Meet Mapei, The Singer Out To Reinvent Modern Soul

Be prepared to have her on repeat.

Courtesy of Mapei/Downtown Records

It’s hard not to fall in love with a song like “Don’t Wait.” The song opens with a hypnotic guitar riff over the warm beat of Brazilian baile funk drums, and gives way to a voice that’s equally entrancing. (“She sounds like if Solange and Imogen Heap had a baby,” said one friend who I played the song for.) Mapei, who was born in Rhode Island and raised in Stockholm, has a voice that’s deep and rich, smooth yet slightly raspy, with a raw and emotional quality that stands out in a pop landscape dominated by ice-queen R&B singers. “Don’t Wait” is a song about friendship, and love, and letting the ones you care about know what they mean to you, before it’s too late.

The 29-year-old premiered the song in early October via Downtown Records, and it quickly caught the attention and love of the internet, taking the top spot at Hype Machine for weeks. A lot of what makes “Don’t Wait” really appealing is how rich and varied the global influences are — which makes sense, given the singer’s background. Born to a Liberian mother and an American father, Mapei moved to Sweden with her mother when she was 10, and later spent time in Brazil, Tunisia, and Portugal. These influences all come through in her music, as do the club sounds of Sweden, where she got her start in the underground hip-hop scene. Her first EP, 2009’s The Cocoa Butter Diaries, showcased her as a rapper, but now Mapei’s gotten over her fear of singing to really communicate what’s in her heart. And luckily, it works really well.

We caught up with Mapei in her room at the Ace Hotel during a visit to New York City last week.

It’s interesting that you’re singing on “Don’t Wait,” when your earlier music was all rap. Is that more of the direction you want to go in now?

Yeah, I love singing, I love hearing myself sing, you know what I mean? It sounds better to me. Rapping is something I need to do, and singing is something I want to do. So, I want to do more of that.

Why is rapping something you feel like you need to do?

Because I need to get some stuff off my chest and that’s the best outlet, that’s the best way to do it.

And you’re a songwriter, too. Have you written for any other artists?

Yeah I’ve written a song for a Disney show. It’s called “Shake It Up.” Someone asked me to write a rap for it, so I was like “Okay, cool.” I haven’t seen it yet. I just wrote it. But I want to write for other artists.

Who are your dream artists to write for?

I don’t know if I could write for him, but I would love to hear Kendrick Lamar do something on my stuff, because I love his voice.

How did you team up with the Magnus Lidehall [the producer] for “Don’t Wait”?

He used to rap in a rap group in Sweden, and everyone kind of knows each other, and so we were like, “Let’s do this.” I was like, “I want to make a minimalistic hip-hop beat and sing over it,” and he was like, “Oh, I can do that.” And then we sampled baile funk drums in the song and the guitar so it sounds kind of grungy, and then I sang over it and stole a line from my cousin’s Twitter.

What’s the line?

“Old friend indeed.”

That’s really sweet. How long did it take to write the song?

Maybe like one hour, and we recorded it in two hours.

Was there someone or something you were thinking about in particular when you wrote it?

It’s like how sometimes you fight with your friends, but you really love them and you don’t want to piss them off or whatever. I’m a people-pleaser when it comes to my friends, I do everything for them; so when we fight, it really hits my heart. I was just thinking about friends and lovers, and not waiting until I fuck up or something..like, don’t wait for life to say what you want to say.

Courtesy of Mapei/Downtown Records

Have you been surprised by the reception its been getting?

Yeah, very! I didn’t know so many people would like it.

It’s really great. I read that in 2009 you were working on an album with Justice.

We made an album, but it never came out. Because I didn’t like it, really.

Why didn’t you like it?

It wasn’t my style — it was too electronic, too uptempo. It didn’t have the elements I wanted in there, so we never released it.

So it’s just sitting on a computer somewhere?

Yeah, basically.

Was it democratic working with them or did they just give you the music?

It was democratic, like we were in the studio and we both came up with stuff. It was both our faults, I’d say. But we just didn’t click musically.

That takes a lot of guts to complete something, and be so far along in the process, and then to stop and say, “This doesn’t feel right.” Did you feel pressure to put it out?

Yeah, it takes a lot of guts. They’re big, you know what I mean, so people would be like, “Are you stupid? You should do something with them, they have a name!” And I was just like “…”

What is the vibe of your upcoming album like, then?

The vibe’s really eclectic, and I just want it to be accepting [of it] because it’s a mixture of everything. I hope every style hits home with different people. There’s a lot of rock riffs, guitar riffs, 808s — a mixture, how like “Don’t Wait” is a mixture between everything. All the songs have that mix.

The drums and guitar in the beginning of that song, and when your voice comes in, is so solid…don’t know if this is the right terminology, but it just feels warm? It’s comforting, whereas a lot of R&B now feels more detached or chilly or something.

Yeah! It sounds like someone’s cooking mashed potatoes or something, like a really good meal.

Do you listen to a lot of R&B yourself?

