Being a singer and songwriter

 2 January 2013

Singer and songwriter Netsayi began entering singing competitions at the age of 10, but didn’t consider a career in music until later. She spoke about her career journey.

Netsayi says her music uses Zimbabwean rhythyms, but experiments with a wide range of styles. Photo: Joke Schot
Netsayi says her music uses Zimbabwean rhythyms, but experiments with a wide range of styles. Photo: Joke Schot

Starting out as a singer

"When I got into being a musician, I don’t know if it was a compulsion or a decision. It was probably a mixture of the two.

"I was born in England. When I was seven my family went back to Zimbabwe. After leaving school and university, I worked in film and TV there for quite a long time.

"Eventually I got sick of pushing paper in production, and came back to England to study for an MA. Halfway through, I left and started doing backing vocals for various bands. Then I started writing and playing my own stuff.

"I had entered the Zimbabwean version of the Eisteddfod singing competitions from about the age of ten, but it never crossed my mind to be a singer. 

"Sometimes you can be in denial about your creative vocation. You might be afraid of going for it – until it just breaks out!"

"I think when it comes to your aspirations and your true creative vocation, sometimes you can be in denial about it for a while.

"You might even be a bit afraid of going for it, especially if it’s in the arts and you’re from a family or society that doesn’t really encourage that. So you refute what you really want to do – until it just breaks out!

"I speak fluent English but I went to a school in the middle of Southern Africa. Culturally, who I am hasn't always made sense to me. I made a conscious decision to incorporate everything that I am into my music, along with everything I’m interested in academically and culturally."

Recording and performing music

"In film, there are so many restrictions on what you can make. It can be very expensive, which is one reason I gave up working in it. On the other hand, if I sing, I can just write the song and do whatever I want.

"I feel quite pressured when people ask me what kind of music I make. I’m a singer and a writer. I like words, poetry, and simplicity.

"When my songs are arranged, I like using the influence of rhythm patterns from Zimbabwe, but I also like using the band to experiment. My music can be avant-garde, R&B, folk, jazz, soul, or traditional. It can be many things.

"In my life as a musician, I want to be skilled. I want to satisfy my curiosity on a day-to-day basis. The next achievement is always ‘How well can I sing this song? How good can I make this arrangement? How can I express real, deep sadness, loneliness, jubilation or apathy?’"

Developing your creative skills

"Obviously, I want to be successful. If 'successful' means ‘as many people as possible on the planet knowing about my music and appreciating it’, being a musician also has to involve being a businessperson.

"As a businessperson, my aspiration is to be self-sufficient. I’d like to be able to afford to implement my ideas, and to implement bigger ideas.

"At the same time, I like to maintain some sort of creative control over what I’m doing. But these are always issues that have to be negotiated and compromised, depending on who you’re in partnership with and who’s putting your record out.

"In terms of artistic integrity, you have to be confident, but also humble enough to know when something doesn’t work."

"In terms of artistic integrity, I try to straddle the strange place between humility and arrogance.

"You have to be confident enough to say ‘these are the elements of what I’m doing that I would like to maintain’, but also humble enough to know when something doesn’t work. That’s the dilemma of every artist. 

"People ask what I'll do if music doesn’t work out for me. I don’t know what 'working out' means. You just do something as long as you’re interested in it.

"I don’t think it’s healthy to assume that ‘working out’ means you’re going to blow up. You have to have made the decision that you’re doing music because it’s what you do. 

"Creating and being interested in the world is just how your brain works when you’re an artist. It’s not about blowing up.

"If you blow up, you can keep doing it for longer and more comfortably, but not necessarily. There are so many variables.

"If it doesn’t work out, at what point do you go ‘I am failing’? It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s all about psychological robustness."

The work of self-promotion

"Social networking helps, but it can also be really distracting. You’ve got so much to do as a musician, and you’re so under-resourced. Many professional musicians practise for eight hours a day, but you can easily lose two hours online.

"So much of music has become about the PR. I got my licensing deal through MySpace, and that was great, but in the end I handed the management of my MySpace back to the record company because it was a full marketing responsibility.

"Every artist should develop their entrepreneurial side, otherwise your fate is completely in the hands of other people."

"If it’s just you doing your marketing, writing, practising, arranging, and sorting out your band, you’ve got to keep everything in proportion.

"There’s millions of things that go into the production of you as an artist. My effort to become successful as a singer consumes my days.

"The internet is very useful, but I find meeting people in person, to talk to them about what they’re doing, is just as important. Meeting with people helps you realise that you’re not isolated in the issues you face.

"I think every artist should develop their entrepreneurial side to some degree, otherwise your fate is completely in the hands of other people, and that’s totally unnecessary."

3 tips for musicians

  1. Break down your tasks
    "The best advice that I’ve heard? When I embarked on the mission of recording my first album, I was talking to the composer and producer Nitin Sawhney about it. He said, 'Just record one song at a time.'
    "I was seeing the whole project and going, ‘Oh my God, all these musicians, all these songs, some of them are only half-written, I don’t know what I’m doing'. To see it as one song at a time was much easier."
  2. Decide what kind of music career you want
    "Musicians work in a very high-risk business. But there are so many types of careers in music: cover artists, jazz singers, people who only want to sing in a pub, and million dollar selling artists. 
    "A friend of mine has released 16 albums; he’s a successful artist, but he’s not world-famous like Beyoncé! There are so many degrees of success."
  3. Be resilient
    "Be wary of the establishment in the music industry, especially when you have a meeting with someone. They might seem as if they should know everything, because of the desk they’re sitting behind, but their opinions are only opinions.
    "A lot depends on your psychological resilience and what you understand to be correct for yourself. Be really honest with yourself, and constantly reassess your goals.
    "There are no rules. Your strength is everything. Be confident about what you’re doing, even your mistakes. Be strong enough to deal with what’s being thrown at you, or you won’t ever get out of bed!"

To find out more about Netsayi's music, visit her website

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