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In Conversation:Shaé Universe

by Isabel Williams

"As cliche as it might sound, I am so much stronger than I give myself credit for. I have shocked myself and surprised myself in the way that I've still been able to show up."

In a world that so often feels like it’s about to snap at the seams at any given moment, Shaé Universe’s soothing voice is a breath of fresh air. Her newest album, ‘Love’s Letter’, a project steeped in R&B nostalgia, is due to release on Valentine’s Day. Despite the clear thematic connection to romantic love, the content of Shaé’s introspective lyricism speaks to much more than the experience of a straightforward romance. With her syrupy smooth vocals and lyrics that muse on a medley of positive and negative experiences, Shaé’s new album ‘Love’s Letter’ urges its listeners to accept love into their lives, whatever form that might take. “I really feel like it also speaks about returning back to yourself,” Shaé explains whilst reflecting upon the creative process of putting together the album. “Like, I believe that we all start from a place of wholeness, like when we’re born into this world,” she says. “And then you go through life; you experience things in life which are usually situated around love in one way or another, whether it’s heartbreak; whether it’s finding your partner; whether it’s friendship or platonic love, you go through those things and they change you in ways. And then you have to find your way back to yourself, you know, whether that’s reconnecting with your inner child or just learning to love yourself again.”

This sentiment of self-acceptance is integral to Shaé’s relationship with music, and its presence rears its head again and again within her work. “No-one’s gonna love me like I do”, Shaé sings in the chorus of her song ‘What’s Luv?’, demonstrating the emphasis on putting her understanding of self-worth at the forefront of all she does.

It should come as no surprise that Shaé’s relationship with music has its roots in a scene that similarly places love at its centre. With her father working as a pastor, Shaé’s first introduction to music was through harmonising with her mother in their local gospel choir. Immersed in the soaring voices and delicately mingling harmonies beneath a church roof, it’s easy to see how this deeply unifying, communal experience could have bound a young Shaé to a perception of both music and love that goes beyond the individual. “I would say I’m less religious now and more focused on developing my unique relationship with God”, Shaé says when reflecting upon the impact that her introduction to gospel had on her. She also notes how the technical aspect of pairing vocals and layering harmonies has similarly gone on to influence her musical style. “I would say it kind of gives you a base level of, like, understanding of harmonies and layers and placements that I don’t think will ever leave me, just because of how ingrained into my brain it’s been from such a young age.” Since then, Shaé’s voice has grown a distinctive rich tonality that draws similarities to other Neo-Soul influenced artists such as India Arie, imbued with a sincerity of expression that carries her words right through to the heart.

Like so many artists, Shaé’s transition into the big wide world of professional music-making was made completely off of her own back. In 2015, she started putting covers of her favourite songs out on Twitter, many of which would eventually go viral. It was only when her avid followers started clamouring for original music that Shaé realised the potential viability of this option. “It kind of made me realise, like, wow, OK, there’s actually an audience for my voice and for my sound,” Shaé recalls. A year or so later, she started releasing her own original tracks. Although Shaé has come far since her early days, having grown from a bedroom artist to partnering with New York based music distribution company ‘The Orchard’, her relentlessly committed work ethic has seen no slack.

“Anybody who might read this and think, oh, like, you know, the moment you get a team, the moment you get people on board to help; to delegate responsibility, you can just sit back, put your legs up and not do anything; that is not the case at all,” she says firmly. Even now, at the height of the career, Shaé is holding onto that proactive mentality that got her through the harder periods as an independent artist. “It’s been very, very hard, but it’s also been very rewarding,” she says. “I would not change this journey if I had a chance to do so, because I feel like one thing that I’ve had the upper hand in by being independent; by being so hands on and being like, so thorough with my own business, is that I’ve learned a lot of things for myself, you know?”

Having been, as she describes it, her own “biggest advocate” since she first started, Shaé is keen for other artists to understand the intimate details of what is involved in setting off on a career such as hers. “I don’t have, like, a 9 to 5. I wish I could have more conversations around that because I feel like that could be quite beneficial to, you know, other independent artists that don’t know what it’s like to live off music or think it’s just a walk in a park, living off music, because it’s definitely not,” she says, emphasising the importance of artists signing up to services like PRS and managing their money carefully if they are truly committed to “the dream”.

It is this brilliant authenticity that draws so many people to Shaé’s distinctive personality, both within her music and her personal life. Despite having made her start on social media, the artist thankfully doesn’t feel the need to commit to trends and content-generating agendas instructed by the dreaded algorithm. If anything, this kind of forced creativity would most likely rupture the delicate process of crafting her music. “I feel like I would burn out very, very quickly if I followed that way or that regime of working,” she says.

“One thing I love about my supporters is that they kind of give me the space to be a bit more reserved.” She is sceptical of the perception of music artists as being constant attention whores, always grasping for their next opportunity to turn the camera on them. “I want my music to always be relevant,” she comments, “but me, myself, sometimes I just wanna chill in the shadows a bit, like, just be in the back. You know, I don’t always wanna be bang in the centre of attention and stuff, and I feel like that goes for a lot of artists actually. A lot of people assume that just because we are music artists, we wanna be in the limelight all the time, but it’s not always the case,” adding that, “the day that I turn into the artist that just churns out stuff for the sake of continuing to be relevant is the day that Shaé is losing herself in some way, shape or form, because that’s not really me at all.”

Shaé’s reflections upon the generative process of putting together the album detail a process of deep catharsis that manifests in the sheer weight of emotion on tracks such as ‘Oh, Wait…’ and ‘More Than Enough’. On the song that opens the album, aptly named ‘Love Self’, Shaé’s mother makes a softly spoken introduction. “I just felt like it would be so fitting to have my mum introducing that song and speaking,” Shaé says, “because, you know, she brought me into this world and [it was] her and my dad; their relationship was my first example of real love and also my first time being taught what love is. How to love myself, like, anything to do with love, it kind of came from there, so I just felt like it was super suited to the song.”

Like so many songs that force us to confront what is inside us, the tracks undertook new meaning and significance even after their initial recording. Shaé’s description of her reflections upon her music are almost akin to moments of enlightenment. “I’m still learning all things about myself every day and in terms of some of those things that I learned, I think the most potent one for me was realising that my spirit is tapped into things, sometimes before my flesh can comprehend it,” she confides, describing how “sometimes I’m able to rationalise my feelings in my music first before my brain catches up in my actual life.” Although a piece of the artist goes into every creative project, this particular endeavour stood out as distinct from those she had taken on before. Whilst her previous crooning odes to heartbreak and lost loves were written and produced after the initial events that inspired them, ‘Love’s Letter’ includes the first tracks of Shaé’s that were conceived whilst she was still going through the healing process post-breakup.

“As cliche as it might sound, I am so much stronger than I give myself credit for. I think that goes for all women, point blank period to be honest,” she says in relation to this. “It’s still very fresh, and that’s a new space for me. But I have shocked myself and surprised myself in the way that I’ve still been able to, like, show up. I’ve still been able to, you know, go to the shows or whatever it is I may need to do that requires me to still show up as Shaé Universe. […] Whilst dealing with certain things in my personal life, I’ve still been able to show up in my professional life, and I feel like that is a signal of growth to me, because I’ve always been a very sensitive person and once upon a time, maybe like two years ago, I would not have thought it possible for me to be able to still, like, handle and manage both of those things effectively.”

With the release of her newest album, Shaé is welcoming in a new era of Neo-Soul that places her at the forefront, resplendent in her authenticity and her dedication to accepting the full intensity of all that life has to throw at us.

Karis Beaumont
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