Artist To Watch: Shygirl
Shygirl isn’t ashamed to feel shameful, or gross, or uncomfortable, or nasty, or even cunty. Her music might not be the first choice for a family barbecue, but it covers a whole spectrum from endearing to pleasurable. “I don’t think any feeling is invalid or shameful,” she says over the phone from her home in East London. “I can laugh at myself. It’s not to feel shame about being embarrassed or feeling awkward. They’re all experiences, and they make me human.”
Born Blane Muise in South London, she started Shygirl as an alter ego to address taboo topics, but it’s grown as a vehicle for Muise to understand herself, for letting her subconscious get to work. She made an unforgettable impression in 2016 with her debut single “Want More.” Over the next few years, she would tease us with more prickly deliveries and ominous, industrial club beats. Drawing from grime and UK drill, her sonic backdrop is as physical as the encounters she writes about. Although there is a sultry drawl to her songs, Shygirl’s exciting sexual autonomy doubles as a form of catharsis. Even though Shy is comfortable with talking about sex — as an avid reader growing up she noticed it was integral to human nature — her music interogates the physicality of feelings rather than literal fucking.
“Sometimes you’re so depressed you can’t get out of bed. Sometimes you’re ecstatic, you can’t sit still. It fills your whole body,” Shygirl explains. “I think talking about bodies and desire is really a way to be understood when talking about how I feel. Oftentimes, it’s not talking about the relationship of two people, sometimes I’m thinking about the relationship with two different sides of myself. I leave that up to how people connect with it.”
Despite the appeal of her sassy and effortlessly monotone vocals against an indestructible backbeat, music wasn’t a sought-out path for Shy. She has no background in the field, aside from taking inspiration from her dad’s enthusiastic love of music — growing up, he showed her Björk, Aphex Twin, Moloko, and pop sovereignty like Destiny’s Child. Being the eldest child of supportive parents instilled a resilient confidence in her. But not until a chance encounter brought her into the studio in 2016 was an electrical spark ignited.
Before graduating uni with a degree in practical photography, Shygirl already had a position at a design agency. “It was like a made-up role, career consultant or something,” she laughs. It was during this position where she met Salvador Navarette, who makes music as Sega Bodega. “I launched a sister company with my boss, where we were rebranding music entities,” Shygirl says. “Part of that, they wanted us to run an internal blog. They sent us out to festivals and stuff.” She met Navarette at a club event she was writing about, and they’ve been friends ever since. “He knew I wrote little things for myself but I wasn’t writing music. I was taking notes in terms of phrases or putting my emotions into words. I’ve always been a good writer, good speaker,” she says. “He heard something in my voice that he wanted to try out. I realized that when I was working with him that I really enjoyed it.”
Their first release together, Shygirl’s debut single “Want More,” is decisive and taunting. Shy is not here for the bullshit, the tiresome anticipation. “You want to go slow? I ain’t into it,” she says, her voice poised and assertive, but detached. “You want to talk shit? I ain’t into it.” Tinny chimes skitter around her and the buoyancy of the bass intensifies as she plainly states her intent. She wants to fuck fast. Throughout the following years, she released a few singles, adding more shades to her bristling and uncensored persona.
Some people live to work, while others work to live. Shygirl is definitely in the latter category. She realized in 2018 that even though she was making good money in the fashion industry, she wasn’t happy. She had several jobs behind the scenes in the creative industry, from photography assistant to modeling booker. “I didn’t particularly like it. I like negotiating, but I didn’t like making money out of people for fashion. That didn’t make me feel good,” she reflects.
She was used to the contracts, the negotiation, and the pitching. “Quantifying things that don’t really have any quantity,” as she puts it. “I was putting money to people. So when you’re talking about music and art, it’s not quantifiable. It’s an expression, as much as anyone wants to pay for it,” she says. She was good at it, and it helped her prepare for the practical elements of beginning a music collective. She co-founded the Nuxxe label with Bodega and Coucou Chloe. But she was sick of giving the bare minimum to music. “I was in the studio, but I was being responsive to music. I wasn’t giving it the time that I felt I could have.”
