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Shay Lia: A recollection of a conversation with an artist

Shay Lia: A recollection of a conversation with an artist

“There are things you asked me that I don’t have the answer for yet,” Shay Lia says at one point. I wrote it down in my notebook, the same notebook I now rely on for direction when writing this piece.

Shay Lia is the France-born/Djibouti-raised female vocalist and soul artist that you may have heard before on a track from the groovy ​Montréal-based Kaytranada​. Her discography is so sweetly-sized that you have no reason for ever skipping through it—but if you, as many do, live with an attention span damaged by our dizzying technological landscape and have never been able to listen to an album all the way through to the end, then my suggestion is that you at least play Shay Lia’s debut EP ​Dangerous at your next dinner date. It’s a mood-setter.

Dangerous is foxy, silky as wine. It has a magical ability to guide you through contrasting, dualistic bubbles of mood and emotion. Imagine a hallway of mirrors where every reflection that your eyes land on is a true one. It all really exists, it captures all of you. From the lulling/dejected ​Feels t​o the funky yet somehow responsible Good Together, ​the EP gives us mood after mood after mood.

It was only just before our call that Toronto/Montr​éal officially ordered all of the non-essential businesses, shops, record stores, venues, restaurants, bars, and beauty supply shops to close down. Nightlife came to a slow finish worldwide. The implications that a global pandemic can have on an artist’s creative routine are unthinkable.

What are you wearing now? What’s your quarantine fit?

“I’m going through phases,” Shay Lia laughs. So far, her experience inside has been largely directed by her moods. Shay Lia trusts her own direction a lot. It’s obvious in her music but it’s even more obvious when she’s talking about her daily rituals. “Next week, I might want to dress up, take the stage.” As of right now, her focus is: “freedom. Naturalness. I’ve been naked a lot. I just want to connect with myself. That’s all I have right now.”

The Miracle Morning is a 6-part routine that Shay Lia’s had a lot of fun filling her mornings with. It walks her through lesson plans on silence, affirmations, visualizations, exercise, reading, and scribing. Streamlining the desires of the day.

By Shay Lia

Using the best three words you can think of, who is Shay Lia?

Shay Lia feels limited by this sort of question. “I can never think of ways to answer this sort of question!” Her rejection is full of humor and warmth, though, and I secretly agree. It’s strange to ask someone to reduce the entirety of their self-perception into three words. Especially an artist. Communicator. Thinker. Old soul. Shrinking someone’s entirety down into a word, something bite-sized, easily digested, then consumed.

Shay Lia’s final three words:

Soulful. (“I feel the energy around people.”)
East-African.
And-much-more. (I agree we can use this as a word. It makes sense.)

It’s no secret to Shay Lia that she has a gift. The Kaytranada produced track Chances​ i​s the first song she ever wrote for. For her, it’s not a question of whether or not she can make something that’s ​good, ​even great; it’s more a question of authenticity. How real does it feel? Shay Lia stresses this: “I know it’s good. But is it me though?”

She went through a long, personal journey in locating her sound, her voice. Looking at her discography, you can tell how diligent she’s been about releasing work on her own timeline and being self-trusting when it comes to sharing with her audience. She listens to what she wants in a world that always asks for more. “If it doesn’t feel right, I’m not going to do it. I have to be genuinely happy with what I’ve created. As long as your signature is strong enough, you’re good.”

The video for ​Good Together​ is an audio-visual collaboration with Montréal director Caraz​, revolving around the idea of public versus private.

“With the video, I wanted to relay myself as two,” Shay Lia explains. An acknowledgment of two. This concept of dual personas emphasizes our understanding of the strange intersection between two worlds. Two roles. The way they coexist. Visually, the ambiance is hazy but also alive, clear and energetic even while it’s asking us to slow our asses down and show some ​love​.

It’s nostalgic but it’s new.

