At his home in Catalonia, Spain, last year, Labi Siffre received the latest in a series of requests to use one of his songs in a soundtrack. Based on a synopsis of the movie, set in a boarding school in New England, the singer-songwriter signed off. “The storyline was quite nice, and I thought, ‘Yeah, OK,’” he says. “And that’s all I remembered of it. You move on with the rest of the work you are doing.”
But a few weeks ago, the British musician heard from one of his followers on social media that the movie was, in fact, The Holdovers, and it used “Crying Laughing Loving Lying” — Siffre’s semi-mournful ballad from 1972 built around a graceful melody and his supple voice — in two different scenes. As Siffre came to learn, The Holdovers, directed by Alexander Payne, is a prestige film with a whole lot of Oscar buzz; its star, Paul Giamatti, won the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical this past Sunday. Since the movie only recently opened in Spain, Siffre has yet to see it himself, but he likes what he’s heard. “I was pleased,” Siffre, 78, says. “It looks like a film that’s got substance, and that can sometimes seem unusual.”
Vintage songs are regularly tapped for soundtracks, commercials, or samples, but Siffre’s is another, stranger story: The artist has existed off the radar for decades. Starting in the early Seventies, he released a series of albums, but until the arrival of streaming services, none was ever released in the U.S. Other than a club gig in New York, he doesn’t think he’s ever played a full concert in America, although he worked as an opening act overseas for Chicago, the Supremes, and Olivia Newton-John. Compared to Siffre, Nick Drake, who went from cult icon to soundtrack regular, is Taylor Swift.
Payne himself had never come across Siffre until music editor Richard Ford introduced him to his tunes. “I went, ‘Who is this, and why have I never heard of him?’” Payne tells Rolling Stone. “I wound up listening to 15 or 20 of his songs. I went on a Labi binge.”
In fact, many probably have heard Siffre’s music without realizing it. In the Seventies, Rod Stewart and Newton-John both covered “Crying Laughing Loving Lying.” Madness turned his bouncy pop song “It Must be Love” into a ska-pop hit in 1983. And Kenny Rogers recorded a version of his anti-apartheid anthem “(Something Inside) So Strong.” More recently, Kelis offered up a beautifully delicate version of “Bless the Telephone,” and Greta Van Fleet slipped naturally into his “Watch Me.” Siffre’s songs have also been placed in episodes of Better Call Saul and This Is Us.
But it’s hip-hop that has provided Siffre with a degree of exposure and financial income. Those staccato funk riffs and keyboards in Eminem’s “My Name Is” were sampled from “I Got The…,” Siffre’s 1975 jam. Jay-Z sampled a different part of the same song in “Streets Is Watching.” Kanye West used Siffre’s quiet-stormy “My Song” as a foundation for “I Wonder” on Graduation. In the world of modern R&B, Miguel sampled “I Got The…” for his “Kaleidoscope Dream.”
Yet for all these footprints in pop culture, few would recognize Siffre’s name if they heard it. Part of the reason, he admits, is an innate shyness. “I’m not a networker,” he says over Zoom from Spain. “I’m not good at self-promotion, putting myself forward. I always believed in the songs. And because I’m not very pushy, I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, one day, someone will notice.’”
But the reasons for his low profile may run even deeper. As a Black gay man in Europe, Siffre came to learn that keeping to himself had its advantages. “I grew up as a member of four of the groups always chosen as scapegoats,” he says. “I am an atheist, homosexual, Black man, and artist.” (“I would need only to be, in addition, a disabled woman and I’d have the full set,” he adds in a characteristically pointed aside.) Siffre continues: “I realized very early that people could be nice to you when you met them, but if you told them certain things about yourself, they would either be horrified, despise you, spit on you, whatever. So I grew up being wary.”
The son of a Nigerian father and a mixed-race mother, Claudius Afolabi Siffre says he felt like an outsider early on in West London. He first sensed he was gay when he was four. Two years later, he was taking a stroll with his father in the Ladbroke Grove area. “I was holding my father’s hand and I looked over to my left, and there was a window in one of the houses,” he recalls. “And in the bottom corner of the front window was a sign that said, ‘No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs.’ And I knew that that included me.”
Musically, Siffre walked his own path as well. He remembers being knocked out by Frank Sinatra’s brooding version of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” when he was 12, and envisioned himself becoming a jazz guitarist. He played with bands in London, but in 1969, he and Peter John Carver Lloyd, who would become his lifelong partner in 1964, moved to Amsterdam. “The U.K. was what I considered to be an uncivilized country predominantly because of homophobia, as well as global racism, but also global homophobia,” he says. “I just couldn’t understand how heterosexuals could be so cruel and vicious. Then Peter and I went to Amsterdam, and we discovered that the Netherlands was a civilized country.”
There, Siffre started playing at a folk club, accompanied by just his guitar, and something clicked. Unbeknownst to him, a tape of his songs made its way to a British music publisher, which led to a record deal. Over the next half-dozen years, he released a handful of albums that showcased his songs and voice, sometimes set to unplugged arrangements, other times to dance or funk-rooted grooves. “Crying Laughing Loving Lying” hit the Top 20 in the U.K., as did the sweeter and more up-tempo “This Must Be Love,” which recalled classic Burt Bacharach.
