If you aren’t familiar with Shae Universe, here’s what you have missed so far. She is fiercely independent, uniquely talented and all round good vibes. Respected by her peers in the industry and one of the hardest working artists around. Shae’s journey is far from an overnight success. She has a carefully cultivated army of fans who are connected by their love for her individuality and authenticity. Her music and lyrical content is not only powerful and enthralling, but also experimental and different. Shae has unintentionally become the face of a genre, R’n’Drill.
Whilst melodics has often been infused with Drill music, Shae has taken the sound to new heights by bringing a real singers vibe to a hard hitting sound. Her technical ability is astounding, which makes her sound stand out from the trendy heavily autotune rap infused melodics we are used to hearing on rap beats. Shae is a true artist and vocalist, one of the most distinct tones that the UK has produced. We sat with Shae to talk about her Unorthodox EP, being a pioneer of R’n’Drill and her journey so far.
So talk to us about your musical beginnings. We know that you studied theatre and come from a performance background. When did you realise music specifically was your calling?
“I started singing when I was really young in the church because my mum was actually a gospel singer, the leader of the choir. From as young as I can remember in our home church, we don’t go there anymore, but for a very long time, we did. That’s where I started singing. I was just singing in the choir helping to support my mum and stuff. I was probably 11 or 12 when I started to actually branch out and listen to other music and discover artists for myself. Pop was big then as well as, I don’t want to say generic but all the pop stars that were reigning at the time, Britney, Beyonce, Rihanna etc all the mainstream people.
“Then I started to branch out and listen to artists that were more in line with my personal tastes, people like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. I listened to Brandy a lot as well. That helped me form my own sound. But weirdly enough I actually started out in poetry. I was really into poetry, I have always loved words, English, learning new words and the meaning of words that also fed my love for songwriting, singing just grew organically from that.”
Technically as a singer, you are outstanding and very unique in terms of your range and tone. Has it been easy to find your place in a scene being so distinctive and have you always embraced your uniqueness?
“You know what is so crazy, I didn’t notice how unique my voice was until other people really started saying it. I know that sounds bad because usually, people say oh, you’re not supposed to get validation from other people. But honestly, my journey has been so authentic and so organic. It’s never been forced. When I first started singing, the covers I would do on Twitter and YouTube, I wouldn’t even show my face. I was just posting because I loved to sing, I enjoyed singing the songs. Not necessarily chasing after this huge thing or trying to achieve anything in particular at that time. I think that was a big part of the beauty in it actually, because it was just all very innocent and for the love of it. But with my voice and the actual sound of my voice; honestly, I didn’t realise how unique it was until I realised that this is something that people kept mentioning.
“Then I really started paying attention and I was like, actually, yeah, I do have a special tone. Obviously, we will hear a lot of artists. There are definitely singers out there that also have unique tones that cannot be replicated, but for the most part, a lot of singers can be imitated whereas I feel like I’ve been blessed to have the type of voice where it’s quite hard to imitate me because of the uniqueness of my tone and everything. I would say I was definitely made aware of that more so through other people’s commentary, but now that I’ve acknowledged it in myself, it’s definitely something I pride myself on absolutely.”
How would you categorise your sound?
“At heart, I am an R&B singer, but I’m a versatile, limitless R&B singer. I play with it. I allow myself to be versatile.”
Who are your musical influences?
“I would say, I have a lot of influences. But at the root Brandy is up there, Lauryn Hill is up there, Erykah Badu. Also say Alex Isley is up there too. I love the way that she arranges her harmonies. I haven’t necessarily sat and studied any artists, they’ve just seeped into me naturally. You know, when you listen to a person enough you can kind of hear where the different influences come from. For the most part, I’ve just been vibing when it comes to the music. Oh, and Jasmine Sullivan I can’t forget her.”
Now, you’ve been an independent artist and throughout your journey, we’ve seen various levels of growth from you. You can really see your creativity and business mind in your various projects. How has this path shaped who you are as an artist?
“Wow, that’s a loaded question. First of all, it definitely made me a lot more thorough with myself, anything I do and anything I involve myself in. I wouldn’t necessarily advise anyone to manage themselves for as long as I have because it definitely gets very stressful. I’m at a stage now where I’m ready for help. But one thing it has done is it’s made me very thorough with myself. I definitely have a high standard for anything that has my name attached to it because I’ve had to learn everything in depth.
