Meet the digital avatar alter-egos of sonic superstar Shygirl
In 2020, you wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to temporarily set foot into a different realm. Luckily we have musicians like Shygirl, whose music transports us to the hot, pulsing sweat of a dancefloor and whose aesthetic and team of avatars takes us right out of this world and on to a different plane altogether. Writer Tara Joshi meets Shy and the creatives who brought her vision to life.
Baddie, Bovine, Bae and Bonk.
You’d be forgiven for assuming these were the names of characters in some very surreal, sexy Powerpuff Girls reboot. To be fair, you wouldn’t be that far off. These four monikers are central to South East London DJ and singer-rapper Shygirl’s latest project.
Real name Blane Muise, her forthcoming Alias EP brings to life four animated quasi-Bratz doll avatars, with each of them representing a different facet of her personality and artistry: “I consider myself limitless and I just wanted to express that,” she says, “And I’m no different to anyone else – Alias is a reminder that we’re all limitless, anything is possible.”
We’re talking over the phone in gloomy, rainy London in the midst of a draining Mercury Retrograde. All things considered, Shy sounds pretty upbeat when we speak, content with lockdown life providing extra time to throw herself into her work, being introspective and, of course, hanging out with her pet cat.
Shygirl is known for her collaborative work with other post-PC music experimentalists such as ARCA, SOPHIE and Sega Bodega (the latter of whom she runs label NUXXE with, alongside French artists Coucou Chloe and Oklou). Think thrilling metallic electronic sounds that border on the uncanny (perhaps unsurprisingly, she laughs when I ask her about the term “deconstructed club,” acknowledging that accepting music as post-genre can be a little daunting for some). Shygirl’s first solo track Want More dropped in 2016, and in 2018 her excellent EP Cruel Practice turned heads. In their review, Pitchfork wrote that the record “combines venomous lyricism with tar-boiling industrial beats to inhabit a fierce, sexual, pathologically impatient, and deeply cathartic alter ego.” Her explosive 2019 track BB can count Björk among its fans (something Shy discovered after drunk-emailing her Icelandic icon).
In general, the image Shy’s work conveys is less “cat lover” and more “deviant sex kitten” – that both these things can be true is telling of the multiplicity that Alias seeks to convey. Her music is rooted in the club, in movement and in a humid, sugary kind of sensuality.
It’s worth mentioning that “Shygirl” herself is kind of a character created by Muise, too. On Freak she spits, “I'm a freak in the sheets, and I go the wholе night / I hear they call me shy, I can only wonder why.” Shyness, she has said, is about an aversion to small talk; instead, seeking to drill down to the point. Rather than coyness, straight-up eroticism pulses through her music, all writhing breathy heat and deadpan delivery.
“Sex is just the most tangible thing, it’s something we all relate to,” she says, “And I do think it’s something that people should be able to talk about more frankly. I use sex as a symbol to talk about things that are otherwise difficult to communicate: sometimes it’s about how I’m feeling, and sex is a good way to make that stuff relatable.”
As much as her work is about sex, it’s also about power. This is ultimately rooted in confidence – something which Shygirl seems to ooze. With each project she works on, this self-assurance only grows, as her abilities broaden in scope.
She used to write poetry and notes expressing how she was feeling with no real intention of songwriting – then her friend, producer Sega Bodega, encouraged her to start writing for his music.
Which brings us to Alias.
“I just realised that there are so many different versions of myself at any given time,” she says, explaining how the idea came about. “Depending on what you’re wearing when you leave the house, that’s representing the mood you’re in at that moment, and you embody someone that day. I imagined myself as these four versions of me and ran away with it. With a song, I might run away with an emotion when I’m writing it – often my lyrics are me thinking, ‘what would I have said, if I was in that mood?’ – and I kind of wanted to personify that. I knew a lot of people already perceived me as this kind of dark, angsty character, but there are more parts of me than that and I wanted to show my audience what that looks like.”
And so, she decided to create other images of herself, exaggerating various aesthetics she’s used before to create tangibly different avatars that aren’t all leaning into that perceived dark angstiness. “It’s also just fun for me, it allows me to push the boundaries of my creativity further as I explain who I am.”
With her roots in visual work, Shygirl always has her eye on the aesthetic side of things. She found Sy Blake, the CG artist who helped create the initial version of the avatars. She had previously worked with freelance stylist and casting director Mischa Notcutt when she was a photographer’s assistant, becoming her assistant, and so she brought Mischa on board as creative director for the project. It was through her that Shy was introduced to Maurice Andresen, the animator. Every outfit each avatar wears is based on real looks from Mugler, Mowalola, Asai and Charlotte Knowles. “There’s no detail that’s too small,” Shy explains, adding that she used to work as a retoucher and accordingly notices even the tiniest flaws.
