Shygirl on exploring her many aliases and getting filthy with Slowthai on “BDE”
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, Salvatore Maicki speaks with Shygirl about Alias, returning to a live setting, and her new single “BDE.”
Shygirl on exploring her many aliases and getting filthy with Slowthai on “BDE” Trinity Ellis

The FADER Interview is a brand new podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and subscribe to The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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If anyone could make the case for releasing club music at a time in history when all the clubs are closed, it's Shygirl. Back in November, the London artist dropped her biggest work to date, ALIAS; an EP that funneled her signature vulgarities through barreling beats and Bratz doll-like avatars. Now she's emerging from lockdown as a cult icon. Her lascivious swagger dripper out of the rave and into the mainstream. Between the blood curdling scream from "UCKERS" going viral on TikTok, troves of means parodying the stretched skin of the ALIAS cover art, a Burberry campaign, and a forthcoming Lady Gaga remix, it feels like Shygirl's moment. On the heels of our new single with Slowthai, "BDE," The FADER's Salvatore Maicki caught up with Shy to discuss the aftermath of Alias, the challenges of filming her new short film, BLU, and her many current textural fascinations.

The FADER: How are things out in London?

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Shygirl: It's good. It's good. It's been weird getting into a new normal and being outside a bit. I've been lucky enough to be able to travel for work and stuff, but it's different when you're out and you're working or you're shooting something. The idea of being social again is such a weird concept. It's kind of been hard to readjust because I've found that I really do like my own company a lot.

Yeah. Have you felt like a bit of agoraphobia set in? Because I have.

Yeah, totally. And also, I did a lot being inside, so I put out a lot in that time and haven't really felt the public reception of it until recently. And it's been so positive and I think a lot more people are aware of what I do now than before. And I think that was quite a weird adjustment. Even the other day, I was out with my dad. We had Father's Day. I went out with my dad and someone recognized me. And I was in really suburban London, way back in South London. And I don't know, I just didn't really expect anyone to know who I was. It's such a weird concept, and especially to come up to me while I was having dinner with dad. I'm not used to that, but it's been happening a lot more recently, I guess, because we've been outside.

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For sure. We kind of entered this pandemic state with Shygirl being regarded as more of a relatively DIY endeavor and now you're coming out of it as one of the faces of Burberry. I mean that's a lot to process.

Yeah. I definitely am someone who constantly... I don't know. I think I've taken a bit of a jump, I guess, of what people would have expected for an artist like me. But I think it's genuinely reflective of what people are listening to and what they want and what they're doing as well. I think that was something... Me thinking I'm not going to be recognized in South London is me thinking the type of people who listen to my music. And to be honest, I genuinely always think it's the queer community. And I grew up in South London and I never really felt the queer community there, so I didn't think I'd be recognized there. But actually the queer community is way more out and proud than it was when I was growing up. And so there are people that listen to my music there. And actually it's a bit more diverse than just the queer community as well. I think there's something in the freedom of what I do that speaks to a lot of people at the moment.

Totally. I think it draws the freak, if you will, out of people and maybe that's always there and you just need it reminded.

I think as well, there's something... I guess what I've always wanted to do is prove that yeah we might have our niches where we feel the most comfortable, but actually we have a lot of common ground, people are way more intersectional than previously. You don't have to be so in your tribe. And I think that's what I've always pushed for in this music and how I present myself is that don't just expect something small from me, or whatever you expect I'm going to do something slightly different the next time, or you're going to see me dress slightly differently. There's no comfortable space. Every space I'm going to insert myself into. If that makes sense?

It's wild because it feels like Alias dropped ages ago, but maybe it was just because it felt like an entirely different world back in November. It was a much darker time. When the pandemic started settling in, did the thought of, "Maybe I should wait this out and put this music out when we can be together again." Did that ever cross your mind or was it like you know-

No. It probably crossed my manager's mind. But I was like, "I need to get this out." Also, I was just working at my own pace. The whole thing really felt like it was at my own pace. I didn't really feel like I had any crazy deadlines. But once it was done, I was like, "It should come out and I have the ideas and I know what I want to do." And to be honest, the way the music industry was structured slightly before that I felt was really rigid. And I was always looking to do things in my own way. And then when COVID happened, it really facilitated that. I'm someone who really enjoys all elements of putting out music, not just making the music, but working on the creative for the videos, fleshing out the concepts.

