Why Sydney's neo soul scene deserves your attention
The UK is bubbling with a burgeoning neo soul scene led by some of the most talented ladies in the bizz: Greentea Peng, Joy Crookes and Cleo Sol, to name a few. These women speak their truth, bringing the concepts of spirituality and femininity to the forefront, while being unafraid of commenting on their interactions with their socio-political climate as women of colour. In turn, they’ve instigated a resurgence of modern jazz and neo-soul around the world, driven by artists like Olivia Dean, Raveena, Lava La Rue, ELIZA, Pip Millett and Amber Mark.
While hip-hop is on the come up in Australia, neo-soul hasn’t received quite the same amount of love and attention, despite the country bursting at the seams with immensely talented, creative and driven artists. Some of the most promising artists are in Sydney: here’s a look at the city’s women of neo-soul.
SOMA boasts one of the most distinctive voices to come out of Australia thus far. Her tone is smoky and sultry, bringing to mind Erykah Bahdu and Nao. After a two year hiatus from releasing music, SOMA returned in 2021 with ‘Trust’, which hit #44 on WAEVZ’s Top 50 of 2021, establishing her place as one of Sydney’s reigning queens of future soul. The diversity of her influences—Nina Simone, FKA Twigs and Isaiah Rashad— is clear in her catalogue, as she traverses an eclectic selection of beats, from the Greentea Peng-esque ‘Bloom’ to the brooding IAMDDB style of ‘ALIEN’.
SOMA’s latest release, ‘ALIEN’, explores the idea of fantasy as an escape. She criticises the darkness of city life, condemning its power to disconnect us from ourselves: "it's about the darkness that pulls you in, the devil on your shoulder luring you into the abyss and how easy it is to forget who you are and why you’re here. This darkness is reflected in the accompanying music video: shades of red and blue illuminate SOMA as she drives across the city, her alter ego tied up in the boot of her car. Ultimately, the track is a testament to inner strength and perseverance: “I’m just tryna see what I’m made of”. Empowerment and healing are at the centre of SOMA’s music. She fights through heartbreak and toxicity and asserts her true self. This grit shows through in her lyrics and delivery; it’s obvious that SOMA’s bravery didn't come easy; it was earnt.
It’s been a minute since we’ve heard a solo offering from Maina Doe, yet she still stands as one of Sydney’s most respected and talented artists. The R&B/nu-soul artist is known for lyricism infused with spirituality and wisdom, and she consistently delivers hard truths and lessons that beg the listener to think deeply, well after the end of the track.
Maina is a frequent collaborator with Finbar Stuart, who produced Maina’s 2020 collab with Genesis Owusu, ‘Unwritten Laws’ and 2019’s ‘Delusion’. The pair have mastered a sound that is uniquely Maina: blending synth-y accents with live percussion, Maina and Finbar look to the future of soul while respecting the artistry that has come before them. More recently, Maina provided a hard-hitting verse on BLESSED’s TROUBLE earlier in 2022 and a sensual contribution to Jay Cooper’s SEE ME in 2021. What her catalogue may lack in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality; Maina isn’t here to churn out trendy tracks that chart and then disappear, she’s here to share meaningful and thoughtful art that is here to stay.
Outside the studio, Maina is a compelling and accomplished live performer. In late 2021, she served up a captivating set at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Liminal music film series. In the middle of an empty theatre, Maina and her live band perform a selection of unreleased tracks, much-loved releases and a cover of Frank Ocean’s Novacane. Visually and sonically, it’s delicious proof that Maina Doe is (in my humble opinion) the most exciting artist to come out of Australia in years.
LADY KING is modern and old-school all at once. She blends the sweetness of Raveena with the heart of 70s soul to create a sound that is uniquely her. LADY KING's roots playing classical piano and cello as a child combine with personal and reflective storytelling and prove that she's not only highly technically proficient, but also an artist with guts and heart.
LADY KING live shows are truly something else. Her gigs traverse sultry, vibrant, moody and light-hearted all in one night. She and her band exude infectious energy on more upbeat tracks like 'Tease Me' before stripping it back for more intimate joints like 'I Want You Bad'. Her most recent single, 'Play It', brings together some of Sydney's most loved vocalists and instrumentalists, including AnnaLina, Ellen Mara, Andrew Chara and Andy McMahon. The song emerged from the experience of being slut shamed by someone LADY KING considered a dear friend at the time.
Her tracklist shines with lush, warm production. She stays true to old-timey instrumentation and doesn't skimp on the layers; across her catalogue, she glides over harps, strings, bongos, keys and horns. She writes from her soul, sharing narratives and speaking candidly about her life in a way that connects with listeners. Put simply, her lyricism is relatable. She doesn't hide behind elaborate poetry or vague phrases, but expresses herself with refreshing simplicity and frankness: "Now, we're standing here with nothing more to say/ The question is: where do you want to go from here?"
After taking a break from musical exploits, Norah dropped her debut single ‘Circles’ at the start of 2022 without even a hint of promo, and we’re itching to hear more. Produced by August Loom, the track is overwhelmingly acoustic, with verbed-out rimshots, slightly crunchy guitar, and a slow, contemplative bassline. ‘Circles’ is neo-soul at its most sultry, and its organic instrumentation sets it apart from most releases we’ve heard this year, taking notes from some of Norah’s key influences: Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Peggy Lee. Norah’s voice echoes back to these original queens of jazz and soul: expansive, confident, and full of personality. She names Greentea Peng, Joy Crookes and Raveena — she calls them "truth-sayers" — as pivotal contemporary influences, celebrating their focus on female energy and individuality.
From the very start of the track, it’s clear that Norah has a firm grasp on her own needs and wants, and isn’t afraid to define her boundaries: “I don’t know how many times, I gotta tell you my side. I shouldn’t have to justify the way that I am feeling”. That said, she is still human and, like the rest of us, she’s just doing her best. The chorus lifts up into falsetto as Norah sings: “we go in circles babe, I don’t know how to get out of this loop”. At one point, the rawness of the track gives way to a woozy, more electronic extended outro and guitar solo.
Norah’s creative talents extend far beyond music. She is also a film photographer and creative director with an eye for all things whimsical and divine. Currently, Norah is working on a 6 track project to be released later this year, and we can't wait to hear it.
Words by Portia Brajkovic
Image 1 by @samlebib
Image 2 by @lockymack
Image 3 by @marguerite_lorraine
Image 4 by @danielfranciscorobles