Skinny Pelembe and Léa Sen Are Having a Moment

The London-based artists catch up before their NYC debuts.

Skinny Pelembe is a London-based multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer; Léa Sen is a French-born, London-based guitarist, singer-songwriter, and producer. Both artists have new releases on Partisan Records — Skinny’s Hardly the Same Snake came out in April, and Léa’s EP You Of Now, Pt. 2 came out in May — and they both performed in the US for the first time earlier this month. To celebrate, the two caught up about it all at Partisan’s Brooklyn office the afternoon before they made their New York debuts. You can read their conversation below.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Skinny Pelembe: The first time we met at all, we played a gig. Like, we literally just went into playing a song — I don’t think we even said hi. 

Léa Sen: I know! 

Skinny: We were running late, I think you were running late — you came in for soundcheck, and then it was just like, “Hey, this is Léa.” “Oh, right. This is the tune.” 

Léa: Because I had practiced, so I was like, “Why don’t I just jump in.”

Skinny: You learned it at home?

Léa: Yeah. 

Skinny: It was the first gig back after the pandemic, and it was a really nice moment because I never play that tune [“I Just Wanna Be Your Prisoner”] — Rahel [Debebe-Dessalegne] sings on it and it’s like, “Well, we’re not going to get somebody who’s going to be able to top Rahel.” Until you came!

Léa: Oh, shit!

Skinny: It was really nice because you just sang, and for the first time ever, I was just like, Oh, maybe I just want to be a guitarist. [Laughs.]

Léa: [Laughs.] I know, I remember you saying that. I mean, I feel you because sometimes when I’m singing and I’m not playing, I actually really like it because you can just focus. Because when you’re playing and singing at the same time, it’s a lot of work, isn’t it?

Skinny: Yeah. We played at the same place like a year before, and we played the song “Natural Selection.” It’s one of my favorite songs, and I’d just never been on stage without a guitar — it was like the best karaoke. [Laughs.] 

Léa: Recently at my shows I’ve been just dropping the guitar and singing my demos. I did my first headline a couple of weeks ago, and for the encore — I had never done an encore before, so I was like, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t have that many songs…” [Laughs.] I did this house song that people kind of know, so I was like, “OK, I’ll just do that, fuck it.” And I’m just featured on the song, right? I was like, Fuck it, I’ll just go in the crowd. I went in the crowd and danced with everyone. I sounded so bad. Like, I was out of breath, dancing with everyone. But it was really cool, really freeing. It’s like, Oh shit, I don’t have to always be thinking about my playing and my singing.

Skinny: It’s really cool because, I mean, you are a good guitarist. I’d like to think I’m alright. But it’s a little bit of a crutch, right? When you just stand there and sing, you kind of need to have a bit of presence. I’d imagine if I saw you do that, I’d be like, “Fucking hell, yeah, go on!”

Léa: Yeah, but at the same time, I feel like everyone can do it. It’s more about having the courage to connect directly. It’s more vulnerable. Because obviously you connect when you play and sing at the same time, but…

Skinny: The most emotionally immediately resonant instrument is the human voice. Everyone’s got it.

Léa: Yeah. It’s scary though. Because that’s the thing: If you fuck up the guitar a little bit, you still can sing. If you fuck up the singing, you’ve still got the guitar. But when you have only one thing and you fuck it up, you’re like, Agh! There’s nothing to rely on to keep it going. Apart from like, I had a track playing — but that’s kind of lame as well. It’s like, I need to actually sing properly if I have the track

Skinny: Right.

Léa: I saw some videos afterwards — I couldn’t watch them, because I sounded so crazy, because I was in the crowd dancing. I’ve never done that, singing and dancing. 

Skinny: Really? 

Léa: No!

Skinny: Yeah, you’re quite cool on stage. Not really a dancer.

Léa: I was proper jumping around with everyone. It’s hard. I was like, Beyoncé, you’re doing this? [Laughs.] 

