Sinéad Harnett: The FRONTRUNNER Interview

London-based singer Sinéad Harnett is an R&B gem that everyone should discover. Born from a Thai mother and Irish father, she harnesses the beauty of R&B soul with a powerful, yet subtle elegance. In May, she dropped her sophomore album Ready Is Always Too Late, showcasing her warm harmonies that remind listeners that music isn’t just something you can hear; it’s something you feel.

She displays a liberating vulnerability that only strengthens the power of her lyrics. Heavy with a heavenly honesty, the album is upheld by hypnotic rhythms that take listeners on an ethereal excursion. She doesn’t hold back with the features and collaborates with Lucky Daye, EARTHGANG, VanJess, and Masego. You can hear the soul in her voice, but most importantly, you can hear the genuineness of her experiences. You hear her pain, feel her confidence, and almost touch her empowering resilience.

For our Spring 2020 Cover Feature: Sinéad spoke to FRONTRUNNER about her growth since her freshman album, the songs she wished she wrote, her love for covering male artists, and coping with the pandemic.

Album cover
Sinèad Harnett
Ready Is Always Too Late (2021)
Courtesy of Sony Music

 

I read that you grew up with a piano at home. Do you find yourself gravitating to the piano first when songwriting?

I grew up with my mom and sister. My mom had moved from Thailand to have us. We didn’t have a lot of money but we were given a piano because a family friend was getting rid of it. You know when Sampha released “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano?” I was like, “Why didn’t I write this?” It’s beautiful, I didn’t write it, and I feel like it should have come out of my mind. So I do think that there’s something very comforting about the piano. When you hear a chord that you love, the piano just makes me go, “Yes!” We’re working on keys now, so I definitely feel like it’s a quiet comfort zone method for me writing wise.

I love your “At Your Best (You Are Loved)” cover. What are some other songs you’d like to cover or wish you wrote?

Cover-wise, I obviously love doing male covers. I love so many male artists, but off the top of my head I love Brent Faiyaz, Frank Ocean, and obviously James Blake. Jamie Woon, as well, who I feel like needs to be bigger than he is. He’s a lot of people’s favourite. Sometimes covering men is unexpected – you can really make it your own because people are used to hearing a male voice. Songs that I wish I wrote? I feel like “Nothing Compares 2U” is such a beautiful song. Prince wrote it for Sinéad O’Connor, so I think that is so moving. There’s no other way of saying the sentiment of that song that does it as much justice as that. It’s an oldie, but it’s a goodie.

Even that becoming the title was so meaningful for so many different reasons. First, I wrote the song about a guy who is like, “Oh, I like you, but we’re not really there yet. Let’s just wait till we’re ready.” I just remember being, “You punk ass. Why aren’t you ready for me now?” That was the concept for that song and the whole project. It felt right for the album to be called that because I’ve always felt like confidence was something I always lacked. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be doing this as a common thing at the start of my career. I felt like when I kept pushing things back and saying, “I’m not ready. I got to wait. I’m not ready to love myself,” I wasn’t ready to face who I was. It was this theme of me putting things off. Then, it was time to just do it and to really learn to like myself. To learn about the different layers and struggles in the vault that were unhealthy and to work on that with the first album. But with this one, it was like, “Ready is always too late, bitch! Get a move on because we can’t keep waiting until we’re ready.” I knew it was done when I had the final song I wrote on it which was “Like This”. They always say the 11th hour is the theme for the last song you write for the album. There’s a quote that goes, “No artist finishes their art, they just abandon it.” So for me, I just went with my gut. I was like, “It’s got to be turned in. It’s the last six months for everything. This is it.” So that’s the process. Otherwise, we’d just be finessing and try to keep perfecting things forever, I think.

It’s funny that you bring up “Like This”. That song reminds me of Amy Winehouse’s song “Stronger Than Me”. Was that intentional?

It’s so weird you said that because it was not intentional. I was sitting there like, “What is this intro reminding me of?” Then I played “Stronger Than Me”. It was completely unintentional, which I thought was kind of amazing. There’s only twelve notes in the whole scale. There’s only so many ways that you can say something and there’s only so many ways you could make it into a record. So I thought, maybe me and her we’re pulling from the same place because the intro is literally so similar isn’t it?

There’s such a beautiful vulnerability threaded throughout this album. What is your songwriting process is like?

