I am always curious – and sometimes a bit apprehensive – when a music producer decides to put out a personal record. Many producers are good musicians and songwriters, but a smaller number actually have the voice, the songwriting and music chops, and the feel for a personal album. FIRST, the debut album by long-time producer SJae (Sammy Jay) shows clearly that she has the songwriting and musical chops plus an extraordinary feel for what works and what grabs a listener. FIRST is an expansive display of her talents and a musical and emotional delight.
SJae was the UK’s first female music producer – and she excelled in a very tough business for a woman…all the way to a Mercury nomination, the UK equivalent of a Grammy.
After a decade in the UK, she moved to LA, America’s music capital and a very competitive environment for anyone of any gender. But despite the competition, she continued to excel to the point where she has been called “the best in the business” by some of the world’s biggest music stars and producers. The FIRST EP cements that reputation as SJae and her collaborators exhibit a singular ability to distill deep feelings and powerful emotions into potent spare lyrics and mesmerizing notes.
The EP begins gently with All I Think About Is You, introducing itself with an angelic harp which quickly morphs into retro rhythms and R&B crooning by Oakland native singer/songwriter/producer Raphael Saadiq. With Saadiq’s voice going through an astonishing range of scales, it all blends into a fascinating and joyous riff on how love can be overpowering, illuminated with lyrics like “Wildflower to a honey bee/ Surrounding, consuming me.”
The pace picks up even more in the 80s Dance/Synth-Pop Avenue, featuring LA-transplant Australian Sam Sparro’s smooth voice laying down lines like “And i know times are changing /And times are changing me/ But somehow i still manage to believe” that develop the theme of optimism that permeates the EP. “ I love being here,” says the UK-born SJae about Los Angeles and its influence on that optimistic theme, “ because it is so encouraging, so artistic – you can do anything here.” She continues the 80’s Dance sound and the no-limits lyrical theme in Repeat, only this time it’s about love and a partner who “can turn me on like a radio”.
She does an abrupt lyrical u-turn with the next song, Acid Rain. Using fast-moving danceable beats accented with sweet chimes, she smilingly delivers gut-wrenching lyrics like “I’ll go home without you/ But I like the pain/My imagination shooting poison to my brain… Maybe I’m sadistic ‘cos it burns like acid rain.” Co-written with Hilaire, whose voice delivers those heart-crunching lines, this song is high sonic art that moves the body joyously while distilling the heart’s pain into a knifepoint.
The optimism returns in spades with Queen, a powerful statement of women’s abilities and power wrapped into a dance beat and voiced by the Frontrunnerz founder Dria. The song evokes an Instagram photo of SJae as a pig-tailed little girl grinning while she plays with an Elektra synth around the age of 7 or 8. She became the queen of music and any little girl can become the queen she wants to be…and do it to a dance beat.
SJae recalls that she wrote the song after returning from a trip to West Africa and she and her collaborator Dria crafted the final version after a remix of the original. The music evolved but the message remained the same and she plans to use it to start a campaign working with girls in sub-Saharan Africa.
The EP closes with Grace, written and sung solo by SJae, and it is one of those songs you never forget. The music recognizes the reality of life with a simple piano movement, but the arrangement takes that reality and launches it into hope as the lyrics carry you back in time and forward into your future:
“Dreams can come and go as you grow old/ The wind blows hot or cold/ You’re carrying a heavy load /Sometimes things are sent to test, don’t stress/ Remember you are blessed /And you can find the way home”
Grace is a sublime work of art that resonates sonically, emotionally and intellectually. It makes you cry, hope, and think. It is simply perfect.
The entire EP fits the cry, hope, and think pattern — plus dance, of course. Thematically FIRST is coherent, but with contrasts. It exudes a frank combination of optimism and the wisdom of a thoughtful life; but then there is the pain of Acid Rain. Musically, the dominant theme is 80’s Dance and R& — rock out music that is at home at any party; but then there is Grace. The contrasts work because the songs are so powerful, so precisely shaped and so sonically seductive.
Because FIRST is a work of many collaborations it doesn’t quite offer a signature sound that you could immediately identify as SJae. It is possible that Grace comes the closest to that, but since this is a debut EP it is too early to tell. Each song is a unique jewel that refracts light and sound its own way; whether or not SJae will develop a signature with subsequent albums, or whether or not she should, given the quality of her first effort, lies in her artistic vision. We just get to listen and enjoy.
Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!,
FIRST . release date 3/22/19 on all digital platforms