Skinny: What are you playing tonight? 

Léa: I don’t know. [Laughs.] No, sorry, I shouldn’t say that. 

Skinny: No, me neither. [Laughs.] 

Léa: Ay! [Laughs.] I think when you play a lot, you end up just kind of being like, Oh, I’ll play this song. I’m going to find a moment today and just write a quick set list and be like, Yeah, that’s good enough. You’re just going to go on stage and figure it out?

Skinny: Yeah. It’s the second time I’ve ever played just on my own. The first time was yesterday. 

Léa: What?!

Skinny: Yeah, on a boat party.

Léa: In New York? So you arrived and played right away?

Skinny: Yeah. So we arrived and then went to the docks and got on this boat. And then it hit me — I was like, Oh, fucking hell, it’s a boat. It’s going to be wobbling back and forth the whole time. So we went out to the Statue of Liberty — which was just fucking amazing. I thought I’d be cynical about it, but I got a lump in my throat. Then we played and the boat just started swaying from side to side. It was a bit of an industry event thing as well. 

Léa: Those vibes are interesting. 

Skinny: So that was my first day in New York. 

Léa: Nice. So this is your first time here? 

Skinny: Yeah. You too, right? 

Léa: Yeah. That’s crazy. You’ve been to America before?

Skinny: I’ve been to LA twice.

Léa: OK. 

Skinny: Have you been to America before? 

Léa: No. 

Skinny: How good is this?

Léa: It’s so surreal, man. It’s weird because I was watching — I was like, OK, I finished tour. I just want to watch a series, because I haven’t done it so long. And I made the mistake to start watching Better Call Saul. It’s so addicting. I just couldn’t stop watching it. I watched an episode yesterday, and then I looked outside and I was like, Oh, my god, it looks so similar.

Skinny: It’s all those little things — just the size of the sidewalk or the traffic lights, and you just realize: everything you watch is so American and it’s so ingrained, even though you’ve never been there. You come and you just feel like it’s familiar. 

Léa: It’s so familiar, but it’s also like it’s not supposed to be real — like it’s supposed to be on a TV screen.

Skinny: On the Better Call Saul tip, when I went to LA last year, I stayed in a surf hostel for the first couple of nights — because I just thought maybe I’ll meet people, go to a party or something. 

Léa: Cool. 

Skinny: It didn’t happen. [Laughs.] But I woke up in the morning and there were, like, six guys on the bunk beds, all over 50. They were all getting up really early to put suits on and proper shoes and stuff. I was like, What the fuck’s going on? This is supposed to be a backpackers thing. One of them left all of his shit on his bed, so when they left, I woke up and I had to look through his stuff. And it was a class action lawyer — you know, like Saul Goodman. I was like, Fucking hell, that’s a real thing! So you’re either on your ass and you’re sleeping in a hostel, or you make it — you get that big lawsuit and then you’ve got a billboard and you’re Saul. 

Léa: That’s crazy.

Skinny: I’m very naive here. I don’t know much about America, but that kind of for me symbolized that it’s like the Wild West. [Laughs.] It can get that raw, but it can also be so good. 

Léa: I just saw a lawyer billboard out here on the subway — I didn’t think that was real. How do you pay for that? Who are these people? 

Skinny: [Laughs.]

Léa: I’ve seen so many weird things, man. Like the names of shops… I don’t know, there’s so many things where I’m like, This is so eccentric. You guys just don’t care what people think. It’s pretty funny.

Skinny: And there’s not even a pause when TV’s on — there’s not like, “And now we go to the breaks.” It’s just like, “Hey! You wanna buy some chips?” And then it’ll go straight back to the show, and there’s no respite.

Léa: All the Uber drivers, they’ve been listening to just ads. And I’m sure they’re not intentionally doing it, but it’s just constant ads. I’m just like, Wow, do you listen to this? But they leave it. It’s for 10 minutes. It’s very surreal. 

