Words by Asad Raja
Shaé Universe is a name that is about to become very familiar in the UK scene. Shaé has been putting out singles on SoundCloud and Spotify for over five years and is finally ready to release her first full project - an EP entitled Unorthodox. As Shaé has already proven with the singles 'You Lose', 'Royalty' (feat. Kojey Radical), '111' and 'Pushin', she is a noteworthy pioneer of the R&Drill subgenre, merging R&B and drill effortlessly. With this EP, she hopes to cement that spot. She also has plans to showcase her versatility going forward, not satisfied being confined to a single sound or subgenre. Her feature on 'Pressure' off of Kojey Radical's new album shows that her powerful, smooth vocals will allow her to shine on any type of vibe.
New Wave sat down with Shaé Universe a couple week back to talk about her new EP and her career thus far:
NW: Hey Shaé, how are you? Where are you right now?
Shaé Universe: I'm good! I'm actually in my car parked on the side of the road because it's rush hour, so if I started driving back home I would've just been stuck for ages.
NW: Where is home for you?
Shaé Universe: Watford
NW: Nice. And how are you feeling about the EP?
Shaé Universe: I feel really good, excited. I'll actually be flying out to LA just before it drops, so it will drop while I'm out there. Yeah, I'm just excited, I think a lot of good things will come from it.
NW: Yeah, I can definitely imagine it making a splash. Because it's got a mix of both the R&B and drill sounds that are capturing the UK at the moment. How did you end up finding that sound for the EP?
Shaé Universe: So I first started exploring that R&Drill sound because the producer I was working with, OJ Hodding, he just suggested it. He sent the beat for what became 'You Lose' and I wrote to it and it just made so much sense. And then I just kept being pulled in that direction, honestly it was just subconscious, I didn't even search for this sound. It just found me and I ran with it. And then it sprouted into something bigger that I would've imagined. To the point that people now brand me as a pioneer of the genre and someone who's just consistently kept up the quality of it.
NW: So do you think it's a sound you're going to stick with or are you keen to also explore other sounds going forward?
Shaé Universe: Oh I'm definitely going to explore other sounds. I'm quite a versatile artist. My plan is to take my time and to indulge in the different types of music I enjoy and tap into different sides of myself at any given point in my journey. But with this first project, it's definitely stamped with the R&drill sound. And even though I already have plans to explore other sounds in my mind I feel like this project might just keep me in this realm for a bit longer because I think other things will come of it and I've seen that a lot of people are paying attention to this sound, over in America as well. So I think it has some longevity to it.
NW: You do it really well, it sounds really effortless. So I am keen to hear more to be honest. But it's great that you're a versatile artist who can also do more.
Shaé Universe: Thank you, I appreciate that.
NW: Do you think finding that R&drill sound is part of the reason why you're choosing now to release your first full project?
Shaé Universe: Yes, definitely. I won't act like I've always had the answers or known my direction. It's been a journey to find that. I believe that nothing is permanent, so wherever I am in my career I just embrace it. If it feels right, I go with it. With this project, the sound feels right with the timing right now. So, I'm just going with it.
NW: Makes sense. The sound is quite consistent on this EP - is it the same producer throughout?
Shaé Universe: It's actually not. It started off with most of the tracks being produced by OJ. But then more producers started catching on to the sound and hit me up. I gave a few of them a chance and some of them really worked. Sons of Sonix for example, we did ‘111’. That's one of my favourite R&drill songs I've done. I think that's also attributed to the sentimental value of it.
NW: ‘Shineee’ is one of my favourite tracks of there. Who produced that one?
Shaé Universe: Taye actually produced it. He features on it but he also produced it. He's amazing
NW: I really like the synths at the start. It sounds like an experimental take on West Coast hip hop. And then you get the drill and trap drums fade in.
Shaé: Yes that one is probably the most experimental song of the project. It's like a creeper, I don't think anyone will expect it.
NW: Yeah and the fact that it wasn't one of the singles as well means it'll really catch people's attention. So, was the experience of putting together a body of work with this EP quite different to what you've done before when it's just been singles? Did it stretch you outside of your comfort zone in any way?
Shaé: In every single way. Because when you go single by single you only have to be two steps ahead. You just have to know what track you're about to put out and what you're putting out next. For the EP, the amount of times the track list changed and I just changed my mind about the direction... And because not knowing is something foreign to me it just made me bug out. But I realised that's part of the process. You just have to accept that element of not knowing to get to the seasons where you feel more sure about things.
NW: Was it a case of coming up with a set of themes and then beginning the process of making an EP to fit that? Or did the themes arise during the journey? Because I would say the themes are quite consistent. Like building confidence, putting bullshit behind you, blocking out the noise. Was that something you had in mind from the very start?
Shaé: I always thought that when I release my first project it would have a narrative that I'd planned out. Because that is the kind of artist I am. But I think that will come with my later projects. With this one, it kind of just came together as the project unfolded. Each song is true to an experience I had in my life and weirdly enough it all just synced up.
NW: What part of the process did you come up with the name, Unorthodox? And where did it come from?
