Pop has always produced larger- than-life characters. There was David Bowie and his Ziggy Stardust, as androgynous as he was scintillating, the eccentric stylistic metamorphoses of Björk and Lady Gaga, or Daft Punk’s transformation into enigmatic robots, a mutation that questioned the cult of the ego. Now there is a new name on this list of flamboyant agitators, a 28-year-old singer, composer, rapper and DJ known as Shygirl. After just two EPs, the be- witching Londoner has the world at her feet thanks to her prodigious imagination, which has given birth to a compelling visual and aural world all of her own. For the release of her EP Alias, in November 2020, Shygirl created a series of digital avatars reminiscent of Bratz dolls: with their voluptuous curves and gigantic eyes, Baddie, Bae, Bonk and Bovine appeared in her videos and publicity shots, each representing a different facet of her personality, from extra- vert clubber to exacting fashionista. This aesthetic parti pris, in which Shygirl takes on the attributes of a hydra, that fabulous Greek mythological beast with several heads, is far from gratuitous, perfectly reflect- ing as it does her multiform, hybrid music. The artist, who grew up in south London to local sounds like grime and drum and bass, draws audaciously from a host of other genres: R’n’B, eurodance, film scores, rap, trap and hyperpop. The result? Hypnotic, dangerous tracks that sound as unstructured, acidic and strange as they are danceable and seductive. “I don’t think of music in terms of labels and genres,” Shygirl tells Numéro over Zoom from her Los Angeles hotel room.
Shygirl’s futuristic world, which defies categorization, attracts those who, like her, consider them- selves freaks or “bad bitches.” Big names in both fashion and music are lining up to pay homage to her steamy sonic creations, which at times evoke a Missy Elliott flung into a dystopian rave, and at others a gangsta Björk. Shygirl has worked with avant-garde pop figures such as Arca or the late SOPHIE, has re- mixed Lady Gaga, and is adored by Rihanna, who “playlisted” her at one of her lingerie runway shows. Shygirl’s uncategorizable hits also cadenced the spring/summer 2021 Mugler collection, while Riccardo Tisci is so infatuated with the charis- matic diva that he has used her on several occasions, including for Burberry’s autumn/winter 2021–22 womenswear show, which celebrated the force of Mother Nature. Tisci has clearly understood what makes Shygirl tick, for her fiery temperament is arguably a force of nature in its own right.
But the British star wasn’t nec- essarily destined to become a shimmering, upfront icon of the TikTok generation (a platform on which she has been viewed millions of times). “I’ve always been confident, but I never thought about per- forming,” Shygirl confides. “I never dreamed of being an artist or becoming famous, or even of being the centre of attention. Standing on a stage is a journey I take, and my performance is something I’m al- ways trying to improve. I’m constantly learning and open to criticism.” Though, as an adolescent, she wrote very personal lyrics in small notebooks and had parents who listened to a lot of music, Blane Muise, as she was born, originally envisioned a career far from the limelight. After studying photography and design, she took on a series of odd jobs, working as a booker in a modelling agency and an assistant in a design firm. “I made tons of fashion mistakes when I was younger, but working with models and de- signers developed my eye. I love what fashion tries do, its ambition: as well as commenting on who we are socially, it represents the power to escape from that. I find the way fashion creates a world, a space, a series of scenes, extremely inspiring. You enter another dimension, one that’s pure fun, where nothing else matters. You forget about reality. We all need to escape, to breathe, and it’s that energy that I try to inject into my music.”
It was as a photographer and DJ on London’s night scene that Blane met the man who would change her life: Irish producer Sega Bodega. Attracted by the sensual yet detached voice of this fake shy girl, he founded the electro collective Nuxxe with her, and afterwards composed her first single, Want More, which was released in 2016. All her unique star quality was already present on this début track: to a background of dark and jerky electro sounds, she screeches uninhibited lyrics about sexual pleasure, detailing, with a dominatrix attitude, all her intimate desires to an invisible partner.
Her sexplicit audacity arguably makes of her a modern Madonna. “I like to be raw and direct when I talk about sex. Why do people feel so bothered when the subject is discussed openly? No one should be intimidated by something that’s so natural and spontaneous. But when I talk about sex, I’m also talking about the ferocity of my emotions. Obviously you can separate sexual relations from feelings. But artistically I use erotic vocabulary to talk about more complex emotions. I’ve often discovered or understood my- self better in sexual relations. For example, because I was the one do- ing the asking with a particular partner, I became aware of my vulnerability. And that made me question the route I was following in my life. The fact that I’m a woman in touch with her sexuality doesn’t mean I’m cut off from my emotions.”
Shygirl now makes emotions her primary inspiration. In her single Cleo, released in October 2021, which will feature on her début album, she opens up completely. “Right now I want to be less conceptual than I was with my avatars, much more real. I’m ruled by my feelings and I mostly write songs about how I feel. When I wrote Cleo, I was in the middle of a love affair and I had the image of Cleopatra in mind, a woman famed for her epic romance. Like her, my relationship was the most important thing in my life, an enormous change. I wanted to set to music what it feels like to love, to give my version of a love song, with drama, insouciance and borrowings from classic house. Cleo is there to remind me that I should enjoy things before they’re gone.” Shygirl also admits that this intimate exercise was not the easiest thing to do. “It’s always hard to write about happiness. When you’re happy, you don’t want to dig deeper to find out why. More than anything, you’re afraid of losing that state of grace.”
But Shygirl’s state of grace doesn’t look like it will evaporate anytime soon. In a live version of Cleo, filmed at the mythic Abbey Road recording studios and released on YouTube in December, she appears more iconic than ever, haloed with all the ultra-glamour of a James Bond girl: platinum locks dressed old-Hollywood style, an architectonic dress draped artfully over stunning curves, a velvet voice set to a backdrop of lush strings... It’s hard to recognize the experimental artist who just a year earlier was hiding behind clownish make-up or raunchy avatars. With her first album currently in production, it isn’t hard to imagine Shygirl making the crossover from the underground to the mainstream – a term that poses no problem for this cutting-edge artist. “Even if I come from the under- ground, that doesn’t mean I only listen to avant-garde music. I adore Madonna, for example. I have enormous respect for those who manage to touch a mass audience while remaining themselves. Prince and David Bowie were phenomenally successful, yet they continued to innovate. I think the mainstream is undervalued because, at that level of fame, it takes a lot of strength to remain authentic.” Reaching new heights while staying true to what makes her unique is everything we wish for the daring Shygirl, who also has some rather less flashy dreams.
For what interests her more than anything is working with other women who are liable to become friends and in whom she can trust. An advocate for “safe places,” for the multiplication of viewpoints and for the female gaze, she is trying to manifest these ideas in her videos, which she writes and directs herself. During our discussion she refers to the misogyny of the music and art worlds, as well as their lack of diversity, and hopes to be able to help change things. “I try not to be blinded by my point of view, and to be as inclusive as possible. When I’m working, I don’t want to offend anyone, and I’d like those who work with me to feel at ease and protected. If something didn’t go well during their day, I think everyone should be able to say so.” Human and generous underneath the bionic image she projects, Shygirl puts real life before her art. “When writing my songs, I’m inspired by things I see in films or on TV, and I sometimes also comment on society. But what I’m most passionate about is interpersonal relationships, how people connect with one another – not just from a romantic point of view, but in all sorts of relations. And don’t forget that music is not my entire life. For me, the essential is preserving the relationships I care most about as well as the things that make me happy. In any case, in order to write songs, I need to experience life, so life has to come before all the rest...”
Shygirl, Cleo (Because Music), out now.