You may not yet know who Suai (pronounced “Sway”) is, but as her name suggests when you hear her beautiful music it will move you. With tracks like “Stronger (When a Woman Loves a Man)” featuring Akon, “Special” and “Oh Snap…I Fell in Love”, it’s clear that this Detroit native, who is signed to the city’s own Universal Motown Records, is highly adroit. Skilled in playing piano, guitar, cello and flute, this up and comer who has collaborated with Ne-Yo, steps from behind the instruments a bit to make the stage her ultimate playground. Aside from opening up for acts such as T-Pain and Brian McKnight, the 22-year-old has been making history as well. She performed at the unveiling of the restored Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum, and was also featured on Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement CD for Barack Obama. Clutch sat down to get to know a bit more about Suai.
Clutch: When did you first fall in love with music?
Suai: I fell in love with music in high school. I’ve been singing since I was seven, but it wasn’t something that I thought I could do. I always loved music, but I did not fall in love with it until I was 16 or 17 years old.
Clutch: Did you have any formal musical training?
Suai: Yes. My mom’s a music teacher, so she was my first teacher. She taught me how to play the piano when I was seven. I also had another teacher give me guitar, cello and flute lessons. I practiced ballet like a lot of little girls do, acted in school plays and was a member of the band. I’ve been into the arts all my life pretty much.
Clutch: What was your first love, instruments or singing?
Suai: I think it was a mix of both. I’ve just become comfortable with stepping away from my keys. I have been doing shows as an artist professionally since 2004, and all I knew how to do was sit there and play my songs at the piano. I had a stage coach tell me that I needed to work the stage and that it’s OK to get up. But I’m definitely at a point where I don’t want to do a show just sitting at the keyboard playing the piano for 45 minutes. I also don’t want to do a show where I’m just standing in the middle of the stage dancing and singing. I need to have a balance of both.
Clutch: By playing the piano, have you been compared to Alicia Keys?
Suai: Yes! It’s not a bad comparison though. She’s super successful and has paved the way for someone like myself. Whenever someone says “Oh my God, you’re like the next Alicia Keys!” I say no, I’m Suai. I respect her but I’m definitely not the next her but the first me.
Clutch: I love your name! Is that your stage name or were you born with it?
Suai: Thank you! I was born with it. Before my mother had me, she was writing, producing and had a demo. She wanted to do what I’m doing now. So when she had me it was like her passing the torch to her child. I’m sure she wanted to give me a name that was going to work as a stage name. I think she probably knew I was going to get into the arts some kind of way.
“Whenever someone says ‘Oh my God, you’re like the next Alicia Keys!’ I say no I’m Suai. I respect Alicia Keys, but I’m definitely not the next her but the first me.”
Clutch: What’s your favorite song off of your album?
Suai: I have two actually: “Hey” and “The Perfect Girl.” “The Perfect Girl” is a song that made the album at the last minute. I wrote it back in the summer and I was hesitant about submitting it to my label for inclusion on the album. It’s one of those songs that was like a journal entry you’d put away so no one else could read it. But I knew that it was the most honest song that I’ve ever written. So I figured why not go ahead and take a chance and let people see me for who I am. I’m not calling myself the perfect girl at all. It’s more like saying that music artists are presented as if we’re perfect. Fans look at us and think I wish I could be like them, they have it all. But it gets kind of lonely to go through everything by yourself. So the whole point of the song is if I had someone to share it all with that would make me the perfect girl. The other song I love is “Hey”. Ne-Yo wrote it for me and I just love performing that song! It’s so hot. It reminds me of being at an old school house party in someone’s basement and this record comes on and everyone starts dancing. It’s about a girl flipping the script on a guy and approaching him instead of him approaching her.
Clutch: What was it like working with Ne-Yo?
Suai: He’s one of the real cool people in the industry. Over the last three years since I’ve been signed, I’ve met a lot of people and some people just aren’t cool and you’re like I don’t want to meet them again! His company is called Compound Entertainment, and at the time I went to Atlanta to work with him, it was based in the basement of his condo. So, I’m at Ne-Yo’s house and he’s just got on a T-shirt, sweatpants, a blinged out chain and gym shoes. He was totally cool and was like ‘OK, whatcha wanna sing about?’ I told him and he wrote the record. We also did a couple more records together and “Hey” was the one song that made the album. Ever since we wrote that song together, I’ve opened shows for him in different cities. He’s always cool. Once when I opened up a show in Detroit for him, he came by my dressing room, gave me a hug and took pictures with all my background singers and band members. Ne-Yo’s a real cool dude.
Clutch: Who or what inspires you?
