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Shygirl can do anything

Jemima Skala speaks to Shygirl about split personas, filthy diction and taking inspiration from Aphex Twin and Missy Elliott

  • Words: Jemima Skala | Rendering: Maurice Andresen | Creative direction: Shygirl and Mischa Notcutt | Character design: Sy Blake.
  • 23 November 2020

Shygirl is on the cover of Mixmag. Check her Cover Mix out here and read the profile of the incendiary London artist by Jemima Skala below

Shygirl has always moved in her own sphere, harnessing the worlds of party demons and experimental rap with instantly captivating lyrics that take on a life of their own. From the release of her explosive debut single ‘Want More’ in 2016 to her 2019 breakthrough tracks ‘UCKERS’ and ‘BB’, she has made a name for herself making club-focused anthems layered with brash, sex-positive and uncompromising lyrics. Her new EP ‘ALIAS’ is a playful deconstruction of the many facets of Shygirl; the message is that whether she’s presenting herself as a narcissist, her teenage self, or indulging her own unbridled sexuality, she’s always one hundred per cent truly Shygirl.

Shygirl first got into music by accident. Long-time friend and now-frequent collaborator Sega Bodega wanted to record her voice for a bit in his live show, which led to her hanging out in his studio more and more. It opened up her eyes to the ways in which words and music could interact; her first single ‘Want More’ was just her speaking filthy words with delightful force over Sega Bodega’s skittering beat (“You wanna fuck fast, I’m into it/You wanna play rough, I’m into it/I want more”). From there, she released her first EP ‘Cruel Practice’ in 2018, which led to more shows and a buzzing attention from fans and industry professionals alike. She was still working full-time at a modelling agency and wanted to take a breather before committing herself to a career in music. “I was like, I want a break. I’m very much for the breaks, I love relaxing! I’m not rushing into my work,” Shygirl emphasises. So she quit her day job in April 2018 and set herself a goal of doing as much for her music as she could before October, when she’d go and stay with her grandma in the Caribbean.

She ended up staying for three months, taking stock of what she’d just done and what she was about to do. “That was a really nice reflection period,” she says. “I was like, this feels like something I don’t want to just tumbleweed into, I want to not go with the momentum but make decisions.” It turned out to be a fruitful period: during that time, Arca reached out to her to start working together, and she made both ‘BB’ and ‘UCKERS’ with Sega Bodega while she was out there. It was also the beginnings of ‘Freak’ and ‘Twelve’, two tracks that have now made it onto ‘ALIAS’. “There’s iterations of them that are older, which I quite like. I like revisiting things that you’ve cast aside, or that didn’t feel right for the time. I have new words for them and it’s like breathing new life. It’s a better reflection of what I’ve learnt and who I am.”

In that respect, ‘ALIAS’ feels like Shygirl fully stepping into each aspect of herself – encompassing who she was and what she’s become – owning exactly who she is and not apologising for it. The EP is full to bursting with wild beats and frenetic rhythms that, in any other year, would have filled the dancefloor: the Happa-produced ‘Leng’ has a riff that borrows from Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’ but bolstered by an old-school grime rhythm; ‘Tasty’ goes in more of a house direction, injected with a jungle break and classic siren; EP closer ‘Siren’ draws on EDM and Clubland styles but bent around a distinctly Shygirl perspective that’s darker, murkier, enticing. Laced throughout are Shygirl’s intimate bars; whether spoken or sung, it feels like she’s whispering directly into her listener’s ear, drawing them into her world.

Each track is focused on a different Shygirl persona: the teenage Shygirl; the sexual deviant; the narcissist; and the future Shygirl who she herself is yet to meet. “It’s like me doing drag of myself basically!” To bring these personas to the fore and to be present through the release campaign, she’s collaborated with 3D artist Sy Blake to create different digital avatars and CGI artist Maurice Andresen to bring them to life. The recent video for ‘Slime’ sees Shygirl becoming each of these 3D versions of herself, embodying the clown, the diva, the It Girl. This indulgence in the extremes of her own emotions has always been at the heart of how Shygirl makes music. “Music gives me this playground to re-enact scenarios and see what would have been the eventualities of each one. Even having myself as my own muse is such a narcissistic experience but one that you don’t get in the everyday usually!” she laughs. “It’s just nice to really unpick and go through all the parts of myself that I’m living with, basically.”

Read this next: The Cover Mix: Shygirl

Far from being narcissistic, Shygirl’s approach to everything comes from a place of wanting to grow and learn, examining herself and her reactions in minute detail in order to evolve. Even before she started making music, words were a way for her to indulge this tendency. “One thing I used to do if I was ever feeling emotional,” Shygirl remembers, “I would always put it to prose because I feel like that’s such a dramatic thing to do. You’re really making a meal out of your emotions when you’re writing in prose, and then you chill out a bit cos you’re like, oh my god why am I being so dramatic. It becomes something else, it’s something I can look at and not just feel. Music has given me that tenfold.”

Ownership over her own feelings through words and lyrics is what initially drew Shygirl into music. “I grew up delving into fantasy and reading constantly, and words have always been my friends,” she explains. “As much as I had no problem with friends anywhere else, the book and the written word were way more interesting to me. Up until recently, I never had an opportunity to give it justice. I always knew I wanted to do something with words, but I never wanted to be a writer. But I constantly made notes of turns of phrases, and it’s just one of the things that all my friends know I’m good at writing.”

