mysie ivor novello
photo: Chio Fernández / press


"It's not about standing still, it's all about moving forward"

This week may just be the biggest one yet for London-based artist Mysie. She’s just released new single “Bones,” a bold yet intricately produced song with soulful vocals, but an even bigger career-high awaited her on Wednesday. She has won one of the most prestigious British songwriting prizes – the Ivor Novello Rising Star Award, a newly introduced category in this year’s award ceremony.

Mysie is in Somerset, doing some writing on her next few singles when I talk to her about the nomination. “God, I’m so excited,” she remarks enthusiastically over the phone. “I guess I felt like I had a shot at it for sure because I love my composition and I love my writing. That award in particular really champions, and is great for songwriters. It’s just the most prestigious award for songwriting and composition, so honestly – to get that nomination, it did blow me away. I definitely felt my heart jump out of my chest when I got the email,” she adds cheekily.
In a way, the nomination serves as recognition and appreciation for Mysie’s career path so far, which includes a name change. Before Mysie became Mysie, she was just a regular teenager named Lizbet Sempa. At 16 years old, she started writing and composing. “I was happy with what I’d been doing – I loved the stuff that I was making, and the writing I was doing at the time. I still do now,” Mysie reassures me. “It’s still me, just under a different name. It’s more that when I decided to rebrand, it was on the basis of,” she trails off for a bit. “I was kind of surrounding myself with people that really wanted to put me in this box of ‘oh that singer-songwriter, soul singer’ and like, I wasn’t really – I didn’t really feel like I was that. I have so many influences, I’m so much more than that. I just didn’t want to be put in a box.”

mysie ivor novello

It’s admirable that at such a young age, Mysie had already figured out what so many artists struggle with much later on in their career – she is the only one who can define her. She’s confident in her abilities, and her unique contribution to the music industry that stems from a wide range of influences that crosses into other forms of art as well. “When I make my music, I always visually see it. I have a background in dance and drama, and I really wanted to incorporate that and personally start afresh as Mysie. That way I could channel every influence into my work without feeling limited by my name. I had a lot of comparisons – stuff like ‘oh, she’s like Nina Simone, she’s like Laura Mvula – and those artists are incredible and iconic artist,” she rushes to explain, “but they’re totally different to me. It’s incomparable to me.”

A better way to put it then is that changing her name to Mysie was a way out, rather than a way to start afresh. It was a way to move towards authenticity – something at the core of Mysie’s work overall, together with progression. “That’s the whole point of being limitless. It’s that there is so much room for progression and evolvement. I think that’s just such an amazing thing – it’s not about standing still, it’s about moving forward.”

Given that Mysie hasn’t even yet brought out her first full record, she shouldn’t be pigeonholed as anything but the rising and ever-evolving star that she is, anyways. “I really do see this, and myself as a progression – you won’t really know what to expect for the next single or the one after that. I see each song like a standalone, that’s how they’re released. They’re like singles, but the one thing that ties it all together is my voice, obviously.”

“Bones” is the latest offering, showing off yet a different side of Mysie’s wide range of influences. More importantly, it’s meant to serve as a reflection of herself. She likes to describe as a song that is about “going within and what that has to offer.” Having had ample time to sit down and write without distractions during lockdown, it also gave her the opportunity to understand herself better. “It’s born out of lockdown, and everything that’s happened since with COVID, Black Lives Matter. I honestly feel like a totally different person from when I wrote that track,” Mysie explains. “I knew that it was such a defining moment, in terms of finding myself as an artist and actually being totally honest. And to me, my honest place is home. Home is where I’m from, it’s my culture, my heritage – my influences, everything that I’ve been influenced by. Whether that’s music or other stuff. Home symbolizes a lot for me, and it’s where I’m most comfortable. But home is also where you get the most amazing, incredible, in the moment work. It’s where your best creativity comes from – it’s really about trusting your gut.”

It’s something that’s particularly important in the music industry, trying to strike the right balance between following your instincts and taking on advice from people with experience. “There’s a lot of noise out there, and you can get lost and clouded. I’m sure a lot of people have felt that. But when I connect myself to my roots, and where I’m from and what I’m influenced by, my heritage – my self – that’s the true bones, the true being of who I am.”

Looking at Mysie’s family tree, it’s only logical that she would end up in music herself as well. One of her cousins worked on the Skepta track “Shutdown,” and her brother also produces music for other artists. “It’s been good to have relatives that are in music and know what it’s like – it’s comforting. Obviously we’ve all got our own careers, but they’ve always been there. It’s really important to surround yourself with the right people, and family is family. Love them,” she adds on a giggle.

There’s a wide variety of different musical flavors and influences when it comes to Mysie’s family background. In fact, where her cousins may be her biggest supporters – having helped her record her first single – it’s her grandfather that’s been particularly influential; and not just for Mysie. “My grandfather went to Congo and learned Congolese Jazz there, and basically brought that over to Uganda, and did a mix of jazz and blues. He was essentially a pioneer of Ugandan jazz and blues, and was very well renowned,” Mysie explains to me proudly.

Given that her grandfather then went on to make ballroom and salsa music too, it goes to show that having an eclectic music taste and a need to constantly explore new styles is coded into her DNA. “I’ve got a legacy to carry on,” she half-jokes. “I’m lucky, I have a job that I love. And even when I think of him [grandfather], I tear up a bit, because his background is just so amazing. I’ve actually never talked about this before I think, but my mum’s dad was actually in my grandad’s band! He was a trumpet player in my grandad’s band and was also part of a police band. So the music runs heavily through all generations in my family.”

