Trace through the musical lineage of London-based artist Shunaji and you’ll begin to discover the cue points leading to an inevitable career in music.
Growing up in the historic city of Rome and exposed to sounds predominantly from the Jazz world during her earliest years, her musical education was akin to her surroundings, with pop, electronica and rock very much at the forefront; “I enjoyed those tonalities, which led me to trip hop and ambient in my teen years” she explains. Having later been drawn towards soul and hip-hop, Shunaji’s musical identity begins to come clearer – not belonging to any one sound or genre, there’s elements plucked from across the board, creating an eclectic palette – her own brand of hip-hop, jazz and soul that’s as fresh as it is recognizable.
Having since become a part of Gilles Peterson’s ‘Future Bubblers’ programme, 2018 is set to be a landmark year for Shunaji. Having just dropped her latest single, the feelgood ‘Red Honey’ off her soon-to-drop Midnight Movie EP which drops this Friday (May 4th), we caught up with the multi-talented artist to find out her story from beginning to now.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today. Looking back to your childhood, you were born in Lagos and raised in Rome, tell us about your earliest musical experiences and what you were exposed to growing up?
I started playing piano when I was six, that was as early as I approached music. Then I played guitar for a bit. I never mastered either. Studying an instrument gave me a good basis for my music production though! Right now I’m self-teaching piano, I use basic music theory and play by ear.
I’d like to say I grew up in a jazz record collection, from which I gathered my sample library, but that’s not me. I listened to what my mum listened to, Italian singer-songwriters like Mina, Fabio Concato, Pino Daniele and Gino Paoli. In the car, we always tuned in to Dimensione Suono Due 105.3 – a radio station that plays chill romantic songs.
In school, I listened to what kids listened to: pirated summer compilation CDs bought on the cheap at the beach. I first found artists like Jamiroquai, Moby, Black Eyed Peas, Morcheeba and Gorillaz through compilations such as ‘Hot Party’ and ‘Festivalbar’. When I got access to the internet I started digging for more. I mainly gravitated towards rock music, and branched out to experimental rock, post-punk and dark wave. I enjoyed those tonalities, which led me to trip hop and ambient in my teen years.
Are there any artists who you listened to growing up that particularly inspired you?
I reflect in mellow, earthy and mind-expanding music – Air, Lovage, Handsome Boy Modeling School to name a few. The Velvet Underground were a big study for me. I used to listen to ‘The Velvet Underground’ album religiously. From a lyrical perspective, I was inspired by the words of Nina Simone, Regina Spektor, Kimya Dawson, Elliott Smith, Amy Winehouse, Erykah Badu, Isaac Brock, André 3000…These artists may seem miles apart but to me they all belonged together. At one point growing up I tried to find a genre where I “belonged”, but that never happened. I prefer to keep an open mind and embrace broad influences.
Your music has a nostalgic 90’s feel to it. Do you draw much of your inspiration from that era and artists of that period?
I’m a 90s baby. I wasn’t living the scene but 90s sounds echoed while I was growing up. I’m a fan of the trip hop and electronica that rose in that decade. Amon Tobin (‘Permutation’ is gold), Björk, Portishead and Tricky are my go to references. DJ Shadow brought new perspectives into the mix that involved some serious sampling techniques that I look up to. De La Soul released albums that are of great inspiration too. Most recently, though, ‘And the Anonymous Nobody’ went a long way to show the significance of music as a tradition rather than as distinct genres or periods.
It’s hard to pinpoint sound to an era and to define where inspiration comes from. The 90s were such a prolific time for music to develop in different directions – I see those years as a barrier reef of everything that happened before, and the potential for what later evolved in the 2000s. The 90s birthed some of my favorite albums like ‘Stoned & Dethroned’ and then ‘Brown Sugar’. I can’t describe how 90s music sits together, but that’s the same enigma I find with my own sounds. The most inspirational aspect of that time is that it was truly broad and free. Freedom is good.
Listening to your productions the vibe is extremely widespread, there’s jazz and electronica mixed with Lo-Fi and Hip-Hop all in there – how would you best describe your sound?