This specificity of concept could be a source of stress, for Shy at least: “It could be frustrating at times – I knew what they were like in my head, but obviously the other people involved weren’t in my head, so couldn’t immediately hear or see where I wanted it to be.” Sy Blake really enjoyed bringing the characters to life. “Shygirl and Mischa had a clear vision for the creative direction of each character so it made my job easier. I wanted to capture a fun and unique character which represents how fun and unique Shygirl is, and I think we got it. Once we nailed the first character, I used the same mesh for each following character and then added different outfits – it was like dressing a digital doll.”
Maurice Andresen agrees, “Obviously getting to paint, rig and animate Sy’s character has been a huge part of this and so great.The whole process felt really organic actually. After we had our first chat about the Freak video I made some sketches which Shy said were exactly what she imagined, and then it just became a really nice back and forth of her and Mischa telling me what they were thinking and then me translating it into my world. I got a lot of creative freedom which was so much fun. I learned such a huge amount in the past few months, in terms of character animation, general filmmaking skills and I got to really push my boundaries...Working with Shy has been an absolute dream – I think we ‘get’ each other a lot, aesthetically.”
Finding a team who aligned with her vision was obviously crucial for this project. As Shy explains, “It was important being surrounded by people who understood me, because I am basically using myself as my own muse. Trying to make your imagination real is a complicated process, but it’s been so gratifying.”
Rightly so: the end result is richly detailed and just so much fun. The descriptors on her website, Shygirl.TV, read like topline diagnostics as if a cyborg was scanning them all. There’s Baddie, who is perhaps the most similar to the aesthetic people think of with Shygirl. She’s a sexually liberated Taurus clad in PVC and chiffon who “prefers the night over the day unless the night never ended.” Then there’s cute but confident girl-next-door Bae, a Leo with a sweet, honey-gold vibe and “No ambition – she’s already at the top.” There’s aloof Bovine, a Capricorn “class bitch” with sleek curls and slick prints, happy in her own company and following “her own brand of spiritualism.” Then there’s Bonk, the quirky, carefree Aquarius clown with pink hair, covered in bright face paint, who “starts the party wherever, whenever.”
In the video for Slime, co-directed by Shygirl and Glaswegian filmmaker Aiden Zamiri, the four of them co-exist. Lyrics like “She a baddie for the season or a baddie for the night,” showcase how through the avatars, Shygirl is having a conversation between the different parts of herself (the lyric video, which shows messages popping up as though a Whatsapp chat, emphasises this).
“I wanted to marry the two worlds,” she explains of the video. “I wanted to show people that the avatars don’t exist on separate planes. I exist on all planes. Whether it’s in-person touch or on Instagram, we all exist in all these different forms. The video is a fun way of showing that, going between the avatars and myself.”
The aesthetic, like the music, is somehow both old school and futuristic. While the songs tremble with dark underground sounds matched with deliciously trashy Eurodance, the video plays with those neon green lines like something out of The Matrix. She references holodecks, the virtual reality devices she was “obsessed” with from Star Trek. “I love sci-fi and fantasy, and I see aspects of that everywhere. The artwork is born from that. The Slime video looks like it’s in a VR realm, there’s a little bit of that Second Life kind of vibe on the video for Freak, but this goes further, and flickers between real images of me and the avatars. I like how I load up and then sort of disintegrate at the end.”
When looking on Shygirl.TV, there’s something that makes me think of glittery, self-made MySpace page graphics. As we talk about the contemporary nature of fandom, it becomes apparent that this callback to early days internet is not completely unintentional – she’s been yearning for online music forums, and on the day we’re talking she has just made a Discord for fans to speak about her work, enjoying being able to join in the conversation herself (“It’s cool, but also so bizarre knowing that you’re the common denominator”).
I put it to her that, for creators who are in some way marginalised from mainstream narratives – in Shy’s case, she is Black and queer – fantasy and sci-fi, like the internet, can provide new spaces to imagine alternative narratives and realities. “I guess it’s a way of broadening consciousness,” she says, “Being able to bend the rules of what people consider reality. To be honest, that speaks more truth to me than most of what people consider as reality. There are no real rules, we just exist and try to make sense of things – so when people say things are ‘an absolute fact,’ it’s like, as defined by who? It’s by us, we made the rules to begin with. It’s a bit ridiculous, and I think in a year like this with coronavirus turning everything upside down, you realise it’s just as easy to shake up shit as it is to go by what’s the norm.”
Of course, COVID19 and lockdowns mean the club and sex haven’t exactly been in ready supply – and both these things feel quite integral to her music. In that sense, putting stuff out this year feels somewhat bittersweet: “I do think context is really important and I’ve been really reluctant to do online stuff . A livestream or whatever would have to be interesting to me, I don’t want to do it just to tick a box. I love the club, it’s where I meet people and then we’re physically there together enjoying the music. I do miss that – the need is there! Putting music out right now is kind of a reminder that it’s always there. We’ll never not have somewhere to party, even if it’s just our bedrooms right now, because we need it to function. We need a release.” With its heady beats and gloriously imaginative scope, Alias provides exactly that.