Sometimes a singer just comes out of nowhere and makes you question everything you ever listened to before. When you finally hear it, you know. It is like falling in love. It is what Cloud 9 feels like. Hearing South African singer Tuelo belt out her shining vocals in various venues around The Big Apple this year has been both a pleasure and a gift.
The singer may have been born on another side of the world but she is New York's to claim. It is time for everyone else to understand the gift we have been given. To celebrate her new single "On-Air" and forthcoming EP, Zero, I spoke to Tuelo about her roots, music and playing with her backing band -- The Cousins.
When did you decide to make the move from South Africa to New York?
I moved to Connecticut in 2004 not originally for music, but for life. I didn't even think I could sing. Then I moved to New York City in 2010.
Why did you choose NYC over London, LA, Paris or any other city for that matter?
The truth is New York chose me and I am so glad it did. It's strange but I feel as though South Africa was enough Europe for me. LA might not be bad at all...
Your music reflects on your roots both personally and politically -- songs are about your mother, family, Apartheid. You have given a voice to those in South Africa whose stories are not heard. Performing these songs, is it a cathartic experience for you?
It is the ultimate cathartic experience for me. I have always really loved people, my surroundings, the interactions and relationships we hold, and how we conduct ourselves within them. I feel it is the joy of life. Growing up at the end of apartheid makes me highly attuned and sensitive to the society we live in, the issues, the stories of struggle and disenfranchised people makes me want to contribute positively in whichever way I can. There is so much story to tell and issues to highlight, even in subtle ways through a song. My wish is that I give a voice to many more people, that I become a vessel, and that this is only the beginning.
What has NYC taught you? Has it changed you?
New York teaches me constantly how my ingrained sense of humbleness might be a short coming. New York teaches me to fight for myself constantly. I grew up Motswana in S.A. and in my culture and my families culture no one necessarily celebrates victories - you are expected to do well and even better. Enjoying and flaunting(promoting) yourself and being flamboyant or celebrating opulently in public is frivolous, obnoxious, insipid and can be looked down upon. Years of refined humbleness, confidence and hardwork are revered and considered classy. I am learning to say Thank You when given a compliment ha! New York is the license to be myself and as bold and daring as I feel inside.
This city has allowed me to create my own path in life. To eat, dress, live, surround myself with whomever makes me blossom and inspires me. Ultimately, to make the music the best way I know how embracing all of my influences, just like the city does.
How did you link up with The Cousins?
Divine intervention I guess. You will excuse my very existential and spiritual talk but it was really a higher power. I have always said that if I ever made music I would want good people around me. I didn't meet them all at the same time. Once I had made my intentions clear to myself it became easier to make connections, and over the course of my taking music more seriously I met other good people who introduced me to my cousins, individually and over time. I suppose I am the seed -the core is Kevin (keys) and Daniel (bass), and the other relatives are fruit, ha!
The essence of your voice sounds so natural. It doesn't sound as if you had a vocal coach or training -- is this true and where you always singing?
I was never a "singer" until I came to the US. In South Africa everyone sings really well. Even the not very good singers still hold a note and harmony pretty well. Singing is a part of culture, of spirituality, of politics, and I felt average because in normal life I was essentially one of those people in the background, not even trying, and simply contributing to the harmony in a song, but never to stand out. I am also shy in many ways. Finding my voice was really amazing. I discovered, taught myself and practiced the way in which my voice sounds and resounds and then I came to terms with the fact that it's best when I allow it to be wild. Of course, the story is longer and I had many people who exposed me to the unseen to get to my voice. For the first time in life I had confidence, I had carved my own weapon to protect myself with. That being said, I am still terrified of my voice sometimes and I have to remind myself that the only way I can sing is to let it go to wherever it wants to. It knows.
Have you had the opportunity to go back to South Africa and perform?
No. We really want to enjoy our base in New York and hit the American market first, since it's essentially New York music! Soon we'll get to S.A. I can't say much about it but I'm both terrified and excited.
What does your family think of your ambition?
They are supportive. I was never a singer at home so it's also a bit strange to them. My mum often asks me how I write songs - where I get them from. She is shocked, really. My sister has seen me perform and she went back and told them that I am doing something new. My parents are supportive but are still waiting for a doctorate degree someday, and a published book because African parents are relentless and unforgiving in that manner. They want us to be perfect. I can't blame them really.
You are currently working on your new album. What can fans expect?
The full album is next year but the E.P album will be released in August, and it has four songs that sound amazing. You can expect a very New York group of songs: a love song called ON AIR, a song about a love in a new world on Mars called ZERO, a song about facing fear called RUN, and my introduction to songwriting with a letter to my mother called SAINT MARGARET. Warm-Dark songs but a bright and pretty sound.
What has been your favorite moment of this journey?
Actually 'musicing' - playing shows is by far the full experience. The opportunity helps us carve out a place for our music in the world. On stage I really appreciate moments where I can chat a little about songs and not just move on to another. The feeling and chemistry of singing is healing to me, it is an experience like no other. Singing to me has broken down many of my defenses and I am grateful that others let me detoxify in their presence. By far the best part is finding out after a show that a person standing at the back heard every lyric, the music, the short stories, the rhythms and connected at a deep, healing and affirming level. Then I feel like I did my job - I go home and sleep like a baby.
What can you share about your experience to someone around the world who wants to do exactly what you did but may not have the courage nor support to do so?
I really shouldn't be giving out advice, but I would say trust your instinct, and don't worry about where you will get support from. It will come. You will learn along the way. Don't take those lessons for granted they will serve to propel you and save you from trouble. And be grateful whenever you aren't crying and sometimes when you are crying and lost - be grateful. I didn't have support. I am from the countryside of South Africa and I am a black South African girl who felt the effects of apartheid, who has found family and music with mostly white people, so far away from home. If you can only let go of your fear, miracles will happen each moment of your journey.
A Longer Version of This Interview Appears On Officially A Yuppie