This is Titiyo
“I don’t know if you’ve heard about the mile-high club. This is not it!”
Titiyo is standing at the front of the aisle with a microphone in her hand. Her audience, mostly British business people and weekend travelers, look surprised when the singer starts singing to a beat conjured by her two fellow musicians at 36,000 feet, a record-breaking feat.
Titiyo’s short show in the middle of a scheduled flight between Stockholm and London is the highest-altitude concert given by a Swedish artist.
A few days later, Titiyo is sitting in an office looking out over a gray Stockholm day, summarizing one of the most unusual concerts in her career.
“The biggest fear is being outside your comfort zone, standing there and singing – and no one appreciating it,” she says. “People started applauding even before I started, and for me, applause is like fireworks. When I step onto the stage it is as if another pilot takes over.”
The song “Fram till Kanten” (To the Edge), from Titiyo’s latest album, 13 Gården, is about the pulling power of an audience and the longing to step forward to the front of the stage again to see all the hands in the air. 13 Gården, named after her childhood address in Solna, outside of Stockholm, is Titiyo’s first Swedish-language album in a career that spans more than 25 years and includes different styles mixed with long breaks.
“If someone says ‘I like Titiyo,’ you could ask the counterquestion, ‘Which of them?’” Titiyo says.
This is Titiyo
Titiyo Yambalu Felicia Jah
Profession: Singer, songwriter, artist
Career: Breakthrough solo debut Titiyo (1990). Since then, she has released a handful of solo albums and other collaborations under the names El Rojo Adios and Keep Company. Four Swedish Grammy Awards and two Rock Björns.
Current: New album 13 Gården. Touring Sweden for the first time in seven years in the spring.
There are many versions to choose from.
There’s the early 90s soul singer, there’s the pop singer who has recorded with other artists – and there’s the fashion icon who was once named Sweden’s best-dressed woman. In recent years, she’s turned into a TV personality, and currently there’s the singer-songwriter who sings autobiographical songs in Swedish.
One thing this incarnation has in common with the one that produced her breakthrough in the early 1990s is her voice. Few other singers make such an unmistakable impression as Titiyo.
“I always have my voice,” she says. “No matter who’s in the audience or where I am, I know I perform well on stage, and that is an incredibly beautiful feeling. I learned a great deal from [producer] Peter Svensson when we made Come Along . He always told me that my strength was my soul voice, which I can package in different ways.
“I have introduced more simplicity into my singing,” Titiyo says. “It used to be more a sense of ad-libbing and wailing. I was more soul before, but over the years I have learned to sing pop.”
Music is in her blood
Titiyo grew up in a musical home. Her father is Sierra Leone-born musician Ahmadu Jah, who used to take congas to teacher-parent meetings, much to his daughter’s horror. She remembers standing onstage as a little girl dressed in African clothes with her dad’s highlife orchestra.
Titiyo found her voice in her teenage years when she was in London to babysit the daughter of her older sister, pop star Neneh Cherry, and Cherry took her to a recording studio to jam with a soul band. However, it was Whitney Houston who inspired Titiyo to discover the power of music.
“It was only when I found soul that I felt that I fit in,” she says. “I was able to define myself. I was also part of the first generation in Sweden that embraced hip-hop and black music in a new way.”
She was Swedish pop star Orup’s backup singer during a tour in the late 1980s, and then things started to move quickly. She signed a recording contract and had a big hit with her debut single “Talking to the Man in the Moon.” She was hailed as the soul queen of Sweden.
“I never seem to be able to shake off that label,” Titiyo says. “Yes, I am half black, and yes, I do sing soul – or did, in any case. But it’s an incredibly banal way of seeing me.”
The public loves her more than ever
In 13 Gården, Titiyo sings that the queen is back. The song is about both herself and all the other strong female Swedish voices that have emerged in recent years.
Having said that, she actually was out of sight for long periods. 13 Gården is only Titiyo’s third album of the 2000s.
“That’s quick for me,” she says. “I move at a very slow and leisurely pace. I’ve felt fear and apprehension before every new album, and it’s like making a comeback every time. Then there’s a bit of ‘I’ll show them again.’”
“It’s great to be popular, but it’s hard work when you’re on the outside looking in,” she says. “I take breaks to get in tune with the times and my surroundings. The music I make should strike the right chord. I’ve also gained a great deal of respect for my albums, and respect is incredibly important to me. I want my art to be seen as craftwork.”
Despite the breaks, the public loves her more than ever, thanks to her appearances on popular TV shows such as Så Mycket Bättre (where artists interpret the songs of other artists) and the food and music program Pluras Kök.
“People seem to think they’ve gotten to know me through TV,” Titiyo says. “They’re more open today, and they’re not afraid to approach me. After Så mycket bättre it was great to hear that the feedback we got was about Titiyo the person. I had the courage to let people get to know me. I went into it with the attitude ‘This is who I am, take it or leave it.’”
A similar attitude shines through 13 Gården. The songs on the album, which she made with musicians and songwriters Jonathan Johansson, Dante Kinnunen, Martin Sakarias, and David Lindvall, portray everything from childhood memories from Solna to corporate gigs.
Titiyo herself divides her career into the periods before and after Hidden, an experimental electronic outing from 2008 that she wrote herself late at night at home with a synthesizer. Before that she had taken a break for several years.
“I felt I had to do something else, to earn money and live a life,” she says. “Looking back, I can see the underlying process, but then I was in a state of panic and despair. My friends kept telling me I shouldn’t quit music.
“When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s difficult to see the creative side of things, but I now see how important that period was,” she says. “With Hidden, I learned to go with my intuition. Before that, if somebody asked if I was a songwriter, I would have said no, but now the answer is yes. Maybe I don’t write hits, but I do write good album tracks. And they’re also important.”
Now she’ll tour Sweden with her band, but she hopes it won’t take six or seven years until her next record. She already has some ideas, and she may record an EP as early as 2016.
“I have a hard time fitting the norm,” she says. “I was looking for apartments a few years ago, but the thought of having an apartment like everybody else made me panic. I don’t want to do anything twice – maybe I’m afraid that people will just get tired of me. But I also fully trust my instincts.
Every time I start a new project, it’s like I’m mixing a new cocktail.”
By Anders Dahlbom
Published: February 10, 2016