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We can thank thin walls, Nile Rodgers for Say She She’s ‘discodelic soul’

Brooklyn’s Say She She is built on the power of the human voice — how singing can carry a buoyant energy all on its own, and be both the get-up to groove and the salve to soothe.

Over the decades, countless vocal groups have come and gone, but certain decades stand out strongly. The ’70s into the ’80s brought disco and power ballads a-plenty, and no one can deny the magnetism of the big hits of the era, particularly “Le Freak” written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. 

Say She She formed around their love of singing, but their love of Rodgers cemented that bond. Members Sabrina Cunningham, Nya Brown (79.5) and Piya Malik (El Michels Affair, Chicano Batman, 79.5) simply want to get their fans dancing, just like “Le Freak” got them dancing on first listen. 

The group fully dedicated debut album Prism to their love of that energetic, dance-driven sound. But they also make it pop with their own brand of “discodelic soul.” I caught up with the three vocalists during a rare spare moment between the album’s release and the official kick-off of their tour.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re playing “Pink Roses” on 88Nine, and HYFIN is also playing “Prism.” Everyone here just absolutely loves the record!

Piya Malik: Oh, thank you so much. It's been such a labor of love, so it's so nice to have it out in the world, finally!

By way of introduction, I read that your band started in a neighborly way, which I thought was such a cute story.

Sabrina Cunningham: I was living on the Lower East Side, and Piya and her best mate, Sean, moved into the apartment above me. We had heard each other singing through the floorboards and through the vents — there are thin walls in these old buildings. She’d hear me kind of early in the morning, I'd hear her late at night, and we both knew we were singers, and from that point just became fast friends.

You photograph as a trio, but you’re a full seven-piece band. Were your first shows as a three-piece and then you became a full-fledged band later?

PM: We've always played with different bands and different makeups. We once had four members, then it grew to eight, then came back down to six and finally to seven. We love to add instrumentation wherever we can; we just have so many amazing friends in the city that will play with us. And, you know, maybe you want horns for a particular song, but maybe we don't have horns on everything. So we'll add a musician where we can. 

In the past, we’ve played in some of their bands, too, but we just don't do that as much anymore. It's really just Say She She-focused. But it's cool to just have that community around us. We absolutely love making music with our band, and we couldn't do any of this without the community. 

And where did your name originate from? That story is also cool. 

PM: Oh, that's so sweet. Well, we're massive Nile Rodgers fans, actually. And even if you don't like Nile Rodgers’ music — which I think makes you miserable if you don't — you’ve gotta admit that it makes people feel good and gets people out there. He just faced so much adversity in his life, and the fact that he's such a prolific writer — to us, that's a big goal. 

It’s not just about being singers; it's the songwriting and the production and being genre-less, you know? Working with anyone in a room and getting a song together, giving it birth and life and letting it uplift people. “C’est Chi-Chi” means, “it's chic,” so it's a little hat tip to Nile Rodgers.

Could each of you name your favorite Nile Rodgers song or historical moment? Because he's got quite a few.

Nya Brown: Oh my gosh, that's a hard one.

SC: I just loved his production and writing on Diana Ross’ solo record and obviously his work with Madonna. It’s just “hit the dance floor,” upbeat, fun music. I really appreciate some of the more behind-the-scenes production stuff that he worked on in the early days. 

NB: I mean, you can't lose with “Le Freak.” That’s definitely one of my faves. I’m not gonna say any more than that. He’s just so famous for making you feel so good in your body and in your movements. 

PM: I love the fact that Nile's gone through so much in his life, but my favorite song — even though it’s so on-the-nose — is definitely “Le Freak.” For me, the joy of how much that song has just brought to people all around the world is amazing. And I love the fact that everybody in Africa absolutely loved that song because they thought he was saying “Afrique,” which is “Africa” in French; it’s just so cute. I love anything with wordplays or anything where people just perceive it as one thing, but it's something else. 

We were also lucky enough to be at Bob Clearmountain's studio not so long ago, and he was engineering. We got a surprise that the board they were recording us on was the same board that they had recorded “Le Freak” on. We were all freaking out! 

Let’s talk about “Pink Roses,” which 88Nine has been playing. I discovered it's a really sweet tribute to one of your mothers.

SC: Yeah, we wrote that song a year after my mother passed away. It was a very cathartic experience, and I don't think we went into that session planning to write a song about that; it just bubbled up in the lyric-writing part. It’s such a big loss in life, and it was still pretty fresh. 

We were out in Los Angeles around the first-year anniversary . It was a really special time to write that, especially with Bardo , who's just so welcoming. He just lets you feel safe in his space. He has this really cool little studio at his house, and we wrote it there with him. It was really special.

But I feel that the music itself doesn't feel sad. You wouldn't think that it was a song about grieving unless you really dug into it, which is what I love about it. I don't particularly want to be writing super sad songs, so I think it's a nice dichotomy.

Was your mother also a musician or an artist? 

SC: She was a visual artist. She was a painter, a paper maker. She would sing around the house, but she never pursued it in life. Both of my parents were naturally good at music, and her mom's sister was actually an opera singer, so I think that's where I get it. It definitely comes from my mom's side. 