Because for me, I didn't really think of that stuff whilst I was making the music. I was really just seeing what came through naturally. And it was only afterwards that I looked at everything and was like, "Okay, what is this actually saying about me? And what do I want it to say? And how do I want to say that to people?" And then I just really had so much more time than I would have usually had to flesh that out. Because usually I'd have shows and stuff in between, and that's a different head space to performing and working on a treatment for a video are two different spaces. And I really like to dive in to both of them. So that's hard to do whilst it's happening at the same time. And especially whilst I'm still in the introductory stages of what I'm doing and how I'm speaking to my audience. I feel a bit better prepared to do shows and work on creative now. Because think I've set a standard of how I like to work and have a really good team.

Now I am wondering, did the aliases arise out of the songs or did the songs come out of the idea of aliases?

This is a hard one to explain because I feel like I was unearthing a language in the creative to better describe what has always been going on with me, how I maneuver through the world. So this music that I was making and the energy that I was bringing into each track or in the room when I was making it's not just the lyrics of the song, but also how I feel when I'm performing them. Or when I was dipping into memories to write them, who was I being when I delivered it like this? And I was asking myself those questions, "How often does that energy come forward?" And do I feel like that's a solid part of me and actually I just haven't had the time to really review that in myself, be reflective on that.

Especially with Bonk, the idea of her as a character had started coming through in the earlier EP, Cruel Practice, when I did "Gush," and I painted myself with clown makeup. And I also did that again in another shoot. And I was like, "Where does that kind of energy come from where I just want to wear a mask sometimes?" Because it was a similar mood in each of those experiences, where I wasn't in the mood, I've turned up to this photo shoot but I was like, "I'm not in the mood. I'm going to get in the mood by painting my face so ridiculously so that you have to fill the boots of that character." And I think there's a lot of that in the aliases. And sometimes I really felt like I was dissecting myself almost to present myself better to an audience. The idea of an alias, how truly alias is that concept when you can only ever really be yourself? It's you being those characters. So that character must say something about you.

With the aliases, I was wondering, did you kind of grow up with Bratz dolls as a part of your childhood?

I had one Bratz doll. I think they were a bit pricey, so I didn't get that many. But I had Barbies and I also had Polly Pocket and all these images of women, and this ideal woman, this doll-like thing. And these exaggerated features that felt alien to me. When you're a kid, you don't look like the toys that you're playing with. For me especially, because I just grew up around so much white imagery, white dolls. The black dolls had very Eurasian features. It was just interesting to me, the way I assimilated with it is I didn't really reject it. I didn't dislike it.

I loved the fact that it was so different from me, I guess. It would make the fantasy more applicable. It's the only life I knew in terms of cartoons and toys and stuff like that. And this idea that rather than wishing I looked like that, but it was nice to be able to escape, I guess, reality. I don't want dolls that look exactly like me. I didn't want to make Alias characters that looked exactly like me. I'm happy with what I look like. And I enjoy the reality of myself, but fantasy is a nice thing to dip into every so often.

I also read that you collected stones and gems since you were kind of young. Is that a collection that you're still accumulating?

I haven't for a long while. I think it was something about everyone getting really into quartz and stuff and the energy of stone that kind of put me off for a minute. But when I was young, I'm talking really young, like 12, wherever I went, I always found a store somewhere that sold these natural gems. And I'd find the smoothest one because I used to find it really soothing to just... I'd have it in class or I'd pick two of my favorites that day. And I'd have one I'd just rub them all day long and it would be really soothing to me.

Because I have a real thing about textures and I'm quite a tactile person. I think that shows in the work as well. I'm always choosing colors or textures in the videos that feel really visceral. Because I think for me, that's such a strong sensation. Even when I look at people who've had loads of plastic surgery and stuff, there's something really interesting about this desire for smooth, rounded plump edges and all this stuff. I'm just fascinated by it. I find a lot of things fascinating. I think that's the big joy of life, to be fascinated by stuff.

I want to be able to share that with people. And when I make stuff, I'm like, "Okay, well, I'm really fascinated by this. I want to be able to share exactly how I see it so that maybe someone can feel how I feel when they see it." [inaudible 00:12:28] about trying to emulate textures in visuals. Especially with Freak. I think the first video of the EP where I just wanted this gooey slimy space. I don't know, it's really fun. It feels like being in kindergarten.

Is there anything you're fixated on right now? Or kind of fascinated with in this present moment?

Water, liquids. I've been really busy lately and there's a big desire for... I want to have a break. But for me, a break has to involve water of some kind, whether I'm in a pool or by the sea, but I just don't feel calm until I'm around a huge body of water. I'm fascinated by the wildness of it. When you look at the ocean and it decides to stop at the coast, it could just not. It could just come forward. There's so much power in water, it's so beautiful, but has a mind of its own. It can turn on you, you can drown in a shallow pool, but it's really beautiful. But danger, I guess, of something beautiful is really attractive.