“There are a lot of things that my musical colleagues don’t know about because they have managers that have been doing it for them. They’ve never really had to learn about them. Things like registering your music on PRS, things as small as that. So it’s definitely made me very thorough. I think also now I’m starting to experience the respect that comes from that too. When you’re first doing it, it’s like anything; you have to do it first for a lot of people to really be like ah, she actually did this and she did it independently and she stuck to her morals and principles and all that kind of stuff.
“So I think now that people are seeing that my strategies or my methods have worked for me they’re giving kudos. So there’s that too. It takes a little while. And obviously, you will go through stages where you kind of doubt am I ever going to get the respect that I deserve because people are kind of side-eyeing the way that I’m doing things when it’s not being done in the traditional way, but it pays off.”
In terms of where you are now, would you say you have more of a team around you than you did early on and how has your process changed?
“Weirdly enough my team has actually gotten smaller than it was when I first started. You know, you just learn people, you learn things. One thing I’ve realised about me and my team, everyone in my team is divinely aligned. It’s not just that I need someone to fill this spot. Everyone around me understands me and actively sees me for who I am. It’s deeper too, the people in my team, I feel like we’re friends, we’re family as well as a team. To find that is hard. It’s not something that you just put someone on the payroll for. My team’s definitely gotten smaller since I started out. I’ve been finding out who I can really trust and who I’m really in alignment with. But I trust that my team will expand. But again, still in that organic, authentic way.
“Everyone that I’ve crossed paths with, everyone I’m working with right now is like this is what’s supposed to be. It’s never been anything that’s been forced and that’s something I’m very big about as well. What a lot of people don’t understand is the artists that you see, whatever artists that may be, a large percentage of who they are is due to the people that they are around. The people that are filling their minds. Whether it’s telling them certain things daily, keeping them grounded, or not. The people that the artist is around makes a big difference. So I make sure to keep my circle small and clean.”
And let’s talk about where you are now musically. Firstly, how does jumping on a Drill beat even come about for you?
“So, a producer called OJ, Oli was the first person to suggest that, it was in May 2020. Actually, probably a couple of months before that, because that’s when this actual song came out. That was “You Lose”. He sent me this beat and it was so different to anything we’d ever worked on before. But he was like, “just try it man” and I did and it just worked and then you know “You Lose” was my breakout song or my first R’n’drill breakout song. And people just took to it. I just continued being pulled in that direction, continuing to make R’n’Drill.
“Honestly, I don’t know why. It wasn’t an intentional thing like okay, now I’ve done the song I’m just gonna make everything R’nDrill. That’s just how it was happening. I was allowing it. At some points, I was a bit resistant because I was thinking I was limiting myself. I was being quite narrow-minded. I was thinking well if I do enough R’n’Drill songs are people just gonna label me as a R’nDrill artist and that’s kind of where it starts and ends. But no. I’m an artist. I create my reality, literally. So as long as I keep the quality there I can do whatever I want. So I just continued doing it. It was working and now we have this project that’s out. It wasn’t premeditated, it was organic and natural.”
And now that we are hearing a little bit more of that sound coming from other places, do you see that and feel like you’re pioneering something right now?
“Yo, honestly, again, it took me a while to really realise what we have created here. Because I’m humble by nature, you know, but also God has given me a gift that allows me to be that way. I don’t need to shout in your face because when I stand on the stage and I open my mouth, it does everything that it needs to do. I’ve always been accustomed to just being myself. I walk into a room I don’t have to say much. With that in mind, I have seen other people doing things and it’s just like, wow, I didn’t really realise until the R&D playlist came out on Spotify and it became a whole genre.
“The first time it’s coming out, I’m the face of it and pretty much my whole R’n’D catalogue is in there. That’s when I realised it’s real, okay, people are really actually paying attention. And this is actually starting something. Now for me personally, that is huge. Because, man, as a black woman in this UK scene, a dark-skinned black woman, for me to just kind of start something in a playful way, then I become the person that’s been spearheading something. I’ve created something from nothing, people are now paying attention to and following suit…That’s a huge deal. That’s a huge deal for me in an industry that is hard to even breakthrough as an R&B singer to start with. It’s a big deal and I’m grateful. You know, when I see other people doing their R’n’Drill stuff, I’ll be real with you, I haven’t seen anyone doing it like me, but I’m grateful. I’m appreciative.”
