Wearing the latest Chanel Beauty, musician and actor Little Simz discusses her hardest year yet, why family matters and finding motivation amid despair.
When Little Simz and I connect over Zoom, she’s babysitting her nephew in her north London flat. “I’m not a baby!” he corrects, just out of the frame that shows Simz’s grey recording equipment, grey sofa and grey shutter blinds. The lockdown was a forced change of pace for Simz, whose real name is Simbi Ajikawo – and with her being a self-proclaimed workaholic, it’s served as a blessing in disguise.
“Last year I had several moments where I realised, ‘Oh, I’m in the dream. This is what I envisioned. This is what I’ve dreamt of from when I was little.’” From the release of Grey Area, the fiery yet reflective album released last year that skyrocketed Simz to prominence, to being nominated for the Mercury Prize, to acting in the Drake-initiated revival of Top Boy, Simz hasn’t had a moment to breathe.
“I actually needed a bit of a hard foot on the break, to be honest. Sometimes it can feel like you’re proper stretching yourself, and this year has just allowed me to get a bit of a better balance. I think I was doing a good job of it last year, but I think even more so now. I just feel a lot more grounded and organised in myself,” she says with a laugh.
All this didn’t necessarily stop her creativity from flowing. Simz has always enjoyed photography, so took portraits of her friends on their balconies and doorsteps and made the collection into a book. “I didn’t want to sell it, I just wanted to give it to them. And in 20 years, I know they’ll find that book somewhere and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that was that time of life.’”
And while so many of us proclaimed that we were going to write a book or make a mixtape in lockdown, Simz actually followed through. Drop 6, a reference to her previous Soundcloud drops from 2014 to 2015, came during the peak of lockdown in May, and its stripped-back quality is a throwback to Simz’s earlier years. If Grey Area is a symphony orchestra, with majestic, movie-soundtrack strings and tinkling grand pianos, Drop 6 is more like a small-scale jam. But that’s not to say it doesn’t pack a punch.
Simz is conscious of the varying desires of her fan base, which now consists of two parts – the ones who have been there since day one and the new recruits. “People kind of have that possessiveness over artists… I guess it’s my job to let everyone know that my music’s not going to change necessarily – it’s still rooted in that thing that you loved me for in the beginning. I haven’t changed.” Not too distracted by the expectations placed on her, Simz says that this EP is exactly what she wanted it to be.
“Obviously I can’t bring in a string quartet or session musicians during lockdown in my home, so I knew people were gonna hear this EP and be like, ‘Ah, but it’s not Grey Area.’ But I’m not trying to make a Grey Area 2,” she says of the album that explores the liminality of being a twenty-something. “This is me essentially going back to that space of being 18, when I was making music in my bedroom in my mum’s house. It was just me, my laptop, my pen, instrumentals and my mind.”
And it’s undoubtedly an EP for the pandemic, with many of its lyrics very much hovering in the present tense. The opening track, “Might Bang, Might Not”, definitely bangs – kicking off in full flow, bassline looping under Simz’s voice as she sings on repeat: “this is for the now”. The penultimate song, “You Should Call Mum”, unites pulsing minor synth chords with vocals about the never-ending nature of the pandemic: “Livin’ day by day, sleepless night by night / Bored out of my mind / How many naps can I take? / How many songs can I write? / Minimise bullshit, get down to business / Crabs in the barrel like, everybody’s in this.”
Two weeks before she dropped the EP, Simz posted a block of tiny blue text on a black background on Instagram. “I’ve cried a lot over the past month. Feeling over and underwhelmed somehow. Feeling like I don’t have anything valuable to offer because the state of the world is so fucked, what can I actually contribute. Nothing really matters and no one really cares. All that self-doubt shit I never imagined thinking,” she wrote. One day, slap bang in the middle of her creative struggle, her neighbour asked her if she could turn the music down: he was trying to work from home… but so was she.
