A MEETING WITH SHYGIRL
By Roisin Breen
FIRST OF ALL, CONGRATULATIONS ON THE COMPLETION OF YOUR DEBUT ALBUM, NYMPH. I’VE LISTENED AND IT’S AN INCREDIBLE ALBUM.
Thank you! It will be coming out in September, which at first felt like it was ages away, but it’s actually coming at me full force now! (Laughs.) Festival season is keeping me really busy, and it’s really good to get the chance to play all the songs to an audience, because I didn’t get that opportunity with my last EP. It felt like I was holding them all really close to me and then just suddenly releasing them out into the world all at once. This time around I actually get to build something with everyone, and I’m getting to take them on a journey with me. The audience is a big part of it, and they are an addition to my own relationship with the music. It always begins with me releasing all my feelings out into the song, then I go through the mixing stage and I start to hate it, when I hear everything in pieces it makes me question whether I still like the song or not. Then I get to the mastering stage, and I love the song again and I’m like “yes, it’s amazing! And then I normally start to get a little bit apprehensive about sharing it because you spend all this time honing it down, and then suddenly it’s time to put it out there. You have to be vulnerable again by offering it up and when you’re performing it, you get an instant reaction, there’s no moment where the audience is able to see it, digest it and decide if they like it. (Laughs.)
Exactly instant feedback! It’s scary! (Laughs.) That’s actually the bit that I have learned to love now. That’s also what informs me about the direction of my work sonically, the vulnerability that I had on stage and how brave you have to be to stand by your music. I wanted to bring that into the music itself, and feel that vulnerability again, and that’s why I pushed this album in a slightly different direction. There’s still a relationship with the last EP but I wanted a bit more space to explore new sides.
IT FEELS VERY INTIMATE AS AN ALBUM. HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO PRODUCE FROM START TO FINISH?
I had been making music since the first lockdown. I was finishing Alias at the time, and I had some tracks that I felt weren’t quite right for Alias but that I felt still said something about me and my development in music. Without too much intention, I kept creating to see what would happen. In November, I took Sega (Bodega), Karma Kid, Mura Masa and Cosha with me to an AirBnB just outside of Brighton and I said “Right, okay, we’re going to make an album! Everyone, focus!” It was just to see what we could get out and what would happen. When you make a lot of music in one period of time you start to get to the core energy of what you’re trying to say. So, it’s quite an intense process, but also having people around me that are in my life, not just in my musical life, but in my actual day to day life, people who I hang out with and relax with, they bring you to a space that feels so comfortable, where you can remember instances that have happened in your life for example. It was there that we made “Woe”, the first track on the album, “Coochie (A Bedtime Story)”, and a lot of other tracks that didn’t end up on the album but that helped to hone down and find the stand-out tracks. If you made five songs in a day, you are able to select the three strongest, for example. You need to make the others to be able to see that. After that, I went to L.A. in December, with Sega and Cosha. I had already been to L.A. and I had been meeting people there to get a feel for how we could work together and that was when I met BloodPop. He’s such an amazing producer, he can make anything, so I knew that the next time I met him, I wanted to come with more people who really know my energy so that we could fine tune the right direction. I am someone who has many ideas and I can end up all over the place. The best thing about working with Sega is that he can really direct me and make suggestions and he grounds me a little bit more because we have been working together for so long and we’ve been friends for nearly nine years. There’s also a lot of strong energy in one room and it’s nice to have them all playing off against each other so you can get the best out of everyone. Two producers in the room is always better than one! (Laughs.) Someones always trying to do better than the other and I can just sit there and let them make their amazing beats! (Laughing.) So when I came back from L.A. I really felt like I had the meaty part of the album ready and it was just about finesse from that moment onwards.
THAT’S A VERY QUICK TURN AROUND FOR A FULL ALBUM.
Yes, I do work quite quickly. Allowing myself the room to be creative without any boundaries about what that meant in terms of a project, and having periods of reflection and self-criticism, allowed me to work out what I was trying to say. My muse is “me” and what I’m going through, and it’s a really cathartic process. A lot of this album is a time capsule of where I’m at, not just emotionally but also technically in my craft, or “what I’ve decided is my craft.” (Laughs.) It was such a recent decision for me to go into music, so it’s almost like I’ve been in the “school” of it and I wanted to show where my songwriting had gotten to, and how comfortable I am about what I have to offer. It’s not as brash as some of my earlier stuff. Back then, there was an urgency, especially with the rap, it was more about being assertive with the things that I was saying. But now, I’m so comfortable in what I can do that I wanted to show that in the music sonically, that there’s space and time to languish over certain things.
