History Of: Cleo Sol

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Are you a peacemaker, soul searcher, or spirit enhancer? Then turn your speakers up for Mrs. Cleo Sol! If you ever need a reminder to “know that you are loved,” or to grow the “rose in the dark,” she is poised to teach you all about it.  

After an unconventional move of releasing two albums Heaven, and Gold in three weeks, she received critical acclaim. NPR named Heaven as one of the 50 best albums of 2023. Billboard’s staff ranked Gold eighth, on its “10 Best R&B Albums of 2023” list. Cleo was nominated for Best R&B Act at the 2024 Brit Awards as a solo artist and also as a group member in the music collective, Sault. And she only continues to defy the standards of R&B music. 

Upbringing and Her Early Start in Music

Cleo Sol was born Cleopatra Zvezdana Nikolic in West London on March 24, 1990. She is of Jamaican and Serbian-Spanish heritage. Her ethnic background informed the culturally diverse music she grew up listening to. In an interview with RWD TV, she said her parents met in a jazz band before she was born. As a family, they often listened to reggae and salsa music, which became a huge influence on her musical palate. She was particularly drawn to the music of Destiny’s Child and Stevie Wonder. It was not until her mom gifted her a karaoke machine, that Cleo would understand her purpose in life –singing. She primarily performed for family and friends. An 11-year-old Cleo brought the stage out of the living room and into local youth clubs in West London. 

In an interview with Smooth Fuego TV, she said she uploaded covers to MySpace, and it caught the attention of British producer DaVinChe. He is responsible for the music of artists like Tinie Tempah, Skepta, and Wretch 32. She also expressed in the Smooth Fuego TV interview, that she was skeptical about the opportunity because of “a bad experience with producers where they were not professional.” She took a leap of faith with the producer who would take on a mentoring role in her early career. Together they released “Riding For Love” in 2009. 

She signed a record deal with Island Records in 2011 and released the single “Never the Right Time (Who Do You Love)” in 2012. It is a pop and R&B ballad, which samples the legendary Isley Brothers' “Work To Do.” Yet, as she rose in the music industry, she gradually fell. She cut the chords early and went on an unexpected hiatus from music entirely.

A Remaster for the Soul

The year is 2017, and Cleo is back and better than ever with two singles: “Try and You Try” and “Why Don't You.” In this new era, she is now an independent artist working with the producer Inflo and signed under his independent record label Forever Living Originals. His discography includes producing for Adele’s 30, to the burgeoning experimental UK rap phenom, Little Simz, on her project Grey Area.  Inflo has produced all of Cleo’s last four LPs: Rose in the Dark, Mother, Heaven, and Gold. Cleo was thrust back into the spotlight when she performed “Why Don't You” on COLORS, which has garnered over 22 million views on YouTube.

After the nearly five-year break, she dug deep for the truth. She reflected on her hiatus in the 2023 Winter Issue of Dazed. She said, “I wasn't happy... I was attaching my happiness to my music.” She added how Inflo gave her a new view on life and music while developing a spiritual connection saying, “I let go of limiting beliefs about myself... Music to me is true joy, happiness; it’s feeling and it’s very spiritual. Making music with [Inflo] is a dream come true.” This musical and spiritual connection moved into a romantic union which resulted in the two getting married and having a child.

Composing the Melody

In an interview with NBGA, Cleo said, "I don't know if I would even attach myself to a particular style as I’m pretty much influenced by anything that resonates with my heart, so I kind of grow and evolve with that.” This is evident throughout her discography. She delves into many genres such as neo-soul, Motown, and gospel. Cleo makes art for everyone, and she is not bound to one singular type of music. She revealed to RWD that she often listens to “different artists every week” for inspiration which aids in her creative process.

Cleo’s discography as a solo artist and her contributions to the band Sault show that she’s no stranger to live performance. She incorporates mass choirs that create rich harmonic vocal layering techniques and strong instrumentals used in her music. This is consistent with artists such as Lianne La Havas and Corrine Bailey Rae, who have made an impact on UK R&B and soul music by showcasing the power of raw vocals and a band’s involvement in the production process. 

The songstress is almost Aretha Franklin-esque, with her strong influences grounded in Black American worship services and gospel music. She allows the direction of that song to guide her musically. In the song “Build Me Up," Cleo goes from her signature mezzo-soprano singing style to usher in a live choir and sprinkle big instrumentation throughout the song’s bridge and outro. She ends the song with a breathy, harmonic transition into another track, “Sunshine.”

Cleo curates projects that reflect all that music can embody. Not only does she display this in the production process, but in the writing process as well. Her songs feel nothing short of a therapy session. In the song “Her Light," she writes “There ain't no competition / When you trust intuition, you win” (17-18). She writes to her listeners to continue to persevere amid life’s obstacles. Each body of work revolves around themes of spiritual evolution, healing, personal struggle and faith. 

In January 2024, fans speculated another tour or concert could be in the works. Cleo asked fans on X to contribute to a setlist. But as Cleo’s future is unknown, keep listening to the music that you can find on all streaming platforms. 


Dazed, SmoothFuegoTV, NPR, BritAwards2024, WhoSampled, Music-News, Electric Artists, 4EverFreshTV, Billboard, CleoSol, RWD, TheBluesProject, FarOut, Guardian, HHVMag, TheRangePlanet, NBGA, COLORS


Instagram, X, X, X

Contact Amira Alquraishy with comments at asalquraishy@bsu.edu


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