Written by Sam Kohn
Born in the UK and raised in The Netherlands, Robyn Florence is a singer, writer, and producer making waves with her alluring voice and intimate sonic landscapes. Following in the footsteps of soul legends like Nina Simone, Sade, and Lianne La Havas, Robyn recently released her debut EP, Rêverie, where she explores the depths of love, the nuances of grief, and the intoxication of infatuation. Here, she talks to us about her biggest inspirations, the Amsterdam music scene, and the transformative power of ‘Sister Act.’
Hoi Robyn! Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where are you based and how would you describe your sound?
To me, the music feels really physical. It sounds wild, but if each song was a different part of my body, the whole sound of the project is who I am as a person. That’s why I always say it’s soul music.
Home has always been between Manchester and Amsterdam. I grew up back and forth. I think that’s why I sometimes have a sense of unrest in me. I didn’t always feel like I had a permanent base. Music became that for me when I was a kid, and a place where I could explore my identity and figure out who I am.
How did you first get into music, and who are your musical heroes?
Sister Act – hands down. Whoopi Goldberg put the light in my eyes when I saw it for the first time and I’ve never looked back. I watched musicals every day when I was little. It was such a dream of mine to be in one, but for some reason I couldn’t see it happening. I couldn’t place myself in the roles I was seeing because they were missing someone that looked like me.
I don’t think we should underplay the importance of representation, especially for young people. You need to see people doing the things you want to do to be able to picture yourself doing it; to know that you can. That’s why I love Sister Act so much. I was seeing this woman that looked like my mum and I was seeing characters that were important and beautiful and Black and I remember thinking “I can do that too.”
It was something I was always so aware of. When I was a kid I asked my mum why there were no Black mannequins in the shop windows. I knew at four years old that I was not seeing myself reflected in the world around me. So I draw inspiration and strength from the women that came before me because they are why I am able to picture myself here.
I always find it hard to answer the question about musical heroes, because I tend to think about people who I sound nothing alike, but what inspires me isn’t the sounds they make, but who they are as artists in this world.
So my musical heroes are Eunice Waymon, Billie Holiday, Beyoncé, Ma Rainey, and of course, Whoopi Goldberg. Those legacies keep me going.
We saw that you recently played your debut EP, Rêverie, at Paradiso – congrats! What was it like to perform at such an iconic venue?
It was so grounding to play in a place like that. When I think about the artists who have performed there, I almost can’t comprehend that I have too. But it just reminds me of our collective humanity, which I know sounds a bit woo-woo, but it helps me take people off a pedestal and see myself more clearly.
It was also one of the first times I’ve played without in-ear monitors for years. I was a bit nervous about that, but I forgot how much you can hear a crowd when you don’t have them in. Hearing people sing lyrics back to me was very cool. It feels good to know that people are enjoying the music so much that they know the words.
Sometimes I disassociate from the songs and I think “Who wrote that? That was amazing.” I have that a lot when I perform ‘Brown Skin.’ That song is such a gift – I feel like it was already out there flying around in the ether and I was just the one to put it on paper.
What’s the music scene like in Amsterdam? How does it compare to say, London or New York?
Musically, I think it’s quite expansive. Obviously there’s a big techno and dance scene, but there’s a huge variation of soul and R&B music. On the business side, it’s a funny one because it feels small and accessible and at the same time very intangible. It’s always about who you know, especially as an independent artist.
I don’t have management yet, I’m not signed to a label, and I don’t have a team of people working to elevate my career, so it’s really challenging to navigate. Fortunately, there are lots of foundations in Amsterdam that support new and upcoming artists. I wouldn’t have been able to release this project without that kind of support.
I don’t know much about the London or New York scenes, but I definitely want to spend time in both of them as I work on future projects. The US was my top country for a while on Spotify and New York has always been a big city for my listeners, so I know I need to go over there.
Your songwriting abilities really shine on your track “Feelings”. What does your creative process look like, and what do you think is the key to writing a great song?
I wish there was a foolproof manual on how to write a great song! I don’t have a go-to creative process, but what works for me is time and space. I have to create enough stillness around me to access the inspiration that will allow me to write.
I’m a big fan of dim lights; there’s something moody about it that helps me get to that place. It’s all in the environment for me – maybe a nice rug. Those things have to be right. Then we can talk about feelings and emotions and lyrics.
