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April Digital Cover: Shaé Universe

In 2022 Shaé Universe dropped her first EP, Unorthodox, that ushered in a sound dubbed R’n’Drill. She refers to it as half of her at best; “it was never my entirety, a part of me was trying to get to the ears of the UK because they just weren't listening to me in the way I wanted them to.” Unorthodox is a 7-track project in which Shaé vocals are over drill beats, a sound that was front and centre in UK music at the time, with Central Cee’s Doja amassing 25 million streams in less than a week after it dropped.  

The standout features of Shaé Universe’s Unorthodox are the interesting music choices (most of them new to her discography) embellished by her rich, full-body tone. On Shineee feat. Tay Iwar, the production merges drill and electronic music for an almost hypnotic effect, on Sit Back she leans onto sing-rapping to match Enny's flow, and on Wicked Ways she is full on rapping, flexing a skillset we had not heard from her before. But her motivation for the project being that she felt unheard by UK audiences is a symptom of a larger issue that other R&B artists can relate to. 

In 2023, UK singer/ songwriter Mahalia criticised the BRIT Awards for its lack of recognition of R&B artists citing the clumsy lumping of the R&B/Pop category, which routinely only saw Pop acts nominated. In many ways this move by the BRITS has felt emblematic of the UK’s support of its R&B artists. Many other R&B artists (and there really are many) have echoed similar sentiments of lack of infrastructural support, and instead have been told to try their hand at the American music industry. 

Almost two years after dropping Unorthodox, Shaé Universe releases her debut album Love’s Letter that she confidently describes as her, “live and uncompromised.” She drops it on Valentine’s Day- an earnest choice in cynical times- along with a gushing paragraph expressing gratitude for those involved “for cultivating a space with [her] where love could thrive and be explored in unique ways through the music.” She also punctuates that “this one is for the lovers.”

Love’s Letter is a chronicling of a deep love turned lesson, inspired by the singer’s own experiences in love. The song order is a timeline of her journey. In LOML, she is unabashed about the depths of her feelings for her partner, singing Love of my life/ The only one I see/ The better parts of me. In Oh, Wait… she questions her lover’s intentions: “You say you love me, you said you tried/ So tell me why I’m teary-eyed/ It doesn’t move me when you apologise.” And by No Capacity, she accepts that she needs to let go; “Seasons, they change, won’t stay the same (won’t stay)/ It’s all on you (you)/ Can’t give you my all, I’m out of space (space).” 

As we catch up with Shaé Universe about two months post-drop, it is clear that this project is begotten from a place of far more certainty. “[Love’s Letter] is me making the music that flows naturally from my soul…I actually want to bask in it for as long as possible. Ideally, I don't want to move on from this project until the whole world hears it,” she says.  

Let's start with writing. I know you've spoken a lot about singing in church, and then the song covers you'd post on social media being what made you realise that you could really sing, but I want to know what made you realise that you could write well.

It's crazy that you ask me this question because I'll be honest with you, I didn't necessarily think I was a great writer before releasing Love’s Letter. But we are always our biggest critics, right? So in my mind, I thought, “yeah, my pen is okay, I could probably be better.” Also, good and bad writing is very subjective because music is subjective. But I think it was only with the release of Love’s Letter that I started to realise my pen game.

What was it? Was it the people's reception to the lyricism specifically?

Yeah, 100%. But I think most specifically, there's a guy called Ray, he's based in LA and he's one of the producers of Coco Jones' ICU. He reached out, which was really cool considering all the writers he works with, and in one really cool conversation we had, he said something along the lines of; “people can write good songs, but the best songs are written from genuine feeling.” All of my music is written from genuine feelings. And he really got it, and he saw it, and he received it. That was the moment that made me realise that this thing that I have is unique and people recognise it as that, you know? 

Do you keep a diary? And if you do, have you always done so?

No, I haven't. But as of the start of this year, I've started to keep one. 

What motivated that? 

Well the first reason is that I have a really crap memory. So many things happen in my life, and crazy things as well. But before you know it, six months later, I can't really remember the details on how I felt in the moment. And I just think I need to be able to remember these things. And not just through pictures, you know, like truly remembering how I felt in that moment. So, I started writing and not to get too deep or spiritual- 

No, please get as deep or spiritual as you’d like 

I have found that when I write down the things I see and want for myself, I don't know what the science behind it is, man, but it happens. It happens, you know? So yeah, I plan on continuing to do that, for sure.