I think that my strongest stuff comes from when an idea just comes to me. Like when I’m trying to fall asleep, or when I’m just walking somewhere, or on my way to somewhere. Then, I bring it to the studio and I’m like, “Guys, I’m really excited to try this.” I really try to use my gut and not force anything because I remember Sia said that overthinking is like the death of creativity. Have you seen the film Soul? I try to get in my zone basically when I’m writing. When I get lost in it and I’m present, I almost can’t remember what I’m doing. For me, that’s when I get the magic. There’s always different methods. Sometimes there’s a drum going and I can hear something, or just the chords playing or lyrics that I can’t get out of my head. I think India.Arie said that we are just a vessel and whatever comes in, we’re not in charge of it. We just let it come through, we let it out, and we move on. I try to be like that.

You went to school for acting. What inspired you to get into acting and what caused you to switch gears to music?

I did levels in college. One of them was acting and one of them was psychology. My mom was brought up in Thailand. It was always taught to do something academic and make money to give back to the family, so I felt pressured to do psychology as my degree. But then last minute, I just changed it. I knew I had to live for me. It was probably the first step that I took in realizing that we are not made to simply impress a parent. We’re actually made to impress ourselves in life. So I made that decision. I had already started writing in college and around sixteen. Music was always my first love. It was something that I’d travel back to, but acting was the only degree that I could find where I could be on the stage and build confidence in my performance. That’s why I did that. I love acting. It’s just so time-consuming and at the moment, I’m taking care of my first love and my baby which is music.

As someone who seems so close to their music, when did you know that the album was complete? What’s your thought process like when organizing the order of this project?

Thank you so much! That means the world. We were just talking about Jazmine Sullivan’s most recent project and were saying how it’s just a classic and how it’s coming into her own. My friends and I, we wrote Ready Is Always Too Late, and they haven’t heard the rest of the album.

When I listen to songs like “Hard 4 Me 2 Love You” or even “Quarantine Queen”, I can really hear the beautiful harmonies. How do you do that?

I grew up listening to so many records and people who wrote about painful experiences. Harmonies just do something to us. They’re like a hug. They’re like a satisfying, warm fire that’s cozy. I just go with my gut and my instincts. Like, does this sound like it needs to or does it need a vocal bed beneath? Is this part too empty? So yeah, I’m a big fan of harmonies. I try to do them justice whenever I’m writing soulful songs. I feel like dropping an album can warrant so many emotions. How does your feelings of dropping your first album differ from how you feel about dropping your sophomore album? For the first album, I was in a more tricky place. When I first got into this industry, I was very lost as a person and in need of healing. We all learn unhealthy patterns growing up. I just needed to face some demons. They always say the first album is quite a lot about your leading up to this moment in your life, so there are a lot of different stories. I think it’s a bit less of a calm energy and a bit more pain in that first album. Me as a person, I was still trying to find my feet and trying to find how I value myself. This album, and certainly the last six months of writing it, I was just a bit more sure of myself and a bit more comfortable in my own skin. Even knowing that I need to have a routine in my life to not get depressed or get anxious. I have to get up at a certain time, I have to exercise or make sure that I’m eating good food. All these little things are what helps me not feel like I’m about to spiral. I would say that this album has a more self-assured, confident tone. There are always going to be tricky times and difficulties, but it’s coming from a more balanced place.

Photo credit: Sony Music

Your song “Quarantine Queen” really uplifted me during the peak of the pandemic. What songs have uplifted you during the pandemic or through tough times, in general?

I’ll start by saying that it, honestly, means the world to me when something moves someone. I’m so glad that “Quarantine Queen” did that for you. It did that for me, as well. I literally believed that the world was ending. I was really alone in my flat and alone in those four walls for such a long time. I got COVID-19 and was staying inside to do the right thing. I just thought to myself, “What’s going on?” There was just one bad thing after the next. It was such an eye-opener for everyone. Not just people who go through difficulties and oppression in life, but for people who don’t. Awareness was being brought for so many woes to the world that when I wrote it, I thought that if we’re all going to die, then I have to leave something. I have to get this off my chest. It was a really cathartic song to write and it was a lot of fun. It also was a confidence booster, because I did the whole thing from my living room. I would say that was helpful for healing. Songs [or artists] that I listened to? Donny Hathaway. The chords move me so much. Gospel music, as well. I don’t know if you’ve heard of a woman named Callie Day. I don’t think she’s doing her own music, but there’s a clip of her on YouTube where she’s just singing. If God doesn’t exist, then I want to introduce you to this woman. It’s like God is coming out of her voice. So I’d say Gospel music, Donny Hathaway, or anything with heartfelt chords and a real story. That’s what helped me through.

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