In a Caribbean takeaway in south east Birmingham, the lunchtime rush is in full swing. As kitchen staff shovel beef patties into paper bags and layer curry mutton over hearty portions of rice and peas, a small congregation begins to gather around the store’s front counter. Standing in the centre of the room is SIPHO., whose warm and full-hearted laugh echoes above the din. Donning a puffer coat and a Red Hot Chili Peppers cap, he looks quietly elated as he exchanges fistbumps with delivery drivers; it’s a genuine reflection of how this young, thoughtful musician engages with his local community.
Ahead of the release of his debut album ‘Prayers & Paranoia’, the 23-year-old (whose artist name is pronounced ‘See-Poe’) is reckoning with one of early adulthood’s big questions: what does it mean to return to your hometown? Following a year-long stint in London, SIPHO. has recently settled back in Birmingham, where he was raised by Zimbabwean parents. “Your perspective changes as you move between places,” he tells NME as we exit his favourite food joint, styrofoam boxes of stew in hand. This is always the first place he visits after returning from work trips to the capital, he adds. “My fingerprint isn’t solely on Birmingham, but being back here feels like some form of nourishment.”
‘Prayers & Paranoia’ subverts the traditional template for a coming-of-age album: this is a record rooted in existentialism, one that is both self-searching and outwardly critical. It was made during a time in SIPHO.’s life where he had spiralled into thoughts of insecurity, as well as the notions of the super-ego and one’s idealised self-image. Much like his 2021 EP ‘And God Said…’, these tracks occasionally allude to the emotional complexities of his upbringing in the Seventh-Day Adventist church. “Don’t try sell me your prayers,” he sings on ‘The Chemicals’, which melds a sonorous funk bassline with layers of percussion.
Elsewhere, SIPHO. addresses the difficulty in finding connection among a generation living their lives almost entirely online (‘Elevation’) and intrusive thoughts (the jungle-influenced ‘Sober’). “Before I start on a project, I outline a mission statement,” he says. “And this time, I wanted to contrast the themes with quintessential British sounds, from drum ‘n’ bass to northern soul and R&B.” He goes on to list Maverick Sabre and the late Amy Winehouse as core inspirations; yet SIPHO. possesses a similarly soulful and booming voice to his heroes, one that can express strength through a deep tenor, as highlighted on album centrepiece ‘Glue’. There’s much to admire and savour here.
“When I was making my album, I was thinking, ‘Is this going to push things forward?”
“It was interesting to see all these thoughts I had about the person I was becoming – the ‘what if’ scenarios and eventual conclusions – come together as I worked on the album,” SIPHO. says. Musically, the central idea is that he eventually lands on some resolution for these overarching narratives as the album unfurls. He’s not alone in this ambition: recent projects from Oxford R&B upstart Elmiene and BRIT Rising Star 2022 nominee Lola Young have also touched on the fears – of growing disillusioned, tired, and directionless – that unite many Gen Z artists trying to find their place in the world.
Despite the relative darkness of ‘Prayers & Paranoia’, SIPHO. fondly recalls experiences from its creation. The moments that change you are the ones that catch you completely off guard, he explains, describing how he recently picked up the guitar for the first time since he taught himself the instrument as a teenager, after returning to his favourite Queens Of The Stone Age records. Recent single ‘Lock It In (No Regrets)’, meanwhile, was co-written during a session at north London’s Church Studios with Paul Epworth, the influential songwriter and producer behind hits from Adele, Florence + The Machine and Bloc Party.
SIPHO. worked on the majority of the album in a Birmingham community arts hub that he shares with woodwork artists and DJs in Digbeth, the city’s creative quarter. A stone’s throw away is the crazy golf venue where he used to work as a cocktail bartender, which gave him the funds to buy second-hand recording equipment at the start of his career. “My universe is in this room,” he says, walking around the studio space, which contains boxes of patchouli incense and a record collection that spans recent works from Toro Y Moi, Thundercat, and Rina Sawayama, SIPHO.’s labelmate at Dirty Hit. “It’s here where I’m setting my foundations as an artist now: there’s already a consideration of legacy in my music.”
