AWA on Fame, Meditation, Mental Health and Growing Up in the Music Industry

Photography: Nicole Ngai / Styling: Carlotta Constant assisted by Emelia Gayner / Set Design: Victoria Wood / Hair: Marvin Francis / Makeup: Doey Drummond using Danessa Myricks Beauty / Interview & Words: Carolina Abbott Galvão

As the first ever winner of the Swedish X Factor at the age of 15, AWA is no stranger to life in the spotlight. We sat down with the rising star to discuss her creative awakening alongside spirituality, peace, the power of meditation and how she’s learned to carve her place in an industry that prizes overworking. 

Awa Santesson-Sey enters the Zoom frame with a jade roller in hand. “We’re not recording the video, right?” she laughs, massaging the gadget onto her face. 

Awa is relieved when I say no, even though she usually loves an audience. It’s a side effect of being born with a performative streak, she explains. Growing up, she never shied away from the spotlight. 

Fresh-faced in a green sweatshirt, Awa is instantly forthcoming. “Whenever [my mother] was watching a movie or something at home I was always standing and performing in front of the TV.” Though it wasn’t a musical household per se, it definitely was artistic – Awa’s mother had been a ballet dancer, so they were both “theatrical” in their own ways. “Apparently she was living the lifestyle that I’m living. When I was younger, [my mother] always tried to tell me that she was at all the cool events and that she was dating rock stars.”

At home in Stockholm, Awa and her mom always had music playing. “It was a lot of Stevie Wonder, Destiny’s Child and then there was this Swedish girl group called Bubbles I was obsessed with. I remember I loved them, but I [thought] could never be in a group because imagine sharing all that attention,” she jokes. Awa is self-assured but doesn’t take herself too seriously.

After winning the Swedish X Factor when she was only 15, Awa then moved to London three years ago and signed with Columbia Records in 2019. Now 24, she’s released a string of pop-tinged R&B singles including tracks like F**kin Love Songs, which Julie Adenuga premiered on Beats 1 that same year, and self-love anthem Like I Do. Her first EP, Crybaby, came out earlier this year.

Has she always known she wanted to sing? “Since I was five. And I’ve been wanting to be with Columbia [Records] since I was 10,” says Awa.  “I grew up early and [because of] a lot of family stuff that happened, I had to take on quite a lot of responsibility. But I kind of like that because it made me very fearless and determined to understand that if I want something out of life, I just have to go get it myself.” In some ways, this explains why Awa insisted she audition for  X Factor while she was only 14. “I remember dragging my mom [there],” she smiles. 

Awa sees her time on the show as both a blessing and a curse and I ask her what it was like to be exposed to such a wide audience when she was only 14. “I do think in hindsight that I was too young, and became really overworked and depressed after that,” she tells me. “I remember I cried when I won,” Awa says. “Cried happy tears, but I also cried because I was so thankful it was over. Because I was so tired.”

Looking back, she says the toll the stress took on her was visible. “I was so, so skinny and there were loads of other physical symptoms. My body was trying to tell me to calm down,” she recalls. Even after the show ended, she felt overworked and underappreciated. “I won the show so I had to go on a tour in Sweden, which, in hindsight, was such a rip off. People came to see me and I barely got paid, but the people who arranged it got paid so much money.”

Tired of feeling like a “puppet” for others’ interests, Awa realised she had to take time off. “I took a five-year break from releasing anything because they wanted me to release stuff that I didn’t like,” says Awa. And even at a young age, she found herself rejecting the industry’s attempts to “mould” her in a certain way. “I’m really happy that I’ve been so stubborn because at the end of the day, no matter what they said, I’d have to be the one standing for it”.

So, Awa went back to college and studied economic entrepreneurship.  “It was nice to just focus on that for a bit, but at the same time, I started working loads on my Instagram and using those opportunities so I could invest in my music. From those brand partnerships, I started going to LA and London because, when I was refusing to release stuff, obviously no one was going to pay for me to go anywhere,” she says.