Now I haven't seen your live performance BLU yet, but does that aquatic element kind of come through in any way?

There's a scene where I wanted loads of foam and I'm inside the car and we've got loads of foam running around the outside. Water and wetness is such an easy association with women. It's there to be played with. So I wanted to play with that because I was looking at the designer Di Petsa. I read something that she'd said in an interview the other day. She explores wetness in her clothing. She said something about how there's such a taboo about that with women, and enjoying that. Also that sexualized concept being forced upon you as well. And I was like, "Yeah, exactly." You know when someone says something better than you could have ever said it? And I was like, "That's exactly why I'm so drawn to playing with it and asserting it on my own time." It's about acknowledging comfortability in your own sensuality almost in something so natural as water.

Right, I mean, the word "moist," let's talk about that. It's taboo, but would you prefer a drought? Would you prefer dry and cracked?

Literally. I love that word. I love "moist." It was an insult when I was at school. It was always used against guys, actually, which is so funny, but someone would be like, "Oh, he's moist. He's moist." Even the way they say it, I was like, "Well, isn't that fun?" I was like, "Yeah, I want to be moist."

Oh man, I haven't heard it hurled like that as an insult. I hear people say it and they're like, "Oh, this cake is moist." And then everyone at the table is like, "Ew. Oh, I don't like that." And it's like, "Why? You don't want... I want moist."

I'm that guy who says it to make everyone squeamish. You really like it. They get weird because they're embarrassed because they like it.

Tell me more about this BLU performance. I'm curious, how did it kind of come to fruition?

I avoided doing any of the virtual stuff for ages because it's not what I enjoy about life. If I'm going to do something virtually, I'm going to do something different virtually. It doesn't have to be one size fits all. But the things I loved about live was being on the stage and falling into a character because that's what the stage is to me. It's a theater, it's performance. How can I bring that theatrical mess back into this? To this new staging where things are prerecorded, because I prefer to pre-record at this stage. I really wanted something where I had a little bit more control in presenting it because again, this is an opportunity. When else would I get to really assert how I would like to be consumed entirely live?

There's always other constraints with some of these festival shows. It's money or traveling with stuff, it's logistically a nightmare sometimes. So I have this opportunity here to present myself the way I want to be presented and to kind of give someone a step to understanding me and translating it later on, if they wanted to, from this place where I've said, "This is how I like it." Also I hadn't really had any time to live a little bit longer in the Alias songs. We hadn't had the opportunity to do shows and that's really how you live in the moment of a release, right? So I kind of had this opportunity to do this thing. And I was like, "Oh, I'm not going to do all the songs." Because actually some of the songs I don't think would live to their fullest potential in this setting and I want them to be... Things like "Tasty" isn't in this. I play it for a second, but it's not performed in this because "Tasty," for me, was that, like, big summer song. You know? It involved people, and dancing, and to be outside. Because I wrote that song outside in the park, and I was like, "I don't want to bring this song back into the studio, actually. It's not what it is for me." And for BLU, I wanted to ... It was like a self reference moment. Because I'm obviously obsessed with cars in some way, and I never realized I was until I just keep going back to cars as, like, a thing. It was like I had the most fun making the "BB" music video. Just before, I guess, people became a bit more aware of me, and I wanted to reference that a little bit and kind of live in the world I'd started to create with that video.

"BB" was based off this girlfriend of like your dealer who sits in the car or something while you're like awkwardly picking up. The girlfriend's always kind of like a little bit fab, and she's quiet. You're like, "Does she hate me? What is she thinking?" That was who I was in the "BB" music video. I kind of wanted to expand upon that a little bit more, using myself as a reference and seeing what world I could create with the new songs with that basis. I was like, "Okay, how many things can we do with a car? Let's just run away with it with this."

We had a car ... I said "Let's cut a car in half; let's do that." So we did that, and I was like, "I want to be filmed from above. I want to see the car from a different angle. I want the car to be up higher than the ground." I was like, "I want all of these things so I can ... different ways of presenting the same scene, almost." Because it's like when you're on stage, you have one scene, and you can't change so many components all the time. Unless you're like a huge artist like Ariana who has loads of set going on or whatever, but I'm still in the early stages.

I think we definitely got the most out of what you can do with a car whilst presenting the ... kind of all collecting together the aliases that I'd put out there. I'm wearing, like, one look throughout the whole thing, but pieces of the look change. You know? I felt like that was important about creating this continuity and kind of trying to bring the sides of me together, but showing you that there's different ways to reflect these different personality traits almost and the energy that you put across on screen and my relationship with the camera and how voyeuristic that could be. If you're given this opportunity to perform in this way, the audience should be able to see more angles of you or closer than they would ever get if you were on the stage, and that was really important to me when I was making this movie almost.

Like with "Freaks," I'm inside the car. It's voyeuristic. It's like different angles shot inside the car, like static cameras, and I'm obviously in my element almost because I'm just ... Because "Freak" is such a moany song. I'm like moaning, I'm like performing, and then ... and there's water foam running down the side of the car. It's on the nose of what it is because that's what the song is. The song is in your face about what it is the whole way through so why would the performance be any more subtle than that?

Yeah, so did you feel like recording this you got to maybe distill as pure of an expression as you would have liked to? Because I was reading your tweets, and I do agree with you about heavy handed male camera crews and maybe how the expression isn't as emphatic as you perhaps would want it to be when you're kind of in those situations. Do you feel like you got to maybe express yourself in your fullest potential with this?

I mean, I wouldn't say to my fullest potential. I'd say we're very nearly there. This shoot in particular, I co-produced it with my creative director as well. I mean co-directed it. But usually we even co-direct with someone else. You know, because I don't really like dealing with a lot of film crews. They're very ... so much masculine energy, and they don't want to hear it from the artist. There's not the respect there, and my background before making music was always in film and photography, anyway. So I definitely have that sensitivity to being respected in that, and people understanding that I do know what I'm talking about.

I may be a little sensitive at times, but honestly the misogynoir that happens on sets is wild, and I'm not the only one that talks about it. Like, people know. People who work in the industry know that it happens, and unfortunately ... Like, I do try and work with a lot of female crews, but sometimes it's just not available: someone isn't available or doesn't shoot in the style that you would prefer. So you end up working with someone, and a lot of it, because of this industry, people work on jobs, they might not like the person they work with. They just don't work with them again, but that person is still out there to work with other people. A lot of them have really toxic traits.

On this set, for instance, it was a two day shoot, and on one of the days, one of the scenes we used, like, a crane to film the final scene, and the crane operator was racist. So he was ... It was like 8 A.M.. By 8:30, I had to have a meeting with everyone to discuss what we're going to do about it. Because he'd already been racist. I think he turned up speaking in a Jamaican accent. He's like an older white guy. So already, we're like, "What are you doing?" And the production assistants I had on set were like three Black girls, and he had a conversation with them and ended up saying the n-word, talking about the difference between racism in America and England, which I don't know why he had his credentials on that discussion, but he said it then. And he said that this job requires skill, and if they don't have it they should think about retraining as a bus driver or a nurse. He said some wild stuff.

And so immediately I'm like, "We can't have this guy on set." You know? He was so confident in having that attitude on set because the industry supports it, at the end of the day. There's nothing in place to protect people, and when we did ... We reported him to Bectu and the APA, who are the unions that he was associated with. Bectu said they would investigate. The APA, their response was so ridiculous. They ultimately wanted to shame myself and the producer in coming forward because they were like, "We're not the police. We don't fine people." They were trying to highlight the ridiculousness of our email and CC'd in every production company that they work with.

Luckily for me, as someone who is intersectional here as an artist, as a director, I feel that I am able to speak up on it, but there are other people where their whole job is in the filming industry who cannot speak on it because their livelihood is affected directly. They won't get booked on things. And it's sad because when we spoke up about this guy, loads of people came forward to say that they'd had the same experience with him, and it's just a shame that it came to our door to talk about it, but I am glad that I get the chance to talk about it. Because it's a real experience that before I think about making anything it's like, "Is it worth the trauma?" Because there is going to be trauma on set.

It's so funny because there's been so many ... Those are the negatives, but in total I really did have some really great experiences on that. There were so many moments when I was on set when I was so in awe of seeing it come together and really proud that some small idea I had had was being made big in this process. That was a really big moment for me. It was like the biggest project I've tried to work on, and I hope to work on even bigger in the future. But the reality also of, like, facing up to this kind of attitude, that I guess I had been avoiding previously, and just kind of accepting that it existed and trying to find ways to live around it. And now, I think I really want to be defensive of the environment I want to work in creatively. I want to wake up and believe that I can go into work and it not be toxic on some degree. I want to exist happily in this industry, and I do think it's possible. I have to think that's possible to continue.

Yeah. You have to to get out of bed in the morning, to feel empowered, and it sounds like, in a way, that this performance accomplished that for you and kind of got you to that level. So I'm really excited to see it.

