Even before she released her new ALIAS EP, Shygirl was already having a strong 2020. Coming into the year fresh off her underground smash "BB," the London artist kept popping up on album after album, whether it was on Arca's now Grammy-nominated effort, KiCk i, queer rapper Zebra Katz's long awaited debut, LESS IS MOORE or synth-pop outfit Georgia's Seeking Thrills. Shygirl never missed with each new feature, but they barely scratched the surface compared to what was she was going to unleash next.
ALIAS, out now, was specifically designed to completely blow any previous expectations you might've had out the water. Stylistically, the seven-track EP feels like a survey of the past two decades of the UK club scene by touching on everything from grime to electroclash, maximalism, pop house and eurobeat. To help execute her vision, Shygirl enlisted an equally diverse lineup of producers: Kai Whiston, Oscar Scheller, Karma Kid, Happa, SOPHIE, and her NUXXE label co-founder and frequent partner-in-crime, Sega Bodega.
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Embodied by CGI avatars Baddie, Bae, Bonk and Bovine, ALIAS explores the many facets of Shygirl's personality, from nymph to nympho, nonchalant beauty to club-crawling baddie. One moment she's the bubbly carefree pop ingenue we hear on "TASTY" and the next she's throwing back shots and stealing boyfriends all around town on "LENG," each track a whiplash-inducing pivot from the one before it.
In lesser skilled hands the whole thing could easily devolve into a chaotic mess, but with Shygirl at the helm there's never any doubt as to what's going on or who's in charge. Each track is direct and concise, wasting no time with flowery language or pointless detours and instead opting to really hammer home her point (e.g. "Do me right here on the floor/ Do me right here on the floor/ Do me right here on the floor"). Clearly, Shygirl doesn't fuck around.
There's a certain magnetism to Shygirl's persona holding it all together — a cool, commanding attitude that fully owns her sexuality and unleashes it with a deadly precision. She leaves us hanging on every venom-laced lyric, just itching to cut loose and go absolutely feral on some grimy dancefloor. Given that we aren't allowed to go clubbing at the moment or in the near future, it's easy to imagine the debaucherous hell a track like "BAWDY" would undoubtedly unleash.
An impressive and bold statement, ALIAS leaves Shygirl poised to push her sound further and wider than ever before. So ahead of the EP's release, PAPER caught up with Shygirl to dive into her cast of characters, how the whole project came to together and, ultimately, what makes one of today's most exciting up-and-coming artists tick.
What was the inspiration behind ALIAS?
I was focused on introducing myself. I'm still early on in my exploration of music, so once I made the tracks I was thinking, How do I explain them? The first time when I was unpacking everything and looking at where each track had come from, where each vibe had come from... Even though it all had come from me, it comes from parts of me that I annex off. When you get in a complete mood, that's who I am when I make "Freak" or "Slime." I'm not everything all at once, but sometimes you're completely in the zone. I wanted to personify that and that's where the Shy Babes side of it came from. Visually and sonically, it works in tandem to explain itself. I wouldn't be fully satisfied with just one without the other. I need both. I'm quite a visual person and I've always been that way, long before I came to music. So it's natural for me to want to express myself in that way alongside the music. It even helps it make sense to me because I'm also wondering, Where did that want to make that type of track come from? What part of me is it speaking to? As I explain myself to other people, I'm getting to know myself better.
Could break down each of your different aliases? Baddie, Bae, Bonk and Bovine.
There's definitely some crossovers with everyone because I don't think anyone's completely polarized. But you do get initial impressions off of anyone's character. For me, Baddie is a type of almost unapproachable girl who I can be sometimes or perceived as. When I look back at the first EP and some of the earlier music, at least aesthetically, that's probably the one most people are used to with my vibe. And probably a trigger for the EP when I was like, "Oh, I don't really feel like that is an accurate portrayal of all of me." Maybe that was the initial steps of what I was comfortable revealing, but as we're getting to know each other better, I want to express all these other sides.
Like Bonk, which is a little bit more playful and speaks to not just my youth, but my initial exploration as a young woman and being thrust into the perception of being a sexual being long before I perceived myself that way, like from the ages of 11-13. When you start getting attention, you're still a kid. That's where the narrative comes from with "Twelve" and some parts of "Tasty." There's this carefree aspect, but also this burgeoning self-awareness. Then we've got Bovine, who speaks to the characters I used to read about. They were quintessentially British stuck up, class bitch-type, that sometimes I find myself emulating, when I'm at a fashion party or when I'm not in the mood for people. They're the type of girl that has that ugly name and is quite posh, stuck up, but she thinks she's all that, so that's where kind of the name Bovine came from.
I feel like they are characters in a novel and these are all parts of myself, because that's what I relate to the most: what I grew up on. Where I found my affiliation with words was through books. The same with Bae, who is my nostalgic perception of where I came from, southeast London, and the girls there. What someone would perceive me as, but then there's other layers to it. It's all about the facades of these characters and the longer we live with them, the more we'll get to know them and the depth of them with the music.
