After several days in Mexico City, churning out songs under the tropical sun, songwriters Piya Malik and Sabrina Cunningham returned to their Bushwick practice space, a steamy little box in the basement of Malik’s apartment complex, just enough space for a drummer, pianist, bassist, two singers and all their takeout Mexican food.
Glamour is a swinging pendulum in the lives of touring musicians, and the frontwomen of the Brooklyn and London-based band Say She She are eating it up. After years of singing with other people’s bands, Malik, 34, and Cunningham, 31, joined forces in September to start their own project.
“We both at the same time, serendipitously, said, ‘It’s time now,” Malik said, banging her hands on the table. “Fuck it, let’s start a band together. It was just perfect.”
The girls started writing songs together leading up to their debut gig in February. While blank at the time, their notebooks would soon be filled with poetic verses of love, heartbreak and the shitty political climate.
Backed by a collection of musicians, the two women sing soulful harmonies, inspired by the likes of Gloria Ann Taylor and forgotten girl groups of the 60’s mixed with doses of ’90s R&B and Indian-fusion hooks.
“You have to push yourselves or you won’t get anywhere,” said Malik, who also sings with 79.5 and NYMPH.
“It’s something that I never would have never done on my own,” admitted Cunningham, who also sings with Denny Love. “The fact that we can do this together – it just pushed me to work harder.”
A songwriting session is essentially a therapy session, she adds.
The girls laugh, but I understand; I am drawn to the ambiance they’ve created. We sit under a glittering disco ball in Malik’s living room, as 60’s girl group Love Apple croons in the background, lamenting why women feel like they have to be tied down to one man. The main lights are dim, and hot pink neon lines the hallway behind us. We toast to forgetting all the rotten men with bottles of Kronenbourg 1664.
Malik and Cunningham are inspired by bands like Love Apple, with their haunting voices and fierce feminist stances that were taboo at the time. Songwriters are storytellers, Malik said, beginning to gush. Say She She – the name is an homage to disco icon Neil Rogers and his band Chic, with a little French word play (“it’s chic”) – is how they express their truths, their experiences.
“That’s what our project is really about – women’s voices being heard and being shared,” she said. “Women coming together and voicing their pains and pleasures and ideas and hopes for the world. Some of our songs are a little political, and others are just love songs.”
Now, they’re up to 20 songs, 15 of which are ready to roll out onstage and in the studio. Say She She has played at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London and cut demos at Joey Crispiano’s (who worked with Sharon Jones) studio in Dumbo. Early next year, they plan to record a full-length album in Kingston, Jamaica.
While they handle the vocals and the lyrics, Malik and Cunningham are backed by several musicians they hand-picked to join “the family,” the girls say referring to band. At C’mon Everybody, the audience will meet guitarist Matty McDermott (of NYMPH), Steve Okonski (of Durand Jones and The Indications) on the keyboard, Izaak Mills on the Indian-infused bansuri flute, bassist Nikhil Yerawadekar (of Antibalas) and drummer Andy Bauer (of Twin Shadow).
“They support our voices, they nourish the songs and they bring beautiful parts,” Malik said. “The songs are from our soul, and we hope that the lyrics move people, but without the musicians behind us, it’s nothing without the music. It’s the bedrock.”
Going off of the girls’ roots as musicians-for-hire, jumping in and supporting other bands’ projects, Say She She will call both Brooklyn and London home base, inviting artists to participate and collaborate by simply make connections and creating opportunities for music globally.
“Who are youuuu? Who are youuuu?” the girls croon together, their lips grazing the microphone. The intensity settles with Malik’s Punjabi verses, then builds back up again with Cunningham’s powerful wails.
They’re waxing about a former flame, one who very wrongly assumed things could be patched up after breaking up the relationship, and while they may not have it all figured out in the love department, it’s quite the opposite in their budding musical careers.
“We’re a little bit wiser now and able to articulate and know what our taste is and have more confidence to navigate the world,” Malik said, “especially as women in the industry.”
The ensemble is performing on June 1 at the Bed-Stuy venue C’mon Everybody.
Photos Courtesy of Say She She Band and Piya Malik