I hope everyone likes it. It's so hard when you're working on something and I'm always hyper critical. I'm really trying to learn to chill out. And it is the releasing it to everyone that does make me chill out. Same with the music, once I put it out, it feels like it's taken by everyone and adopted. And I can be happy for the life that's going to live, but before that movement I'm just anxious.

Yeah, but you know the internet's going to eat it up, just like they've eaten up Alias. Could you have anticipated how your fans and how Twitter has eaten up this project? The memes have been incredible.

I'm so surprised. I really love Alias. I've never felt proud of something because music has been such a discovery process for me. And the first EP I really love, but this one it felt a lot more directional for me. And I felt much more of a curator on it. Which is something that I guess I didn't really have on the first one because I would just dipping a toe in and I just discovered I could make music. And this one, I was like, "Okay, so I'm making music, this is what I've got to say." And it span over pre-COVID and during COVID and the creative happened within it. I think it's so reflective of me as a person and I'm really happy to stand by that project. So regardless of what anyone was going to think, I was just happy to have it out. And it was doubly an amazing feeling to have people accept what you've made and understand it.

Right. And to get a little weird with it and have fun with it too. During a time when not a lot was fun, I think your project gave people a lot of joy.

I didn't expect people to gag so much over the artwork thoogh.I just thought I was like, "Yeah, I just want to see myself flattened out." I haven't shopped for ages. We've been stuck inside. I've been pigging out on like Deliveroo and watching movies. I was like, "Am I shoot ready?" I was like, "Whatever." Maybe just like discombobulate myself originally. And I was like, "I've been watching loads of sci-fi and Dr. Who and stuff. So I was like, "This totally makes sense to me right now." And then everyone was like, "Oh my God, like how gross." But it was fab.

"BDE" is around the corner as well. How did that come together? I feel like it's such an organic collaboration, you and Slowthai, just makes too much sense. How did you guys meet?

I think I was supporting Mura Masa. Ty had come out for a couple of the shows because they have a song together. And we didn't even meet properly then, but we were kind of near each other. I was very close to him. And then I can't remember who reached out first. I think his team asked to have a session or something. And then I had already started this track with Karma Kid. I'd come into the studio still up from the night before, which isn't an everyday occasion. But on this one, I was like, "Oh, I think I have the best vibe to come and work in the studio today." With like one hour sleep. And then I think it was the third song we made in last session, me and Karma Kid. And as soon as Karma played me this, it was he just had the drums. And as soon as he started that, all the words came to me.

And at the time I'd been hooking up with someone who was not giving me any joy. So all the words about that came out in the song and this desire for satisfaction and I think and desire, satisfaction, all things. So it was just I just tapped into that energy. And then when I'd done that, I was like, "This would be so sick with a male vocalist." And brought it to Ty. Because I've never really hear Ty talk about sex before. Here I'm being so derogatory to men and objectifying them. I was like, "Who can stand up to that?" That's definitely going to be Slowthai. He's got that energy that can defend himself. He's like funny and he's honestly the nicest guy.

So when we got the chance to sit in the studio together, we went back and forth on some stuff. And it was really interesting to work with him because I haven't actually worked with that many vocalists or rappers or anything on my own stuff, especially. And just seeing how other people work is still really interesting to me and what they tap into. And especially when he hasn't spoken about sex before, I was like, "Okay, you need to be filthy." And he totally got the brief. He really went with it. Usually my voice is my favorite part of the song, but his bit is definitely my favorite on this one.

Branching out a little bit, what is this summer look like for you Shy? What do you got going on besides career stuff? Do you have anything fun lined up? Are you going to go on any trips?

Yeah, I'm trying to go to the Caribbean and I miss it so much. My grandma lives in Grenada and there's something about, I've been in cities for too long. I've been in London for ages. This is probably the most I've ever stayed in London since I started making music. Well, even before that I had a job that I could travel. So yeah, this is a lot. I've got two cats and this time, I'm turning into a cat lady, so I need to get out.

Well, thank you so much for taking a minute to talk with me. I really appreciated it. And I'm so fucking excited to finally get to live in these songs. I feel like we've all gotten to process them enough in our own little spaces, but I feel like they're bursting at the seams. And what a treat to kind of get to experience them now and in the world again.

Totally. But also thank you so much for giving me the space to talk. It's been such a lovely conversation. And I'm constantly surprised because I wonder how long people are going to listen to each album before they get sick of me. But it's been really lovely to talk to you. So I'm glad you've asked me.

I really appreciate that. Thank you. Yeah. And keep talking, we're listening.

Perfect.

Amazing. Well, enjoy the rest of your day in London.

All right. You too. Bye.

Shygirl on exploring her many aliases and getting filthy with Slowthai on “BDE”