YOU CAN FEEL THAT IN THE ALBUM, I WAS QUITE SURPRISED WHEN I FIRST HEARD “WOE”…
“Woe” was a funny one, because I was just having a cigarette – it was rainy and hazy and I was thinking about my relationship with the fans, because that is quite a new thing for me. I didn’t experience having an audience with the first two or three EP’s, and the audience’s presence does affect how you work. There is a sense of expectation, and slight entitlement from those that consume you. I love my life and I love the job that I have chosen to do, and the privilege I get, being able to make my emotions important through my music. So I was sending out this idea of “woe is me, the fans just want so much from me!” It’s a real feeling! (Laughs.) But also in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that deep! I still love what I’m doing and that people still do want something more from me, so I was trying not to take myself too seriously within the music in order to process that emotion as well. Hearing it in there enables me to shrug it off and understand that it’s fine. The rap in there is about another relationship, it’s me talking about someone that I desire, and me consuming them, so it’s about the parallels between being consumed, and also wanting to do the same thing. That is me contextualizing that, but it was very intuitive in the moment.
YOU’VE COLLABORATED WITH SO MANY PEOPLE ALREADY INCLUDING THE LATE SOPHIE. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH HER?
I knew Sophie long before I was making music, I used to hang out with some music producers, and we were all living in East London, and I was working in casting at the time. I would be at a lot of fashion afterparties and I used to DJ, and it just wound up that we would always be at the “after, after, afters” together! (Laughs.) So that was when I first met her, it was even before she transitioned. We weren’t that close initially and it was actually through working on the music together that we became closer. It was really nice to work on “Slime” together, because we really connected. Sometimes Sophie could be hard to crack, because she’d be the most gentle caring person, but then at the same time she could be a massive bitch! (Laughs.) But that was what was so fun about Sophie, she was so smart, and I really enjoyed her. I can be the same, I enjoy flexing my intellectuality every so often, but it’s for my own entertainment. I felt like I could relate to her, and she didn’t always make me feel comfortable, but I don’t always desire to feel comfortable, I was always very intrigued by her. So when we really bonded over making music together, I found it very special, and I’m so grateful to have had that experience with her. The way I see her, is that she was one of the absolute geniuses of our generation, and we won’t be fully aware of her impact for years to come. Watching her work, and seeing how she felt and engaged with the world, even beyond music really inspired me, and I feel incredibly lucky also, that beyond even what we made together, I know that the time we spent together has pushed me so much further as an artist. I feel like I’ve always existed in a space where I didn’t feel like people had very high expectations of me, beyond my parents who have always believed in me. Earlier in life there were a lot of people around me who just passed me over. I’m from a low-economic household, in a slightly poorer area of inner city London and there’s so many kids so you don’t feel like anyone is ever really watching you. I really liked that space because it gave me the opportunity to better myself, and do what I wanted to do, without external pressure. It was interesting having someone look at me and believe that I could do something beyond what I was already doing. It was a different experience for me, and I worked well in the novelty of that environment.
DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A LONDONER AND DOES THE CITY AFFECT YOU AS AN ARTIST?
I grew up in South-East London, but we moved around quite a lot, Catford, Lewisham, Blackheath, as well as some stints in West London, but I haven’t lived there for a long time now. I used to hang out at a night called “Ste’s” in South London, which was a jam session and King Krule used to play there. It was “the” space where you would discover all the new young up-and-coming musicians in London at that time. I don’t really keep in contact with anyone from when I was younger, we’ve ended up in adjacent fields. That was never my intention. (Laughs.) I bumped into someone the other day and it was a strange moment, because I forgot that there are people that know me from when I was at school. I’ve invented Shygirl, there’s no history to Shygirl, she only came into reality in 2016. Shygirl didn’t go to school, I went to school, she went straight to the stage. So it can be weird for me when someone comes along and breaks that veil. For example, one of my early songs “Asher Wolfe » was about someone I was hooking up with when I was at school, and I bumped into someone who knew that person, and I really had a moment where I said to myself, “Yes I wrote a whole song about someone, and I used their name!” (Laughing) I can’t believe I did that! That’s the freedom of having a moniker, it’s almost like Shygirl just uses Blaine as research, and it’s her who has the freedom to narrate Blaine’s life, that’s it really.
YOUR LYRICS ARE ALL ABOUT FEMALE EMPOWERMENT, AND YOU ARE PART OF A NEW WAVE OF WOMEN LIKE NICKI MINAJ, CARDI B AND MEGAN THEE STALLION WHO HAVE COMPLETELY FLIPPED THE SWITCH ON FEMALE REPRESENTATION IN MUSIC. DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AT THE FOREFRONT OF THAT REVOLUTION, SO TO SPEAK?
