Feel the euphoria: Why Shygirl is reshaping classic club sounds - Features - Mixmag

Feel the euphoria: Why Shygirl is reshaping classic club sounds

On her new EP 'Club Shy', Shygirl is bringing her own textures to the euphoric energy of '90s and '00s club classics. She speaks to Thomas Hobbs about immaculate escapism and why she's "finally having fun"

  • Words: Thomas Hobbs | Photographer: Antonius Cramer | Editor & Digital Director: Patrick Hinton | Graphic Design: Keenen Sutherland | Stylist: Nell Kalonji | Stylist Assistant: Ezra Spearpoint | Hair stylist: Shy Mason | Makeup: Luz Giraldo | Nail tech: Bham B Nails
  • 14 February 2024

“I got you right where I want you / leave you where I got you / no one to help you / me that you turn to” chanted Shygirl over and over again on 2018 track ‘Asher Wolfe’. The exquisitely acerbic bars are delivered in a surprisingly soft, pillowy vocal, and that cutting turn of phrase succeeds as an allusion to the trance-like state her erratic sound tends to put you in.

On this track Shygirl’s breath control replicates a fur-coat wearing matriarch tutting in the direction of an ex, while all her irritated sighs deftly cushion a blitzkrieg of Regina George-esque putdowns, including my personal favourite: “When you beg and you plead / and I kinda, gotta leave.” Like so many of the best Shygirl songs, the artist’s sultry soliloquies become one with a chaotic, groaning bassline, and her pronunciation carries that terminally bored drawl that all the world’s coolest people seem to be blessed with.

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“I always want to bring people into my world in a very intentional way,” the 30-year-old artist (real name Blane Muise) explains of her process during our relaxed lunchtime phone call, agreeing with my description of it resulting in an immaculate escapism. Whether she’s using blood-curdling screams for percussion (‘Uckers’); riding war sirens and sinking drums that sound like Godzilla stomping through a city (‘Rude’); or transforming into a boisterous “South Side Don” amid a nutty breakbeat that boings forward like a laggy Sonic the Hedgehog (‘Leng’); Shygirl has become one of contemporary music’s most fascinating experimentalists, operating at the very cutting-edge of hyperpop, electronica, jungle, R&B, and sugar trap textures.

This tendency to mix ugly and soothing tones, therefore, makes hearing the primarily carefree inspiration behind Shygirl’s new EP, ‘Club Shy’, feel a little surprising. “I remember back in my early days of DJing, I went to Bang Face festival and ended up on stage with the Vengaboys, punching balloons into the crowd,” Shygirl recalls with a genuine childlike excitement. “That was a life highlight for me, because I remember listening to that type of music when I was a kid. That era of electronic music was fun and not pretentious in any way. I love those cliché moments, about longing for someone, in club music. They’re cliché because they have so much life and truth in them.”

A throwback to the tinny bassline bangers of the 1990s and mid-2000s, ‘Club Shy’ is easily Shygirl’s most accessible project so far, exchanging some of the chaos of her previous work for glitzier, garishly pink dancefloor serenity. Its six tracks (featuring guests including Empress Of, Boys Noize, Lolo Zouai, Kingdom, and SG Lewis) celebrate an era where E pills were pure; the Ministry of Sound was the height of cool; and camp dance-pop songs about Barbie and Ken dolls could be heard bellowing out of every passing car.

The music video to Cosha-featuring single ‘thicc’, for example, looks like a psychedelic version of Whigfield’s ‘Saturday Night‘, with the slightly cheap but elevated Eurodance aesthetic clearly something that’s been embraced with both arms and without any condescension. “I’m the best I’ve ever been and I’ll ever be” the artist sings on project highlight ‘Mr. Useless’, a deliriously confident club doozy that perfectly represents the project’s feel-good nature and the happy space (more on that later) its creator currently sits in.

“A lot of the tracks on this EP were things I made before or during the darker moments of the album [2022’s ‘Nymph’]. They were almost like palate cleansers for me,” she explains. “And it was nice to come back to them and build a project around them that screamed out: ‘Yeah, this is me finally having some fun this year!’”

Pointing to the fierce ‘Mute’, where the beat whistles forward with real optimism and the thirst-quenching lyrics celebrate muting annoying cretins on Instagram, she adds: “Sometimes you must mute friends on social media just so you can carry on liking them. That song’s lyrics are a real ‘imagine you were Paris Hilton in the club’ [attitude].”

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To understand how Shygirl arrived at ‘Club Shy’ and channeled the energy of a hotel heiress nonchalantly strutting past a burly VIP bouncer, you have to look backwards and toward her hometown of Blackheath in South East London. On one side, you’ll find school children playing on the grass outside humble council houses — yet keep going up the hill to Manor Way and you’re surrounded by opulent mansions and a more tranquil leafy suburbia inhabited by middle-class flat white drinkers.

These two very different social groups share a gentle oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Central London. “What was great about not having much money,” Shygirl reflects, “is that I always had a reminder of a more aspirational way of life [just down the road], and it inspired me to go out and go get it. At school there were people growing up in council flats who were friends with the children of diplomats. When you're raised under adverse situations and still make great things, it’s almost like Stockholm Syndrome, I guess.”