With “Feelings”, I remember waking up one morning with the chorus in my head, so I pulled out my laptop and immediately recorded the chords on the little Logic piano. When that kind of inspiration hits, you just have to get it down as quickly as possible, because once you get into your head about it, the moment is gone.
Later on you can take a step back and build the rest of the song around it, which is what I did. But where that initial magical inspiration comes from is a mystery to me. I just do my best to keep myself in a place where I can receive it.
Translating the song to the screen was harder than I thought it was going to be. When mapping out the script for the video, I had to think differently about the song. I had to put myself in the shoes of the person watching and think about how they were going to receive it; how I wanted them to receive it. That was an entirely different creative process that I’ve never done before. Still, I’m looking forward to doing it again!
Feelings was also recently featured on BBC Introducing. As an independent artist, how do you go about getting yourself out there?
I honestly can’t speak highly enough of BBC Introducing. They’ve been so supportive over the course of my release and it’s an amazing program for artists who are trying to get a start in music. This industry has never been more saturated, and BBC Introducing is not just a program that allows you to say: “Hey, I’ve been played on the radio.” They really want to nurture and celebrate upcoming talent, and they’ve meant a lot to me throughout this experience.
As far as getting yourself out there, I’m still figuring that out myself! I would just reiterate what I said earlier about putting yourself in a position to be inspired, whether that’s exploring new music, finding people on social media who inspire you, or going out to local gigs. That’s how you immerse yourself in the industry and meet like-minded creatives. It’s a lifetime thing. There’s not a visible end where you’ll say: “Right, I’m out there now.” The goalposts are always moving.
We understand that you wrote your university thesis on Black women in the industry, focusing on greats like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Ma Rainey. What do these artists mean to you, and how do they inspire your own work?
It’s so hard for me to answer this question without writing another thesis, but it goes back to me at four years old and being aware that I wasn’t seeing people that looked like me doing the things I wanted to do.
There’s literally over a century’s worth of evidence of the contributions that these women made to politics, culture, society and the consciousness of Black people. But there’s also a global history of Black erasure, which means they’re not appropriately acknowledged in our learning environments.
Learning about their lives was so deeply moving. The sacrifices they had to suffer because of the world they lived in, on top of the fact that they are still under-appreciated today, really lights a fire in me. They are a part of my ‘why’ and their legacies remind me of the importance of seeing the person behind the art.
What do you like most about the music industry today, and what’s one thing you would change?
What I love about the music industry today is that artists are able to have more autonomy. There are more resources for us to educate ourselves on the business. And one thing I would change in a heartbeat is streaming royalties. It’s come naturally with the evolution of technology, but in an ideal world, streaming services would be doing a much better job of allowing artists to earn a livable income from the amount of people listening to their music.
- What tracks do you have on repeat right now?
“Waterfall (I Adore You)” – Yebba
“How Does It Make You Feel” – Victoria Monét
“Do I Move You?” – Nina Simone
“One Of Your Girls” – Troye Sivan
And the entire Renaissance album!
- If you could open a show for any artist who would it be?
Lianne La Havas or Reuben James. Both. One day.
- What would you be doing right now if it wasn’t for your music career?
I would without a doubt be on stage somewhere, if not in a musical then in movies or on a show. I always wanted to be part of an ensemble cast. I actually turned down my offers to study acting in Manchester right before I decided I wanted to do music. Acting is something I know I’ll go back to eventually.
- First things that spring to mind about Amsterdam?
It’s definitely a laidback city, and I love that it’s small enough that you can bump into people you know, but not so small that you feel you need to escape.
- First things that spring to mind about Manchester?
There’s so much choice for food. I’m always on a mission to try every ramen place in the city whenever I’m over.
And it makes me feel grounded. I think of my family. The familiarity of the accent makes me feel at home.
Between the release of your EP, BBC radio airplay, and major live performances, 2023 has clearly been a big year for you. What does 2024 look like for Robyn Florence?
I definitely want to work more collaboratively. I’m going to re-imagine and re-produce some of the tracks from my EP with other artists and producers with features. I think they’ll sound quite different in 2024.
Then I want to get to work on my next project, explore what that’s going to sound like and go on a support tour. That’s my goal for next year.