SIPHO.’s keenness to envision his trajectory could be traced back to how he has never neatly slotted into the pop landscape. His story is a vivid illustration of perseverance: after abandoning a prospective career in physiotherapy as a teenager, he turned to self-releasing tracks online, while balancing track athletics training with his studies at music college in Birmingham, where he eventually caught the attention of his label’s A&R at a showcase. His curiosity has since sent him in many directions, from gospel to bluesy rock and electronica: 2022 EP ‘She Might Bleed’, which received a five-star review from NME, proudly rejected the idea of a fixed musical identity.
“When I’m in the studio, I’ll always find a way to step things up,” SIPHO. explains. “I just know where my taste can take me, but I understand the limits of my voice, too.” He turns and points to a vocal first aid kit arranged on a shelf behind him: honey, vitamin supplements and tea. “So when I was making my album, I was sitting there thinking, ‘Is this music going to push things forward?’
“There’s already a consideration of legacy in my music.”
“‘She Might Bleed’ instilled that mindset in me. [Lead single] ‘Beady Eyes’ was the first time where everything came together perfectly: it’s essentially a rock song produced through an R&B lens, with some huge levels of bass. It’s like this cool, saucy mix of potent Black goodness. I had to challenge myself to keep making stuff like that.”
He continues: “But I’m not trying to be a posh wanker about all this – sometimes, messing around and having fun is important too. We all have the bullshit that we love.” He turns his TV on to play a snippet of Donald Glover’s 2018 Saturday Night Live episode, in which he parodies ‘80s R&B singer Oran ‘Juice’ Jones’ creepy music video for ‘The Rain’. SIPHO. attests that his own sense of humour, which shines through in his social media content – including one clip that describes ‘Prayers & Paranoia’ as “spiritual booty music” – comes from years of watching similar skits. In a climate where many labels’ obsession with TikTok attention is seemingly leading emerging artists to fabricate viral moments, SIPHO.’s no-frills approach to the platform feels quietly subversive.
What interests SIPHO., he says, is sharing parts of himself via the personal and considered songwriting of ‘Prayers & Paranoia’, instead of having to “perform” a personality on the internet every day. “There’s been a huge lesson learned in that I used to post constantly and I had friends calling me saying, ‘Yeah, that doesn’t seem like you. This is almost distasteful’,” he adds. “It’s never made sense for me to do things the way everyone else does. I’ve never envisioned my music blowing up online, nor do I think that needs to happen. This sounds so old-school, but I want to make shit that lasts.”
A strong sense of self, and SIPHO.’s clear range and intelligence, have all sometimes seemed as much of a burden to him as a gift. He’s a big thinker, one that has ambitions for the future – to inspire young Black creatives to pursue their dreams; to never let his passion lead to burnout – but also cuts a complex and frequently self-critical figure in conversation. “I’m still trying to figure out my transition from boy to man, and the value in the simple things I can do for other people,” SIPHO. says at one point.
‘Prayers & Paranoia’ is primarily about this search for understanding, regardless of the number of weighty topics the album manages to traverse. As the afternoon rolls on, SIPHO. continues to further explain to NME how his deep connections to place have informed his journey. Together, we slowly stroll around a number of formative spots for him: the soul and retro club where he once played drums for a Lionel Richie tribute act; a streetwear shop that both he and his fellow Brummie Jorja Smith have collaborated with; the park where he used to talk shit, smoke, and listen to music through tinny iPhone speakers with friends.
In a year that has seen SIPHO. perform at Austin’s SXSW Festival and complete his debut album, his own priorities have shifted – evident in how he has moved home and reconnected with the people, venues, music and food that he grew up with. “All of this is about trying to ground yourself,” he says. “And the cycle of giving, taking and sharing.” It’s an apt conclusion from SIPHO., a wise – and immensely talented – head on young shoulders.
SIPHO.’s ‘Prayers & Paranoia’ is out now on Dirty Hit
Listen to SIPHO.’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music
Writer: Sophie Williams
Photography: Tom Oxley
Styling: Korede Alabi and Kieran Thompson
Hair & Makeup: Shanice Brown
Label: Dirty Hit
Location: Mild Studios