Some of Shygirl’s earliest influences were of female pop vocalists who subverted the male gaze. “When it comes to women in music, you get two main things: it’s either you feel like a voyeur staring at them or there’s this switch when they break your gaze,” the artist - who talks in full, well thought-through paragraphs - explains. “I loved Kelis because she pushed back at the idea of being gazed at and was always sexy while also feeling strong. Then you had Missy Elliott, who pushed against the confines of what it was to be viewed as typically feminine in that era, where everything was ruled around being desirable to men. She could make wearing a trash bag look sexy.”

While Kelis and Missy were formative influences, who helped build the confidence of a young mixed-raced girl unsure what scene she belonged to, it was an introduction to clubland and hardstyle that really lit the creative fuse. With her Grenadian dad in and out of her life, the Hedkandi Ibiza club mix compilations played by her predominantly white, Welsh, working class family (and the community surrounding them) served as doses of unbridled, live-for-the-weekend joy.

“That was the first electronic music I was exposed to,” she recalls. “Everyone was playing it. Before you even know what a club looks like, that music made you feel like you had been to one. I’m always trying to experience that [euphoric] feeling again for the first time. I’ve been described as deconstructed club, but I never try to re-write the script with club music; I just add to the texture.”

Breathing, Shygirl explains, is a crucial part of the new songs. “With the cadence of my voice, I tend to incorporate my breath into everything. The breathing is just as important as the words. I like to inject that reality into the work and hit a sweet space between escapism and reality.” Also describing her style as an emcee, she likens it to an outpouring of emotion. “I need to be working through something bad to have something to say. I also hate it when people just be rapping and they’re saying nothing. I am not a massive fan of conscious rap that’s super serious. I’m like, you’re losing me by thinking too much about the words and not enough about the beat. I’d rather you made the beat move.”

To hear Shygirl rap is a brilliant thing and, beyond being a woman in a still sexist industry, it’s difficult to understand why she’s not cited more often as one of the UK’s finest emcees given the complex beats she routinely murders. Listening to her calmly spit lyrics such as “This dick trash, gotta dash him with the rest” (amid the evil wind up toy jingle rhythms of ‘Missin U’) feels like experiencing a soul-destroying side-eye in real-time. It’s the musical equivalent of Naomi Campbell coming face-to-face with her worst enemy in the middle of a cyberpunk rave and, somehow without sacrificing any composure, letting them feel the sharpness of her tongue.

However, with Shygirl currently in a happy relationship that involves spending the weekends watching movies on the sofa with her boyfriend (FYI: her preference is claustrophobic nightmare The Descent), she’s had less “bad things” to work through, which might explain why she’s been rapping a lot less and singing more in the style of a ’90s and ‘00s club siren with the ‘Club Shy’ EP.

This is a shift that precedes the new release, with 2022 single ‘Coochie (a bedtime story)’ radically rooting the playful booty call anthems of ’90s G-funk music within queer culture. It might be the funniest song about cunnilingus since Lil Kim’s ‘How Many Licks’, trading the raps for a syrupy melody and tongue-in-cheek lines (“Little coochie, it be calling to me / Right next to the juicy booty, oh, so juicy”) delivered in an exaggerated posh accent. Her R&B singing voice was also prevalent on ‘Firefly’, another track from debut album ‘Nypmh’, where she seductively glided over a chopped-up deep house bassline that sounded like the Spice Girls’ ‘Viva Forever’ put through a blender. Both should have been much bigger hits than they were.

“Whenever I go into a session, someone asks me to rap and I instantly go into a place of, no, I want to sing,” shares Shygirl of her current mindset. Regardless, she reveals that an EP based more around rap will still materialise and likely follow ‘Club Shy’ later this year. Beyond a more chill home life, another thing that’s inspired the new sound is Shygirl’s ongoing Club Shy party series. First held in 2022 at the strip club Metropolis in East London, it’s extended to editions in LA, Brazil, Chicago and New York.

In many ways, these nights were a necessity. Shygirl, giving an insight into the cage that fame can often place around people, admits her experience of club nights changed drastically when she got famous and started, say, remixing Björk tracks. “Clubbing changed so much,” she explains. “The places I would usually go to I was getting noticed and I didn’t have the anonymity I previously enjoyed. It’s hard to go out and be watched. So, I thought, well, fine, if that’s what it is going to be like, why don’t I just be in control of the environment?”

In their essence these nights adhere to Shygirl’s “beautiful people only” proclamation back on 2019 track ‘Beauts’, paying special tribute to the role the Black LGBT community has always played in shaping popping, sweaty, pioneering electronic music. It is a sentiment echoed by recent albums like 2022’s ‘Black Girl Magic’ by Honey Dijon or 2023’s ‘Raven’ album by Kelela, who, tellingly, has collaborated with Shygirl in the past.

