Track By Track: Sio – FEATURES
In the world of house music, the subject of featuring and crediting vocalists has long been a talking point, particularly in relation to the artistic contributions of Black female singers.
From Loleatta Holloway and Martha Wash not receiving credit for their now infamous vocals on Black Box’s ‘Ride On Time’ and ‘Everybody, Everybody’ respectively, to more recent examples of uncredited features including British singer-songwriters Kelli-Leigh, who contributed vocals for Duke Dumont and Secondcity, and Noisettes lead singer Shingai, who appeared on Dennis Ferrer’s track ‘Hey Hey’ — this is an issue that has come up time and time again over the last few decades.
Johannesburg-based singer-songwriter and poet Sio has chosen to challenge this archaic structure with her new album, the aptly titled ‘FEATURES’. Flipping the script on the format of the singer as the featured artist, Sio enlists several producers from around South Africa, including Charles Webster, DUNN. and Jonny Miller, featuring their work while her vocals take centre stage.
But the title ‘FEATURES’ has a double meaning, which relates to the personal themes that Sio explore across the release. Musing on her own aesthetic features and how these play into conversations of beauty privilege, race, misogyny, gender-based violence and narcissm, she tackles the challenges of being a multi-ethnic, non-white woman in South Africa head on, through her beautifully intimate and brave story telling.
Following the album release via Stay True Sounds, she guides us through each track on the album…
Lucid Lunacy ft Jonny Miller
Colour: Dawn, just before sunrise.
Season: Early spring, just before the peach blossoms bloom.
Inspiration: I met a couple of people who didn’t feel like they were new. It seemed like we had met before and I felt incredibly comfortable with them. I was a little befuddled by how familiar they felt. That made me feel incredibly confused and remarkably clear, so I tried to express the irony of that. I wrote the interludes separately from the album as free standing poems and added them as introductions to each theme I explored in the songs, so this one fit the first them.
Setting: I was in a waiting room about to see a doctor.
Reverse Flight ft DUNN.
Colour: Dark night blues, greens and black.
Season: Height of the South African summer on a secluded beach.
Inspiration: The name of the beat is ‘Reverse Flight,’ and I wondered what a reverse flight could be? Where would I bother going back to? So I tapped into the brand new relationships I had made that felt instantly old and comfortable and natural, like we had known each other for ages. Those feelings of “I have never seen you in my life but we have met before.” The song explores a sense of reincarnation, the soulmate or twin-flames, and my aversion to diving into it too deeply.
Setting: I wrote it in my friends car after he played it in his DJ set.
There’s Me ft Dwson
Season: Afternoon drive with the blistering African summer sun setting.
Inspiration: I created a bad beat on GarageBand and was playing with the idea of making a house album, while being hounded by a man who wouldn’t let me be at peace after he had treated me abhorrently. He kept a steady barrage of demand and deceit on me. It’s also about how annoyed I was at myself for believing him in the first place and not trusting my gut about him. It’s about a hard lesson learnt. Once I had the lyrics and melody down I approached Dwson to make my mess pretty and he remade it into a deep, haunting, dance masterpiece.
Setting: The balcony of the old apartment I used to live in, overlooking a messy yard with beautiful trees.
The Walls ft Jonny Miller
Colour: Forest Green
Season: Winter in an evergreen snow-capped forest.
Inspiration: I found myself questioning the genuineness and truth of feelings I had developed for someone and the battle of getting rid of, overcoming, letting go of, moving beyond them and those feelings not shifting, not even shivering. They came hard and fast and deep, hence the doubt. Then feeling completely insane that I kept being reminded of that person ad nauseum.
I sent this vocal to Jonny Miller and he nailed the madness, the sense of tumbling, like an avalanche of sound, the soft chaos of the words and the hopelessness I felt at fighting it at the end of the interlude, with that stark, bare “nothing”. This introduces the next theme I tackle in FEATURES.
Setting: Watching anime with at night with the blue light from my laptop lighting the room.
Fabrications ft Dwson
Colour: Neon Purple / Lilac / Violet
Season: The dance floor of a sexy, hot, dark, packed, sweaty nightclub in summer.