It’s interesting that you say that you don't have a good memory. If you write based on personal experiences, do you write right after something happens? Or do tap back into those emotions when it’s time to write? Like in Passenger Princess, for instance, you write about wanting to go back to an old love but instead choosing to stand 10 toes down on your decision to leave. When did you write that song?

That's a really good question. Now that you've asked me, I realise that I always write in the moment. I hardly ever hold on to the emotion and revisit it later. Like that song Passenger Princess, [sings] Yeah I saw your roses this morning / a fresh reminder of all the times you lied. Literally, my ex had sent roses to my house a couple months after we broke up and this was his attempt of wanting to stay on my mind. And I wrote that song on the same day. So I’m usually just in the flow state of it. If I ever write in retrospect, it's usually because I'm still processing the situation or the emotions. If I'm still processing, then I gotta give it a bit of time. But generally speaking, it's pretty instantaneous. 

What is it like collaborating with other songwriters when the content of the music is so personal?

Honestly, I don't do that a lot. I've only done that once, and it was on this project Love’s Letter, with Ari PenSmith. And even then, I would tell him what I want to write or my idea for the song, and he would just find the best words to express that thing. So it didn't take away from the personal feeling of it.

In the album opener, we hear your mum speaking and she says “your spirit believes what you tell it.” What are you telling your spirit these days?

That I can do anything I put my mind to, I can have anything I want in this world, it doesn't matter how farfetched you may think it is. And I'm a living testimony of that. When everything pans out the way that it is going to, people will see that. Especially coming from London. I feel like London can be very small minded. I'm an R&B artist, they make us feel like there's a limit to what you can do but there is not. And I think that’s the essence of what my mom was saying. The full quote is “your spirit believes what you tell it even when your mind can't comprehend it.” And I think that's a major key because your spirit knows before your flesh does. Sometimes it's just a feeling right and it’s about pushing past the imposter syndrome you might feel in the physical, the voice in your head that says ‘I'm not ready for this thing.’ Your Spirit already knows what's coming.

And then the other feature, the lone singing feature, is Lalah Hathaway. You’ve spoken a lot about the way your features happen pretty organically but can you walk me through how that collaboration came about? 

You know, Lalah is a sweetheart, man. She's just the epitome of the kind of artist that I want to work with moving forward. I hope the future artists I work with have her humility and just her chillnes. But long story short: she followed me on Instagram and Twitter, and when I woke up and saw it, I was stunned. And the thing is, I've been followed by quite a few different cool people throughout my journey, but thee Lalah Hathaway? Usually when cool people follow me, I'll just stay chill, you know? Act like you’ve been here before. With Lalah Hathaway, there was no acting like I've been here before so I slid into her DMs immediately and just had to give her her flowers and let her know how much of a fan I am.The voicemail that you hear at the start of More Than Enough is the voice note that she sent to me in response to the one I'd sent to her. And even after that she was very vocal about her support for me, you know, like genuine support. And honestly sometimes I still scratch my head because it's Lalah Hathaway. To think that this woman can call me and I can call her. But again, perception is everything. I’ve had to realise that as much as I am just a girl following my dreams and there's always excitement and humility, I'm also a star. 

What about the way you present yourself to the world now has had to shift? Especially as you talk about looking at yourself more as a star? Are you holding back or sharing more of yourself than you would think to do in the past? 

This question is so crazy, man, because I have things coming up in my life that are due to significantly increase my global visibility. And for the past, I want to say, two months, I've been in a stage where I have majorly withdrawn. I don't want to share too much about myself anymore. Because soon the whole world is gonna be looking into my life, and I feel like I want to be the kind of superstar that still has privacy. I don't want to have to be in the mix all the time. I want my music to last the test of time and keep me relevant even when I'm in the country doing some rich shit. That's the kind of artist I want to be so it's so crazy to ask me this question, because I'm still finding the balance. And it's even crazier because I thought after releasing Love’s Letter, that I had come to this place where I loved myself so much more than I did before. And I do love myself more but there is also a long way to go. Sometimes it’s like, “damn, girl, I thought you were here” but I’ve realised I still need to grow and I'm just kind of taking each day as it comes. But yeah I think I've started to withdraw a bit just to protect my peace.

