Meet Say She She, New York’s groovy nu-disco renegades [Interview]

It may seem like a lot has changed since the late 70s/early 80s post-disco scene, now over 40 years removed from the groovy yet defiant anthems of Donna Summer and Gwen Guthrie.  Listening to the same measured ferocity coming through in the music of Brooklyn 3-piece Say She She makes one question just how far we are removed from the inspirations and themes of that era.  With a clear throwback sound, balanced between the hazy psychedelia of ’70s soul groups and the rebellious ingenue of disco and funk pioneers, the trio are giving a dynamic resurgence to a bubbling retro sound that has remained semi-dormant for close to 4 decades.  EARMILK recently had the chance to sit down with the trio and explore their origins, inspirations, and just about everything in between.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more distinctly ‘New York’ story of how the trio was formed. Piya Malik, former El Michels Affair staple, and other founding member Sabrina Mileo Cunningham, were upstairs/downstairs neighbors in their Lower East Side apartment building.  “We lived above and below each other, and she would hear me coming in late at nights, stomping around and singing, and I would hear her early in the morning doing her warmups” Malik recalls.  “Below it’s worse, which I was” Cunningham interjects with a smile.  Third member Nya Gazelle Brown had also known Malik for years prior, having met at a rooftop party, and the three singers immediately coalesced to become one.  “Sometimes you’re colliding with someone by accident or running to see someone’s show together. It’s just such an amazing city and I don’t think we could have quite come together like this anywhere else.”

The group immediately began recording at Dap-King Joe Crispiano’s Dumbo studio and recorded the bulk of the demos that became Prism in just two days, working off of a tape machine and splicing together vocals and instrumentation themselves as well as with additional production from The Shacks’ Max Shrager.  “We recorded this with friends, who knew we were on a budget and were willing to work with us and chip in. It was like a jigsaw puzzle; you’re working with all your friends in New York and everyone’s trying to make rent somehow so you try to just honor each other and trade where you can” Malik explains.

A key piece of funk and soul music throughout history, all the way back to Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye,  has been its rebellious nature and the ability to make people move while pushing for a more acceptable social climate.  With records like “Forget Me Not” and “NORMA“, Say She She continues this tradition, especially in the wake of the Roe v Wade decision and its inevitable fallout by taking some key inspiration from the Guerrilla Girls movement that started in 80s New York and continues to this day, in New York and around the world.  “Their reach and what they did was incredible” Cunningham explains, “We really fed off their energy and injected some of that activism into our own work.”  Malik continues, “When the ‘Me Too’ movement kicked off, we felt like this is a really important time, not only for us to use our voices, but also through messaging, campaigning, lobbying and also, most importantly, just soothing.”

“Even though we do have records with a more serious message, at the end of the day our purpose remains to make people dance and feel good,” Brown explains of this balance.  “We like to use our voices to uplift, to protest, to make people feel sexy and loved. Just to make people feel something. And I think we really did that on this record.”  With their debut record Prism taking a decidedly more soothing tone, there is still an undeniable passion and verve that runs as a through-line from start to finish.  Titular track and lead single “Prism” is the perfect example of the trio’s more upbeat leaning songs that are nigh impossible to not bob your head to.  Sprinkled throughout are gems that soothe and abet the listener from the tribulations of daily life.  “Pink Roses”, a song about grief that, first and foremost, seeks to uplift, is a definite standout from the record and a cut that places a special emphasis on Say She She’s unique take on the juxtaposition between melancholia and joy.  “It’s quite easy to write a sad song” Malik states, “It’s much harder to make an effort to put some energy into something. We really wanted to make an effort to uplift people, especially after Covid. Enough with the sad songs!”

A group like Say She She certainly has no shortage of influences, as their work draws from decades upon decades of vinyl worship and its own members’ eclectic music tastes.  “We love the harmonies of the 60’s girl groups, we love 70’s disco, we love Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club and this sort of 80’s New York punk scene” Cunningham begins.  Malik continues, “Rotary Connection is a big influence, that’s the freedom thing we’re going for of not being constrained to any one thing. Asha Puthli is a big one for me, she’s this Indian socialite living in New York with this thick Indian accent that likes jazz. Like I’m not going to let people tell me I’m an outsider and don’t fit. When we were all growing up we felt this, when I was growing up as an Indian girl living in England I thought there was no way they would ever let me be on the radio. And it’s so liberating to live in a world where that’s not true anymore.”

Embracing a ‘discodelic’ categorization while resisting genre altogether, the trio exist in many spaces at once, often overlapping between the innovative and the tried and true.  “We don’t want to be defined by a specific genre, like we don’t want you to just find us in one crate in the record shop, we should pop up wherever the hell we want” Malik exclaims, “For us, it’s the idea that you can pull all the different influences and elements together and just create your own genre-less sound.”

A labor of love recorded, mixed, and mastered over months before and during the peak of Covid, Prism finally lands for public consumption today.  “If it was up to us this record would’ve come out 2 years ago, maybe earlier” Cunningham explains, relating the process of finding spaces to safely record together as the Coronavirus shut down New York and then the world.  “If you can make something that doesn’t matter when it comes out, that can always soothe people, then it doesn’t matter how long it takes” Malik adds.  It’s in that notion that Say She She finds themselves with one of the most replay-worthy albums of the year; a classic sound, ripe with soothing melodies and inspired production, that revitalizes a genre that is just as relevant today as it ever was.

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