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How Sio found her voice

Sio by Ray Manzana

Kitty Amor speaks to South African singer-songwriter Sio about her new album, 'Torn Tapestries', on STY TRU BTS and her journey to poetic house music majesty

A singer-songwriter who barely knew her own talent, over the past decade, Sio has become the voice for the voiceless. Having received Apple Music’s Album of the Year accolade in 2021 for her long-player ‘Features’ and turned out hit tracks such as 2018’s ‘Forbidden’ and the previous year’s ‘1000 Memories’, she’s now highly sought-after across the African electronic music scene.

When she was 13, Sio sang in choirs at school, but didn’t think anything of her voice. A life-threatening illness caused by an inflammation of the brain put Sio out of school, but she still had a desire to sing. She went on to join the church choir in her hometown of Ennerdale, Gautang. “I was pushed to sing where I was supposed to and at a tone that felt most comfortable,” she says of her experience there. 

The sudden death of the church priest offered a young Sio a chance to shine, as she sang at the funeral in front of 6,000 people. “I myself did not give my voice much attention, as my form of expression was always in poetry, [that was] my safety blanket,” Sio reflects.

From singing at church, she went on “to explore rock music, however, house music was always in the background of everyday activities... in town, in the taxis”. She began to collect compilation CDs from House Afrika, Soul Candi and other outlets pushing house music, later gravitating towards deeper electronic sounds, such as ‘Faxing Berlin’ by deadmau5.

“The fact that the songs have no words and I really loved them, I knew that I could put any emotion and feeling into this without the imposition of a vocalist and their message,” she explains. As a poet, it took Sio a long time to get to grips with how to write songs. She didn’t like the rigid structures and restrictive way words were formulated. With a collaborative approach to her songwriting, Sio has found a way to articulate her immediate, true feelings when given a beat. “I am very good at hiding and my songs are essentially diary entries that only I know the true meaning of,” she says.

In 2014, Sio formed the band Project 5 with local producers in her hometown. The outfit released an EP, ‘Short Encounters’, on Peng Africa. Sitting within a soulful house space, it “quickly got me a spiral of attention from other producers,” says Sio. She went on to work with production duo Marubini MusiQ on their EP ‘Take A Deep Breath’, released by London’s FOMP label. This contributed to a pivotal musical relationship with Luka, who featured as a remixer and created ‘Next To You’ with Sio, which was in turn remixed by Charles Webster. Sio also caught the attention of Jullian Gomes, resulting in their smash hit ‘1000 Memories’, which cemented her place in the African electronic music landscape.

In the last two years, Sio has decided to take on house music in a way she had not seen previously, with herself as the headline name and her producers as the featured artists. “I feel that house music is producer/male/DJ-centric, and the vocalist gets the short end of the stick in my experience. I needed to feel empowered in spaces where I give so much of myself, my art, my voice,” she elaborates. On her aptly titled album, ‘Features’, Sio explored how she experiences being a woman of colour and what expectations people have of women who possess bodily features like hers.

Sio’s newest album, ‘Torn Tapestries’, moves away from the electronic music space, instead focusing on the soulful elements of her art. Released this month on STY TRU BTS, Sio worked on it exclusively with Daev Martian, who witnessed firsthand the experiences that influenced her songwriting. In her hurt, Sio further finds her strength, showing that “everything passes and it’s okay, as you will get to a place where you will be smiling”.

Want more? Read DJ Mag's feature on Stay True Sounds, and listen to a mix of tracks from its catalogue, here

Kitty Amor is a writer, DJ and co-founder of Motherland events. Follow her on Twitter @DJKittyAmor

Photo credit: Ray Manzana