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“Even growing up, being mixed race and being raised mainly by my white family, it’s been a journey and very hard finding the spaces that I feel welcomed by. And the Black queer community, especially, has been one that’s always welcomed me with open arms,” says Shygirl. “The queer Black dance community is where I look these days when it comes to fine-tuning my music or events. It’s been hard doing events, though, because I am definitely that type of person that makes a party and thinks no one’s going to come.”

The fact the MOBOs just awarded Shygirl the prize for Best Electronic / Dance Act also feels significant. The organisation finally reintegrated electronic music back into the fold in 2022 after nearly two decades out in the cold, indicating more industry recognition for the Black artists dominating a style of music they pioneered yet have long felt locked out of when it comes to the mainstream. “It's good that they have [acknowledged electronic music again], because if the Black community cannot acknowledge it, how will the rest?” Shygirl says. That’s an issue the industry needs to correct; in the meantime, Shygirl and her peers will keep leading the way while the rest catch up. “I don’t wait for people to make seats at tables, for me, to be honest. It's much stronger when you create your own space and do what you’re doing. I don’t do it for recognition, I do it for the love.”

Rapping or singing, the artist and producer has an addictively laid-back vocal style, unleashing deliciously cruel earworms that are juxtaposed with raucously sensuous, genre-subverting production. “It’s important my vocals are always calm, as shouting never sounds genuine for me,” she agrees. “If you shout or lose control then sometimes that’s the only message that comes across. You read up about all the great poets in history and no one talks about them screaming the words, right?”

On ‘NVR’ she sampled a spray can tagging a wall, while there are a lot of Shygirl songs that include human groans or bird song, which are both buried into the very fabric of the beats. It’s clear Shygirl is fascinated by the magic that happens when you take a field sample from everyday life and melt it into electronica or hip hop. She talks to me like someone who could sit on the tube and hear a symphony in her head just from experiencing all the interlocking layers (air whizzing by the window, human coughs, distant headphone music, ominous announcement warnings to “mind the doors”).

“That’s where the magic ground kind of comes in,” she beams. “I always loved the little insignificant details. I love sounds that people experience all the time and tend to look past, but without them, you wouldn’t have the beautiful scene that you have right in front of you.”

Growing up, Shygirl’s mum would make personalised bookmarks that had poems neatly written on them, something her daughter then imitated, “writing the most sentimental shit ever and making family members cry” on their birthdays. This nostalgic, poetic lens evolved into more of a fiery, X-rated rap sensibility later on. After leaving university and a course studying photography, her 2016 single ‘Want More’ (produced by Sega Bodega), with its prioritisation of orgasmic female pleasure and daringly futuristic production, set the tone for everything that followed on releases like 2018’s ‘Cruel Practice’ and 2020’s ‘ALIAS’.

The place that Shygirl is in at the moment feels far removed from where she ended the 2010s, though. Last year she opened for Beyoncé on the Renaissance tour; the expectations are clearly getting bigger and bigger. “Just even working with the scale of production of Beyoncé was a massive learning experience,” she says. “It’s so nice to see someone at the top of their game like that and they really have a hand in every level of their business. Inspiring. Opening for Beyoncé is hard, cos’ arenas look at you like: ‘who the fuck are you?’ But by the end of my set, they are loving it every time. It’s such a good feeling to win someone over.”

On one of her biggest songs, ‘Freak’, Shygirl talks about neighbours moaning about the loud noise levels. “I was not my old neighbour’s favourite person,” she laughs, “but you can’t live in London and still complain about the noise!” Whether the ‘Club Shy’ EP is the crossover success that takes Shygirl into the Beyoncé stratosphere and means she suddenly has the budget for a vast, soundproofed mansion to appease any dissenting yuppie neighbours remains to be seen, but you can confidently bet the artist will continue to be an innovative presence.

AI, for example, is something she wouldn’t hesitate to experiment with. “I am the type of person to just try something and see what happens. That’s how the human race has got to this point,” she says. Her dream is also to go into film scoring; hardly a surprise given the surrealist, hyper-visual nature of her music. “My next album is going to be my most cinematic music ever,” she claims.

One thing that sounds like it will play a less central role in Shygirl’s future is the NUXXE club collective she’s part of alongside collaborators COUCOU CHLOE, Oklou and Sega Bodega. “We’re all still friends but we don’t run the label anymore,” she confirms, “but we’ve kept it online as a space because it reflects our friendship. So it never ends. Whether Odd Future or the Soulquarians, I think that’s always something that’s been important to me: the community behind the music.”

Returning one final time to ‘Club Shy’, Shygirl concludes: “This music is escapism in some sense [from all the WW3 news reports]. With my friends we never stop talking about what’s going on in the news. But how can you confront it if you’re not feeling energised? If you don’t have your musical call to action or the reminder that the freedom [to go out clubbing] is one of the things you’re fighting to save, then what's the point?”

Whether this love letter to candified ’90s house music turns out to be a one-off experiment, or she rapidly expands into brand new sonic territories, you can be sure Shygirl will continue to have you right where she wants you. The lyrics of ‘Want More’ probably provide the best answer to what comes next. “If you want to go slow, I ain't into it.”

'Club Shy' is out now via Because Music, get it here

Thomas Hobbs is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter

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