Taken from the autumn/winter 2020 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here
Alter egos have long permeated pop music – a conceptual career narrative for Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce and Nicki Minaj’s ricochet from turned-up valley girl to gun-toting gangster in the space of a tune. There is a lineage, a blueprint for an artist’s dramatis personae. Now, Shygirl’s bbz have entered the chat – Baddie, Bonk, Bovine and Bae. Think Bratz dolls meet Hatsune Miku, cast in a Hype Williams video, and dressed to match each character’s personality in Mugler, Mowalola, Charlotte Knowles and Asai.
The London born-and-bred musician’s new EP ALIAS is her most ambitious project yet. It’s a hydra-headed origin story for the artist, in which these four personalities weave in and out to scintillate, seduce and fuck it all up. “Your art and your words have the power to build and tear down worlds of your own making,” says Shy. “I am my own main character, heroine and muse.”
Speaking over Zoom from home between a photoshoot and studio time, Shygirl describes each persona’s particular flair, counting them with her ruby-red stiletto nails: Bae is the throwback to the aspirational girls with attitude on south east London estates she saw growing up; Bovine is the queen bee with an ice-cool air; Bonk is playful and coquettish. Baddie is quintessentially Shy – seething yet insouciant, revelling in narcissism, sexually liberated, and rubbing your face in it.
“I’ve had time to really delve into what Shygirl is,” she shares. “I mean, right now, it’s all of me. I live in the headspace day in, day out.” Shygirl has been her moniker since her 2016 debut track, “Want More”, which blossomed from friend and now frequent collaborator Sega Bodega asking her to sing over his sinister industrial beat. With her menacing delivery (“You wanna talk shit? I ain’t into it...wanna fuck fast? I’m into it”) and Sega’s stressy, staccato production, they captured the dancefloors of London’s underground. Shy quit her job at a modelling agency in 2018 to pursue music, and has since powered on with her label NUXXE, founded with Sega, Coucou Chloe and Oklou. That same year, she dropped the venomous Cruel Practice EP, earning a reputation for her dexterous flow over lacerated, horror-pop productions, and she has played shows on just about every continent, soundtracking runways for Savage × Fenty and Mugler.
But who Shygirl is as an artist and person continues to evolve, like her personas, dubbed the ‘Shy Bbz’. “This is still such a new phase of life for me,” she says. “I think it’s necessary, especially as someone presenting themselves publicly, to confirm that you are not one-dimensional – and you may like me today, but you might not like me tomorrow.”
Shy references artists like Björk and Róisín Murphy as cultural touchstones, diaphanous talents who move between genres while retaining strong core identities. “It feels very authentic to me for artists to be amorphous and shed skins – as people we grow. And I don’t like repeating myself, in my work or in conversation,” she says, adding with a sly laugh, “my friends will attest to that.” The world she’s building with ALIAS is both a testament to and lesson in multiplicity, embracing one’s most titillating and toxic traits.
“Your art and your words have the power to build and tear down worlds of your own making” – Shygirl
Across the EP, Shy takes irreverent pleasure in her storytelling, with mile-a-minute raps moving fluidly into distorted, sensual moans, her unwavering drawl magnifying the wit of her explicit, whipsmart lyrics. “I hear they call me shy,” she smirks on first single “FREAK”. On “SLIME”, she traverses what at first seem to be two different voices in a sexual power-play, one misogynist and the other a boss bitch – the twist being that they are both one. Across the shapeshifting beats of producers including SOPHIE, Arca, Karma Kid, Happa and Sega, Shygirl plays with perspective: we’re in cahoots with her for one tune, the next we’re prised apart – it’s a collaborative cat-and-mouse.
“I love taking a small situation and stretching the drama out of it,” she says. “I’ve always noted down my thoughts – like, yeah, it could have been poetry but that gets a bit dry, doesn’t it! With music I can play with cadence and pace. I can warp a phrase to mean something totally different just by placement and delivery. It’s a specific kind of high I enjoy from being a smartarse.”
It’s this experimentalism that makes Shygirl so inventive: take 2017’s “CC”, for example, a thumping, woozy track with Sega Bodega about a relationship’s breakdown conceptualised around the sound of her cough, or “FREAK”’s cheeky confession of having your dad on speed dial. The acerbic candour and provocative wordplay have fast become facets of Shy’s act. She’s an artist keen to bust stigmas, asserting her autonomy as both an artist and woman. “Why ride with the devil when I could give you hell?” she sighs on “TWELVE”.
“I find myself taking interactions that have happened and approaching them differently,” says Shy of her songs. “I feel like I’ve asserted more ownership than ever – welcome to my house, I built it from bricks. I’ve taken control – yes, the lyrics are explicit, but it’s in the most visceral, shocking moments that I’m talking more about freedom, identity and agency. Physicality is a universal language. It makes me feel free.”
“I’m never afraid of making people feel uncomfortable,” she continues, explaining her combative approach. “You’re not getting it on a plate from me. My parents say if you have to question something, be prepared to work for the answer.”