“I remember one time my former management was flying one of their artists out to LA and I was in the office and saw the dates so I just went home and booked my tickets. I just called my friend who was there at the time and said ‘babe, can I stay with you?’… One day, I knew they were going to go into a meeting at this publishing company, and I just crashed it.”

It was only in 2019, however, that she started releasing music that she’d written and stood for again. But though she felt like she was progressing professionally at the time, she was still struggling with mental health. “I started struggling with panic attacks and anxiety and was quite depressed, but without knowing it, because I was suppressing it with loads of work,” she recalls.

When the first lockdown hit in March, Awa realised she needed to seek help. “It was the first time in 10 years that I had time to sit down with my thoughts without any work or any clubs to go to as a way to suppress my emotions. I realised I was super depressed and didn’t feel great,” she tells me. “And then I went back to Sweden and got a lot of support from my mom and started therapy.”

Writing her latest song during lockdown, the soulful Live and Learn felt like a way to process what she was going through at the time. “When I wrote it, I was so over everything. I just needed to find some kind of silver lining,” she says.  In the song, she grapples with what it feels like to “fight with her mind” and reassures herself that “nothing lasts forever”: “not love/not pain/wake up and do better for you,” she sings. 

“I think we have to treat ourselves as we would treat our best friend. A lot of the time, we just give out that love so freely, but we don’t give anything to ourselves,” she tells me. At this point, she retrieves a painting she made during lockdown, in which she’d outlined a series of reminders for herself when she was at her worst, and begins to take me through them.

“It was: wake up, breathe, do a 10-minute work out – because I told myself I could commit to 10 minutes– and eat because I wouldn’t eat unless I reminded myself to”. Now, because her health has started improving, she tells me her and her therapist have built upon some of those routines. “I make my bed every morning because that’s a form of accomplishment. Then, I do a 10-minute yoga session and 15 minutes of meditation. I also always put on music and have a little dance party in the morning. Then, I go outside.”

Does she see meditation as an escape from anxious and intrusive thoughts or a fuel for potential creativity? “I think escape is an important word to shift the perspective on because I don’t believe in escaping yourself. That’s what I did for five years, which just made it worse because I was pretending. But you can’t run from yourself. I’ve learned to become friends with my negative thoughts.”

In some ways, prioritising her mental health has changed the way Awa approaches making music and thinks about her career. She’s still stubborn and determined to make it big – that’ll never change. But she’s learned to be easier on herself. “I think when I started taking the pressure off myself to write hits every time I was in the studio, that’s when I started writing good songs because I started letting it flow.”

From her flat in West London she explains that leaving Sweden also inspired changes to her sound. “My dad is from Senegal and I’ve been there a couple times, but it’s interesting because it’s only now that I’ve moved to London that I feel like I’ve embarked on a journey of connecting to those roots and combining those Senegalese sounds into my music, which is so important to me. In Sweden, I grew up in a quite posh, white neighbourhood and there was no one who looked like me,” she says. “Now, I get to be in rooms with people that may have the same kind of background as me and are embarking on similar journeys. Or have been very present in both of their cultures or just one culture or whatever, so it’s just more of a freeing playground here.”

As our time together comes to an end, I ask if she has any plans for the future. “Oh, you know that I know,” she laughs heartily. “I even have my wedding planned. I don’t have the husband yet, but I have it planned.” Awa isn’t the kind of person who’s afraid to think out loud. “I want to take over the world with my music and try to influence people in a good way,” she says. “I want to sell out the O2 because I love performing and there’s nothing more magical than just being in a room where everyone’s there to enjoy something – it’s such a beautiful energy. I get chills just thinking about it.”

These days, she’s trying to be less rigid with her plans, though. “My most important goal is to maintain my balance and mental wellbeing,” she says, “and you know, fill my cup so it runneth over.”

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