The first time I met Soulé, or Samantha Kay as she’s known to her family, I was struck by the self-assuredness and positivity of her character. Her debut single Love No More had been released shortly before and was picking up traction online. The song is an electronic pop track with a drum’n’bass sensibility anchored by Soulé’s bittersweet R&B vocals. It works on daytime radio and was featured by new music tastemakers. Soulé bounded up confidently to me at a music festival to say thanks for the online support.
That debut single was the culmination of two years’ work on the Soulé sound with her production team Diffusion Lab but the story goes back to secondary school self-expression in her hometown of Balbriggan, a near-miss with The X-Factor and working at Disneyland.
Soulé attended the Loreto all-girls school in Balbriggan and participated in plays and the school choir. In transition year, between vanilla milkshakes and margherita pizza slices in Apache, getting kicked out of the library and hanging out on the beach, Soulé worked on her first song. The singer-songwriter Farah Elle and the drummer and musician Princess Siwela (The Notas, Blackfish Collective) were in the same year as her. Soulé and Farah were tasked with writing the fourth year farewell song for their class and it was a task they took very seriously.
“Literally every day after school I’d go over at Farah’s house and we’d brainstorm the lyrics,” Soulé laughs. “We were trying to be all deep. We were trying to make people shed tears. We were so serious about it.”
The budding musicians joined Foróige, the local youth club where they got to play with some recording gear. They were part of a young crew that organised a mini Oxegen which they called “Nitrogen”. TV3 came down to film a piece about it. The Coronas turned up too. Soon, the fledgling musicians were doing performances at community events like the turning on of the Christmas lights or the visit of the President to officially open the youth club.
“We performed for Mary McAleese. She was walking in and we were like ‘Ooh Mary, how’s it going?’ It was so cool.”
At 16, Soulé auditioned for The X-Factor and made it through the producer’s final auditions. She sang Whitney Huston’s The Greatest Love of All.
“I listened to her and was like, I’m going to imitate everything she’s doing and sing like her,” Soulé recalls.
She didn’t make it through. The producers told her she was too young and needed time to develop her sound. She was heartbroken at the time but recognises it as an important step in becoming who she is now.
“That was the first time someone was honest with me about my singing and performing. They were like, ‘the voice is there but you just need time to like develop your sound and figure out who you are’. And that was perfect. Now I know who I am. I’m sure of myself, as a musician and as a person.”
After a few years studying Tourism, Law with French in DIT including a stint at Disneyland in Paris, Soulé walked right back in to the music again when she accompanied her friend Precious to Diffusion Lab studio in 2014 to collaborate on a track. In Ivan Klucka and Chris Bubenzer of Diffusion Lab, she found like-minded souls. They began working on the Soulé sound. As she learned with The X-Factor experience, honesty is key to growth and Diffusion helped her come out of her shell.
“I was super introverted before I came in here. They encouraged me to sing in my high-range and it just opened me up more and more to be confident in myself as well.”
“She’s super sweet and easy to get on with,” says Diffusion producer Chris. “When we met for the first time, I didn’t think we’d get this far. Everything has happened in such an organic way with her.”
Now 23 years of age, Soulé is the first of her Congolese Irish family to pursue music. Love No More was followed by the good time dance jam Good Life and the wounded tropical pop of Troublemaker. When her debut song was nominated for the Choice Music Prize Song of the Year public vote earlier this year, it was seen as validation from her supportive family that she was pursuing the right path.
“My mam believes in you doing what makes you happy. She’s so excited for me when I play the demos at home. She’d be singing the lyrics and cleaning away.”
While her sound is still very much in development, she has her Diffusion family to rely on for the next steps. The Diffusion Lab studio on the Dublin quays is a teeming with new Irish talent, often literally. There’s always an artist in recording with one of the two producers Chris Bubenzer and Marcin Ciszczon. Or there are musicians just hanging out using the wifi or charging their phone.
“It’s family,” Soulé suggests. “ It’s a super community-based music scene we have in Dublin.”
When I sit down to chat to Soulé, another artist Percy Chamburuka AKA Jafaris is in the vocal booth a few metres away, working hard on new tracks.
“Just the other day, Percy was in here working on his track and I had an idea for like a vocal and I laid down something,” Soulé says. “It’s not my track, it’s his but that’s the cool thing about having other the musicians in the room.”
There’s a fresh energy in the Diffusion operation and a lot of the emerging music scene like Jafaris, Super Silly, Mango and AikJ, who are melding R&B, rap, soul and hip-hop with a pop edge and getting radio play for it, have passed through the Lab.
There’s a confidence in these new artists that wasn’t there before, aided by the internet, but also opportunities and recognitIon.
“I think a lot of independent artists are now figuring out that they can fit into any genre,” Soulé expands. “So I think it makes young people feel like ‘OK I don’t need a label to do this. ‘You just have the right team and the right people behind me and have the right songs.”
Soulé describes her own music as “electronic pop dance mixed with a little bit of soul”.
“I think a lot of people were a bit confused with my music because I’m a R&B singer and my definition of R&B is something completely different than the traditional. You know there’s Kehlani R&B, that’s different from Mary J. Blige R&B.
“It’s cool you know when I get comments from people all over the world or even here at home. ‘Gosh I can’t believe this is Irish, it’s just so cool’. It’s a cool feeling but sometimes I feel like other people’s comments and validation shouldn’t be the main focus. I should just do what I feel is best for myself. So I got to keep reintroducing myself and my music so that people can get it.”
Soulé wants to take her strand of “soulful electronic dance-pop” beyond the confines of Ireland. She admires the UK artist MNEK who as well as being an artist in his own right, has written for Madonna and Beyoncé. There’s only one artist that Soulé would like to write for – RiRi.
“Rihanna! Yes, yes,” she says excitedly. “Everything that she’s doing for me represents our generation more than anything. I think that’s why I like I gravitate towards her more than Beyonce or Celine Dion or something. I just feel like we’d get each other, even though we don’t know each other, she’s my friend – she just doesn’t know it.”
Soulé’s confidence is backed up by that boundless confidence, positive thinking and the support of her Balbriggan family and Diffusion Lab team.
“We’re super positive people. We’re about good energy. When something doesn’t work out, we move on to the next. I’m just having a good time and I want the good times to continue.”
Soulé plays Bare in The Woods Festival (June 10), Sea Sessions (June 24) and Electric Picnic (September 2) @SouleOfficial
Words: Niall Byrne
Photos: Ruth Medjber