Discotech-maestro HiFi Sean and house vocalist extraordinaire Crystal Waters unleashed their killer “Testify” in 2016, a joyous combination of house music and stomping Motown/Northern Soul piano.
It was just a few short years ago, yet so much has changed: That clear-eyed, free feel of “Testify” seems almost inappropriate now. Sean is from Scotland, part of the (now ironically named) United Kingdom, a country seemingly intent on tearing itself apart and descending into some kind of far-right madness. “What happened next will astound you” used to be clickbait; now it’s just another day in UK politics.
Meanwhile, in the US, whatever your political leanings, you can’t fail to be affected by the depressingly familiar reports of another school shooting, another unarmed black man shot dead by police, regardless of your opinion on the general lurch towards the far-right that both the UK and US are currently taking.
In these dark days, what is an artist to do? House music culture has always had an element of escapism to it, and it’s tempting to simply run and hide from the hateful stream of lies-masquerading-as-political-discourse that fills TV, radio and internet at the moment. Where is the place for music, for art in all this?
Escapism isn’t enough for everyone;hence Sean and Crystal’s “Heavy”. The pair take up the story.
If you start believing that you cannot make a difference in life with your art, words, thoughts & beliefs then the powers that be have won and driven you down. Never ever let that happen.
Crystal: I wrote the song “Heavy” in a reaction to the status of the world today. With a 24/7 news cycle you can’t ignore some of the unbelievable events and revelations occurring today. From Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo Movement to school shootings, you have to wonder how did we get here and are we ever going to get out of it?
Sean: In a way, it is satirical regarding the song’s subject matter but it’s done in a such a positive and uplifting manner. Even on the record sleeve artwork we are laughing our heads off as sometimes that’s the best you can do to combat the shit.
It is basically like what they did on blues records: you sing about your social situation and make light and dark of it. So in this respect, Crystal is singing the blues and that is the approach I took with the production: to make a modern-day blues track with a house attitude.
I think the line “I turn on the evening news, what the hell are they doing? The whole world’s in ruins, fuck me” is something we can all relate to but kind of have a wry smile about too.
5 Mag: Why are you doing this, why now?
Crystal: Sean lives in the UK and he’s dealing with Brexit, he wanted to time it with the [previous] October 31 exit date. I think he feels this song represents what a lot of people are feeling in the UK.
Sean: It’s quite funny as we were working on this track on and off for a while around both our schedules. Once it was finished I looked into scheduling it on my label Plastique Recordings and realized it kinda landed the week before the “latest” Brexit date. So why not release it that day? I mean it sounds opportunistic to use that day to release your record but at least we are giving people something uplifting to sing that day that might make them feel a little lighter with what is going down, whatever happens… If it does happen or if it does not. It’s just constant uncertainty and nonsense, it should have never happened in the first place.
So it was a happy accident that it got scheduled for that week and it just felt right. But I would like to make the point it’s not a “Brexit record” and I would hate for it to be thought of like that. It’s a record for our times in general.
READ MORE: Hifi Sean: Searching for the Perfect Beat
5 Mag: What is the message of Heavy?
Crystal: I don’t think there’s a straight forward message. I feel the lyrics will resonate with what a lot of people are feeling. Sometimes you just got to shake your head and wonder…
Sean: As I said, when things are shit you sing the blues. Crystal sang the blues beautifully and together we nailed something that does not sound like anything about but also has an edge to it.
I mean there are so so so many boring lyrics in house music and how did that happen? I mean, it used to be a platform to make social commentary but recently it’s all just mundane subject matter, so it’s nice to hear something with some kind of substance to it back on a dance floor that hopefully makes you think as well as dance. Satirical house music — haha!
5 Mag: “Testify” was such a joyful track; you made it just a few years ago, but in those few short years since then the general public mood in the UK and I’m guessing in the US too has darkened. What would you say happened?
Crystal: Well I’m a songwriter, I don’t sit down to purposely write happy or sad or political songs, it’s what hits me at the moment. Plus we already did that! That’s why I like working with Sean — it’s always something fresh and new.
Sean: As Crystal said there really is no reason at all to make the same record again. Another trap within current house production too is to use the same sounds over and over again. So many producers stick to a formula and basically that is what it ends up sounding like: a safe formula. With this we were striving to have the same rush and energy and soul as “Testify” without sounding anything remotely like it. I am very proud of that we manage to achieve that.
5 Mag: Can music make a difference?
Crystal: Yes, I believe music makes a difference in everyone’s life. Doesn’t everyone have a favorite song that just lights them up, conjures up a beautiful memory or even just helps you get through your workout?
If you’re asking if music makes a difference politically, just think of songs like “We Shall Overcome.” I believe that song gave people hope and got a lot of people through a hard time.
Sean: If you start believing that you cannot make even a minuscule difference in life with your art, words, thoughts and beliefs then the powers that be have won and driven you down. Never ever let that happen. I know this sounds really corny but I really meant the slogan on the [Soup Dragons] record “I’m Free” by adding the line “Don’t be afraid of your freedom” to it. I still think like that and I think those words resonate as much today as they did back then.
• • •
Editor’s Note: Since we conducted this interview, the UK government delayed the date of Brexit yet again to January 2020, which no longer coincided with the release date of “Heavy.” In the general election on December 12, the Conservative government won a large majority and Labour had its worst showing since 1935. We asked Sean for his thoughts just ahead of press time:
Sean: To be honest I am more surprised by how politics these days are so swayed by social media and online nonsense doing the rounds to the point of destroying the world, which is basically being ran by idiots who are not seeing the main issues needing to be solved and focusing on the trivial.
It’s like celebratory charades of soundbyte freaks being in the driving seat than anyone with actual intelligence or soul for the people they are working for — and yes they work for us (supposedly).
My country is in a bloody mess and has been for a long time. To think next year we will be leaving Europe and how much pain and anguish that will cause so many makes me feel sick to my stomach that those in charge have let it come this far and brainwash those who believe it’s some kind of a good thing. It also disgusts me that people are so gullible to these similar repeating brand slogans — “Get Brexit Done” / “Make America Great Again” — hashtag politics!
I am hoping that like in any past dark times, when things are real shit people respond by revolting with their art, may it be music, literature, visual, you name it, as sometimes we need to immerse ourselves in the worlds we dream of just to escape the worlds we are living in.
I remember the day I turned up to the studio to make The Soup Dragons’ record “I’m Free” and someone had graffiti’d on the studio wall outside the phrase “Don’t be afraid of your freedom.” It was during the rave years in UK and Margaret Thatcher was doing everything she could to close down a country partying hard — all tribes, no matter what class, sexual orientation or color, for once everyone was one and it was a beautiful thing to be part of and experience.
The moment I saw it I thought, this needs to be part of the track, to historically stamp it to this era I am experiencing as the machine one day will grind this all down. Which it did, but I have great hope that like in those times everyone will finally come out the other end and we will all work together again as one to make this world a better place for our future generations.
Heavy is out now on Plastique Recordings. Original photo by Gavin Mills.