Under the Radar is Highsnobiety’s celebration of upcoming talent. Each week, we’re spotlighting a rising artist who is bringing something new to the world of music and is capturing our hearts and minds (and ears). This week we’re featuring Snoh Aalegra, a Swedish-Iranian R&B singer that is in no rush to get to the top despite all the stars that gravitate toward her shine.
The last time that anyone heard anything from Snoh Aalegra was in 2017 after she dropped her stunning debut album FEELS. With a beautiful cartoon of an astronaut floating off into space by herself from the hands of illustrator Joe McDermott as the cover art, the project was an instant success and even caught the eye of Drake who wound up sampling the heartbreaking ballad “Time” on his More Life mixtape.
If the title didn’t make it obvious, Aalegra is an emotional person—she assures me that this can be blamed on her Virgo sun sign. The sensation of drowning in Aalegra’s feelings when you listen to her music is an intense experience that sort of takes your mind elsewhere for a few minutes before all the pain seeps in. She pours so much of herself into these soulful songs that strip you down until you’re left fully exposed as an emotionally slutty sack of flesh and bones.
“I think with my heart,” she says. “I feel before I think so I take decisions based off of what I feel in my heart and it’s not so smart.”
In her music videos, the Swedish-Iranian R&B singer is usually decked out in glamorous gowns, but for this meeting she opted for a cozier vibe with a hooded sweatshirt that hid her slender frame which certainly made for a comfortable conversation. Highsnobiety met with Aalegra back when she was in town for her North American headlining tour that sold out in almost every city. Scroll down for a condensed version of our intimate chat with Aalegra about the ongoing evolution of her career, processing the spectrum of human emotion, collaborating with industry icons, and so much more.
I want to go back to the beginning, before any of this happened. Can you remember your earliest memory of music, whether it was a song you remember or the first time you might have been exposed to it or that you played something?
I think I was around seven years old. I was introduced to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, and especially the whole Bodyguard soundtrack that came out with the movie. It was something outwardly that happened to me when I heard Whitney’s voice, same with Mariah. I just got the craziest chills and goosebumps and I was like, “What are they doing? How do you do that? I want to do that. I want to sing like that.” I fell in love with music super early. It was my first love, you could say. From then on, I just started singing.
When I was 13 years old I got signed for the first time in Sweden. I think I was nine years old when I told my mom I wanted to be a singer, and she was like, “Calm down. Go to school. See what happens when you’re 13.” As soon as I turned 13 I was like, “I want to do this” so she called around labels and I went on auditions at that time for a label that agreed to meet me. It was Sony Music at the time in Sweden. I signed, but it was a development deal. I learned a lot. They were really supportive, really, really good at the time. I went to school and just went to the studio on the weekends and worked with a producer and developed. So that was that.
I went to school like all of the kids and kept doing music on the side. Then I went in and out of bad contracts after I left that situation so my story is a bit like a cliché story of somebody who went through it all, this rollercoaster… Nothing came to me easily. It’s been a lot of resistance and it still is. I have to work really hard to be heard. Now with the Internet, everything’s so cluttered. It’s hard to be heard so people are still discovering my album. I dropped it almost a year ago in October so I love that people are still discovering it. I’m being patient with it. Music has been a part of my life my whole life.
Looking back now, what were some of the most valuable things that you learned from that whole experience with signing at such a young age? What were the highs and the lows?
I think so much has changed from the time I signed for the first time. You can be an independent [artist] right now, and you can do so much by being independent. At that time, you couldn’t be independent. The label was very helpful when I was 13 and stuff like that. You can do so much on your own. I would just be very careful if I was a young girl right now who wanted to be a singer. I would just really explore all my options before I would sign with somebody.
I feel like people are getting signed so much quicker now and so much younger, and it’s just really crazy because I feel like the development isn’t the same as it used to be for A&Rs.
No, there’s no artist development. You kind of have to know who you are, be ready, have your project ready. They won’t even push it from A to B, it’s like they push it from B to C. You have to do that first push yourself. So right now I’m in a place where I’m going to independent for as long as I can. I’m not going to say I’m never going to sign with a major label again, but I won’t sign until it’s something I can’t resist basically. Because I did sign again with a major label here, again, with Sony Music, about three, four years ago. Again, I thought, “OK, because I’m from Sweden and it’s like, ‘Wow, I got signed in the US. I made it.'” And then I realized that’s not making it again. There’s battles that you have to fight. I’ve learned a lot and become more secure with who I am and everything. It sounds like such a cliché, but it’s my story. I have a cliché story.
Touching on Sweden and growing up there, I would love to hear more about your childhood and specifically with your Iranian heritage.
So I was born and raised in Sweden. I have Iranian parents. It’s a beautiful thing to take part of different cultures. I’m so interested in different cultures in general so the fact that I have that Iranian side to me and the Swedish side is really interesting because I love both worlds. The Swedish culture is very like “less is more,” very simple. My aesthetic tastes lean more toward the Swedish side. But then Iranians are like “more is more,” and they’re super glamorous. The whole Middle Eastern part has that to them. I have that to me a lot as well, I do love a lot of glam and glitter. It’s just a mix of the two.
We have an unwritten rule in Sweden that’s called Jantelagen. It’s a common thing in all of Scandinavia, it’s a mentality. It’s like an unwritten law, but it’s like you’re not supposed to think you’re better than anyone else. Even in school you’re not allowed to compete. If somebody’s ahead in their maths book or whatever, the teacher would be like, “No, no, no. We’re all on the same level.” You’re not allowed to be competitive so automatically you’re taught to be super humble in Sweden and not so loud. When you walk in the room, you know your place.
To me it was a culture shock coming to the U.S. wanting to be an artist and getting signed here. My label at the time was like, “Yo, what’s wrong with her? When she comes into a room she needs to arrive. She needs to be a superstar.” I didn’t understand, I was just trying to be myself. There is a whole new wave of R&B that is like that. I feel like people like Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Lana Del Rey, all these people, they’re don’t have a typical 90s superstar demeanor about them. They’re kind of low key, I feel like I relate more to that vibe.
It comes across very strongly and it’s cool that you get to have this melting pot of an image. I think that’s important. I feel like a lot of people tend to struggle with identity and “Well, how do I represent this side of me when I also have this?” during these tumultuous times that we’re living in, but it’s nice that you’ve found a way to package it that makes sense and doesn’t necessarily need to be explained.
Sweden, as you said, we’re know for a lot of things especially music. I feel like my Iranian side we’re know for a lot of things too, but there’s no Middle Eastern girl in the forefront of pop culture and there’s not many to look up to if you’re Middle Eastern and you’re looking for a role model. So that’s something that I’ve also taken to heart. I feel like that’s the goal for me, to be somebody that people can look up to from the Middle East as well. Be a good representation. We have a few male artists now, DJ Khaled, French Montana, Majid Jordan… They’re all from the Middle East, but there’s no so many women. We had Shakira, she’s half Lebanese, but I feel like she represented her Latina side more. So yeah, I’m trying.
I know you had a relationship with Prince and that’s insane. Few people can say that they were such close comrades with him. The fact that you’re even modest about that when I really feel like only you and Janelle Monáe probably are the few women out here who are still making music that had that connection to him… That’s a big deal.
When I got into this industry that is like the nastiest industry, I felt like I’m in high school all over again. There’s a lot of bullying going on, there’s a lot of competition, people are not supportive of each other, it’s a lot of catty vibes. So when I met Prince, it helped me to know that he was and still is always going to be one of the biggest icons that ever lived and he looked at me like an equal. He had so much respect for everybody. He believed in new artists. It was not just me, he would put me on to new artists like Eryn Allen Kane. She was also somebody that he was in touch with. Now me and her are really close. He was really important and special. It’s so sad that he’s not here anymore. From almost a selfish point of view, I felt more pressure when he was around because I knew he was always watching me. I wanted to impress him because he was one of my few heroes that was still alive. I only have Stevie Wonder left now, we just lost Aretha Franklin as well. It’s so strange to be a grown-up now and your heroes are disappearing. It’s really uninspiring.