I was talking about this to my brother this morning: you walk places, and you see a flag that you have no idea what that flag is, but it feels so familiar because you’ve seen it so many times before. I’ve had a lot of that. It’s so weird.

Skinny: It’s interesting, the flags. Patriotism seems different — we’re quite cynical in England, and I think when we see an American flag on something, it symbolizes something, for better or for worse. But when you’re here and you just see them around, it’s like, Yeah, cool. I don’t know how Americans feel about it, but when we see a St. George flag above a house, you’re like, Hm, might be racist… 

Léa: That’s true. In my head if you have a French flag, I would think, Oh, maybe a racist nationalist French person. But here, apart from Native Americans, no one’s American. So I’ve seen so many different people with their American flag. It’s just a weird headspace that I don’t understand. 

Skinny: Maybe it’s beautiful. I’m not sure. 

Léa: Yeah, maybe. In some ways it is.

Skinny: I quite like how — again, I’m very naive, so I might sound like an idiot to whoever’s American and reading this — but I’m staying in Bed Stuy, and it’s a really cool area, but there’s just lots of Black families, and it’s quite comforting. It’s nice to see the place that’s cool in a big city still has a lot of different communities.

Léa: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I’ve noticed walking around that you’ll see a building that’s very old and has tons of tags on it, and then right after you see this brand new cafe literally right after. What is that? It’s so weird. I’m not used to that. In France, you usually have a whole area that’s [a certain] way, a whole neighborhood. You don’t have one road and then you turn and it’s completely different.

Skinny: The city feels like a collage of architecture, a collage of demographics and cultures, and everything’s just mashed in together. It’s overwhelming and amazing.

Léa: Yeah, it’s crazy. Did it feel like a moment, [playing in New York]? Like the start of something? Because I guess you’ve never done an American show before.

Skinny: It felt like a moment, but a chaotic moment playing on that boat. But tonight — I guess, yeah, there’s a bit of weight and kind of expectation to it. We’re here with the label, and you’re here, and it’s like, Oh, shit, OK. Now I’ve gotta step my game up.

Léa: Really?

Skinny: There’s so many places in the world that I never went to in a stubborn way, because I was like, I’m only going to go there when I get invited to play. New York’s one of them. And now I am here. I’ve been invited to play. So that does feel like a moment to me. But the reason why it feels like a moment is because I was quite stubborn, so I’m also like, Yeah, it should feel like a moment! Of course it does, you should have been here 10 years ago, damn it!

Léa: [Laughs.] I feel you. That might be more common than you think. Like, I really want to go to Japan one day, but I’m like, Only if I go on tour!

Skinny: Because we’re singers and we’ve got massive egos.

Léa: [Laughs.] I think it’s that. But also, I really want to be invited and have my show and stuff, because I don’t take holidays.

Skinny: Same. I hate going on holiday. But also, then you get somebody to pick you up, and—

Léa: [Laughs.]

Skinny: No, I’m not talking about transport! What I mean is, they take you into their lives for a day, so you get a local perspective if you’ve got a promoter who is keen to hang out. Nobody else gets that. It’s so weird and magical.

Léa: That’s so true. You do meet people that are super open to just invite you and show you everything. It’s very is cool. A privilege.

Skinny: It’s part of that mythology when you read about bands when you’re younger. It’s not a very pure reason to become a musician, but it is part of it, where you’re just like, I want to go places and I want to get a really specific experience. It’s a passport, basically.

Léa: That’s true. I don’t think I would have been to New York — because that’s the thing: if I came to New York for no other reason than music, I would obviously go to a concert and I would get pissed off because I’m not playing. Like, What the fuck? Get me on that stage!

Léa Sen is a Paris-born, London-based guitarist, singer-songwriter, and producer. Her latest release, You Of Now, Pt. 2, is out now on Partisan Records.