Oct 5, 2022
3 women in perfect harmony: Inside Say She She’s ‘discodelic’ debut
The album 'Prism' combines a funky sensibility with operatic overtones to create a 'proper disco'
“Is it weird to be really enjoying the things that you’re making?” asks Piya Malik, who’s squished between her bandmates, Nya Gazelle Brown and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham, on a small couch. The three singers of Say She She are in the midst of a European tour, which had them performing inside a converted 17th century church the night prior.
“I’ve never really felt, like, comfortable enough to say so, but I do with this because everybody’s just got their personality in there,” Malik continues over Zoom. “Say She She is not reflective of one of us. It’s so much a group thing.”
The collaborative nature of Say She She is apparent in everything the Brooklyn-based band does — from their writing process to the trio’s dizzying, operatic harmonies — and will come to full fruition on their debut album, “Prism.” Out October 7 on the Loveland, Ohio-based Colemine Records imprint Karma Chief, “Prism” is a dreamy record of “discodelic soul” that’s part Chic, part sultry Santigold and easily at home on a New York dance floor circa 1979.
While recorded over several years, “Prism”’s eight tracks can be taken holistically as the story of a relationship — from the jaunty, NRE-inspired vibe of the album’s title track, to the soft psychedelic reprimand of “Fortune Teller.” While some songs are reflective of collective experiences, others are deeply personal. “Better Man” tells the story of Cunningham’s new relationship, while the highly danceable “Pink Roses” is a tribute to the singer’s mother, written on the anniversary of her passing.
“We’re lucky… to support each other in the songwriting,” Malik says, looking to Cunningham. “It’s like medicine, you know? That’s what ‘Prism’ is like — what we want all of our music to be like — to feel like medicine. To uplift and soothe.”
The ladies of Say She She have been supporting each other since 2018, when Cunningham and Malik were neighbors on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side. “We’d get a glass of wine and we’d have a little spliff, and just get a little high and get in the mood and songs would just kind of fall out,” Malik recalls.
In between gigs with other bands — Cunningham sang back-up for several groups, while Malik sang back-up for Chicano Batman, El Michels Affair and was a member of 79.5 — they’d write tongue-in-cheek songs about bad breakups and bad boyfriends. They performed around town as a duo before convincing Brown, who was also singing with 79.5, to join the band.
Coincidentally, each of the singers grew up singing classical music. Together, they leaned into the drama of opera, adding elements of funk, classical jazz and Bollywood to create a unique sound.
“I was very much exposed to classical music at a young age. But I think for me, [I was doing] almost a joke opera sing,” Cunningham says of early She She She sessions. “I was matching Nya’s high parts and trying to almost competitively go higher. And it ended up sounding cool.”
“We did that a lot!” Brown interjects with a laugh. “We just have the best chemistry. Even in rehearsals, we’re just, like, jumping for joy because it’s just so much fun. I think it comes out in what we write because it’s such an enjoyable process for us.”
The group’s debut 45 took that easy chemistry to hypnotic and powerful heights. Inverting the “Le Bon Fleur” duet from 19th century opera Lakmé and adding a hint of Bollywood, “Forget Me Not” paid homage to New York feminist activists the Guerrilla Girls. Their follow-up — the supremely funky “Norma,” with its refrain “we will not go, we will not go back” and “before it gets too late, write a letter to the state” — was a further testament to the group’s political views.
“We were in LA and writing with the Orgone boys and the papers had been leaked about Roe v. Wade being possibly overturned. We just couldn’t believe that that was even something that was coming up. We just were so angry and so hurt and just so confused,” Brown recalls. “We were like, ‘we can’t write about anything else.’ We felt like well, we got to get this out right away because we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need to use our voices.”
Proceeds from the sale of “Norma” were donated to NARAL Pro-Choice America. ”There’s no space for apathy anymore. Apathy is actually violence now,” adds Malik. “Our music can carry that forward too. Not all songs have to be overtly political to still feed into a message. But it is important to remind people of beauty in the world and lightheartedness and send messages of positivity. But also [to] campaign and stand a bit united.”
Seeing the women of Say She She on stage — singing powerfully and in harmony — is a political message in itself. Yet conveying this message of empowerment and feminism isn’t possible without community. And the trio is quick to note the importance of their New York musical family, which includes rotating members Mike Sarason and Nikhil Yerawadekar of Combo Lulo and Antibalas, Preet Patel (the Frightnrs), Steve Okonoski (Durand Jones & the Indications) and Andy Bauer (Twin Shadow).
“New York is such a melting pot of players and incredible musicians,” Malik notes. “These people are just our friends for years. You’re in the same scene, but you’re not necessarily working together. But then you’re like, ‘I have the song.’ and then everyone’s chipping in and helping.”
After an album release show at Brooklyn Made on Nov. 3, Say She She will headline their first West Coast tour in November. While they’re excited to trek from San Diego to Seattle, Malik ponders a fantasy performance that removes the focus from the stage:
“Our dream show would be a situation where, like, no one was just looking at us or facing forward at the stage. They’re all just looking at each other and dancing with each other, like a proper disco.”
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