Speaking of Bae, for instance, what tracks on the EP would you associate with her?
For Bae with the EP, the track I would link to her more would be "Bawdy" and "Slime," because there's a lot of her self-aware attitude and "too good for the club" vibe. That's the initial energy for Bae, she's the pretty girl that already knows what she's about and self-absorbed, which I can be. When you're looking at this project, which is a narcissistic escapade where I'm just delving into myself completely, you're also exaggerating parts of yourself. You're sending it up. That's the aspect of Bae. We can't all be that vapid or two-dimensional. There's more to it, but it's nice sometimes to completely live in that space.
If you spent a night out with Bae, what would that look like?
She would be getting all the attention from everyone and you'd be left holding the drink. But Bae doesn't stay too late in the club either, she leaves early. She's happy to get her beauty sleep.
Oh wow, now I know exactly who she is.
It's a little "ism" about my experiences. It's nice to build a character in that way, because then I feel free to go for different routes sonically, as well. I don't feel too boxed in in terms of other people understanding where my tastes are. I don't feel like I know completely what my voice can do. I'm still discovering what actually sounds good with me. I don't want to be thinking, Oh, this sounds good, but it doesn't really make sense for me. Whereas it does, because if it feels natural, it should make sense. You just need a good way of explaining why it fits with you, and that's where I was with this project and these characters.
Sonically, you draw on different quintessentially UK sounds like electro-clash, piano-driven pop house, eurobeat, a little bit of maximalism, grime. Where does that come from?
It's important to remember I've been a listener of music a lot longer than I've been making it or even thinking about myself within it. As someone who's just appreciated a lot of music, I haven't really thought about it so much as genres even, the technical things or even the history of music, to be honest. I listened to a lot of club music when I was really young and I knew nothing about the club. So you don't really have the context for a lot of things, as well. That fed into how I was in the studio. The ideas I was throwing around, like, "Why can't we do this?" or, "Let's try this." Because even hearing my voice on a track was just beyond my comprehension previously, so I felt like I could do anything. I could try anything. There were no boundaries and that's reflected in this project or the confidence, at least.
Were there specific artists or songs that you drew upon as inspiration for this EP?
Honestly, I don't know. I didn't really have the project in mind enough to think about inspiration. I just thought, I want to make a bunch of music and see what happens naturally. I also wanted to explore working with different people and really review the whole process of the last EP, what I felt like I wanted to hear more of and what I missed, as well. I grew up with Moloko, Aphex Twin, a lot of Madonna and Kylie [Minogue]. There's things that you take note of subconsciously and then you're genre-blending in a sense. I came from a DJ background, so there's things that I was trying to do in terms of mixing tracks, and I kept going to the studio and creating those things with my voice and my direction to fill the gaps in what I would be playing between those two tracks in my sets. I could actually insert myself. In terms of inspiration, it's the idea of having a puzzle piece missing in your head, but you don't know what it is until you've made it and realize it's the perfect fit. You're chasing after this desire for a sound you haven't even heard yet, but you know it once you've made it.
In addition to Sega Bodega and SOPHIE, this EP sees you working with a bunch of new producers like Kai Whiston, Oscar Scheller, Karma Kid and Happa. How did you go about deciding who you wanted to work with?
Kai was someone I've been really intrigued by for ages because his stuff is so energetic and there's so much going on. It's complete chaos, but it's so organized. I was like, "I really wonder how we can work together." We had arranged a session with myself, Kai, Sega and then randomly SOPHIE was around. Sega had invited her through, but we actually hadn't planned on all working together. That's the most people I've probably worked with in a room. When you're working with that many producers, it's always a lot, especially with that style of music. SOPHIE is a complete genius, but they're all such different characters. It was definitely a task in front of me to arrange this in a way and still find room for myself, but it was good. It was fun. I didn't really have any expectations because I was like, "If we make something, this could be a mess." Just because you have three really great people working with you doesn't guarantee that you're going to make something really great. "Slime," I think, was probably the hardest track to finish because there were such different energies on there and, all the while, I had this weird idea of where I wanted it to go.
Happa was one of those random things. He'd worked with my friend Lafawndah before, and she recommended us jumping in the studio together and then we really clicked because we made a bunch of stuff. I really love working with people who don't look at me and think, "Oh, I really want to do this type of thing." After hearing a lot of what I've made, some people just send me stuff that is exactly what I've already done. I want to be in the middle of someone who's open to any random idea. For instance, I've been watching a lot of Disney movies and I want to make something that reminds me of the feeling I get when I'm watching Sleeping Beauty. I'll come in with something like that and I need someone who is going to pick up on that really weird way of describing things, and still feed off of my energy and get my references.
Karma Kid was the same. We ended up bonding over random British food that I couldn't really talk about with anyone else, but still felt like we're nostalgic about. I worked with a lot of people that didn't end up making the EP. Like Arca, we were working together but it wasn't completely right for the EP, but we still got music that will have a home. It's better sometimes to not think of the project too much and just see what happens. Like Oscar Scheller, when we started working together during quarantine, my ideas for the EP were already done until we made "Tasty" and then I realized that was actually the perfect fit to tie everything together. So that was a really late addition, but I'm super happy with that one. I like the fact that no one would expect me to have any of those producers on this project after listening to the last one.
"Tasty" feels the furthest from your previous EP, Cruel Practice, but that along with "Siren" are my two favorites.
Yeah, but they're the ones that are literally so far away from Cruel Practice, you know what I mean?
In my head, when I was making Cruel Practice, I was angsty and in my feelings about stuff. When I was working on ALIAS, I was in such a happy place. At times, I was like, "Okay, how am I going to even write because I'm so happy?" Literally crying about happy shit is not always that interesting. I went into the project thinking everything's going to sound super upbeat and fab because that's how I am right now, but there is an undercurrent of this darker vibe that's still there in "Freak" and "Slime." I guess that's what I'm drawn to, even when I'm in a good mood. I'm the same with the artwork. I do like that weirder, darker sense of looking at things. But ALIAS is a happy record for me.
The artwork immediately is very striking — very "Moisturize me," Doctor Who.
We didn't start on the creative until midway through lockdown here, or even thinking about it. I hadn't shot for ages. I hadn't even been in front of the camera. I didn't want to make another piece where it's just my face straight up. I wanted to see things from a different perspective — to be able to look at myself as a thing, this idea of dissociating from yourself, because I had done that during that period. I've gone into myself, dissociated, looked at my coping mechanisms and I wanted the work to reflect that period, that growth. I worked with this guy Jimmy on prosthetics, we made this whole cast of my head and then I wanted to be flattened out. I wanted this idea of looking at something so familiar, like the features of someone's face, and seeing it completely morphed in a different way.
I have seen Doctor Who, I've seen all these sci-fi references. That's definitely something that influenced me a lot in terms of thinking about things in different ways. You're having to imagine a future that doesn't exist, but also referencing what happens in your current life and history. You're refracting things that you know, so I wanted that with this piece. We completely flattened out my face and removed my nose. We tried loads of different versions, like not completely flat with some features coming through. But I just like the fact that I could look at it. I was in the scene and I wasn't. I like the idea that I cloned myself because I felt like I had done that in the music, as well. It was different ways in which this ALIAS theme reflected itself in the process that attracted me. Actually, the photographer Hendrik Schneider told me to stand behind the flattened out version and I was like, "That's going to look so tacky," and then I did, and it was my favorite shot.
Did that then carry over into creating the CGI avatars that we see in the videos?
I already had them in mind. I can't even remember what came first at this point. I always wanted to work with animation and I had been saying it for a while. But the rest of my team wasn't as keen on the idea until quarantine happened and everyone was like, "Okay, animation looks like the better idea." I'd seen Sy Blake's stuff and I really love this 3D modeling work he did. Again, it was that aspect of being able to look at myself from a different perspective. It's kind of this weird, God-like thing, you know? You're creating stuff and looking at it, rather than being in it and having to imagine things from other people's perspectives.
It was a really fun process even just thinking about what they were going to wear. For me, it was really important to look at the designers. Because each brand puts in work on being able to identify what that brand is about, and that feeds into who the characters are and does half the job for me. It's how I judge who I'm going to be sometimes, when I leave my house. I'm like, "Okay, I'm in the mood to wear this. This is who I'm giving today." Even from the hair and the makeup looks, we designed those.
I worked with Mischa Notcutt, who helps me on a lot of the creative, to execute everything. I would lose my mind without someone else. I have a really difficult time letting go. I'm of the mindset of being too used to doing everything myself. It is hard to relinquish that control and trust people to bring it to life, but it's so satisfying. Like when the communication works, because not only have you been understood, but you have the thing, as well. That's probably one of the main things, to be understood is really important for me. That's why I've taken so much care in this project to explain who I am right now and the potential of who I could be in the future.
What do you hope people take away from this EP?
It's just room. For whatever I do next, if you are completely surprised, then I think you've really taken in what I've been doing up until now.
Right, opening up the space.
Exactly. Sometimes I feel like, you're making something, you're like, "Does any of this make sense?" Because you're so deep in looking at it. It will start not making sense anymore.
I know that feeling all too well.
As much as I can explain everything, I also want everything to look good. I sent the ["Slime'] music video to my little sister yesterday. She's 11. I don't explain anything to her. Sometimes I send her stuff and she tells me what she thinks about it. Which, my music isn't generally child-friendly all the time, so there's a risk. I didn't send it to my mom, but I sent it to my sister. And she's just like, "Oh, yeah, that's really sick." She's not digging into it, like why is that happening or anything. You should be free to be able to do that. You shouldn't always have to explain things.
Photos courtesy of Shygirl
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