Shygirl is most poised in performance, with her seething sing-talk delivery, acid-coloured wig changes, and the frequent appearance of a luxuriously waved handheld fan. Unlike some peers, she opted out of Club Quarantines and the lockdown livestreams – has she missed the club spaces that influenced the artist she is? “I’ve had time to interrogate what I enjoy about live shows,” she says, “and how performance relates to telling my stories. Shows are about being ‘real’ for people, but actually, my mission as an artist is about creating a fantasy. How do I create a fantasy when I can’t be physically present? Shows are easy in that respect, you’re stimulated by the crowd’s vibe, and they you. This downtime has really helped in crafting a more textural world.” It was in the second month of lockdown that she started making music again. “I think I was scared of what I could write about, sitting at home, but you see what narratives live within you and what you will always need to talk about. It’s a social and creative experiment.”
Amid the UK’s second national lockdown, British nightclubs remain in peril. “They can close physical spaces, but the spirit and the people make this culture,” Shy says. “There’s a desire to be fed, regardless of place. I think that’s felt most by women and queer people, whether you’re going to the club or playing the music. We make the space. We have energy we need to release, let’s just think of those parties in, like... 2028.” London, a city pummelled by iconic club closures, will suffer the brunt of these changes. “There’s an entitlement to culture borne from London, an ego,” she says reflectively, flipping her long blonde hair. “Self-importance is a misgiving, but it’s also liberating as an artist.”
“They can close physical spaces, but the spirit and the people make this culture. Women and queer people, whether you’re going to the club or playing the music....we make the space” – Shygirl
Shygirl is a child of 00s R&B, 90s Eurodance and Myspace deep-dives, and it shows on ALIAS – there’s the gritty production hallmarks of grime and UK rap, and the fug of Benny Benassi-esque beats pulsating throughout, with “TASTY” invoking the peaks of a 90s Fantazia rave. But our conversation is most vibrant when she talks of the sci-fi epics, Meg Cabot coming-of-agers, and Austenian novels of manners she read as a teenager, and their impact on her songwriting. “It’s such fantasy for me!” she says. “Like, I’ve not been to that planet or country manor, but wow, this speaks to me. Language can transport you.” Right now, she is attempting to get through Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi novel Dune, reading it out loud to improve her diction when performing – sounding out the novel’s Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen helps the flow.
The musician is also a keen interlocutor for a dynasty of artists frustrating the parameters of pop. In a set intended for online clubnight HEAV3N, SOPHIE shared unreleased material featuring Shygirl, syncopated, gloopy productions on which she writhes and spits to rapturous responses from an ever-growing fandom. Shygirl and Arca recently united for “unconditional”, a sparse, introspective ode to music as resistance, with proceeds going to organisations fighting for racial equality. She also appeared on Arca’s latest album KiCk i, where the Venezuelan musician herself offers a rebel yell against genre, gender binaries and music’s conventions.
If the ALIAS EP is a multi-sensory experience – “SIREN” needs a slot on the Matrix 4 soundtrack, while acid-tongued “TWELVE” would perfectly match a Maddy skewering on Euphoria – its artwork matches up. “I have a broad imagination,” says Shy. “There was no limit, because I actually didn’t know the technical limitations.” The “SLIME” video is like a clandestine session on Second Life. ALIAS’ artwork evokes the body horror of David Cronenberg, a set of eyes peeking from slitted nostrils, the surrounding skin oily and taut like a more-chic Leatherface. “I showed up to a recent shoot, and asked to be painted like a clown. I tell make-up artists to think beyond the boundaries of my face.”
After the ALIAS tracks were laid down and lockdown was eased, Shy holidayed in Ibiza with friends – you missed out if you didn’t catch the debaucherous, paradisiacal Instagram stories. During that time, she found some of the stimulation she had missed, and grew closer to Arca. “We’re doing something really personal. Collaborating is about trying to be understood. We thought we knew each other, now we definitely do!” She delights in forging new, surprising connections, citing the union of Karma Kid’s punchy house productions with Arca’s avant-pop on ALIAS. Throughout our conversation, Shy suffixes statements about her development as an artist with praise for her inner sanctum, crediting Sega as her “entryway” into the experimental, and “FREAK” video animator Maurice Andresen and creative director Mischa Notcutt as collaborators that have pushed Shygirl to another level.
With her cohort of painted alter egos, as with her collaborators, she feels deeply connected. “I feel heard, and at my most understood. It’s hard for that not to be a drug you want to keep tapping.”
An album remains a near-future promise, and the next few months will see the continued expansion of the Shygirl universe. Her fans are hard to keep satiated, but Shy is an artist hungry for recognition, drama and limitless artistic possibilities. As we talk, she glides easily across her aliases – the smirk of Bae, Baddie’s tart wit, some playful, almost Austen-esque badinage. It’s in this shapeshifting that she is, paradoxically, at her most centred. This era of Shy is not about discardable sobriquets or creating noms de plume to hide behind; rather, it’s about autonomy in a world that seeks to flatten you, and Shygirl is building her one-woman army. Are you in for the ride? “I’m still shocked that people can make me feel so read and seen, and vice versa,” she muses. “As much as I want to provoke, I want to be understood.”
The ALIAS EP is out on Friday November 20. 2021 tour info available at Shygirl.tv/live
Hair Virginie Moreira at M+A, make-up Daniel Sallstrom at M+A, nails Sylvie Macmillan at M+A, photographic assistants Tomo Inenaga, Tara Laure Claire, styling assistant Rebecca Perlmutar, hair assistant Sheree Angel, make-up assistant Charlie Murray, production M+A