Born in London, Cleopatra Nikolic’s parents met in a jazz band – her Jamaican dad plays bass and piano, while her Serbian/Spanish mother sings and plays guitar and flute. Cleo Sol was inspired to take up music by Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’. Early singles like ‘LoveBass’ and ‘Call for Me’ failed to make an impact, and she spent much of her twenties on a hiatus from music. She was nearing 30 when she released her debut album Rose in the Dark, produced by Inflo.
Sol’s solo career feels like something of an afterthought, given that she’s also a member of the prolific group Sault. But both of her solo albums to date are high among my favourites from the decade – her warm smooth vocals and honest lyrics, paired with Inflo’s production, create something dignified and beautiful. Sol’s also contributed vocals to records from Little Simz.
Cleo Sol Album Reviews
Rose in the Dark
After four studio bands as part of Sault in 2019 and 2020, Cleo Sol stepped into the spotlight with her solo debut. It’s more personal, but Sol’s lyrical perspective on Rose in the Dark isn’t markedly different than on Sault’s work – it’s the sonic palette that’s distinct from Sault. While Sault’s arrangements are distinctively minimalistic, Sol’s Rose in the Dark is more conventional, a pretty neo-soul record. Rose in the Dark is her first full-length album at the age of 30. She tells the story of her absence in the title track, where she sings:
I prayed so hard, I thought I’d lose my mindRose in the Dark, Cleo Soul
I’m a little stronger, baby
Took a little longer, maybe
Tell my younger self to enjoy the ride
None of these songs is big or dramatic, but they’re still musically rich. There’s a terrific jazzy bassline on ‘Rewind’, while Sol is accompanied only by acoustic guitar on ‘Butterfly’. Strings colour ‘Why Don’t You’, while the record closes with standout track ‘Her Light’, with huge dollops of 1970s soul like the flute and the woozy synth.
Rose in the Dark isn’t attention-grabbing, but it’s full of lovely tunes and smooth vocals.
Music continues to flow from London producer Inflo. As well as five albums from Sault since 2019, he’s also produced albums for Little Simz and Michael Kiwanuka. Mother is the second album from Sault vocalist Cleo Sol, following last year’s Rose in the Dark.
Perhaps controversially, I gravitate to Sol’s solo albums more than Sault. They have their foibles – they’re much less diverse, and Sol’s lyrics aren’t much more involving than generic self-help catchphrases. But they just work for me – Sol’s voice is warm and creamy, and Inflo’s production is more organic and less experimental than the records he makes for Sault.
Mother is never especially challenging, but it’s consistently lovely. It’s subtly diverse – ‘Don’t Let Me Fall’ could have come from the 1970s, from an intersection between Carole King and Roberta Flack. ‘Music’ recalls the trip-hop of Portishead in the 1990s’ while ‘We Need You’ is gospel. It’s fun hearing Inflo embrace busier arrangements – in particular, the excellent closer ‘Spirit’ explodes into a joyful mélange of orchestration and choir, quite unlike Sault’s minimalism. The tracks often meander over five minutes, but the production and vocals are so lovely that it’s soothing rather than irritating.
Mother is delightful, musical comfort food that’s warm and inviting.
It’s not just Sault who have been prolific over the past few years. Co-lead vocalist Cleo Sol released her third and fourth records of the decade in 2023. She’s reliably classy – her vocals are soulful and smooth, while she also has the low-key intimacy of a singer-songwriter. I loved her first two records – they’re both on my top-rated albums list. Heaven is predictably enjoyable, but it feels more modest.
Gold is brief, at just over half an hour, and often feels slight, but there’s a great stretch of songs in the middle. The jazzy touches on the title track work well. ‘Old Friends’ is a delicately delivered tale of failed friendship. Sol also dispenses sisterly wisdom on ‘Miss Romantic’, affirming the self-worth of a woman in an unsatisfactory relationship. The production from her creative and romantic partner Inflo is as gorgeous as ever.
Lukewarm about this record? Sol is scheduled to drop another solo record later this week.
Heaven was enjoyable, but it felt a little slight after Sol’s impressive first two records. Presumably Gold comes from the same sessions, but it’s a stronger set of songs.
Along with her smooth voice, Sol’s strengths are her sincerity and compassion. On ‘Things Will Get Better’ she encourages a struggling friend, singing “Things will get easier/Things will get better/I think you’re stronger.” She’s also encouraging on ‘Please Don’t End It All’, rationalising that “everybody’s going through changes”. Sol’s spirituality is upfront on ‘Reason’.
The first side follows the piano-based singer-songwriter sound of her earlier records. The second side ventures into more Sault-like territory. Tracks like ‘Desire’ and ‘Life Will Be’ would fit easily into a Sault project, driven by warm basslines.
Sol’s reliably enjoyable, and Gold is a welcome addition to her catalogue.
10 Best Cleo Sol Songs
Rose in the Dark
Don’t Let Me Fall
We Need You
Please Don’t End It All
Heart Full of Love
Back to 2020s Album Reviews….