Suai: Not a person necessarily but music in general and pop culture. That could be a good and a bad thing, but for me it works. I check the blogs everyday they way people open up their New York Times on the subway. I want to see what’s going on, what people are doing and talking about. I get inspiration when I see Beyonce and Jay-Z sitting court side of a game or something. I think that’s cute. Pop culture just inspires me to write and be more creative than I was the last time. I just bought Brandy’s CD and it’s been on repeat everyday since. Just hearing her voice and fresh music in general really inspires me.
Clutch: Tell us about the fist song you’ve ever written.
Suai: I called it “He’s Got to Be.” I wrote it when I was 14 so you can imagine what that was like. It was about how guys don’t get or understand me and what I needed a guy to be for me. It was a cheesy record. But I sat and composed the verse, the hook and wrote the piano part. I was fooling around but my mom and friends really loved it, and that’s when I started to think that I should go into music.
Clutch: So, you’re like an all woman band by yourself! Did you play most of the instruments for your album?
Suai: No, we didn’t go in that direction, but it’s definitely something I want to get into for the live shows. I think that’s going to be something that really pulls people in. I think touring is going to be my thing. Not the huge stadium tours but those small dates where you’re really connecting with people, and your audience is five feet away instead of you being on this huge stage. I want to be right at eye-level with them. I think that’s something that’s going to work in my favor because I’ve been doing little venues like that for the last four or five years, and I like it. Those are the shows where I plan on doing some unconventional things with some of the instruments I’ve studied. I’m excited about that.
Clutch: Who are some of your favorite artists?
Suai: Brandy and Solange. I love Solange’s album! That was one of my favorites for ‘08 and I hope it got some Grammy nominations. I’m pretty sure she knew that “I Decided” was not what the typical urban ear wanted to hear but she did it anyway. It’s bold to do what you want to do and I respect that. I also really like Rihanna, Billie Holiday and Lauryn Hill.
Clutch: How does it feel to be with Motown?
Suai: We went to several different labels and they all said no. We came to Motown on a whim one day. We were in New York and weren’t even scheduled to meet. Sylvia Rhone was the president and she happened to be in her office that day and everything just kind of fell into place. After it all happened and everything was signed I was amazed. Here it is: I’m from Detroit and I’m signed to Motown. It’s not here anymore but it all started here with Motown. I feel a little pressure. I definitely feel like I’m carrying not only my city on my back but the label. When someone new reads about me they may think this new chic that’s signed to Motown better bring it! I used to think ‘what if I don’t do this or what if I don’t do that’, but I’m more relaxed about that now. Detroit is one of the music mega centers of this country. We were the originators so it’s definitely a good feeling to be with Motown.
Clutch: Tell us about your work with Akon.
Suai: I’ve done about eight to ten records with Akon and he’s probably the one I’ve worked with the most on this project. Sometimes we worked together in Atlanta and sometimes in Los Angeles. Each time we kicked it! He’s this super busy guy with multiple projects going on. Initially I thought “he’s this big producer, how is he going to treat me, this new artist?” Is he going to blow me off? What’s going to happen in this session? But we get in there and there’s a room full of guys, he puts them all out and we sit in the studio with a notepad between us, trading lines back and forth, writing to the song and that was the beginning of our creative relationship. Since then he’s always given me that attention and time whenever we worked together. When American Idol was on he had to do a taping for that, then he would fly back to Atlanta to work with me, or if he was in Africa, he would come back to the states and we would do another song together. He was always ready to work. Akon’s a real cool person to work with.
Clutch: Is there a title for your album yet?
Suai: We don’t have one yet, but at the top of the year we’re going to pick the single. I would like to title it The Perfect Girl being that the album is about love and relationships. It may even be self-titled.
Clutch: Do you have any advice for those wanting to break-in to this business?
Suai: Yes! Make sure this is something that you really want to do. Stick with it and don’t give up. It’s hard to set yourself apart, and it’s not easy to get on. I also would not suggest this business for the faint of heart. I learned the hard way that you really have to have thick skin and you really have to believe that you are what you say you are. You have to convince people to go out and spend their money on you. If you don’t believe in yourself and you’re not giving honest music, it’s going to come off that way. It’s not easy or glamorous the way it looks on the blogs. There’s a whole lot of behind the scenes stuff that will give you a headache. I’ve had multiple headaches this week. But I push through it, write another song, take it for what it is and make the best out of it.
Clutch: What’s in your clutch?
Suai: I don’t even carry a clutch, I have too much crap! I do have a super clutch though. My Blackberry is in there, a whole bunch of M.A.C. products, I keep my Bible with me all the time, my hair products and chewing gum. I gotta stay fresh! When it’s time to find something, there’s definitely a situation.