Inspiration: I got tired of the dance between relationship titles I was in. The manipulations, bread-crumbing and the other person’s fear. How they would swoop in to save the day, then flee like I was threatening. Making and retracting offers and keeping me at arm’s length. And frustrated that even though I could see through it, I still wanted them. Then again they were just being nice.
Dwson captured the essence of the push and pull I was feeling, the up and down of it, the forgetting about it and falling right back into it, all brilliantly encapsulated in the dynamic movement of the beat.
Setting: Sitting on my bed looking out the window on a sunny day in winter.
Locked ft SGVO
Colour: HOT Pink
Season: The Bree street Taxi Rank in downtown Johannesburg at month end / the doors of the sleek upmarket events I used to hostess, all year around.
Inspiration: It’s about the dark side of beauty privilege. How you’re not supposed to moaning about the blessings of being good looking and taking abuse because you’re a place holder, empty beyond the value ascribed to you by the beholder of your beauty.
I received a call from a friend who I confided in a lot it. Sharing my deepest, darkest tales, I don’t really have secrets, who knew the dark depths of my life. He had confessed feelings toward me a few weeks earlier, promising zero weirdness if they went unrequited. So he followed up and upon learning that I did not feel the same, he told me what an ugly person I was inside, and that I needed to work on it, knowing that was exactly what I was doing anyway, while insinuating that the only reason I had achieved anything was based solely on my appearance, my looks, my physical FEATURES and not the years of work I had produced, not the way Ihave learnt to weave words, my ability to tell stories, or any development of any talent and skill that I had. This stung, coming from not only a friend but a musical colleague and long time collaborator.
All of that mess was based on what I look like, how he perceived it, what he wanted with it, and his reaction to not getting it. Sgvo had sent me a beat and after this call I wrote this song down in five minutes flat, poem included. He send me another edit after mixing the song, and that’s the version that made the album. It is bold and unapologetic. It has a sense of attack for me that I love.
This is the thematic zygote of the lbum. After this encounter I thought about all the ways my looks had gotten me into ugly situations with people. How my being pretty was the only reason behind my success in music and was without skill or talent otherwise, in their eyes.
Then I expanded on what my FEATURES are. I am a multi-ethnic (coloured and zulu racially but not culturally) woman, in South Africa, from a working class, often poor, single parent home. “FEATURES,” is a collection of the things and encounters I hate. I don’t like summer, I detest, loath, revile the colour pink, all of them, in all their shade, because of the gender limiting box it put me in and the horrors I have faced being a woman of colour, from a struggling home in South Africa. Often at the hands of men, who make up 83% of my fanbase, and the female gatekeepers of patriarchy, who condemned me and condoned bad behaviour from men.
Setting: My bed at night in the amber glow of my beside lamp, fuming.
I Learned Early ft Jonny Miller
Colour: Baby pink
Season: Summer time, with visiting extended family, spilling out of our home at Christmas.
Inspiration: This was inspired by the reports of gender based violence that took place last year during Covid-19 Lockdown in South Africa. They triggered memories from family gatherings where I felt that the freedom the boys were given was unfair and the general scope they had to explore and run wild over the restrictions placed on girls upset me. The girls were forced into some servitude, to wash the dishes or make tea, while the boys played late into the night and I resented the adults for the limitations the placed on me and the boys their freedom.
I quickly understood how much more dangerous the world was for a girl, having adult men desire and steal little girls and how much protections girls actually needed with the sad reality of how little protection we actually get throughout our lives. I’ve always wanted to be a boy. No matter what, it still looks better than being a girl. Again, Jonny Miller got the weight of the poem and expressed it in a way I can’t, elevating it.
Setting: On a silver painted rooftop under a silver moon through a power outage, listening to drunk people singing off key.
Sex Pot ft rkls
Colour: Neon Pink, lipstick pink.
Season: Fancy hotel conference rooms, modelling casting cues, all year around.
