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Artists Unplugged: Meet Schenay Mosley

The collective and band of artists Highness disbanded this past week. But as a funky and jazzy collective, the five women in the group have always stayed active with music outside of Highness. One of them is Schenay Mosley.

Schenay played keyboards in Highness, and she always felt a hunch she would eventually front her own act. She greets people with hugs, finds sanctuary in creating music, and doesn’t want to create negative music. Inspired by an entire lineage of soul and pop, ranging from Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder to Prince and ‘90s R&B, she sings, records, and performs her own brand of colorful, soulful music.

She sat down for an interview with Off-Kilter in anticipation of her upcoming releases. We talked about her high highs and low lows this year, how she respects musicians like Bowie or Prince who can create their own “lane” in music while defying the boundaries of genres, how Chicago artists are creating an artistic community as opposed to fitting inside an existing one, and how she doesn’t listen to much music when she’s in her writing mode so she can limit outside influences.

There’s no final date on her next releases, but Schenay plans to release an EP at the beginning of next year. In the mean time, she’ll be releasing a few singles.

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Off-Kilter: I know you have a solo record coming out, what made you want to do something separate from your project in Highness?

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Schenay: My whole mission when I first came to Chicago was to be a solo artist and to go to Columbia as well. I wanted to be in a band because I wanted that experience, and I wanted to sing but they already had four vocalists. It was time for me to branch out and do my own thing. The sound [on the record] is different: it still has that jazz and funk element, but it’s a bit more R&B and poppy, though the record is way more R&B than pop.

Off-Kilter: On the record, you are singing and playing keyboardists. Are you doing anything else on it?

Schenay: Basically, I produced this whole record, and I had my friend Erik Hunter play bass on it. That’s the only outside influence. The bridge basically breaks into this crazy Thundercat jazz thing before going back to that ‘90s R&B vibe.

Off-Kilter: Are you recording at home or apartment?

Schenay: I’m trying to but my ceilings are tall, so it’s hard to record there. I’m recording with James Auwarter. He has a studio with Matt Hennessy and they just fixed it up. He’s my sole engineer. I’m recording with him and mixing with him.

Off-Kilter: You grew up in Ohio and you grew up playing piano, did you always have the intention of going somewhere where you could share your music?

Schenay: I’ve always wanted to come to Chicago since I was young. I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin then I moved to Dayton, Ohio when I was 6. We went back and forth and I said “I need to be here.” I had a whole little plan! I wanted to go to Chicago, do music, and study music business.

Off-Kilter: And you ended up studying at Columbia? And you ended up studying music business?

Schenay: Yes, and I started out in broadcast journalism. I wanted to be in entertainment in some way. But I hated that major and I graduated last year with a BA in music business.

Off-Kilter: How has your education helped your music or added any understanding?

Schenay: It was the networking and meeting all sorts of people. My education helped when it came to the business sense, and my business and music class taught me everything I needed to know for my whole major, that class and music publishing, it was so dense.

Off-Kilter: It sounds like the past couple of years there’s been a shift toward being your own solo act. It sounds like an inevitable move.

Schenay: Yeah! (Laughs.) I kind of planned it out but I didn’t. When we were SHE, I had a plan to get to a certain level and branch off. That was always the plan: to branch off at some point.

And things took a turn this year, which was a very bittersweet year. Everything fell into place, even though things were falling off. Now it’s just trusting the process. I got the sign that it was the time to go because I’m a performer — I like to dance and sing and move around — and so I feel restricted when I’m at the keyboard all the time.

I turned 24 and I was like “oh no!” it was time to move around.

Off-Kilter: I turned 24 this year, too. It’s a good age to reflect on all the next things you want to do.

Schenay: Yeah! Before you turn 25 and it’s like “alright.”

Off-Kilter: Exactly. Before the midway point of your 20s. You mentioned that it’s been a bittersweet year for you. What’s one example when things weren’t going as expected and what’s one example of things shifting for the better?

Schenay: At the beginning of this year, I recorded a whole EP. I had plans to release it, I had talk with a PR firm, I was going to pay for PR, which was a terrible idea — artists, do not pay for PR, please, unless you have like a $50,000 budget. And one day I was like “I was going to broke” just to pay a PR firm to put my stuff on blogs.

And I was still finding my sound and my identity as Schenay Mosley, so I was a bit scared that it wasn’t coming out how I wanted it to. But I gave it a rest, I left it alone, and I just sat down and made music. I didn’t think too hard. Earlier, I tried to calculate every little thing — just don’t force it. Just write it down and let it happen. And I thought this song, Made It, that I’m releasing is just me coming into my own after 8 months of asking what the hell is going on.

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Off-Kilter: It’s almost a cliché that all artists create their best work through times of turmoil. Do you find this true in your process?

Schenay: Definitely. I had low lows and high highs this year. I performed at Lollapalooza with Smino and singing with Adam Ness and performing with Jamila Woods and then I had crazy lows. Amidst all of that, all the energy I had I put toward music, whether it’s creating a few beats or writing down a line for lyrics that I made weeks ago. I feel like when an artist goes through something, that tornado of events forming in their life creates a baby. You’re going through a storm and all of the sudden the flowers come out of the soil. It’s all a cycle.

If I’m happy I write a song, if I’m sad I write a song. But music is my safe haven. It’s like a cave, I go in there, and I self-medicate with music and I want to share it with the world.

Off-Kilter: Out of all the things that you do in music — you perform, you record, and you also have a stage persona — what is your favorite part of doing music?

Schenay: My first favorite part is producing the music. Coming up with the sound. My second favorite is performing that because I get to express myself. The music is already made, it’s already out, so I get to perform it and do what I want to do.

Off-Kilter: What music did you grow up listening to?

Schenay: I was obsessed with Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. I wrote a letter to Janet and my mom would not send it. I literally had it sealed and everything. She was like, “that’s nice sweatie, but she’s not going to read it” and I was like “dang this is killing my dream!” But then my mom introduced me to Prince, as I got older. And then Erykah Badu, and then Stevie Wonder. I remember every Christmas my dad would like Stevie Wonder’s Christmas Album. (She sings a line)

Off-Kilter: Yeah, I love that era of music and that sound.

Schenay: Me too, and I like how our generation, “millennials,” recycle from everything and make it our own. I started getting into alternative music in high school and that’s when I started really getting music. I got into Moondog and he was sampling music back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So I started listening to some really avant-garde, out-there music.

Off-Kilter: I imagine when you put your material online, you’re also taking other people’s creative work. It’s uncanny how you can be in Chicago and you could listen to someone’s music in Japan or in Spain. That’s never been so easy.

Schenay: Yeah, I love that. I do that all the time. I will say that when I’m deep in my creative process I stop listening to other music because I don’t want to draw too much from other people because I want to be an original artist. I want to have my own lane, just like Prince. He had a funk element but he created his own lane. I look up to him in that light.

Off-Kilter: You couldn’t pinpoint him to a genre. He was like a living embodiment of music.

Schenay: And for Michael, I loved how his songwriting was so universal. It was how he combined everything.

Off-Kilter: That’s interesting how you don’t listen to music when you’re writing, but on a day-to-day basis when and where do you listen to music?

Schenay: I listen to music everywhere I go. Down the street or at work. That’s my inspiration period. That’s when I pull from everyone and ask “how does this match with my interests or with my mood?”

Off-Kilter: You had this feeling you should and would move to Chicago, and now that you’ve spent at least a few years here, what is something you like doing music specifically in this city?

Schenay: I like how we don’t necessarily have a music hub here. I feel like we’re in this renaissance era where we are the ones creating the hub. There is so much creative energy here: everyone is on their grind trying to make it and make their own version of success. We’re cultivating a little sound here.

I know Chance pioneered his own sound, mixing gospel music and rap. And then all the other people under his wing don’t have a similar sound but there’s something connecting them. There’s a soulful sound mixed with hip-hop and a sprinkle of gospel.

Off-Kilter: It’s exciting to be here where we can actively sculpt out something for ourselves or chisel out some space and versus trying to fit a space.

Schenay: I also love Chicago’s DIY scene. Even performing at a few DIY shows myself, the energy is so raw and it’s so pure. It’s you and your people and you’re in this small space, jamming. You don’t care how loud it is, you’re there connecting with the music.

Off-Kilter: What other Chicago music artists have you been listening to?

Schenay: I’ve been listening to Noname and Saba’s Bucket List project. The people who I work with and connect with are the people I listen to.

Off-Kilter: Anything else you’d like to add?

Schenay: I’d like to clarify the song “Made It.” It’s about a relationship between a man and a woman. They’re going through their things, they’re on the verge of breaking up, but they still want to make it through. They want to work out their differences and become better people. You give up or you keep it going.

If you really want to achieve that common goal, you’re going to make it past that, you’re going to make it through. I don’t want to make music that’s very negative. It’s about making it through, recognizing your differences, and learning from it.

Colin Smith is a Chicago-based writer. He led his college’s newspaper, wrote features for a magazine in Kenya, and wrote a thesis on the cultural iconography of the guitar. In addition to serving as editor for an environmental nonprofit, he is a freelance writer and writes psychedelic-pop songs.

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