But, the bones of who Mysie is as an artist aren’t just a genetic manifestation of her roots – it’s also got a physical, environmental element to it. “Me being in London, England, the places I’ve grown up in – I’m originally from Croydon, but then I’ve lived in South Africa for a bit too. I was exposed to Afrikaner music, and then I came back here. Plus, I did jump a lot across various primary and secondary schools, so I’ve just met so many people with different backgrounds. Even with my brothers and sisters, there’s quite a big age gap – and that brings other genres of music with it as well. And I’ve taken it all in, and loved it!”

The stories Mysie tells to the beat of ever-evolving new soundscapes are all written from a personal perspective. And while that’s always been the case for her, staying true to what she’s been through and what she’s seen, something feels different now. “Usually my inspiration comes from what I’ve seen, think, what I see, how I feel, and how I view other situations around me. I know that a lot of music I did write in lockdown was very charged from what’s been going on in the present time.” She adds that it’s easier to write with friends because there’s an emotional connection there already – the writing room feels safer that way. “With the stuff I’m going through, not everything is sad, but even with the writing process it’s such a healing process – not just getting over it, but it’s just very healing for me to express myself.”

And while she prefers a more poetic approach in her writing, you can definitely expect current events to be reflected in her music. “My main thing is just making sure that I make music that’s true to me and what I’m feeling – that’s it’s totally relevant not only to what’s going on, but more so what’s going on with me.”

It’s a balancing act at times, particularly as a Black female artist in an industry still plagued with racism. Music can be a conduit for activism and discussion, but sometimes people just need music as a form of escapism. Besides, it shouldn’t be the only art expected of an artist. Mysie is well aware of that dichotomy herself. “As a Black female artist, I know what I’ve been through, you know? Nina Simone was speaking directly and writing music about what was going on in her time. She wrote about the civil rights movement, she was there, experiencing it. And I still, like, for me – you know, I’ve been through a lot of traumas, and especially with the BLM movement, like – during the lockdown and everything that had happened with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. A lot has come out there, and a lot of people have started to realize what they’ve experienced and that it’s racism. And I think it was a real, a huge realization for a lot of people,” she starts.

“It was very hard for me, I’ve really struggled, and I’m still working on that now, on addressing that. And the first step is acknowledging that the trauma is there and I think that there will always be an undertone of that in my music, always. But I think it’s really important for me as an artist, a Black artist. I want to be as open as possible and I want to make music that I love and will make people feel some type of way, whether that’s nostalgic or happy. I don’t want to make people feel upset, but sometimes you need that. I think it’s really important – I could go out and you know, speak about that in my songs, but I feel like I need to be open as an artist. I’ve relived a lot, and I want to be happy,” Mysie explains.

mysie ivor novello
photo: Chio Fernández / press

As for so many others, the lockdown suddenly presented her with time to work through her emotions and experiences. “I’m only now starting to understand certain decisions and choices I’ve made in the past, based on this trauma that I’d never addressed, essentially. So it’s obviously in the music – it speaks. It’s always been my healing mechanism, my way to heal from racism and negativity. It is cathartic and therapy as well. But now I’m starting to feel okay, there’s still so much work to do – in every single avenue. I have a duty as an artist, as a Black female artist, to uplift other Black artists, other Black female artists, other female artists, other people. I do have a duty to amplify black voices. It’s so important, especially in the music industry.”

The fact that Mysie was typecast so early on in her career as a Black female artist, rather than giving her room to grow and develop as an individual artist with her own unique style of music, shows just how important that is – and how much still needs to be done. And while these are her experiences, it’s only part of who she is as an artist. It doesn’t define how she creates her music or crafts her songs.

In fact, Mysie stresses that it’s the melody, rather than the message that functions as her usual starting point. “Piano comes first – the foundation is the melody. And then through that, I feel like the natural meaning comes through and I then make sense of it. It’s a different process each time, but I do feel like the music, the feel, and energy of the song itself – the melody is so important to me.” And while she doesn’t actively challenge herself, there is a part of her that wants to constantly stretch her creativity to different planes of songwriting. Sometimes that means writing about what other people are going through, “there’s a part where I can detach myself and I can write songs that have nothing to do with me or my environment. I made a song about me grabbing a plane to Italy last minute for no reason,” she laughs. The scenario seems very unlikely these days, of course, but – “it’s really about creativity and thinking outside of the box. I want to make something that I really enjoy.”

Clearly, it’s an approach that works well, as it’s bagged her an Ivor Novello Award – as well as the mentorship of none other than Fraser T Smith. She lights up when we talk about him. “It’s honestly been one of the best experiences of my life, really. Having a mentor is very important in this industry, he just knows what he’s talking about, he’s so open and that’s what I really respect about him.”

Having worked with incredible artists like Stormzy and Dave, being called the next big star by Smith is a big feat. Yet Mysie says that it’s not just about the music itself. “The mentorship is not only about me and him giving me advice about my records, but also about me overall as a person. What we have inside, whether it’s fear or fate, whatever it is – that is what makes the music. I feel like your mindset affects it all, and his mentorship has made me learn so much valuable stuff! He [Smith] has never been like “this is the one way”. It’s always been, you are open to taking what you want to absorb, and you’re open to leave what you don’t agree with. It’s really been life-changing, and I’m super grateful.”

With her new award and mentor sorted, Mysie is absolutely ready for the future. But even though she did create enough material for a full album in lockdown, she thinks that it’ll be a while before an album eventually emerges. “My first album is my goal and dream, so I’m definitely looking forward to it. But I feel like for now, I’ll be dropping singles up until next year, but I really do want to release two more EPs before I do release an album. I feel like I need to be ready, in that zone – there. I need to be present in order to fully commit myself. But when it does arrive, it’ll be banging,” she promises me, “it’ll bang!”

Listen to “Bones” now: