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Bonzai
BonzaiPhotography Kristos Giourgas

Bonzai is making boundary-blurring R&B with an electric soul

The 20-year-old Dublin-raised singer shares a video for her Mura Masa-produced new single ‘I Feel Alright’ and talks songwriting, self-trust and laughing off the hype

Bonzai has just woken up from a weird dream. She’s attempting to piece it together. “I got kidnapped from my family home, which I haven’t been to in years,” she explains, puzzled. “I even don’t know what was in my head.”

Sleepy abduction plots aside, you can’t blame the Indiana-born, Dublin-raised artist for trying to steal a bit of shut-eye; since upping sticks and leaving home for London at the age of 17, Bonzai (real name Cassia O’Reilly) hasn’t had much time to stop and pause. Already boasting an assorted variety of eclectic R&B meets infectious electronic pop, the 20-year-old – who once sung backing vocals for NAO – is just as capable at the hazily hypnotic as she is the high-tempo and brash; with whip-smart observations backed up by a kaleidoscopic soundscape, she takes the sounds of M.I.A., Santigold and FKA twigs and spits them out into something bold, playful and fresh. With a Sony record deal and debut album in the works, there certainly be no rest for the wicked.

Latest single “I Feel Alright” – produced by friend, collaborator and fellow new-pop boundary-blurrer Mura Masa – builds on last year’s Lunacy and Sleepy Hungry EPs as an upbeat, rhythmic confessional that refuses to remain in one box; it’s living proof of an artist who, in her own words, is quickly “solidifying her sound”.

Watch the song’s new video below, and read on for a chat discussing her musical upbringing, being her own worst critic and why ‘next big thing’ tags go completely over her head.

How are things – what are you working on right now?

Bonzai: Things are good. I’m just working on tunes pretty much this whole year. I spent quite a bit of time touring and stuff last year – probably didn’t focus as much as I should have on the music. So, this year, I’m just keeping my head down and writing. Slowly releasing. 

Talk me through your writing process. Are you a disciplined writer?

Bonzai: Well, most of the time I will do sessions. I like writing with other people. I’ll go in and write a few bits and pick the best stuff, then that’s up to me to spend time on my own and finish it all. With that stuff, I need to be a bit more disciplined. It’s not a normal job where someone’s gonna fire you if you don’t come in at 9am. Yeah, it’s up to me to get up and get my shit done (laughs).

“It might seem like a dickhead thing to say – I haven’t had a ‘normal’ job in nearly two years – but I’m still not at a point where I’m relaxing about (my music career) at all. I just don’t know if I’ve had that moment – Bonzai

Your mum was a singer, your dad a drummer. Was there a lot of good music playing in your home as a kid?

Bonzai: Yeah, always. I grew up mainly with my dad, he was a drummer before he had me and my brother and gave it up and got into business. But he was a drummer; he was really, really good. He played tunes around the house, like Jamiroquai, Erykah Badu, Maxwell – he was always playing music and brought us to concerts and stuff. So, was my mum. She was a gospel head. We’d always sing together if we were cooking.

My godmother as well, she’s a musician. She lives in New York, her name is Imani – she’s incredible. She’d come over to visit us when I was like nine; she was the one who kinda pushed me to first write songs. She was like, ‘why aren’t you writing songs?’, and I remember I got really annoyed with her, like ‘no, I don’t want to!’ And then she was just like (begins to sing): ‘noooo, I don’t want to, ohhh, not right now...’ She’d just sing everything back at me that I’d say (laughs). But, she actually got me to start writing tunes. Literally everyone in my family is musical.

Having grown up in Wicklow, do you feel that living in a small town that existed in the shadow of a big city – Dublin – influenced your outlook on spaces and where you feel most creative? 

Bonzai: I have an appreciation of the countryside. A lot of the time when I write, I’ll try and go to the countryside. That’s when I really started writing, with my friend who lived in Wicklow – but she lived in the nice part, where all the famous people go. But I don’t know, I am a city girl. Actually, maybe you are onto something – when I’m in London I don’t write as well.