Not really…I listen to what’s on the radio, you know what I mean? But I listen to a lot of old music. I grew up listening to Brandy and 702 and Missy and all those songs, so I love the aesthetic of it. So, I kind of want to pay homage to it and not do a bad job, because…I know what you mean with that chilly feel. It feels premeditated; it feels like they’re trying too hard to do sleazy R&B.

What’s the writing process like for you, is it the same for raps and songs?

It’s really difficult to write; sometimes inspiration doesn’t come, like sometimes I have writer’s block and I’m like, “Maybe I should get help from another person,” but no one can really help me express what I feel, so I force myself to write. I never put out the stuff that’s forced out, because then it doesn’t feel natural, but sometimes it’s like exercise. Like, I’ll write and something will come to me after awhile and I’ll put that out. So all the things that I put out, I like a lot because they came natural, instead of trying to do it.

Your sound is described around the internet as “21st century gospel doo-wop.” Did you come up with that yourself?

I think someone else came up with that, but I sort of said it because I would visit a lot of gospel churches in Rhode Island, and my mother has pictures of herself when she was younger looking like a doo-wop singer, so I was really inspired by those pictures. My album is sort of inspired by the scenery of Rhode Island, with the New England houses and mint green colors and stuff like that. I just think it’s a modern version of soul, [the songs are] really soulful.

And your background is in rap, right?

Well, I grew up in Sweden and in the States, so in the States it was very hip-hop-oriented and I grew up in the projects, versus in the suburbs in Sweden. In the suburbs there were a lot immigrants and stuff, but they would listen to Eurotechno. So when I would come to the States every summer growing up I would listen to a lot of hip-hop, but I went to a choir when I was younger and they didn’t really accept my voice.

In the U.S.?

In Sweden. So I was always scared to sing.

Why didn’t they accept your voice?

Because [I didn’t have] a typical choir voice. They were like, “It’s too soulful.” They were very puritan. But yeah, I listened to — I wouldn’t say that my background isn’t hip-hop — I grew up where hip-hop lives in the projects of America.

You grew up in Rhode Island until you were 10-years-old; what brought you out to Sweden?

My mother married a Swedish guy, so my stepfather’s Swedish and the social net is really cool and really liberal, and school is free, so my mother was like, “This is a really cool place to live.”

Were you upset to move?

I didn’t really know — I was so young — but I had a culture shock. I didn’t speak to anyone for two months. I didn’t know the language so I couldn’t really participate in class, and I was so good in class here. But then when I went there I couldn’t really develop for two months, so that was hard. But other than that I did well and made a lot of good friends.

So, you obviously speak both English and Swedish fluently then?

Yeah, my Swedish is actually better than my English.

I guess that makes sense since it’s your formative years! But you said you’d come back to the U.S. every summer?

Exactly. To Rhode Island, and I would go to summer camp and chill there with old ladies on the porch, and just watch basketball games, and just like be in that vibe. It’s so mixed here, [and] there’s so much culture, so it was nice to see that and how vibrant it is here in the summertime.

Did you prefer living in one place or the other?

I missed out on so much here in the States, so I prefer the States now. I want to catch up on everything here. I’m going to move back in January. I’m sick of Europe; it’s so serious and it’s too calm there, and it gets dark really early, so it’ll be nice to be here now.

We ran a piece about Swedish black metal awhile ago, and I was surprised to learn of the suicide rate and the weather’s effect on people.

Yeah, the suicide rate is so high.

And it’s funny, because I think when a lot of people think of Sweden, pop music is what first comes to mind. But it has another side to it.

Yeah, it has a lot of darkness and melancholy. If I grew up here I’d never listen to the bands I listened to there. Like, I’d listen to a lot of Radiohead, and I would walk the streets, be depressed… A lot of people there want to make pop [music] to get out of that depression.

You were saying you grew up in an immigrant neighborhood; was there a lot of discrimination going on?

Yeah, definitely. Like they still say the N-word there in a very derogatory way. It’s like the 60s [in America] meets the future or something. Like how racist it was here in the 60s, that’s how it is there, but it’s futuristic because there’s a lot of culture there as well, because immigrants started coming there like 10-15 years ago.

I was being called the N-word all the time. They have this delicacy called “n***** balls,” like a chocolate ball called the “N-ball,” and I’d be like, “You can’t say that.” There are debates on TV where people are like, “We don’t want people to say that,” and old ladies are like, “But we’ve been saying this forever.” But I dealt with it, I wouldn’t fight back; I’d tell them to be quiet, but I wouldn’t fight or anything. I just took it.

Were you able to make friends?

Yeah, all the immigrants got together and became friends and stuff. And some Swedish people who were against it.

Are any of these issues that you dealt with growing up — being in these neighborhoods and experiencing this kind racism — stuff that you might want to address in your music?

Yeah, definitely. I’m trying to find ways to make statements and push buttons and tell it how it is from what I’ve seen. I’ve seen a lot of things and I’ve heard a lot stories and I just want to like channel that and tell people stories. Not a lot of people have the voice and the chance to get their word out there.

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