Feature Interview

Lyrical Lowdown: Sannie Fox

I knew Sannie Fox was somebody I had to include in this series. She’s been a bluesy rock staple on the scene for years, from Mama Know Nothing to Machineri, but it’s her solo work over the last few years that really stands head and shoulder above the rest of her repertoire.

Her debut album “Serpente Masjien” is a testament to her writing prowess . With expressive lyrics like “Oh to be blind, blinded in the music, I flow like a rock like a force through the square, I hurl like a dragon I’m flowing through the air, Come on, come on shadows of the deep, Tell me all I got to know, you know there is no secret I won’t keep”. They’re pure poetry – how can one ignore her soul-stirring lyrics?

Rudi Massyn: Listening to your music I get this overwhelming feeling you’re sharing something private, like a personal feeling or locked away secret. When you’re constructing lyrics for a song, how much of yourself do you put into this very public display of your feelings?

Sannie Fox: Music is art.  There is a creative license, whatever angle the expression takes, this is the joy of making it. I think in the realm of music and art in general the viewer or listener often arrives because they would like to see and hear something which is true. That is what creates catharsis for both artist and audience. There are different degrees of how honest one can be- sometimes one song is more of a declaration than another. I am quite a private person in real life but in the realm of music and art I can be very honest. Though my expression is in metaphors and poetry and is sometimes culminated in the form of characters out of books or movies. The latter is the case with songs I wrote like ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘The Searchers’.

RM: How do you improve your vocabulary to have more words at your disposal? Or is it an unconscious thought – like a natural love for reading? 

SF: I love reading and this definitely plays a part in the writing of the words and the stories in the songs. I enjoy old English classics by writers like Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte and Charles Dickens. I have also been enjoying Patrick deWitt and Helen MacDonald. A good piece of writing is so inspiring and such a gift! I appreciate songwriters with good words and poetry in their music; writers like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson is incredible – all songs. In Kwesi’s “Sonny’s Lettah” the combination of class music and class lyrics is pure power.  And then there is hip hop with bands like A Tribe Called Quest and Fugees where the use of words is everything.

RM: Are you gung ho about your lyrics or do you constantly try to refine them over and over until you’re completely satisfied?

SF: I am not gung ho when it comes to lyrics.  I often write the lyrics first before I write the music.

Sometimes the music comes a little before the lyrics and sometimes it is the other way around.  I write a lot about feelings of being trapped or oppressed and wanting to escape for example:

He said if I could turn this flame into a fire that never dies, a flame to burn, yeah it’ll burn so high it touches the sky with its hands.

If I could turn these shadows into a hundred silver horses, if I hurled my bitter quarters out into open waters? History’s got its band around me, mother I got it, it’s my disease

– ‘Freedom’

or See the sun sister/ Blade to the day/ Cut through them venoms/ And turn them into blessings – ‘Get Gone’

Or I will tell the story of other characters who inspire me like Heathcliff and Catherine in ‘Wuthering Heights’: Liar to the end, I won’t see you anywhere, not in heaven then/ The murdered do haunt their murderers at Wuthering Heights!

RM: Are there ever times when you read the lyrics of a new song and think “nah, I’m not sure I want to share this, it’s too personal, or too controversial or too painful”?

SF: Yes definitely.  I have worked on some songs where I feel the expression is not quite right for me to feel comfortable releasing it. It is frustrating when this happens. Sometimes I keep going back to it to see if my sentiments have changed or if I can alter it slightly but sometimes it’s best to just let it go and move on to new work!

RM: Is there a specific phrase or lyric from another artist which stands out, that evokes an emotion or sense of nostalgia so that whenever you hear it you’re able to identify with it immediately?

SF: ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ by Jamaican born Linton Kwesi Johnson looks at racial police violence and tensions between English and Afro-Carribean people living in the UK in the 70’s and 80’s.

I grew up listening to this music as a little girl growing up between London and South Africa.  The struggle Afro-Carribean people were facing at the time and which Linton was singing about was synonymous with the racial violence occurring during Apartheid in SA.  It is deeply nostalgic for me to hear this music.

It was one of the best experiences of my life to be able to see him perform here in SA live with his band some years back.

“Mama, mek I tell you wa dem do to Jim?

Mek I tell you wa dem do to ‘I’m?

Dem thump him in him belly and it turn to jelly

Dem lick ‘I’m pon ‘I’m back and ‘I’m rib get pop

Dem thump him pon him head but it tough like lead

Dem kick ‘I’m in ‘I’m seed and it started to bleed

Mama, I jus couldn’t stan up deh, nah do nuttin

So mi jook one in him eye and him started fi cry

Me thump him pon him mout and him started fi shout

Me kick him pon him shin so him started fi spin

Me hit him pon him chin an him drop pon a bin

– ‘an crash, an dead’

– Sonny’s Lettah

RM: Does commercial success ever play a part in your creative process – like shaping a certain hook or phrase with the hopes of reaching a wider demographic?

SF: I enjoy a lot of jazz and non-commercial music. I also enjoy a lot of pop or commercial songs. My main aim is to make music which I am comfortable performing and recording not music necessarily music which has catchy hook lines. I find a lot of music which is not by definition ‘commercial’ full of catchy hook lines, there are a lot of people in this world and there is a place for all kinds of artists.

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Listen to “Serpente Masjien” below on Deezer.