We sat down with rising star Highlyy to talk about being your own biggest fan, how to overcome failure and staying young and lit.
Highlyy never knew a hit was on her hands. During a late-night music session, she thought she was writing just another song of many, but as it turns out, “Soldier” was far from a throwaway single. Many artists could only imagine what transpired when the 19-year-old timidly uploaded the sound to TikTok; her friends and family had faith, but Highlyy was too humble to foresee what was coming her way. Tens of millions of streams later, I find the Essex native fresh from the runways of Paris, giddy with excitement as she tells tales of running into Burna Boy and Tiwa Savage. It’s been a rollercoaster year for an artist with only two singles to their name, but as anticipation builds for a debut project, the singer-songwriter is quietly confident about what’s inevitably coming her way.
Resonating with online dream chasers, Highlyy’s established a cult following, awe-struck by her sweet-toned productions. Surrounded by Congolese gospel music growing up, the viral star sings in English, French and Yoruba eloquently, switching between each language with an irrefutable charm. The rising vocalist remains influenced by her heritage, finding spiritual qualities in the West African melodies played by her family’s long line of musicians. Noticing her star quality before anyone else, Highlyy’s father started taking her to the studio aged five, nurturing her natural confidence in front of the mic and in an environment many artists still find daunting to this day.
Highlyy is happiest when making music. Fuelled by the unfamiliar emotions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, she channelled her boredom into reaching new artistic heights. North London rapper Tion Wayne became an early fan, jumping on the remix for “Soldier” and perpetually promoting her music, which he’s endearingly been a fan of since the very beginning.
Glazing an infectious afrobeat instrumental with honeyed vocals, “Times Like This” is Highlyy’s latest single, showing she’s more than just a one-hit-wonder. It’s a track that speaks to striving for your dreams but being patient when success isn’t coming your way. “I understand what my audience like” she informs me with a grin when reflecting on her time since the single’s been released. Taken off a forthcoming debut EP, the track will inspire many to follow in the footsteps of her contagious positivity, which shines throughout our conversation.
To celebrate the EP’s foreboding success, we sat down with the BNXN co-signed artist, getting advice on how to be your biggest fan and overcoming failure, while staying young and lit.
Let’s talk about your latest single, “Times Like This”, it’s been out for a few months now. How has the reception been and what have you learnt from releasing it?
Yeah, the reception has been great. People are actually enjoying it. You know, I understand what my audience like, so it’s just about building the connection now. And bringing out more music that resonates with people. I’ve learnt my own sound and want to put it all towards the debut project.
Did you have it made around the same time as “Soldier” or was this something that you made afterwards?
Yeah, I did. I actually made it in October. I was listening to “Soldier” and thinking, ‘This song’s a banger. What makes sense to come after?’ and that was “Times Like This”.
When you made “Soldier”, did you feel like you were making a hit?
I had no idea. I was like, ‘It’s just going to be another one of those songs that I I’m never going to release’. I had hundreds of songs in my files, that I’d made on my laptop when I was bored. It was where I would go to express my feelings. But when I sent it to my cousins and friends, they said, “Nah, you’ve got a hit.” And I replied, “No, I don’t, like, it’s just another one of those songs.”
Going back to “Times Like This”, What would you like the listener and your fans to take away from the single, and your music at large?
I want them to understand that everything is a journey and everything happens in due time. I feel like the song’s very inspirational, because it has a meaning, and it’s the backstory of my life since “Soldier”. I want people to feel motivated and keep pushing, and keep striving for their dreams.
Was there a pivotal moment where you realised that you wanted to pursue music?
I’ve always felt like music was for me. Lockdown was go-time; time to put in the work. School was over and we couldn’t go outside. I was an athlete at the time as well, but we couldn’t train. And the only thing I had was my laptop, my phone and my microphones. So at that point, it was the only thing I could do. That’s what I was doing every day, putting in the work.
Whom were your inspirations growing up? You’ve come from a musical background, but who were you personally listening to as a kid?
Congolese artists, like Fally Ipupa and Koffi Olomide. I’d say Tems is part of the new school, but I mean, I knew her from the start of her career. Beyonce, Rihanna and Yxng Bane too.
Tion Wayne has been a keen supporter of your music, featuring on your debut single “Soldier” and gifting you a massive ‘From The 9’ chain. How does it feel to have his support and when did you first meet?
They invited me to a festival but he didn’t know I was coming. We’d been talking in the DMs and he’d recorded his verse, but we’d never met. We were going to plan a meet-up, but they told me to come as a surprise. It was so wholesome; he’s a really good guy.
That must’ve been a lot of pressure…
Yeah, definitely. I was very nervous because I was a die-hard Tion Wayne fan when I was younger, in secondary school when everyone was listening to him. I couldn’t believe I was meeting this man. I literally grew up on his music. It’s very humbling.
Talk to me about TikTok, you’re someone who’s used the platform to their advantage. What advice can you give to other artists trying to navigate the platform to create a successful music career?
Don’t be discouraged by the numbers. Post every single day, because one day you might wake up and your post might have gone viral. You don’t know how many times I posted “Soldier” until it actually took off. I posted every day, twice a day. Just keep posting and believe in yourself. Be your biggest fan and it will work out in your favour at some point, if you put in the work.
What’s been your favourite TikTok trend of 2023 so far?
I’m hearing Rema sounds everywhere. Anything sped up from Rema. That’s my favourite and it’s so universal. It shows just how far he’s come; That’s how I’m trying to be, for real.
I can imagine you’ve been working hard on new music, can you give some insight into how it’s sounding and where you’re drawing inspiration from at the moment?
I feel like everyone will definitely hear growth from “Soldier”. The vibes are similar, there’s still an Afro vibe, but you’re going to hear the maturity. I made “Soldier” a year ago, so life has changed. It’s definitely going to be different, but it’s going to be great.
What does growth look like to you personally?
From the lyrics to vocals and the instruments, like every part of it. The music is different. This project will be a better version of Highlyy.
What would you like to be remembered for most as an artist?
The girl that never gave up. She put in the work, was young and lit, and you know, inspiring.
What are you looking forward to with the rest of summer lying ahead?
I can’t wait for Ibiza – I’m performing there this year. I’m very excited for that. Reading and Leeds Festival too. Then I’ll be cracking down and wrapping up this EP.
You come from a very musical background. Do you get your family to play on your songs?
I do have my dad playing on one of the records. I’m not gonna lie, he’s very happy. It’s going to bang.
Were they pushy with music when you were younger, or did they let you do your own thing?
My dad was taking me to studio sessions when I was five years old and making me sing there. They pressured me in the beginning, but as I grew up, they let me do my own thing. They are very happy I continued.
My parents actually took me to The Voice Kids when I was year eight. I didn’t get through though. I didn’t pass the producer stage.
But no you’re the one laughing…