You’re not 100% yourself. But at the same time, Shay Lia is not a persona. It’s not my project. It’s me. It’s my life. The DNA of everything I put out​ is me.​

Shay Lia, 2020

It’s within this elusive and paradoxical realm that Shay Lia floats.

An artist both genuine and reclusive, too cool where she’s at: thriving at her own pace.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that those we see creating and sharing their artistic, personal work with the public sphere on an even semi-regular basis must have such a simple or thoughtless relationship with discipline. Hearing Shay Lia describe using her days in lockdown as a chance to revisit and rebuild her relationship with structure is refreshing. Discipline is something that she works at every morning.

“People have this fantasy about artists,” she confesses. “I think it’s easier for people to imagine that we’re always in creation mode. But I do a lot of things that I don’t want to do so that I can do this. Because I love to do this.”

But she does not prioritize momentary relevance over producing work that has an eternal quality. The work that Shay Lia puts out is just as much for her as it is for the world. They are her channels of expression, snapshots of her private interior domain.

“I want to create timeless music, you know? Not every artist cares about the timeless quality of what they put out there,” Shay Lia says, listening some of her forever favorites: Marvin Gaye, Amy Winehouse, Nigerian disco music, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé (obviously), Rihanna, soulful/funky beats of the 70s and 80s, dazzling performance dancers, the atmosphere of Jazz festivals, anything that comes from the soul, any sound that feels alive. “[These artists] can change my mind. They can change my mood. It’s like a spell,” Shay Lia adds. The statement is intriguing. A synthesis of beauty and intellect. “Sound can move water with its frequencies. Imagine what it can do for us.”

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She clarifies that she has no issue with artists who operate without timelessness as their goal; again, stressing the intricacies of subjective desires. What she wants is what she wants; it’s not what everybody has to want. And the hidden stresses of independent artistry are not tiny. Especially now in the time of a global pandemic.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who feels stretched too thin by the demands of the external world?

“If you’re like me, then just step back. I would say step back. I would tell them to reconnect with themselves and reassess the moral compass.” The coolest thing about Shay Lia’s advice is that she offers us no distractions at all. In a cultural era known to glamourize self-care at the cost of true self-analysis and growth—watch TV! Paint your nails! Get your bikini line waxed! You’ll feel better!—it’s admirable how straight-to-the-point she is. It points right to where the real injury often is: inside of ourselves. The Virgo jumped out…

Wise and playful, sophisticated and giggly, Shay Lia is a queen of nuances.

Not only is she a strong communicator but she is also a true c​onveyor​, gifted at traveling into deeper pools of emotion and thought in order to return and share with you exactly what she found. That is why her tracks feel like a direct delivery of something you once felt but could never pin-down or articulate. One listen of Voodoo, ​Shay Lia’s track featuring Pharrell signed-artist Buddy, will make you wonder deeply about your future wedding vows.

2019, Shay Lia confesses, was a tough personal year; a jarring contrast to her glittering professional successes. ​“​But sometimes that’s what it takes to get up from the bottom.”

 ​In the end, the best part of last year? (Aside from having her debut project long-listed for the Polaris Prize and nominated for the ​SOCAN Songwriting Prize​.)

“People. Spending time with family in Africa. I’m proud of myself for the connection I maintain with my family. My life.”

And​ ​is it all worth it?

Shay Lia’s laugh is as pretty as her songs! “It better be. This is my passion.”

At the time of this article’s publication, Shay Lia has proved her word to be true: “I​ wanted to create something positive for people to dance to in these crazy times. I wanted to feel reminded that we’re stronger than we think. I believe in the powers of words and music and I love creating inspirational songs full of warmth and joyful energy for everyone of any age to enjoy.” S​hay Lia’s latest single, All Up To You, has been taken off of her upcoming EP and it gives us just a tiny, heavenly taste of what is to come. It’s a tropical vacation, a sonic spa-day, and it has us even more ready for future projects.

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