Inspiration: I was raised on little so that I learned not to ask for anything other that my basic needs. The model people pleaser, who never caused any trouble even though I looked like a trouble maker, because my mom had so much to deal with. I learnt to cope, to survive by creating. I was advised to hyper sexualise my image, by a woman, in order for my music to be heard and taken seriously. She advised me based off of her experience. It was sound advice, but not me. That seemed to be the running theme around working in entertainment, coupled with sleazy castings in dodgy places with bad men. How other woman tended to perpetuate that, even when it felt wrong to them and how my approach, though eccentric was seen as prudish and stuck up, and how hard I had to fight my people pleasing nature and not succumb to their demands.
Setting: Break time at a woman empowerment conference five years ago.
Woman ft Charles Webster
Colour: Pastel Pink
Season: 7 pm at the Noord Street taxi Rank, trying to blend in with your surrounding so no-one robs or hits on you in the heart of winter.
Inspiration: After I decided to make this album I asked a couple of producers whom I had collaborated with before, if they would like to contribute. Charles sent me a folder of over 100 tracks and ideas and I gravitated toward this loop and this moody beauty was born.
There have been far too many encounters where being in public spaces and using public transport, namely, taxis have traumatised me. From waiting for a taxi to take me to Johannesburg, in Sandton City, during broad daylight, a man grazed me between my legs and walked away laughing at my helplessness, or when I had a job hostessing late at night and rushed to the taxi rank to catch the last taxi home, packed with men who kept groping me and laughing at my outrage the whole way home, or getting robbed by a swarm of men at global citizen rubbing their private parts on me. Fearing for my mothers safety travelling to work by train, hearing my neighbour getting beaten by her spouse, watching a mother with a newborn being ill-treated by the taxi driver, or being verbally abused by a homeless man because I am black while having lunch with my white male friend who got respected because of his colour and wealth.
So I wrote about those things and gave props to women for simply surviving this mess.
Setting: My room window watching cars come and go on a cloudy winters day.
Racist Child ft Jonny Miller
Colour: Vanta Black
Season: Watching peaceful protests about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ last June turn violent.
Inspiration: Introducing the next theme in the album, ‘Racist Child’ was born watching black people protest peacefully about the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more, turning violent and deadly and feeling hopeless and furious and scared, because the world generally takes its cues from the first world, from the west. I dreaded how that would play out in the circles of the white privileged I could visit too because of my work and seeing how quickly people changed and “friends” grew distant during a celebration of the richness and diversity of black culture.
Golden ft Kid Fonque & D-Malice
Colour: Copper and gold
Season: Winter, cold and grey under a blanket.
Inspiration: I witness a lot of blackfishing. The term “Blackfishing” might not be as well known, but it shares a similar meaning to catfish: it refers to someone who uses things like hairstyling and makeup to create and enhance certain features to make it appear as if they have black/non-white heritage or are racially ambiguous. The people who used it could just wash it off and if it was a surgical enhancement, they were often lauded for it without having to deal with the repercussions of being in a world that doesn’t support it. How commodified and trendy blackness is to people, who take from black culture, benefit from it, and don’t celebrate or credit its origins and originators. And how that spills into nearly everything, be that technology, arts, culture, food, fashion, music, etc, there is some person of colour behind a whites only and white benefiting thing. The black form has been hyper-sexualised and fetishized and I wanted to celebrate it in this song, because I have often been made to feel ashamed of my blackness.
Aquamarine ft Charles Webster
Season: Midday on an aquamarine beach in summer.
Inspiration: I met a guy, from a different race, culture and social class and despite our differences we clicked instantly and became good friends, dropping hints at attraction and interest in each other. He kept flaking though. He would pop up randomly, we would be friends again then he’d disappear and I tried to make sense of his behaviour as a person who likes clarity, but never got any. I wondered why he kept popping in and out of my life and wondered if he just didn’t like me, if he was a manipulative little monster or if it was his racist society that scared him off and wrote about that, then forgot about it. Till one afternoon last winter when I was going through the folder of beats Charles Webster had sent me, I found a beat with a bassline I couldn’t ignore. I struggled writing anything new for the beat and went through my note books and found this song I wrote about my ‘what the hell are we doing’ friendship and they matched.
Setting: My Turquoise room at mother’s house in Ennerdale.
Buy ‘FEATURES’ HERE.