Shygirl was already going 500 miles per hour with her nine-to-five day job. She was DJing, performing more shows, spending more time in the studio and, well, partying. Sleep was not a priority. But while chatting, her confused circadian rhythms seemed like less of an issue than her desire to give music her complete focus. Several months before dropping her debut EP Cruel Practice, she checked in with herself.
“I was like, OK, am I gonna do this job because I’m really good at it? I’m good being a booker at this model agency. Where does it go? You’re just in it and is that my career?’” she asked herself. “I imagined I would be working and doing something creative, but I thought I would be a bit more in the background of things because I enjoy putting things together. I thought I would work in production in terms of media. I imagined I would work for a TV channel. I like seeing things come together. But I still have that feeling of satisfaction seeing things come together now in the foreground,” she explains.
Stagnation is a pitfall Shygirl emphatically wants to avoid, and with her forthcoming sophomore EP, she has brilliantly succeeded. Aptly titled, ALIAS contains bits of the thrilling and intoxicatingly strange elements of her debut without sounding redundant or gimmicky. ALIAS puts a magnifying glass to Shygirl, compartmentalizing her into four new hues of herself. She’s named them Baddie, Bovine, Bonk, and Bae. Their characteristics range from “classy and aloof” to “wearing lingerie as an outerwear kind of girl.” She’s personified them, which reveals her skill for descriptive storytelling and also the importance of fleshing out feelings and gaining a clearer self-understanding. “For me, it accentuates different sides of myself and I wanted to explain that better in giving them a whole entire life.”
Whether these four avatars are hyperbolic or authentic is sort of irrelevant. “At some point the lines are really blurry about what came before, and what exists now,” she says. “I’m very much in Shygirl — that is my everyday. I’m still learning about what is wholly real for me. That’s the journey I’m on. I don’t know what other parts of myself are yet to rear their heads, but right now these are the most prominent.”
The four Bs are another way of breaking down herself, decomposing her core, which is both mystifying and horrifying. “I don’t necessarily seek to make things that horrifying. But I find so much of that beautiful to look at and intriguing. When I’m trying to explain myself, I do see these darker sides of me,” she says. The resulting tracks find her voice more in the foreground and confident in emotions other than disgust. “Tasty” is a euphoric mix of drum and bass with big beat for heaven sent love song. “It’s the way you spin me round/ I can’t seem to find the ground,” she sings. Elsewhere, on a dizzying beat fit for Pac-Man ghost, she raps about UK slang on “Leng.” She seems to be having more fun than ever on these songs.
For Cruel Practice, there were obvious sonic horror tropes such as a take on the soundtrack that made Psycho famous. ALIAS advances to a more complicated blend of fun and terror. She starts to laugh when she explains her initial happy mood when these seven tracks started to come together. The new EP still has a sinister side, whether it’s turning the sound of car crash into the euroclub banger “Siren” or the unsettling album art. Although drawing a striking similarity to a Doctor Who character, it comes from a desire to see herself from a new angle. She had a prosthetic made of her face and then completely flattened it. “I wanted to have this idea of being flattened out and to dissociate from what we consider human or a person and just have the flesh of me.” Its spookiness wasn’t the intention, just the result of the process.
For ALIAS, Shygirl has grown her list of collaborators, including Bodega, Oscar Scheller, Kai Whiston, Happa, and SOPHIE. She realizes she can learn how to produce — someday she might — but in the meantime, communicating her visions is liberating. “I’m learning how to be understood by people who are geniuses. The fact that they can understand where I want to take the tracks is really satisfying to me. To be understood is something so valuable,” she says. Transforming her feelings and everyday experiences into club hits and head-turning concepts is magical for her. “I can literally transform things and make something out of nothing… an everyday phrase, I can make a whole song out of it,” she realizes. “That feels powerful to do that and magical in a sense. I’ve always wanted to have magic powers, and now I’ve found the way to do it.”
ALIAS is out 11/20 on Because Music.