That initial period of working with Sega Bodega opened up her eyes to the possibilities of intertwining her written expression with music. Growing up, her dad introduced her to people like Aphex Twin and Björk, whereas her mum fed her pop divas like Kylie Minogue and Madonna. From there, she discovered Clubland and hardstyle on her own, so her musical tastes growing up didn’t include the style of rap that she’s now embraced as her own. “My mum used to put on Missy Elliott before she went out with her friends and stuff like that, but I didn’t really start listening to people like Biggie and whoever until I was older. Perhaps if I’d gravitated towards that earlier, I would have found music sooner, because I do relate a lot to the lyricism and storytelling of rap, but because I came to it from such an alternative electronic side, that’s kind of fed into the delivery of it.”

I ask whether there’s anything she wouldn’t explore in her music, and the answer is an emphatic no. “I almost feel like sometimes I’m writing a diary that I know is going to be read,” Shygirl explains. “I wouldn’t ever talk about something in a song that I wouldn’t be prepared to have a conversation about because I know it’s provocative. I mean, I would hope that my existence is provocative because it’s better than not provoking anything.” Hopping quickly from one thought to another, she continues, “Also, sometimes it’s good to question myself. I’m not saying that anything I say is absolute. I welcome the opportunity to grow, and you can only do that from connecting with other people and talking about it. It’s this whole process of reaching out.”

Reaching out was a necessary coping mechanism for Shygirl this summer. In the wake of the increased global attention on the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, she and Arca released ‘Unconditional’. Originally conceived as a release for the emotions that Shygirl was feeling around her familial relationships, returning to it proved to be a cathartic experience for her to deal with the overwhelming emotions provoked by the Black Lives Matter protests. “I couldn’t make sense of my feelings, but I could make the song use it,” she recalls. “Having that creative relief, I really wanted to share that easing. If someone ever felt the same listening to something that I’d made that had come from that place, why would I keep that reprieve to myself?”

Read this next: We need to end sexism, misogyny and violence in dance music

She says she now feels more confident speaking up when she experiences instances of racism and sexism directed towards her or others. Up until this summer, she says, “I had got to a place where a lot of my thought pattern towards everyday racism was like, that’s life, get on with it. It was good to check myself on that, because you end up being complicit to it. But it was also highly emotional.” As a result, she’s become less tolerant of inappropriate behaviour from her creative collaborators, treating the studio or the set the same as an office environment. “Because it’s the creative industries, you don’t often write a letter or confront it, because you have to explain yourself every time. But now I don’t mind explaining myself. It’s worth more to me to comment on it than the opinion of someone perpetuating racism. And if someone thinks I’m difficult or they don’t want to work with me, I’d much rather them think that than me have to avoid them.”

Elsewhere in her work, this confidence in herself and her self-expression reveals itself in Shygirl’s very open expression of her own sexuality. This comes to the fore on ‘ALIAS’. From ‘Bawdy’, where she proclaims, “Come and get it if you need/I guarantee you’ll like the taste/Nasty, filthy, moving your body”, to her assertion on lead single ‘Freak’ that “I’m a freak, yeah I know/You like to hear me say it”, sex is an intrinsic part of how Shygirl presents herself to the world. She clarifies, “oftentimes I’m using the analogy of sex without talking about sex itself, because it’s so visceral and it’s so easy to understand that as a feeling and as a physical thing. Sometimes I’m just talking about how I feel but it is as physical sometimes as all the things I get through sex.”

‘Twelve’ is the best example of this. The track title refers to the experience of being catcalled at twelve or thirteen and having to reckon with outsider perceptions of your own sexuality. “I was a child,” Shygirl says. “You’re sexualised from before you’re even aware of yourself. A lot of what I write about is taking ownership of something that’s been forced upon you.” Her decision to write about this experience is a reclamation of the shame that comes with handling how other people perceive you: “Shame is a big part of it when you don’t fully understand why people look at you how they do, and that’s part of your learning experience. Learning that you’re a sexual being comes hand-in-hand with shame. I think there is no need to be ashamed of how other people find you. Where is the shame in being human? That’s the message for me, and if me talking about sex bothers you, you have to really dig into why!”

With such an emphasis on taking ownership, Shygirl is surprisingly laid back about learning to produce; she’d much prefer to collaborate with producers who create beats for her. “I have friends that ask me if I want to produce, and I’m not in a rush,” she admits. “One thing I tend to avoid, and why I’m not rushing into producing, is because I know that once I start something, I want to finish it and I want to be the best at what I’m doing. Sometimes that’s not always a good thing; you need to have room to just enjoy, not always journey seeking perfection.”

It’s this room for manoeuvre and leaving space for finding joy that has led to an increased confidence in Shygirl’s latest work. “There’s an assertiveness that wasn’t there before,” she confirms. “I still have this economy of space between myself and the instrumentals, because I love the producers that I’m working with and I love what they do, so I want to hear more of what they’re doing. But I have a better understanding of what I want my voice to do in relationship with the sonics of everything that’s going on. That’s something that I’m personally proud of for myself.”

The willingness to confront her own weaknesses and discomforts is what has pushed Shygirl to evolve into the bombastic, relentlessly creative and utterly compelling artist that she is today. At one point in our interview she says, “What makes me hopeful, truthfully, is the limitless possibilities of self. I know what I am up until this point, but I have no clue what I am from tomorrow onwards. I know I could do anything.” It’s her own grounded self-confidence that pushes her to soar to new heights with every new project she takes on. It’s clear from an hour’s chat that ‘ALIAS’ is just the start; Shygirl is getting bigger and better with each new step she takes.

Shygirl’s EP ‘ALIAS’ is out now, a 12” vinyl release follows on December 7

Jemima Skala is Mixmag’s Weekend Editor and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter

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