By the early Eighties, the music stopped coming, at least on record. Siffre says he can’t recall why but admits, “Sales were not as high as people wanted.” The pride he took in not adhering to one specific genre became an issue in the record business, which he felt increasingly wanted to pigeonhole him.
At the same time, Siffre acknowledges he hasn’t always been the most careerist of singers or songwriters. “I’m kind of the stereotypical artist,” he says. “I’m good at music, and I’m good at love. I’m pretty crappy at just about everything else.” At one point he was teamed up with hit songwriters to make his music more commercial, but all he says is that it “didn’t work out.”
Then, one time onstage, he found himself haunted by the power he could wield over an audience enraptured by his music. “I was saying to myself, ‘I can make the audience do whatever I want them to do,’ and I saw the picture in my mind of Adolf Hitler at a Nuremberg rally,” he recalls. “It seemed to me that I was doing the same thing. It’s not something I agonized over and over, but it was very distasteful. I was horrified. I was disgusted with myself.”
In the mid-Eighties, Siffre was watching a documentary on apartheid in South Africa and saw footage of white soldiers shooting Black people. Almost immediately, he wrote a soaring pop-gospel number called “(Something Inside) So Strong.” Still feeling shunned by the music business, Siffre preferred to have another artist, preferably Black, record it. “We presented it to several very prominent Black artists,” he says. “The response we got back from all of them was it was too political and can you turn it into a love song? I refused to do all of that.” When an unspecified white pop group asked to cut it, he turned them down too. “Very successful and nice people,” he says, “but they would have been totally wrong for it.”
Siffre himself wound up recording the song, which reached Number Four in the U.K., his biggest hit to date. But in a sign of how discreet he was at the time, he never divulged the other inspiration behind the song — his sexuality. “If we had said at the time that it was inspired by that [documentary], but also by my life as a homosexual who had known he was gay from childhood,” he says, “we would not have sold a single record.”
In the late Nineties, Siffre was approached by Eminem’s team to clear a sample of “I Got The…” for “My Name Is.” Listening to Eminem’s expletive-laden track before he approved it, he demanded tweaks. “I said, ‘If you change these things, and change this and that, fine,’” he says. “The thing I didn’t know, because I didn’t know very much about rap at all, was that there was a clean version, the dirty version, the version with wearing green trousers, the version with a blue hat … I didn’t say all versions, because it never occurred to me that there were other versions.” The explicit recording remained on The Slim Shady LP, and Siffre says he’s at peace with the matter. “I don’t know whether I would react the same today as I reacted then,” he admits.
But even if had wanted to capitalize on the Eminem connection, Siffre — who by then had also published two books of poetry — says he didn’t have much of a choice. He was living in Wales at the time in what he straightforwardly calls a “ménage à trois” with Lloyd and another partner, Rudolf “Ruud” Cornelis Arnoldus van Baardwijk. “When I ended up with two husbands, my family of three husbands, I realized that all my life I’d been trying to make a family,” he says. “And eventually I’d done it.”
But in 1998, Lloyd had a stroke, leading Siffre to close his recording studio, put music aside and become a full-time caretaker. Two years after Lloyd passed away in 2013, van Baardwijk died of a heart attack. Siffre recalls not merely the day but the exact time of each partner’s passing. “There is this myth that the greatest loss is to lose a child,” he says. “I’m afraid that’s just heterosexual arrogance. I lived for them. It was interesting to me to find that I was expected to get over it. One of the very few things I admire about human beings is that human beings don’t get over anything. They carry on in spite of.”
Cut to last year, when Ford began the process of finding music for use in The Holdovers. With a Bill Withers vibe in mind, he searched Spotify for artists who sounded like Withers. Up popped Siffre, whom Ford remembered from the years he himself grew up in England. Reintroducing himself to Siffre’s music, Ford settled on “Crying Laughing Loving Lying,” which he recalled seeing Siffre perform on the U.K. music series Top of the Pops. “Lyrically it’s not specific, but it’s very moving,” Ford says. “This fit the bill and didn’t get in the way. It just felt right.”
Adds Payne, whose film is set in 1970, “It’s accurate for the period and had the right vibe for the film. You don’t want song lyrics to make a literal comment on the action of a character, but ‘Crying never did nobody no good, no how’ is just lovely.”
Siffre can see why the song could work for The Holdovers, which ties together the life struggles of a teacher, a student, and a school cook. “It’s a song about someone who is in love but doesn’t want to be, because love is commitment, and for people, it’s difficult to accept,” he says. “It ends with, ‘Why am I lying now?’ The realization is that this is the most wonderful thing that could possibly happen to anybody in anybody’s life. And you’re fighting against it, because you’re afraid of commitment.”
In even better timing, the placement coincides with Siffre starting work on what will be his first album of new songs in nearly 20 years, which he’s carefully pulling together in his revived home studio. “I take great solace from the fact that Steely Dan were 20 years between albums and ended up with a Grammy,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t work very slowly. I just have a method, and it’s meticulous in my own way. I know that people in the business are probably tearing their hair out, going, ‘When are you going to finish this thing?’ But Steely Dan are a good example that you have to get it right.”
Whenever the new music arrives, Siffre — who is politically vocal on social media, warning about the dangers of a possible Trump presidency — advises that those who discovered him by way of The Holdovers won’t necessarily hear the same person this time. “I’m quite happy for people to live in my past, as long as they don’t expect to find me there,” he says. “Because they won’t.”