I grew up loving books, I spent my whole young adult life reading, throughout my whole time at school I was just absorbing stories. I am now able to create a whole environment out of things that I have read, everything is referential. In “Slime” for example, there is a lyric which says “Bad bitches always have to keep their hands up, we’re too slick” that was referencing Of Mice and Men, when the brother was always keeping his hand in the glove. It just really fascinated me. It’s all entertainment for myself, because I love referencing things that I’ve read, or that have really struck me. I am interested in the idea of amplifying oneself as a character, and being a character in my own novel. I ultimately want people to have fun!
There’s a lot of slang in my earlier music because I was listening to a lot of drill music at the time, and I was trying to subvert the idea that when men say something, it’s immediately violent or aggressive, but then, as a woman, I use the same words, the same cadence, but it’s sexual. I know that I am sexualised, beyond even a point where I want to be. My work is often seen as sexually empowering, but in fact I’m often using sex as an analogy, I use a lot of violent langauge, and it dips in and out. For me, yes it’s about sexual exploitation to a point, but it’s also about how I felt, and some of it comes out of a really vulnerable place I was in at the time. It’s me imagining how I might have acted if I wasn’t so vulnerable, and if I was the aggressor. I have not been that character in my real life a lot of the time, so it’s interesting to be able to delve into that through the music. I had a lot of fun with that, but I also felt like I bypassed a very real experience that I had lived, which was the sensitivity, that was what I was really experiencing in my day-to-day life. I had been presenting a completely callous image of myself to my audience, so no wonder they don’t think I can be sensitive, or even realize that I also need to be treated with sensitivity. This album was about me telling that part of my story, it’s the person my friends and family know, and the person I am.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS AN ACTIVIST IN YOUR MUSIC AND YOUR LIFE AND ARE THERE THINGS YOU ARE FIGHTING FOR?
I’m an activist in terms of the pursuit of authenticity, and I never want to feel like I can’t stand by who I am at that moment. But also to be someone who is able to reflect on who I was and who I want to be. Self-awareness is a big part of my endeavor in life, and to be able to have the room to grow and learn from myself and those around me. It’s difficult to do that sometimes on the world stage, and to maintain sensitivity. As soon as you start making music, or become an entertainer, it doesn’t matter what age you are, there are some artists out there that are only nineteen, but they are judged in the same way as other artists that are forty years old. It’s a whole different experience.
YES, THEY ARE OFTEN EXPECTED TO BECOME INSTANT ROLE MODELS.
Exactly, and half of the time they haven’t had any other job other than the one you see them in. How much experience can they really have? This life, in the music industry, it’s not a real one. Once it starts kicking off, there’s really no room for reality! (Laughs).I’m so glad that I came into the industry at twenty-four, and that I’ve had some life experience beforehand. I have been working since I was twelve, and by working side jobs, you get to meet so many different types of people. And some people haven’t had that kind of opportunity, and even if they have, there should still be some level of sensitivity for human growth. I read today about the scandal about one of Lizzo’s lyrics, where some people were offended and she had to change it. I think that’s obviously not what she meant when she wrote the lyrics, and for me intention and meaning should always inform language. People should be given space for that. Knowing people were offended, she changed the lyric, and that’s entirely up to her, that’s cool, but someone commented that she should have known better beforehand. We don’t give people enough space to make mistakes and learn and grow.
THERE ISN’T A LOT OF OTHER MUSIC OUT THERE THAT IS LIKE WHAT YOU ARE MAKING…
That’s one thing that I’m actually not that humble about! (Laughs.) I know that no one is doing what I’m doing. It’s funny because I pull together so many different influences. I’ve been listening to music a lot longer than I have been making it so naturally it’s very influenced, especially as my taste is quite eclectic. It’s not only the music, I also absorb a lot of popular culture as well, such as films, books, and so on. I just love stories, human stories, especially about relationships and I’m really intrigued by humanity as a whole and how we decide to interact with one another. I’ve definitely been going through a transition lately. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s been difficult, but it’s been something that’s been happening and I’ve been acclimatizing to how my life has been changing, and how much of it is intentional. I had a tarot reading recently, and the reader said to me “You feel like you’ve boxed yourself into a decision that you made.” And I think it can feel like that sometimes. When you make a decision, you often feel that because you chose to do it, any repercussions that might come because of that decision are your fault. But I actually got to a space where I feel like I need more control in my life, so as much as I can choose something, I can also continue to choose what decisions I get to make after, so I’m never truly boxed in. Music is such a big part of my life now, I don’t think I would ever leave it behind, but I also don’t want to feel like I’m beholden to the people that listen to my music. The whole reason why I think the music is enjoyable, is because I find it enjoyable, and I think that has to be an element in everything. So it might take a few changes sonically but I do feel like it’s a worthwhile journey.
THANKYOU SHYGIRL. GOOD LUCK WITH THE ALBUM LAUNCH.
IMAGES BY SAMUEL IBRAM