Self-doubt isn’t new for Simz – much of the introvert’s music has flitted between the unflappable conviction that’s characteristic of the genre and the more anxious, introspective notes of impostor syndrome. In “Therapy”, one of the tracks on Grey Area, her crises of self-confidence give rise to worries about her career choice: “People are dying / who gives a fuck about making hits?”
But in the midst of all the death and injustice 2020 has brought so far, Simz says she has found some peace when it comes to the role she plays in all this. “I’m a lot more headstrong, in a sense. I feel like I know what my purpose is, and that it’s bigger than me. I think, sometimes, we, as artists, can be quite self-indulgent. It’s very ‘me, me, me’, but actually I don’t think that’s my thing at all. I think this is bigger than me.”
The evolution of Simz’s ruminations, which aren’t always linear, but often more of a push and pull between different ideas and feelings, is striking, raw and genuine. In an industry where artists’ opinions about the world are increasingly mined for headline fodder, it’s notable that Simz is vulnerable about what she doesn’t know and she isn’t afraid to change her mind about things. As we speak, she regularly takes a beat to reflect on the truth of her answer, states clearly when she doesn’t think she has the answer at all, and contradicts things she has said publicly in the past.
“Therapy” discusses Simz’s previous aversion to the treatment. “I don’t need / No, no, no, no, no, I don’t need savin’ / Therapy / No therapy”, the chorus repeats. After the album’s release, she spoke in an interview of how she felt in the wake of the fatal stabbing of her friend, the model Harry Uzoka (something she wrote about in the song “Wounds”): “[At my lowest] I didn’t feel like I wanted to sit on someone else’s sofa and dish out my issues to a stranger so they could charge me by the minute.”
I ask her if she still feels that way. “I do think…” She pauses for a few seconds. “At some point, I am gonna go and speak to someone. I at least want to try it. I don’t feel like I’m in desperate need of a therapist. But then I also don’t know, maybe I could go to a session and have a huge realisation that actually I do need to be doing this regularly.”
It seems like a complete 180, but she doesn’t see that as invalidating the song: “Things change – sometimes I listen [to my music] back and think, ‘Should I still say that?’ Because maybe me and this person are bless now, or I’m over that situation. But it’s my truth. At the end of the day, it’s still something that I’ve experienced, so that counts for something.” I remark that it’s a bit like when you get a tattoo – even if you end up hating it, it represents who you were at one point in your life. “Exactly,” she says. “With some of my tattoos I look back and say, ‘I probably wouldn’t get that right now.’ But I still love them because it’s part of who I was at one point in time. So I embrace it, you know?” She pauses again. “But I’m easy with tattoos. Sometimes I’ve just walked into a tattoo shop and got one off the cuff, like, they’re not that deep to me.” I later notice that Simz has the words “GREY AREA” inked in typewriter caps across the underside of her fingers; it seems that some memories are so momentous that your views will probably never change on them.
Simz is famously family-orientated. You’ll rarely see an interview during which she doesn’t mention her mum, who is a foster parent and who accompanied Simz on stage when she collected her NME Award for Best British Album in February. Simz says that even as she flirts with the idea of moving to Berlin, she doesn’t know if she could be away from her sister and her kids. Her nephew momentarily takes a break from purposely scoring own goals on Fifa to ask if he can have an ice lolly. There’s a loaded silence. “Go on.”
Simz says she is hesitant about discussing her next steps when it comes to writing and recording. When I ask about her next big project, she cracks a knowing smile. “I’ll talk about it when… ” Her nephew chimes in: “… you need to go through it!” “Yeah, exactly,” she says, nodding in relief. Although the world has stopped for now, Simz says things don’t necessarily feel quiet – it’s just a different type of life. “Right now, I would have been doing festivals. I probably would have missed my niece’s birth – and I wouldn’t be here for my nephew. So I’m just trying to appreciate those things and remember that that’s not quiet to me. That’s loud. That’s family. That’s everything, you know?”
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5 November 2020