Talk us through your process with regards to pulling this project together?
“Again, it happened very organically, happened very naturally. And just like the title of the project, Unorthodox happened in such an unorthodox way because if you notice with the project, quite a few of the songs are out already. So really and truly now people are only really getting two new songs on the project, the one featuring Tay and then the other song called “Wicked Ways”. And at first, I didn’t know how I felt about that. But again, everything on my journey has just led me in the direction of doing things differently. Just embrace it, it doesn’t always have to be the same. There are no rules to this game and a lot of artists forget is that in the UK music gets digested so quickly. You release a song today then in the next three weeks everyone’s forgotten about it and you’re onto the next thing.
“I am now focused on working smarter, and not harder. Okay, I’ve got “You Lose”, which I released in May 2020, to the UK they could say this is an old song or songs that they know. But guess what, to the world, it’s still fresh, it’s still new. There’s a whole world that I can actually break my music into. And so with this project, that’s really what I’m trying to do. This is a launchpad, yes, okay, the people that have been supporting me in the UK will probably want a little bit more, but it’s okay because I’ve got more. I’ve got more in the vault coming but with this first project, I just really want to get as much exposure as I can. So any music I have that comes after this is not falling on deaf ears. It doesn’t fall on deaf ears now, but I just want to capitalise on that and just expand it even more.
“That’s my main goal with this project. In terms of how it came about and the process and stuff, made “You Lose” and I made “Royalty” with Kojey. That collaboration there was like the most simple easy thing in the world. Me and Kojey have known each other for a little while. I first worked with him on his album 700 Pennies and then from there we just had a great relationship. He did a song for my project and I did a song for his album that just came out, Reason To Smile. That was easy. Enny that was super easy as well. Enny’s one really shocked me actually because even though I know her to be a very chill person, I didn’t have any personal relationship with Enny before this song. We didn’t know each other like that or anything. I guess I saw her online and stuff and I just reached out to her, sent her the song and she was like yeah. If you know anything about Enny, you will know that she does not jump on features like that just willy nilly. She doesn’t even do videos like that really. So it was all just a huge blessing that she was so down to be on board.”
Do you have a favourite song on the project?
“I think my favourite song is “Wicked Ways”. That’s actually a really hard one. But I would say “Wicked Ways” because it was just the rawest one. Writing that song was just raw. I don’t know how else to explain that but my emotions were fresh and I thought that translated into the song. And it shows a bit of versatility in some rapping on there as well. I’m rapping in a very different way than I usually rap. So yeah, I will say “Wicked Ways” pushed me and challenged me in ways that I haven’t necessarily pushed or challenged myself before.”
Speaking of you rapping on tracks, is that part of the craft that you like to nurture or is it just for a specific moment?
“Man, I think it’s both. I personally want to be better at rapping. When I have friends like Kojey Radical and Knucks, when you listen to Che Lingo and stuff like that, then you know what real lyricists are. That’s their forte you know. I would love to get to a level with rapping where I just feel that confident. I feel like I’m on those levels. However, I know clearly right now that I’m a lot better at singing than I am at rapping. Rapping is just an extension of my self-expression which I really enjoy. I enjoy rapping as much as I enjoy listening to rappers. I can really appreciate a great lyricist. It stems back to my love for words and English and all that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t classify myself as a rapper at all. I would say I love to rap sometimes.”
Finally, tell us why we should take time out to take in Unorthodox?
“Well first of all, outside of the music because the obvious reason would be that the music slaps you know what I’m saying? It’s something fresh to open up your mind to. But outside of that, to anyone that doesn’t actually know me and doesn’t know the context behind my journey up until this point. Man, It’s a really inspirational story you know. I’ve worked so hard, and I’ve really done this from the ground up as I’ve really decided to just honour the way that I want to lead my career. Which has meant you know, turning down below sometimes and has meant facing rejection multiple times and just having that extra bit of patience to enable my career to pan out the way that I would like it to.
“Based on all of that, please listen to my project. Because a lot of work has gone into it. This is just a start after this project, I’m 100% sure there are going to be 100,000 more great things to come. But if it’s not for anything else, just for the fact that I have worked my butt off to get here. I would really appreciate that listen, or that share or you know anything at all, for real.”
You can listen to Unorthodox on all major digital streaming platforms.