Finding Stillness in Wonderland: An Interview with Little Simz
The British artist and rapper on self-care, being an introvert and her love of – and frustration with – London's creative scene.
The days had been long and the nights short for Little Simz. The rollout for her second album, Stillness In Wonderland, had started months ago, in early winter 2016, and promo and press carried on after the record's release. Radio interviews had given way to a short film, the short film had given way to a comic book, the comic book to a billboard, the billboard to the album itself, the album to an Australian tour, and that tour to Simz's own London festival, Welcome To Wonderland. It was now only a few days away and had left her saddled with rehearsals and preparations.
When we met, the festival – in full, called Little Simz Presents Welcome To Wonderland: The Experience and featured performances from Mick Jenkins and Nérija – was close to selling out. It was set to be one of her biggest solo shows to date, with hundreds of supporters to entertain and backed by an album she had not yet performed live in London – her hometown, yet the same city that held cause for the lingering frustrations you hear on Stillness in Wonderland.
Simz had made two albums – A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons and then Stillness in Wonderland – part-inspired she says, by Britain and its seasonal nature. But beyond acknowledgment from supporters and those who she held dear, few awards honoured either record (and when the Brit Awards were announced this year, Simz name was nowhere to be seen), few industry long-lists mentioned her name, few songs gained lasting radio rotation. If there were a music industry boys' club of cliques and record companies, then Simz was not part of the pack. But she still adored London and was proud to call it her home. She just couldn't quite understand why, on some occasions, in some circles, London did not seem to love her back.
So now here she was, sat in the back of a silver-plated Jeep parked up on a high street in east London; a brief interlude before she would prepare to go ahead with more rehearsing and recording. The winter evening was frosty and crisp. From the sanctuary of the big 4x4 all Simz could hear was the gentle rumble of buses and bikes and Ubers varnishing the tarmac, a symphony accompanying a part of the city that seemed to always be awake. She was silent, watching the headlights blur past in glowing streaks of yellow and white.
Though her album was called Stillness In Wonderland, it seemed these days Simz had little time to be still. She always had a task to handle. That said, she didn't have many complaints about this ever-filled schedule. It was, after all, a life she had chosen, one that promised long hours and relative uncertainty, but – if you were good enough, worked hard enough – the opportunity to travel and dream and freely create. It was a life that she seemed to enjoy.
So the plan, she said, was to keep working, even on evenings like this when she seemed worn-out and a little fatigued and 5PM's arrival did not mean recline and relaxation. "It's fun," she said, her arm resting on the window sill, "it's tiring, it's a lot of hard work but it really makes it all worth it in the end."
Noisey: The last time we met, we spoke a lot about freedom. Where are you at that with that concept now?
Little Simz: What did I say, do you remember?
You were still in the stage of trying to figure out what the word means…
That sounds like me. I'm still there, I think, but it's becoming clearer to me what I think it is. I guess I'm in a place where I'm just trying to be free with what I can be. I want to be completely free with my music, I don't want to think too hard with it, I just want to make what I feel, which is what I think I did with this album. Sonically, I was able to piece something together which told a story well and felt really visual as opposed to just audio, you know what I'm saying?
So you do feel free in a sense, then?
In terms of being a creative yes, but as a citizen, not too much.
What do you mean?
I just feel a little boxed, a little claustrophobic, I feel like too much is happening at once and I feel like there are just too many opinions.
Do you mean with politics, particularly here in Britain?
I think it's a worldwide, global thing. Everyone's just got too many opinions. That's cool but it just gets a bit oversaturated and it's hard to know what's real, what's right, and what's not.
In a recent interview, you spoke about how travelling made you realise that the world can be your home. Have you thought about living elsewhere then?
Where would you go?
I want to go to so many different places. There's certain places that would be cool to live in for different reasons, there's certain places I would want to live in for work, certain places I want to live in just to live, just to detox or be away from everything, where I want to settle down or whatever it is. There's different parts of the world that would be more suited for different reasons. It depends on where I am in life I think, but I'm definitely coming close to stepping from London.
I just need a new change of – everything, in terms of this city – I don't know. Sometimes it just feels mad claustrophobic and just a little limiting. I feel like I'm at an age where I want to explore a bit and see what else is out there and if it doesn't work then I come home. I feel like home's always going to be there.
You've spoken recently about not feeling the full love from the UK. Is it linked to that?
I'm not running away from that, that's whatever. I feel like everyone picks up things on their own pace and the UK's just a little slow, it's cool. It's not an issue but Imma take my stuff elsewhere and figure it out elsewhere, where I'm maybe more appreciated.