I want to talk about the record and about your vocals, in particular the sound of them. Did you record them at the studio or in a really cool church building or a hall? There’s a natural reverb and overall big sound.

SC: The majority of the vocals were done at our friend’s studio in Red Hook: Atomic Sound . Merle was introduced to us through Piya and Matty , our guitar player. He was just so gracious, offering up the space. They have a big live room and three separate vocal booths, so we were able to record safely during the lockdown. We also took tape stems that we had recorded earlier and were able to keep moving forward with finishing the record.

PM: We had a very cool mixing engineer, Shawn Simmons. We worked tirelessly with him. The thing about lockdown is that you got on the computer even if you weren't a computer person. You’re back and forth about how to do mixing remotely, tirelessly writing hours of notes, and it takes weeks for one song when it could just take two days normally for us in the studio with the mixing engineer.

But he was so, so patient and so amazing, and I think he really captured how we like to sound live: silky and chic! . He got that we like a little bit of reverb on our vocals.

Overall, listening to the full album, it feels as though Say She She would be more live-oriented than studio-oriented. Are you able to find a balance between the two? What do you prefer?

NB: I think both, equally. The way we’ve been creating our songs lately has been somewhat of a live experience because we've been writing in the room with the whole band. It’ll start off as a jam session, but it has the energy of a live show we're able to create in that moment. We’ll record the instrumentation, then we're able to record some of the track there. So it's very similar to live, where we're interacting with the audience, so that's a beautiful thing, too. For me, I love both. I definitely love to record and get in the studio. Both are very fulfilling.

SC: I would say I definitely lean harder toward the live experience. I just love the performance part of this whole thing. I’m not as in to the studio etiquette and the whole “not taking too deep of a breath in the mic” kind of thing. I'm definitely the least experienced out of the three. Piya and Nya are so pro, so I guess for me, that feels a little more tedious. Live is way more fun.  It's tougher to be precise when you're so used to being more free flowing.

PM: Yeah, I love the experience of recording, but there's nothing like playing for people and bringing the energy to the dance floor. I think we are very much a live band; that’s why we wanna go out on the road. And we have this tour coming up in November along the East Coast to the West Coast. We're hoping to be back out on the road again next year, and we’re definitely hoping to make a festival in Milwaukee. But, yeah, the live is always the most exhilarating experience, and that's the part that’s the exchange for all the work that goes into the studio.

The payoff is at the show, you know? You get to confront everybody, and you get to lift everyone. We always talk about how our favorite idea of a show is actually where nobody's watching. Everybody's just looking at each other and dancing like a proper old-school disco. That’s the goal for us: just to get everyone up and dancing.

And Sabrina's so good at bringing the up-energy to a songwriting session, you know? “No, let's get the BPM up!” We want people dancing, and I think when you put intention into anything in your work, hopefully it translates. 

There's so much good stuff, sound-wise, on this whole record. I really love the sound of the piano. It feels as though that instrument would have a separate story on its own.

You just put out your record, and now you’re probably getting ready to hit the road and tour a whole bunch. What are you looking forward to most? 

PM: Oh gosh.

NB: I'm looking forward to our show at Brooklyn Made . It’s our record-release party show, so we're super stoked about that. The record came out Oct. 7, and we really haven't celebrated, so we're gonna go hard on this one. I'm definitely excited about that. And then we have a couple other shows here on the East Coast — on one, we’re opening for dear friends Flor de Toloache.

Oh, amazing. They're so great.

NB: Yeah! Then, we have some shows on the West Coast in November that we're super excited about. So it'll be our first tour that we're headlining on. We’re super proud of those who are organizing it, and we're really looking forward to getting out there and connecting with the West Coasters. 

If folks haven’t been able to check out Prism yet, who would you say it’s for?

PM: For me, the record is for people to soothe them, to be at home and have that listening experience, to throw the record on. And for parents in particular as well — people who spend a lot of time at home and, you know, sometimes want calming and soothing to play.

NB: Yeah, I'd say Prism is definitely for the lovers out there, those who have gone through a breakup, those who are looking for a better situation, those who are completely in love. I'd say it's definitely for them as well.

SC: Gosh, I have to ditto both: the lovers and the mothers.

My final question is a Radio Milwaukee classic: What is the one song you can't stop listening to?

PM: Oh, wow. Mine is Thee Sacred Souls’ “Will I See You Again?” I'm in love with that song. It's amazing watching them grow. And we got to do a couple of numbers with them at the LodgeRoom, where we'll be back again this November. It was just a magical time. Super special. And hearing them live is just as good as on the record. It's such an intimate, beautiful, sweet song. 

NB: It’s not a new song, but I can't get enough of Son Little’s “Mad About You.” I listen to that song on repeat while I'm driving in the car. I just keep pushing rewind, rewind, rewind, rewind. It just puts me in such a good mood. I literally can't get enough of that one.

SC: This is an old tune, but “I'm Not Ready For Love” by Promise, mainly because we’re going to be performing it at one of our shows next week. So it's in heavy rotation for me. Gotta learn some lyrics! .