Shaé: When I saw that it was going in the direction of R&drill, the name just came to me because that was unorthodox even for me. Like, for me that was just like, wow, you're actually going forth and spearheading this sound and owning it. And so, you know, it was unorthodox in that way. It was also unorthodox in a sense that I actually turned down a deal. This is the first time I'm speaking about this. I turned down a deal with my old distributor and decided to self-fund the project. It was a conscious decision that I made. Just personally, there were certain things that didn't feel 100% right with the deal. No bad blood or anything, but I just didn't feel like it was right. And in doing that, like it's very, very risky, and very expensive and just a lot of pressure, but I believe in that decision because, you know, big risk bigger rewards. So that's kind of the avenue that I went down and even that is a very unorthodox thing to do. Like, in this time, where everybody's encouraging you to sign deals. It was a bold move to make and a very scary one if I'm being honest. And then the last thing in regard to ‘unorthodox’ is the way that my rollout has happened. Some of the tracks have already been out for a while. For example, ‘You Lose’ was released in May 2020. Traditionally, when you do a roll out to a project, you have all the singles out within a short space of time. But because my project kind of made itself as I was making the music, it took longer to get here. So everything's just kind of unravelled in a different and unusual way. I think that's going to be a big part of the power in my story.
NW: Hmm, that's really cool. Yeah, that's a good answer. I always respect it when there’s a lot of thought behind the title. So I wanted to ask you, maybe this also comes into that unorthodox theme, how did you end up meeting each of the features? How do you end up working with them? I should add, all three features really, really delivered on the EP.
Shaé: Yes, thank you man. They did. They really did. Honestly, they just did exactly what they had to do and more. In terms of how the features came about, it was just so authentic and so organic. With Kojey Radical, I've known him for a couple years. He first discovered me when I was still on SoundCloud and he reached out to me and I was on his song ‘700 Pennies’ for his project In God's Body. So that's the first I worked with him and since then we've just been great friends, we always make great music whenever we link up. And that led to ‘Royalty’ which is obviously on the EP. It was just so calm and casual because we had that relationship from before. And then shortly after that, we did a song that’s going to be on his debut album, which is coming out on Friday.
NW: Yeah, very exciting.
Shaé: It is, my gosh, I'm excited as well. He's got some great features. Yeah, that's how I met him. When it came to ENNY, I created the song in the studio with the producers, Sons of Sonix. At this point in time, I'd written the first verse, but not the second one. And so we were just thinking about who could jump on the verse and we initially thought about ENNY and 6LACK. I think I pitched ENNY ‘Wicked Ways’ but I don't think that was the right song for her now that I look back on it. And she was honest about it, she was just like, I don't think this is what I'm doing right now and I was like, okay, no problem. And then I sent her ‘Sit Back’ and she just immediately was like, yeah, this is this is amazing. She jumped on it and she killed it. And that was that. And then with Tay Iwar, he actually hit me up shortly after I release ‘111’ and asked to get into the studio. So I thought we were going to end up creating something for him, and actually the song started out like a joint thing. He's never actually made anything remotely R&drill. He's a completely different type of artist, but a lot of the people that worked with me on this project were open to stepping into my world. So he produced it, it sounded sick, we made the song and then like a week after he was still in two minds as to what he wanted to do with the song. So I was just like, could you let me have this on my project. It was a big ask, but he did. And so again, everything just slotted into place honestly, it was easy.
NW: That's blessed. And going forward, are there any other particular names out there at the moment you would be keen to work with?
Shaé: I would love to work with Little Simz.
NW: I can see that for sure.
Shaé: She's just amazing. I'd definitely love to work with her and so many other artists. But one that I just always say just because she's someone I've grown up listening to and I just love her so much is Brandy. The day I get to have a song with Brandy, I think I probably will faint. Yeah, that's a big one on my list. She's probably not going to come until the R&B album.
NW: Nice. Kind of going back to like what we touched on earlier about you being kind of one of the pioneers of this new sound of R&drill, do you feel like because of the fact that you're one of the first to do it you’ve noticed much imitation? Not to get you to throw shade.
Shaé: Cheeky! You know what? I don't think it is imitation. You know why? Because there are people that are making R&drill, but honestly speaking, I really don't think that they're making it like me. Personally, I think there's an authenticity to what I'm doing in the way that I'm doing it. When I hear R&drill songs, R&drill quote unquote, a lot of them are taking, samples from R&B songs and just slapping them on a drill beat and calling that R&drill. Whereas I'm creating a synergy. I'm confident in my ability to stand out from the crowd. I don't really know about imitation because in order to imitate you have to actually be able to do what the other person is doing.
NW: I like that answer. You're right, you really have that synergy in your sound, and it blends together really effortlessly. You can't really tell where the R&B ends and the drill begins. So do you think of your singing and rapping as different entities? Or do you think of them more as extensions of the same thing?
Shaé: Ultimately they are just extensions of the same thing but I think because I feel like I'm significantly more skilled at one than other, they don't feel necessarily on par. I feel like I'm definitely better at singing than I am at rapping.
NW: You got bars! I got to say, the way you switch your flow mid-verse on ‘You Lose’, I love that bit.
Shaé: Thank you, thank you, I appreciate it. But I feel like because I listen to a lot of really substantial lyricists, like the Kojeys and the Knuckses you know, people who really talk about deep things, it's like I have high aspirations with my rapping ability. But that doesn't mean that I'm not good now, I just know I can be better.
NW: Yeah, that's cool. So, is the rapping something that you got into later, than the singing?
Shaé: It's crazy. No, it's not. Actually, in school, I started doing like, poetry and spoken word and stuff like that because