How connected do you feel to your fans? 

I love engaging with my fans. I think that is the one thing that I'm happy to do at any point because at the end of the day my fans are the people that fuel me. I got booked for this festival called The Recipe by DLT and I don’t have a booking agent right now, so that came literally just purely from my fanbase mentioning my name enough times and saying they want me on the lineup. So they are so important and I will always make time for my fanbase. But I feel like part of what makes that relationship so easy is they also understand the kind of person I am, they don’t put pressure on me to be at the centre all the time, they kind of just let me up.

I’m inclined to agree because when we were doing research, and I was looking up tweets nothing wild came up. A lot of it was positive messaging and affirmations about your music. 

And we like it that way. I don't really like mess and I don't like drama. So, let's keep it cute. 

You mentioned the festival, The Recipe by DLT, that will take place this July here in London. It’s amazing that you got that through word of mouth. But even with support from fans at home, we hear a lot of UK R&B artists talk about only making real headway in their careers when they go to America. Tell me about your experience of that.

I feel that as UK R&B artists, we do have support bases in the UK, for sure. The magazines that support us, and even the radio presenters that push our music. So it's not necessarily having support that's the issue. It's making that support translate, because being popular is cool, but we have bills to pay. It’s really easy to become a local celebrity here. Everybody respects you for what you do. But it doesn't translate when it's time to put the money where the mouth is. You know, one of the worst things to be is super popular, but broke. Everywhere you go, people see you and expect you to look the part and be the part, but your paychecks still aren't making sense. And so I think a lot of artists, a lot of R&B artists, are starting to realise it's not really making sense like that anymore. I think I realised that if I actually want to make this popularity translate, I'm gonna need to go to America.

And has that been helpful so far? Having connections on both ends of the pond?

My distribution at The Orchard is actually the US team and I specifically requested for that because I feel like there's naturally going to be so much more reach going that way. 

We had Xavier Omär on the magazine cover recently and he said that if we are talking quality, the UK R&B scene currently rivals that of the US. 

I’ll do him one more: I feel like the UK has better R&B music. And do you know why? Because of course US R&B is amazing, that's where we've got all of our legends, formulas, and inspiration. But the benefit that UK artists have is we haven't been consumed by the sound; we have just had access to the influence. So we can pick what we want, and then we can disassociate from it. Whereas a lot of American artists are consumed in it, which is why you get so many artists that sound the same. Sometimes I’ll listen to an artist and immediately I’m like I know exactly who your influences are, because you sound exactly like them. Do you know what I mean? I think that is where it gets a bit odd because there still has to be individuality, you know?

How do you preserve your individuality? How do you keep your ideas and point of view unique to you?

Well, by the grace of God, I feel like what makes me unique is the tone of my voice. And that's something I was born with. 

Do you listen to a lot of R&B music? Does it matter to you to stay caught up on the scene?

No I don't listen to much at all, it's very oversaturated and it’s already hard enough to keep our minds clear. As a music artist in the music industry, surrounded by music that's dropping all the time, I definitely feel like I have to be somewhat removed from what's happening. But I keep up with my faves like Jazmine Sullivan, Alex Isley, D’Angelo, Brandy, Lauryn Hill. I’m a bit of an old soul so I will also always go back to 90s classics.

You’ve spoken about a bit, but can you speak at length on what this album and the aftermath of releasing it has taught you about love?

I could give you so many answers but off the top of my head: it has taught me about my capacity for love. In the last relationship I was in- the one that informed Love’s Letter- he mistreated me so badly, man. But I've come from that, and I still have the capacity to hold love in my heart, to act out of love to exude love, encourage love. Those things are so powerful. I would also say it taught me that love is freedom. It's not restrictive. It is freeing. That's a big one. And I would say maybe the final thing is that how much you love yourself informs everything. So don't even try to love nobody else, if you don't at least have the will to love yourself. I choose those words very specifically because I don't necessarily think you can't love somebody if you don't love yourself, but you have to be in a place where you have the will to love yourself. Like if you have no intention of even getting there, you're not going to be able to love anyone else. You know? It’ll be a very short lived journey.


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