I’m trying to remember what Prince told me. He told me some really big, grand words before he passed away. He’s like, “You have a responsibility, Snoh, to take on where people like me are going to leave you and people like Luke James and Eryn Allen Kane”–people that he really believed in and Janelle Monáe and everybody. He was like, “You guys need to do this.” So I’ll never forget that and I’ll keep that in my heart and go on with that spirit.
Going off of that, what else keeps you motivated to continue creating? What keeps you ground to keep doing the work and putting yourself out there?
I think anytime I feel unmotivated I just try to remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. Then I sit and listen to the music that made me want to do music in the first place, so all my heroes from Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, Stevie, Aretha and all these people, Lauren Hill, Brandy, all the albums that I remember singing to in my little girl room, dreaming away in front of the mirror. I would stand for hours and put on a pretend show to Brandy or somebody, a whole show, and then bow down and just be like, “Yes!” That was like my workout routine. I was like 13. So that’s what I do. And it helps. Yeah, it really works. Because those albums are … they’re timeless. They still make me feel the same thing.
Shifting to your albums, let’s talk about FEELS. I want to dive into the themes on this album and then the core of it and what ties all the songs together.
The Don’t Explain EP was about a relationship and the FEELS album continues the same relationship, but also since it was my album I was trying to tell people my life a little bit more. It’s not just the relationship, it’s the loss of my dad [on] the song “Time,” a little bit like where I’m from, and the struggle of how everybody misreads me and that I have these walls up, and me being a bit lost in life [with] the song “Sometimes.”
When I was younger, one of my uncles, he has a little bit of a bitter view on life and he would always tell me, “Oh, you hurt now? It’s only going to get worse. It’s going to get worse. You’re going to lose people you love and you’ve got to deal with death and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” That’s what inspired me to write “Worse,” but in the song I’m metaphorically saying it’s a stranger on the street that I’m talking to. I’ve never actually told anyone that it was my uncle, you’re the first person I’m telling. He doesn’t even know.
FEELS dives into life a bit more. On Don’t Explain there’s this color of a blue stripe that goes through the artwork. That would represent me feeling blue and the song “In Your River,” that was the whole theme. With FEELS , since there’s all these different feels, I was like, “It’s all the colors. It’s feels.” So that’s why I have the rainbow. So that’s the theme a little bit. I’m working on a bunch of new music and I’m thinking … I don’t know if I’m doing FEELS part two or if it’s a whole other project at the moment.
I’ve been going through this thing where I’m constantly telling myself, “Listen to you gut. When you feel something’s wrong, just don’t do it.” But it’s hard.
Yeah, gut feeling is always right, but making decisions just off of your feelings because you’re in love or blah, blah, blah… Or taking somebody back because you love them but they’re not good for you, that’s stupid.
I constantly just have to tell myself, “These feelings are temporary.”
It’s feelings, yeah. I deal with that constantly.
With your previous projects you worked with Vince Staples, Vic Mensa, and Logic. Why did you choose to work with those rappers specifically?
Honestly, I’ve never believed in forced collaborations. All my collabs have just happened randomly with us being in the same studio. My common connection to all these artists is No I.D., that is my executive producer that I’m signed to. He works with all these rappers. I meet some of them sometimes in the studio and sometimes they know about me or we just hit it off and then we decide to collaborate, but nothing is forced.
I also have a collaboration with John Mayer on the Don’t Explain EP, he plays guitar on “Under the Influence.” We literally met outside the studio, he was talking to No I.D. and he’s like, “Oh, you make music?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “Can I hear?” I was like, “Okay. Now?” He’s like, “Yeah.” Then, we walked in and I played him Under the Influence. It was right before it was going to come out. And he’s like, “Can I play on this song? I love it.” I was like, “Sure. Yeah, you can. Let’s do it.”
So we did it, that’s how that happened. There has not been a collab where it’s like a manager is calling somebody else. It’s all been natural. It was a blessing.
Just hearing you say that about John Mayer and then thinking about his latest song “New Light” which was produced by No I.D. because everyone was like, “This is the most random collab,” but I guess you probably would have been like, “They’ve known each other.” I had no idea.
