Zimbabwean-British singer/bassist Shingai Shoniwa is best known as the vibrant frontwoman of genre-defying band Noisettes; October 2020 sees her release her solo full-length debut. On the heels of her 2019 EP Ancient Futures, new album Too Bold is as dynamic and eclectic as Shingai herself.
We sat down with her to discuss releasing independent music, book recommendations, and making music to reflect the times we live in.
How have you found making this record, knowing you won’t get playing it out live any time soon?
A journalist asked me: ‘Because you’re such a vibrant performer, how are you coping with the COVID-enforced exile from the stage?’ And it really does feel like that! We’re having to take stock of all the shows we’ve done and hope we can be united one day soon. I approached this record as a sonic, visual experience.
The music I make tends to provoke a lot of imagery, and there was a lot of genre-fluidity in the Noisette records. I’m always going to be a musician brave enough to step outside their comfort zone, to keep challenging themselves. I went into the studio with three or four people I love, like my brother KWAYE, who bring out different energies in me. Hopefully the record will feel like you’re in the presence of live musicians.
This is my fourth album in ten years and it feels like a real arc for me. Too Bold is the natural zenith. I’ve dug deep into my feelings to create a record of the best emotional equality possible. Trying to make it over lockdown was a challenging feat, but people deserve it. I know it’s going to bring light and hope to so many people. It’s time for musicians to dig deep now!
There are so many dynamic shifts on the album, from the upbeat ‘Turning Heads’ and ‘War Drums’ to the more subtle ‘Too Bold’.
I feel so lucky and sometimes feel spoiled that I’ve got such an open mind when it comes to music and creativity. I grew up in a family where my parents were revolutionaries fighting in the war for emancipation. It’s hard for us to imagine what it would’ve been like but what they experienced was really hard; so whenever they listened to music, it was always such a wide range of powerful stuff: Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin… This record shows where I am as a versatile, fearless maker of music.
Music is there to provide common ground, and while it’s important for you to be unique in your sound, the music I make is indiscriminate. I try to put in as many colours as I can.
I relied on Ancient Futures over lockdown as it really emanates joy, and on ‘War Drums’ you marry this joy with heavier explorations. How easy is it to strike this balance?
We need music to match these times. In Too Bold, I’m able to address some really important things but still never allow the music to be a slave to those issues. The music has to make people feel a sense of hope. When you’ve got a great group of creatives around you who relate to your vision and add to your sonic palette, it helps bring the right energy.
But there are challenges when you start veering into production, especially as a female of colour. There are studios and people in the industry who aren’t used to seeing girls around, but we’re starting to see more coming through. It takes courage to create a sound that is authentic and timeless, one that can tell your story.
Have you found yourself being pigeon-holed despite the range in your voice and your persona?
In the early days, it was heart-breaking to walk into marketing meetings with bigwigs from labels who were more concerned that my hair was natural and cut into a heart shape. It was disheartening to be surrounded by people so focused on my appearance because I’m a young Black female and this is the sort of music I should be making and I should stand there and twerk, providing an aesthetic that might work for other artists. But for me, I didn’t grow up with that fixed idea of what a girl should be.
You take so many risks to be an amazing singer and musician, so as a female of colour, when you end up going into an industry that tells you they just want you to perform as a type of character, it can be really disheartening. Things are changing, and there are musicians who have taken brave risks to give us alternative models of what we can aspire to. Nina Simone, Grace Jones, Bjork…
The UK has a small, old boy establishment who only want girls who are mouldable and do what they’re told.
How does it feel to be releasing your music independently?
It’s important to have gone independent, but it wasn’t necessarily by choice. The industry creates a sell-by date for female musicians, and the only female musicians they tend to let carry on for longer are those who conform. I had to go independent as I didn’t get the support and it was clear there was a conveyor belt at play. There is a quota for successful women, let alone women of colour: you can draw a chronological chart.
Start with Winifred Atwell, a Trinidad born singer who was the first artist in the UK to sell a million records. Then Shirley Bassey, then Sade, Skin, Beverley Knight, Jamelia, VV Brown, Shingai, Lianne la Havas, Laura Mvula… we’re never allowed to be part of musical popular culture at the same time. There’s something insidiously lonely about that.
At festivals, you’d be the only girl or the only brown girl, and the rest of the line-up would be 98% white males. Now I’m independent, I can build a community around me. I’m one of the creative founders of The Floor, an alternative model that allows artists to reach the fans you’ve cultivated on a social media platform to engage in your content. Monopolising people was only going to last for so long. Such an effort has been made to divide society: I’m rebuking that in the name of great music.
I want to ask about the KG remix of yours and Dennis Ferer’s ‘Hey Hey.’
We’re doing this thing called The Carrier’s Mixtape to celebrate voices that have contributed to the best dance and electronic anthems ever. But you don’t know their names; many died in poverty or had to turn to non-musical work. How is that right?
95% of the time a white DJ finds an amazing singer, a great collaboration happens and you never see that singer’s name. They don’t appear in the video and the press doesn’t want to interview them. But when you see Norman Cook do a Glastonbury set to 200,000 people, where is the vocalist? Why don’t we know her name? The narrative is that brown girls don’t sell records, but if that’s the case, how do all these guys make so much money? We’re the carriers of those tunes, and there’s something insidiously wrong about that.
You should read the book written by Viv [Albertine] from The Slits about punk and how women were written out of the story. Those women were inspiring the guys, like Poly Styrene from X-Ray Specs. Same for Pauline Black.
Have you read Black by Design?
How come people don’t know about this book? If I didn’t know about this book, that’s crazy. Can you imagine doing this ten years ago? You wouldn’t be doing book recommendations in interviews! There’d be a lot of personal stuff edited out. Even if you did have great interviews, it would be hard to find any substance, and it would really be all about the next album, tour dates… People want to know about the artist’s heart and soul. Like you’re saying about Pauline Black, people want to know why music had to be her refuge.
At the apex of Wild Young Hearts and appearances on Jools Holland, did it feel like you were on a conveyor belt?
No, I’m very much a present person. Sometimes that’s to my detriment! But it’s what gives me my energy and spark. I lost a lot of people when I was young and in my family’s post-colonial story, there was a lot of tragedy. My upbringing was centred on making the most of what you’ve got. My mum literally had to fight in the war, and I understand the emotional impact of this and the sacrifice she made so I could have a future.
I’m not here to just survive: I’m here to thrive. So if I’m on Jools Holland, you’re gonna get a cartwheel! If I’m on Glastonbury, I’m going to be climbing the riggings. You go for it because you know there are people who’d never get the chance, or you go home and your family ask ‘What was that? You just stood there!’ I always have my mum’s voice in the back of my head.
Looking back on your career so far, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
That there are so many more good-hearted people than there are bad. A lot of the negative aspects of the industry have been so amplified, but I think it’s just as important to amplify the good in the industry.
Don’t allow yourself to be burdened down in negativity, because that creates fear. Try to lead from the heart: for every bad thing that’s happening, there are nine amazing things that are happening too.
The press won’t tell you, as it’s not in their interest…so you tell them where to stick it!
Main image credit: The Mason
This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of SNACK magazine. You can read the full magazine below on your smartphone, tablet, or pc.