On the first Friday of every month, we put the spotlight on one up-and-coming artist. For this month’s First Look Friday we spoke to Siaira Shawn, a young singer with an activist mindset.
Season three, episode seven of Insecure begins with Issa Rae in a daze. Her crush, Nathan, has ghosted her, and she can’t stop obsessing over her iPhone. While taking a shower, she gets a notification. She grabs her phone: it’s a spammy religious text from her mother. “Give it up, mom. No one cares about the spirts’ fruit,” she says before dropping her phone in the shower.
The title screen pops up and a tender song starts playing. It’s an LA bop: warm and inviting. The song’s lyrics are lustful:”Been a long time, clean washed sheets And I don’t wanna wait no more, for you to touch me,” a soft voice sings.
The song is called “Wrong Speed.” And it was written and performed by up-and-coming LA-based singer Siaira Shawn. An independent artist with a small following, Siaira was able to get the song on the show because of a contest, hosted by Afropunk.
After the newfound attention, Siaira locked in with the song’s producer, Mars Today, and crafted Tender, seven tracks of progressive R&B. Siaira calls the EP a collection of “dystopian love songs.” The name sounds dark and it makes sense. The music is good but the songs aren’t easy.
“I don’t really write super lovey dovey songs,” Shawn said. “[My songs] kind of interrogate the crevices and the cracks and the complications of love, and that it’s not this straightforward thing. And that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, but really wanted to interrogate those subtleties and the complexities over relationships.”
What stands out about the EP is the vast palette: the songs are funky, hard, retro, but innovative. It’s clear Siara Shawn has a lot of influences: she grew up in San Francisco, an art school kid, participating in theater and singing classes. She went to various operas, symphonies, and museums with her mom. She was also a voracious reader. (She still is; when we talk to her she talked about just reading the edgy collection of short stories Friday Black from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.)
She also became politicized early on and participated in various social work roles.
“I worked in probably every type of youth development, youth empowerment, social justice organization, type of organization you can think of,” Shawn said. “And so that’s definitely my other passion — besides art — is wanting to give back in some ways, especially when it comes to youth, especially when it comes to marginalized folks. So just growing up that was always kind of parallel, because the music and the art, and making sure that I gave back to the community in some way.”
Prior to the release of her excellent new project, Tender, we were able to talk about politics, her writing process, The Bay area changing, and much more. Check out the interview below.
Can you explain what “dystopian love songs” means?
I’m a nerd, so that’s part of it. But if you hang around me for a while, I’m constantly talking about us being in a dystopia right now. Just society is going through a lot of changes, some good, some bad. And I think, even through all of the turmoil that’s going on, I want to be a voice that cuts through the trauma, all the noise, and the mess that’s going on, and posits that we should love each other anyway and be open and be trying to shift paradigms and really love. Love is, I think, one of the things that we really need to double down on.
It sounds like this stuff weighs heavy on you, or you think about it often.
I’ve always worked in social justice. I do a lot of youth development work, so I’ve always been that person. I read a lot and watch a lot of movies. I grew up in the bay, San Francisco, which used to be an innovative place and an activist hub. So, it’s always a part of my life and a part of my psyche, I think.
How does this affect the music you create. How do those two worlds engage with each other?
I think when I was younger I tried to merge them more in the music, and I think I also was always wary of doing that because [there’s] a fine line between writing something that’s really poignant and writing something that’s kind of preachy or corny. And so. for me, musically, I’ve just tried to come from a place of truth. With this project, I really wanted to shape what I think this time sounds like. I think there’s a lot of stuff out right now that’s kind of derivative. And it’s like, “OK, that’s cool that you sound like the ’90s, but what do we sound like right now?” When people look back, what does 2019 going into 2020 sound like? We’re entering a whole new decade. And so that’s kind of how I definitely approached [Tendor.] What do we sound like? What does R&B sound like?
We’re adding to the canon of a genre that I really respect and have so much love for. But, also, taking in the other genres and records and influences that I have and what that sounds like. So starting from a place of just truth and not reinventing the wheel, but pushing the car a little bit, just to get a little further down the road. Because I think even if the song is not exactly about what’s going on in the world, I want to make the ride for all of us a little smoother. I want to write with you and write for you and have a love song that will help you get through whatever you need to get, help you articulate something that you couldn’t articulate.
What sound were you looking for while making this EP?
