Fox is in London to perform her brand new album, My Soul Got Stranger.
“It’s different to play this album live,” she tells me. “On the album, some of the songs are quite layered, in terms of synths and extra vocals I’d put on. So the interesting thing is working some of the songs out in a different way for when I’m playing with a drummer and a bassist. Just altering and adapting the material to work in that context.”
Fox began playing professionally at the age of 19. She gained more fans when she fronted the Machineri band. Then, in 2015, she put out a solo debut album that would garner her a few South African Music Awards nominations. That album was Serpente Masjien.
On My Soul Got Stranger, the image of the serpent slithers its way onto Vibra Snake, which is a sparse, beautiful instrumental that is peppered with Fox singing just one line: the title of the album. She laughs when I ask her about her love for snakes.
“The words in the song are My Soul Got Stranger, but we didn’t want to call the song My Soul Got Stranger because it’s quite alternative,” she explains.
“We didn’t want listeners to be steered directly to that song because it has the same title as the album title. It’s an unusal kind of song, so we decided to change the title of the song instead.”
“It ended up being a song where I was focusing a lot more on the music. On every album, I like to have a song where there isn’t a lot of singing. This is almost like a twin song with Sea Skull (off Serpente Masjien). It’s that same design in song structure.”
She explains that she found the title of this album in On the Road, the book by Jack Kerouac. “It’s taken from a passage where he walks up to a hill and he remembers that he returns to that hill at a later time in his life, when his soul got stranger. It’s kind of in the middle of his journey.
“It’s kind of about getting older and progressing and moving forward in time and getting stranger as you get on and embracing that stage and that change.
“There is a vibra slap - a percussive instrument - that we used on the song. So then I just called the song Vibra Snake,” she chuckles. “I think the song is quite snaky and sounds like a desert, psychedlic, blues vibe.”
That genre-meshing description is reflective of the sound of this new album. Where Serpente Masjien saw Fox flex her blues and rock muscle, and put a stamp of authority on a certain raw vocal style, Stranger is a smoother listen.
There are tinges of R&B in Big Oceans - where Fox’s end notes sound like they were straight from the lips of Sade. There are ballads that are reminiscent of the likes of Etta James on songs like Sorrow. In short: together with producer, Matthew Fink, Fox got to shed some of her old skin and reveal another side to her art.
“When we recorded the final album in studio, there was an idea of how should we attack the songs,” she explains. “For Sorrow and Big Oceans, there was that idea to keep it softer and more melodic, more soulful and use more restraint. A lof of my previous material is very rock-based and unrestrained. It’s aggressive, diaphramatic singing, which is a part of me. But there’s another side to me and what I wanted to do on this album is do ballads and sing in a different way.”
On this album, Fox also challenges herself to write differently. Sorrow stands out because at first listen, it sounds like an ode to the emotion itself.
It actually sounds like she’s saying sorrow is the one she sees and sorrow is the one she needs - but Fox assures me it’s not that morbid: “It is a song that is directed at a relationship that didn’t work out,” she laughs.
She adds that the chorus is a call-and-response where if you read the lyrics, the parts about sorrow would be in brackets. This literary device is one she had fun playing with.
My favourite song on Stranger is Glorious Wonder, where Fox sings that it is “glorious wonder that man can take flight with the light of a helping hand.”
Her voice takes centre stage in what feels like a faith-based jam that is not preachy.
“That song is about love between human beings,” she says. “It’s about humanity. Compassionate human beings helping one another. There have been so many times that I’ve had people believe in me in terms of music and took a risk and put me on stages and allowed me to play to audiences that I wouldn’t have played for otherwise. That’s happened all along the way and that’s what a career is.”
* Buy Sannie Fox’s My Soul Got Stranger at physical and online music stores.