I struggle to describe my sound. I mainly draw my drums from hip hop, the boom and bap of things, Nas, ATCQ, De La Soul, Apollo Brown. When it comes to sampling, I love random charity shop finds, jazz classics and everything Motown. I tend to manipulate samples to an extent where they’re not always recognisable. I listen to a lot of J Dilla and Karriem Riggins for inspiration.
In ‘Girls’, from my debut EP ‘Midnight Movie’, I flipped Chet Baker’s ‘Almost Blue’, but the result was so different I almost forget when I play it back! In ‘Red Honey’, I kept my sampling simpler. That’s how I create. I also love dark wave and synth pop. It’s hard to narrow down my sound because I get inspired by so many artists across the spectrum. I have bright tunes and dark tunes, happy songs and sad songs. In the end, I like to add some modest tape saturation to throw listeners back a little.
You’ve since relocated to London, how does the city compare to your time in Rome? And what’s your thoughts on the music scene there?
I love Rome and I have my own special bond to the city. I can’t say it made me feel fully accepted while I lived there. I experienced racism from early years all the way through high school. I’m glad I left because I’ve accomplished a lot since moving to London. It’s kind of sad that I was made to feel this way. In London, people don’t generally stare at you for being different. We have a good space for music here because being able to be yourself is what makes music happen. I used to dream about being how and where I am now. I’m blessed to be surrounded by so many open-minded people, and being part of cosmos like the Roundhouse.
When a place is backward-thinking, young people are more inhibited to experiment with what they’re not accustomed to. For this reason, I don’t think the music scene in Rome has fully matured. Audiences are also lacking for left-field music in my opinion. Nightlife is a big part of any music scene too, but in Rome young people are often prevented from using spaces to champion their ideas. Venues are not being used for the benefit of the youth and music culture is oppressed.
You’ve recently been championed by Giles Peterson under his esteemed ’Future Bubblers’ movement. How did that come about and how does it feel to know someone like Giles is into your music?
I haven’t fully processed it to date! It’s madness. I first met Giles at the Worldwide Awards After Party in January 2017 at Jazz Cafe, ironically. He asked me if I was an artist and to send him demos. At that stage, all I had were very weird, out of time loops in Reason 5. Then I asked myself whether I’d be an artist. I’m glad that in relatively short time I further developed my music production and applied to Future Bubblers. When I applied, I didn’t think I was in the best position, but I guess my intentions came through in those demos!
I believe in myself and I’m glad that Giles and Brownswood believe in me too. These days I focus my energy outwards as opposed to appealing to a specific person or group. I think that’s the essence, especially now that I am in Future Bubblers. Every day is a discovery. Giles likes my music, the other day my track was added to this playlist in Mexico, I collaborate on international projects like ‘Women of the World, Vol. 1’. People are into my music, I’m having fun and it’s blessed.
Your Future Bubblers mentor is none other than Eric Lau! What’s it like taking advice from someone with such a great pedigree as a musician and producer?
Eric is great, he’s a very straightforward person. Also, the calmest. He’s given me feedback on production which was heartbreakingly useful, but I’m good with constructive criticism. Eric exposed me to a whole new community in London. Before meeting him, I was busy trying to be a bedroom producer, but he got me involved with producer communities like CDR Projects and L.A.B. Collective with whom I have a great relationship now. And they’re helping me develop as an artist!
I was Eric’s supporter before Future Bubblers, so I look up to him and value his input. I hope that he will continue to be a mentor figure to me even after my Future Bubblers journey is formally over.
You’ve produced and written music under many names, such as Princess Solo, Sick Ranchez, Yagalle Molasse, Ratz Medina and Cobra Roza, tell us a bit about those alias’ and what each of them represent?
My aliases are tools to break free from people’s impressions or assumptions. Princess Solo represents my reserved side which stays concealed, like a stream of consciousness. I tend to be very outgoing but there’s a lot that I keep to myself. Solo is there to express what I don’t say openly. The name is a wordplay between Princess Leia and Han Solo, of course.
Sick Ranchez is the cigar-smoking phlegm-spitting truck driver within me, dropping the mean bars. The name is a twist on Rick Sanchez, which I guess explains it. Yagalle Molasse (Your girl, Sugar) is more of a soulful spirit and that’s what she brings to the table. Ratz Medina is a name that represents the grooves I boogie to, I use it for DJing which I hope to do more. Cobra Roza is the opposition between what something looks like on the outside (rosa, pink) and one’s true nature. It’s funny how pink is associated with femininity and, for some reason, vulnerability. I think Cobra Roza challenges that assumption.