Yeah, it’s random, but it’s cool.
So tell me about this new material that you’ve been working on.
I’m in the studio a lot and create a lot. I’ve done about 30 new songs and I only love four or five of them. So I don’t know if I’m going to put out another EP as of now, or maybe just put out one song at a time and see how I feel. I think that’s what I’m going to do, and then put out an EP. It’s just a continuation of my life. Honestly, I write from a really authentic place and from my actual personal experiences and relationships. That relationship that I was in that inspired Feels and Don’t Explain, that relationship is over now. So now it’s like, “How do I feel now?”
How do you feel?
I feel good, but when I write I’m just in my feelings so it can get petty sometimes. It can get strong in some songs. I really dive into the situations that happened and I take from that. Obviously, I exaggerate stories sometimes. It’s like Frank Ocean said in a commercial once, “You saturate the colors.” I think it’s so true in writing, so that’s what I do as well. It’s just a continuation of the feels.
How has your touring been going so far?
So dope. I’ve only done one official show in Atlanta. It was so cool. It’s my first headline tour ever in the US. I did a headline tour in Europe back in March. But it’s so cool, because I have my bigger fan base here in the US. It’s just unbelievable that people were singing along every word. I’m not used to it. I couldn’t hear myself because they were singing louder than me. So that was Atlanta at least. I don’t know how it’s going to be tonight, but I’m excited.
I also wanted to touch on Drake sampling “Time.” How did that happen? What was it like after it was out?
I know the producer really well, Boy Wonder. He produced a song on my EP Don’t Explain called “Charleville” so we just hit it off once we started working. He’s always been like, “Oh, can you send me some voice stuff. Send me acapellas. I need some stuff for Drake.” So as I was writing “Time” I took the hook and sped it up and I sent it to Boy Wonder like that, like faster, and he loved it. Then he made a beat around it, sent it to Drake, and Drake loved it and used it. I’ve never met Drake, I don’t know him. I have no personal connection to Drake. It’s more like that was a collaboration between me and Boy Wonder.
It was crazy to me because “Time” is about me losing my dad and the More Life cover has Drake’s dad on the cover, celebrating his dad’s life. It was a crazy… I don’t know, what do you call it? Like a synergy… I just thought it was really strange, but I felt connected to the project. I loved that it was the outro, that he was really rapping on it. It was a serious song, ot was cool. I’m a big Drake fan. I’m going to try and see one of his shows because he’s also on tour right now. I kind of know everyone around him except for him.
So you’re almost there. You’re several degrees of separation away.
Yeah. As I said, I don’t like anything being forced… But if we meet, we meet.
What are you hoping to accomplish as an artist? What kind of an impact do you want to make?
I mean, obviously my goal is to make the biggest impact I can. My biggest heroes were the biggest artists in the world so I only dream of ever reaching that kind of level, and making music that will live on forever is the goal. Something that would live on after my time here on earth. Hopefully be remembered as a good person… I just want to make people feel something. You know? It’s a hard question, it’s hard to think of because you’re in the moment. You don’t want to really think about when you’re gone or whatever, but that’s the goal really—make people feel something. Even on this level that I’m on, I have people writing me letters and emails saying my music helped them go through something really hard and stuff like that. I already feel like, “Okay, I made somebody feel something.”
There was a guy that came up to me in LA a few months ago. He just stopped me, he was like, “Are you Snoh?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was with his friend and he was like, “I just have to tell you thank you because you saved my life… I was about to commit suicide, but your album stopped me.” I was like, “Wow.” I was feeling a bit low that week and I was like, “You know what? No. I have a bigger purpose. If I can even save one person’s life, I’m doing something right. I need to continue doing this.” So honestly, that’s also a cliché thing, but music brings people together and it can also save lives. It’s crazy. Music can make people feel so much. I know how much it means to me, it’s crazy being on the other side and being the person who makes other people feel something.
For more from our Under the Radar series, get a glimpse of Kwamie Liv’s nocturnal view right here.