People think I've got beef, people think I'm always angry; I don't know what it is but it's not even that. Maybe it's not in my calling for [my music] to pop here, maybe it's in my calling to pop somewhere else and I think I'll be selling myself short if I didn't explore that. I need to be around people or in a place where I'm constantly getting better at my craft and becoming a better person, where I'm making progress. Being here can feel a little stationary, sometimes.
Before your first album came out, you said you felt things were starting to take off. Do you feel like you've blossomed now?
I think it's still blossoming. But it takes time and I always knew it was going to take that little bit longer for me, for many a different reason. Things have definitely grown since then and I've been exposed to a lot more people, but it's still a growing process. You just have to keep on going.
You seem quite introverted.
Being a musician, and just somebody in the public eye, you're operating in an extrovert's arena. How is that?
It definitely is an arena full of extroverts but I know how to manoeuvre in those environments. So, it's cool. I'm cool with that. I don't feel like I need to change the way I am to fit into whatever is going on outside. Everyone can adjust to what I'm doing, I'm not about to change the way I am towards people or towards anything, you know? It's just not in my nature to be like that.
Are you looking ahead to a stage where you can make music and not worry about the rest?
Definitely. Just doing music, no press, no promo, no tweeting, no Insta. Nothing. That's the plan really. That said, I understand we're in an age where social media is that thing where people always want to know what you're up to, who you're hanging out with. So I just try to balance it the best I can. Obviously I understand that you've got to do these things, especially as I ain't got no label, ain't no one pushing them buttons for me.
Is there a thrill in the uncertainty of being independent?
Kind of. It makes it more fun when you don't really know what's going to happen. I just want to push the boundaries and see how far I can actually take it. Even if it doesn't work out, I ask myself, 'am I going to be okay with that?' And the answer is, 'yeah,' because hopefully it would have inspired someone to go and do it and make it work.
Are you going to do music forever?
No… nah… I don't know… maybe! There's a lot that I want to do, but it's the one thing that I feel like I'm actually good at. I'm sure my abilities can stretch far and wide but right now it feels like I'm going to be doing it for a very long time. When I get to 60 or 70 I might just want to knit and stroke my cats [laughs].
You've said you want to be a "real model" as opposed to a role model. Why is that important to you?
I don't like feeling like you have to live up to an expectation as an artist because I don't expect anything from anyone. I don't want people to expect me to be perfect, because I'm not and you should never have that in your head about anyone. It's a lot easier for me to just be myself and in doing that if I manage to make a couple wrong turns, or if I manage to slip, just understand that it happens – shit happens. You can expect me to learn from that and to better myself, I guess. It's just that human aspect – wanting people to feel that I'm just like you, there's no difference.
I'm sure everyone has had their own views on it, but what is "wonderland" to you?
It's my happy place, it's my safe haven, it's also a place of confusion, a place of darkness, a place of happiness. It's so much. Wonderland to me is a place where I am now, kind of. Everything just feels – everything just feels mad weird and a bit not very normal, in a sense.
What do you mean by that?
Sometimes I feel like I'm living inside a big glass and everyone is just watching me. I don't know if that is too weird or whatever, but sometimes it feels like I'm in a human experiment, that none of this is real. I see myself as a very still person, and "wonderland" to me is what happens when you place someone like myself inside that glass.
Do you wake up and feel that every day?
Yeah, kind of. And I think because – I don't even know if this is relevant – but I've been having nightmares consistently for the past three weeks. It's mad weird, every dream I have has just been a bad one.
Yeah. I don't know what that's about but it's just not good. I can't remember the last time I had a good dream and it just proper feels like the lines are blurred between what's real and what's not, you know? Someone close to you will do something to spite you in your dream and you'll wake up just pissed off at them. I don't know, dreams are a mad ting anyway.
So where do you go from here?
About the dreams?
About all of it? The dreams, Wonderland. Do you want to stay in this place?
Yeah and no. I end my album saying, "I don't wanna be here no more." But it changes and in saying that I kind of left it open for the next album.
How do you look after yourself?
Just checking in with myself every so often, just making sure I'm cool, that my mental state is OK. Eating properly and just making sure I'm good and I'm fit to work. Whenever that's not the case I'm kind of just trying to be on my own to figure it out, because I don't like to be around people when I'm not in a good space. I just feel like it projects unnecessary energy onto them that they don't need. I'd rather just deal with my shit on my own and just handle it that way.
Are you happy about where you're at now, at 22?
Yeah, I feel positive; I'm in a cool space. I'm just taking things as they come, just one day at a time.
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'Stillness in Wonderland' is out on physical release on 24 March, which you can pre-order here. It's been out digitally since 16 December 2016.