I kind of paused on recording music in 2016, beginning of 2017. I put out one song, I think, in 2017. I was just really searching for new collaborators. I moved from New York to LA, and was just on a search for what my sound was going to be. And ended up eventually meeting [Mars Today] who executive produced the project, and who knows all these musicians. And so, when we first met up, we were just like, “We’re going to do a song, maybe you can pitch it or something like that.” And then we just kind of never stopped working. And so, from there, I just went with stuff that felt good. There’s a lot of stuff that we created from scratch and that we really were really rigorous about.
This project wasn’t a project where we did 20 songs, and then we picked [seven.] I realized we really took our time with each song, and first we were just making songs to see, and then I was like, OK, this is really congealing into something. And so I got really strategic about what I was recording, but I think the through-line was just, did it feel good? Did it sound like it was pushing a little bit? Did it sound like something familiar but also something that you may have not heard before?
How personal are these songs?
It varies. Some are just things that I’ve observed, or the kind of songs I’ve always wanted to write. Some songs are definitely directly related to my life.
Can you give an example of one that’s directly related?
“You First” a little bit. When we did that song, I started working on it with somebody else, and they never did anything with it, but we really liked it. And so we kind of rewrote the whole thing, and then added on the end that kind of breaks down into kind of a darker sound. [It’s about] the relationships you have, the honeymoon period, and it’s going well, and you’ve been together for a while, and you’re keeping that spark up.
But then things happen. Either somebody does something, or just it gets to the point where you’ve been in this relationship for a while. When you are in relationship for a long time you just have to make sure that you’re still tending to the relationship. And that you’re still being really intentional. And so I think a lot of people who have been in relationships for a long time can listen to that song and really hear the truth in it. Where it’s like, you can still love the person and doesn’t mean you’re going to break up or anything like that, but you have to make sure you’re looking around and tending to your garden, and tending to your partner and not only tending to yourself. Because things are going to happen. You’re not always going to have the sunny days.
What was the most challenging song to write?
I don’t know if anything was super challenging to write. I know the first song on the EP, “Wolf,” was a challenging song for us, production wise. There’s just so many versions of that song. That was one of the first songs that we did. We did it from scratch and we really liked it. But we knew we had to build on it, we weren’t sure where to go.
You’re from the Bay. What do you think of what it has become?
It’s always kind of bittersweet going there. There’s so much going on in San Francisco. The last, maybe, 10 years, there’s just so much traffic and people can’t afford to live in the city, so they all live outside. And so it’s just all this stuff that I’ve seen over the years, and I feel like San Francisco was one of the ground zeros for gentrification. I moved to Oakland which is going through the same thing but a little less. But definitely going through it.
And then I moved to New York. I moved to Brooklyn. I can see it there. I moved to LA. I see it there. [In the Bay] I still know a lot of people there who are there, and fighting the good fight, and trying to hold on to their space. But it’s just turned into a place that’s not family friendly and just pushed a lot of people out. And it’s unfortunate because it was a really great place to grow up.
Can you talk about how “Wrong Speed” ended up on Insecure?
That was actually one of the first songs we worked on that we were doing just to pitch for somebody. We kind of retooled it. Worked on it with Mars and a couple other producers and musicians, kind of added little touches. And so, we had already put it out, maybe only a couple of weeks, maybe three weeks at the most, we had the single out.
And then there was an Afropunk music contest and I was like, “oh, I have this song, I think it’s pretty good.” I’ll submit. And I wasn’t even sure if the submission worked, just because of how the site was set up. And I submitted and then maybe a month later we started getting emails from Kier [Lehman], who’s a really awesome music advisor [for Insecure.] And we started getting emails about the song. They’re not really telling us any details, but they’re asking these questions, emailing all this stuff. And so we have all this back and forth. And then at the very last minute, it was like, “OK, you got it. You won.”
And it was one of my first tastes with major labels stuff, because we had to do all these things, and it went to RCA, and we had to actually pull the song off and then re-upload it. Because it got on the soundtrack. It’s in the second to last episode of the last season [“Obsessed-Like.”] So it was complicated, but it was fine. And then after I get to meet Issa Rae. We had actually been social media friends from a long time ago, and she actually remembered that. So that was funny.
Were you calling all of your friends before the show aired?
Yeah, we did a little mini watch party. A couple of weeks after, I was still getting people like, “I think I heard you, was that you on “Obsessed-Like”?” So that was really cool, especially because it’s a show that I really like and respect. It is a lot of singers’ dreams, to get on a TV show, get on the soundtrack. So that was a really cool experience. It was really fun.