Moving to London as a 17-year-old must have been fairly daunting.

Bonzai: It wasn’t actually that bad. I think it would have been worse if I was older, to be honest.. At 17, I was mature enough to take care of myself and I was able to find a job – ‘cos my dad had made me work so much as a kid – but I was still young enough and new enough to the world to not be scared of it. I think if I’d have waited a little bit longer like a few of my friends have… they know too much about what life actually is – I didn’t. I was just like, ‘yeah, I’m gonna go to London, I’m gonna do music.’ I didn’t really think about it. If I’d have waited any longer, I don’t know if I would have gone out there.

“I went onto Twitter for the first time in a few days and I saw some thing that NME had put, like: ‘rising star with summer banger!’, or something. I just kind of laughed. As if they’re saying ‘rising star’ – Bonzai 

Can you bookmark that moment that ‘doing music’ as a full-time thing started to take shape as a reality?

Bonzai: I can’t really, to be honest. I don’t know if I’ve had that yet – I think I’m still trying to get to that point. It might seem like a dickhead thing to say – I haven’t had a ‘normal’ job in nearly two years – but I’m still not at a point where I’m relaxing about it at all. I just don’t know if I’ve had that moment. I’m trying to get there.

I think I am just generally hard on myself about stuff. I’ll set goals. NAO, she’s one of my favourites. Every time I see her live – which is every time she plays and I’m in the same country – her voice is just incredible. It sounds like there’s a compressor in her voice. Any time I’ll go and do sessions and the producer’s like, ‘do you want tuning?’, I’m just like, ‘no, we need to get to that place where my voice just sounds like it’s tuned like hers.’ Which might be a while, but until I get there I won’t be happy; and when I get there, there’ll probably be something else. I don’t know, I think I’m always just gonna be hard on myself. But it’s cool.

There’s a positive there, though. It kinda quells the notion of you ever being too comfortable. 

Bonzai: Yeah, it’s good. But, I have done some pretty fun stuff and sometimes it’d be cool to maybe be like, ‘oh, that was cool.’ I can’t really do that, ‘cos I’m always like, ‘yeah I want that, up there.’

So, when you see your name next to tags such as ‘rising star’ and ‘next big thing’, how does that make you feel?

Bonzai: You know what’s funny, actually? I’m not a social media person – at all.  I’m being heavily encouraged to make more of an effort, but I just really hate it. So, I went onto Twitter for the first time in a few days and I saw some thing that NME had put, like: ‘rising star with summer banger!’, or something. I just kind of laughed. As if they’re saying ‘rising star’. I don’t know, it goes over my head to be honest. Until I feel like that myself, it just goes over my head.

Which other artists inspire you?

Bonzai: Björk always, Erykah – because she’s so free. It’s funny, it’s usually women, then if you ask a guy this question they’ll usually pick men. I don’t know why that is. But yeah. Björk. You know what, I have loads, but I can’t think of any now that you’ve asked me... I really like Pharrell, I love 50 Cent, Biggie. I dunno, I’d say that’s a good list (laughs).

You said at the beginning of the year that this album is about solidifying your sound. Is that still true? Where are you currently at with the record?

Bonzai: This trip (to LA) has been fun. I’ve met some really fun producers – I’m feeling good about it. I think I’ve got maybe five or six tracks that I’m happy with. But, I’m still gonna do a bit more writing until the end of the summer, then call it and pick my favourites. Then, I’ll just work on them intensely for a good few months.

But yeah, (solidifying the sound) is the point I guess. I just started releasing music – I’ve been doing it for like, a year now – so I’ve kind of just been experimenting. But, that’s what this year was mainly about: being like, ‘okay, what do I really want this to sound like?’ That’s gonna be the point of an album. I think we’re getting there, I feel excited.