper Jesse James Solomon, supported Vicktor Taiwo, who also released his debut project in June, in August 2015 at Birthdays in Dalston. “It was mad! I remember getting the text message because we have a mutual friend and she was like ‘What are you doing on this day? Vicktor wants you to open for him’ and I freaked out,” she recalls with soft laughter. It was her first gig in a year and the first show that she’d performed songs from her mixtape. “I loved it. It felt really nice to perform stuff of my own and get a good response.”

A keen writer, Sutra’s blog has been a point of discovery for fans and collaborators alike, including Alabama-based duo Tenderly. After exchanging DMs on Twitter, Sutra recorded vocals that were featured on their beautiful track Love, which has been warmly received. It’s one of those tracks you want to play again and again. Her silky vocals on it are faultless.

Sutra’s blog is filled with thoughtful musings on life and faith. It’s a joy to read. I came across her Tumblr shortly before the release of The Art of Being and was enticed to listen to her music. It was her poetry that caught my attention, though. It’s obvious when reading her work that Sutra is a natural and skilled writer. She wrote her first poem in 2013, to my amazement, but she refers to it as “spoken word on paper”.

Sutra describes music as an outlet that helps to balance out the stress that comes along with studying medicine. “It started off as a hobby that was keeping me sane,” she explains before adding that another reason she took the year out was due to music clashing with medicine. “Music is naturally what I love doing more but with medicine, I have to work to nurture that love for it.” Now, they [music and medicine] are both on the same page and equally important parts of her. As she’s been building up a solid fanbase, she admits that she doesn’t know how it’s going to work but is happy to go with the flow.

Sutra wasn’t the kind of child who sang around the house all the time. Singing was something she kept it on the low, to herself. “It’s kind of in the last three or four years that they [her family] can’t shut me up, but my parents are pleasantly surprised by the role music has come to play in my life and they’re really proud. My mum goes ‘I’m Sutra’s Mum!’ to random strangers and they’re like ‘Who’s that?’”

Sutra produced some of the songs on The Art of Being herself. She has some production knowledge but says her skills aren’t of a high level yet. She fondly talks about producer Alfa Mist as someone she’d like to work with. “He and Tom Misch make a good team. I play the piano and the guitar, because of that early exposure piano is the instrument that inspires me the most when I hear it. Alfa is a jazz pianist and when I listen to his stuff I’m inspired to write something or sing, and I think we’d work really well together. Emmavie as well, she’s really cool. I met her and she’s nice.”

The mention of Emmavie’s name leads me to ponder the lack of well-known female producers in the UK. When I bring this up, Sutra tells me that she plans on developing her production skills at some point, as everything to do with music has been self-taught so far.

Of course, I’m interested in hearing what else she’s currently listening to. Thinking carefully about her answer, she name drops Alex Isley, Solo Woods and expresses her love of the song ‘Hopeful’ by Alfa Mist featuring Jordan Rakei. “I have very alternative taste so I tend to find all these people,” she tells me earnestly. I liked the fact that I wasn’t familiar with the artists she mentioned because it made me more intrigued about her musical tastes.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive response she’s received from her mixtape, I’m surprised to learn that she doubted herself up until the day it was released online. “A couple hours after it came out I was ‘crap, crap’, hearing mistakes, things I didn’t like…I thought my life was over!” she chuckles. “But the response to it and everything that’s come out of it is more than I ever imagined. I’m really thankful and still surprised.”

The pressure, she tells me, made the process of making The Art Of Being difficult at times. Looking at what others [artists] were doing, and questioning her own ability to produce art that was of a high level were things that played on her mind. However, now she’s at a point where she doesn’t care about those things and she is much more confident about herself and the kind of artist she could potentially be.

During our conversation, Sutra is relaxed and open with a very pleasant and alluring demeanour. I don’t ask her when she plans to release more music because it isn’t majorly important to me. It’s clear that she feels there’s no rush and she’s happy to see what happens. Her willingness to experiment musically and do something different to produce unique sounds makes her an artist to watch. When she does decide to release further music, my ears will be ready, and I’m certain many others will say the same.

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