Tell us a bit about your production process? What’s your setup and how has it evolved?
I’m currently using Ableton Live 10 with Push 2, which Ableton have kindly loaned me to experiment with my set up. I use these to produce and they work nicely together. I use my Roland SH-01 Gaia synth to record additional custom sounds. I love synthesis, it’s been useful in understanding sound design, waveforms and frequencies. I also have my dear SP-404 SX which is great to use on its own or to manipulate samples further; it adds a warm feel to my music. I use KRK Rokit 5 studio monitors and an Audio-Technica AT2020 condenser mic.
I’ve transitioned through various DAWs. I started off on Reason 5 and Cubase, then moved to Logic Pro X and now I’m happy on Ableton.
What music are you listening to at the moment? Are there any artists you’re particularly feeling?
I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) a few artists recently. I’m 100% obsessed with Shabazz Palaces right now, their whole vision. I love Milo, he’s a conscious rapper and a top-notch poet. The beats he’s on are the right amount of abstract for me. Kilo Kish is another rare Pokémon, I can’t stop listening to ‘Self Importance’! EABS released an amazing album in 2017, ‘Repetitions (Letters to Krzysztof Komeda)’, and I was the lady screaming at their last gig with Tenderlonious at Total Refreshment Centre. I’m out here watching Astigmatic Records’ moves! I’ve got mad support for Brother Portrait, Sampa The Great, Subculture Sage and Ravyn Lenae. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of King Krule as well. I can be a late bloomer.
You’ve just dropped the visuals for ‘Red Honey’ featuring Amahla, tell us a bit about the track and the concept behind the video?
Red Honey is a beat I made thinking of Bahamadia and my upcoming gig with her at Jazz Cafe. I went for an old-school throwback. The lyrics are just straight bar-on-bar Sick Ranchez style. I sampled Ahmad Jamal and Bahamadia’s ‘Spontaneity’.
For the video, I worked with Three Shades who really understood my vibe. We filmed it in a day and on a budget of £120, most of which went towards lighting. The lighting was very important to me to set the mood and it worked out well. The concept was Italian dining and sass, with a lo-fi element captured through an old camcorder the guys got hold of. Generally, our idea was to have fun and get as much footage as we could. It was a great day! The behind the scenes video says it all. My girl Baby Besso also helped us shape the final edit with her magical illustrations.
Looking ahead, we’re seriously stoked to have you support the legend that is Bahamadia at The Jazz Cafe, who we know you’re a fan of, what is it about Bahamadia that you love?
I love that Bahamadia keeps it real. She’s a mad talented emcee speaking truth and I’m glad she’s out here on her mission in 2018. I rate that she’s always been honest and unapologetic in her raps, and her flow is without doubt among my favorites.
Being a female emcee can be difficult, it’s hard to get the respect you deserve and to be recognised for your hard work. Bahamadia set her path long ago and walked it all the way through. Her lyrics make sense to and resonate with me, they’re relatable; and it’s clear that they mean a lot to her too. She’s also a producer, a trait people tend to ignore when it comes to female artists. When I listen to Bahamadia, I feel reassured because she’s out here redistributing wealth and displaying female excellence.
Visibility is an important issue for women in this game. I look up to her even more for never having compromised her lyrical integrity for some temporary buzz.
Most importantly, what can people expect from your set?
I guess they’ll have to wait and hear it! Let’s just say that I’m bringing half of my home studio to the gig, so it’s going to be a jam!
And lastly, what else can we expect from Shunaji in 2018?
2018 is the year of the Shunaji. I’m planning a lil’ jam at a festival with the South London Music Service cats this summer, more details to be announced. It will be very disruptive and trust you’ll want to be there! Watch our spaces for more info.
In July, I’ll be recording a Brownswood Basement Session and I’m buzzin’ about that! I’m also in talks with Tim Garcia of Música Macondo to release more Wax Lyrical mixes. I had so much fun on my first one, you can check it on SoundCloud!
Regarding new releases, I’m working on a second EP, which is great because I want to move on to new and better things. I’ll probably also drop some singles along the way. Exciting times!