This is: Shunaji
hunaji is an avant-garde producer, rapper, and singer hailing from Rome and currently based in London. Having performed at a number of world-renowned music festivals (such as Glastonbury and The Great Escape), Shunaji is well-loved by her fans for her thought-provoking lyricism and experimental instrumentals.
Her most recent release, “Juniper and Helium” is an ode to the duality of lockdown, and was created for Sound and Music’s ‘Interpreting Isolation’ grant. The track is structured into two parts, 'Juniper' (Part 1) and 'Helium' (Part 2), with each section following a different aspect of the reflective journey that Shunaji has undergone over the past few months.
Shunaji has also recently dropped a four-track EP, called Cosmic Blues. Our favorite song here at Myth, “Dirty Girls,” explores themes of gender and sexuality. The single breaks down Shunaji's worldview on topics like slut-shaming, gender-based morals, and the media's role in normalising the misrepresentation of women.
“On ‘Dirty Girls’, I reclaim the definition of “Dirty”, to demonstrate that talking about sex and sexuality does not affect who I am as a woman, my credibility or my intellectual ability,” Shunaji explains on her Bandcamp.
Myth got the chance to sit down with Shunaji and discuss the creative process behind her most recent releases. Check out Myth’s full interview with her below.
Shunaji's music video for her song "Dirty Girls"
Hey Shunaji thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Let’s talk first about your most recent release, “Juniper and Helium”. The song speaks to the journey an artist undertakes and you describe it as your “dark side of the moon”. Can you tell us more about the inspiration and story behind the song?
I was commissioned to make this track as part of a funding round here in the UK. There's an organization called Sound of Music that put out a call for submissions in response to the COVID-19 lockdown on its impact on the music industry. I was basically going to lock myself in the house and just go crazy producing something that kind of spoke to my experience of the lockdown.
The main inspiration behind this release is the duality of the lockdown - on one hand, I was comfortable and had a lot of time to devote to music, but on the other hand I had this feeling of being disassociated. So there are a lot of feelings and emotions in there and it's reflected in the two parts of the track. The first part is kind of like the “beginning of a lockdown,” and then it kind of goes towards “fuck, this is really weird.” And I'm like yeah, that's exactly how I felt over the last few months.
Your music is an incredible blend of various sounds and styles such as jazz, trip-hop, boom bap, soul, and rap. Do these genres hold a different meaning or significance to you?
Hip-hop is definitely significant, though I started listening to it more during adulthood. I grew up in Rome and there weren’t a lot of black people there, nor was there really any black culture or local underground movements. So growing up in the 90s, like I didn't really have music references. I don't specifically come from a musical family, either.
Before [hip-hop], I was listening to a lot of rock. Rock music is pretty much my foundation and it's what I go to for all my more angsty outputs. I think in general I channel a bit of melancholy leftover from my teenage angst.
On the tail-end of that question, what is the process of creating a song like for you? Is there a base you always start from or do you experiment a lot.
I tend to have patterns. I'm a bit of a creature of habit. I normally will start with chord progressions, and think about the kinds of melodies that speak to me and my feelings. And then when I have that, I love the process of just putting a beat on it because it kind of brings the song to life. So I usually start with the melody, chords progressions, drums and bass... and then I develop those pieces, get other people involved, and finally put down the vocals.
So if you start with chord progressions and are classically trained, curious as to how you like, learned how to like, like mess with melodies and stuff like that, especially if you don't come from a musical family.
I play guitar and own two of them. I've never really been classically trained, though - I think I lack attention and consistency for it but I keep self-teaching.
That said, I'm interested in a lot of different things. My music making has always been by ear really; I have some basic music theory like scales, but for more complicated chord progressions and switches I would always just follow my ear.
We know about your education in classical and Latin-Greek studies and love for mythology, astronomy, and history. (Durga Goddess of war and Odysseus line reference). Are there any particular stories that you connect with?
I think the purpose of mythology is to tell a story about a culture and a people. You can see how people used to perceive these stories and tell them to each other at the time, so there’s so much history and philosophy that you can learn from mythology.
In terms of Greek tragedy, I had always really liked Oedipus and Antigone. I like political tragedies - stories of individuals and their relationships with the state, their communities and how they conflicted, the stories of how they were exiled and then found themselves. It speaks to the sort of tension that people feel between wanting to belong and not belonging.
I also love the Odyssey. I think there’s a lot to learn in there, but then there's also a lot of things that I find really offensive and misogynistic. Still, there’s something to gain in understanding the characters, how they’re developed, and their roles in society.
Aside from being references, do they play apart in your life outside of music?
Yeah. I always think that the reason why [myths] are so popular and why they've been preserved over time is because people find commonalities within them. Their stories are timeless in a lot of ways. And for me, I’ve always felt a little bit like an outcast in my life and in my perception of myself. I always love to read stories about self-empowerment, about the people that didn't fit in but could still be heroes. So, yeah, I think that's probably the main relationship.
Shunaji's music video for her song "Nighthawks"
You also reference a lot of modern media in your work through your aliases such as Sick Ranchez and Princess Solo, and references like Hollyhock Horseman, Eragon, Cooking Mama, That’s So Raven, Mulan, Sopranos Tony’s Bada Bing. You’re really on top of your media game. What shows/games hold a special connection for you? How come?
Yeah, I did read Eragon! I thought it was a very promising novel written by a 16 year old. I always loved sci-fi and fantasy, so I used to spend a lot of time playing video games and massive multiplayer online games. I was also generally into comics.
The first place that I felt like I belonged was the yearly comic convention in Rome. And sometimes I would cosplay. I was never really committed, but I would always dress up as something just because it's fun. There's a whole world out there of comic books and it’s definitely really inspirational and a source of escapism for me. I’ve always been interested in how people create worlds with their imagination. And that's always part of cartoons and illustrations.
Sci-fi really is a genre that pushes imagination to a whole new level.
Yeah, it allows you to create so many things. And I think that's like that's what I really love about making music and writing lyrics. It's interesting to create something that didn’t exist before - and when someone consumes it they can make connections to it and drift away. So that's what I really like about sci-fi and mythology.
When I read The Odyssey, of course it wasn’t “real.” But the relatability is in the basic story of a human being that's going through those experiences: you can connect to the feelings they’re going through and their relationships. Those things are all very realistic.
Part of your music is reflective of the woman's experience and confronts the listener with the reality of being a woman. As an incredibly personal matter it’s not easy to tackle these topics, but it is extremely important to address it. However in the music hip-hop industry it is a problem that is very prevalent. Can you tell us how you navigate through this issue?
There are a lot of things that women experience on so many levels, it's really hard to summarize, but I'll try to think specifically about the music industry. You know, I've been in situations where people, men, have doubted my ability, or felt like they needed to give me extra help, or thought that I was flirting with them. And that was the relationship instead of, like, just wanting to do a gig or do a collab. A lot of the time, for me personally, being a woman, it's really hard to separate sex from the rest of my life. And I feel like there's a lot of sexualization, which I think is now also increasingly affecting men due to social media. And I think these dynamics affect men negatively, too. It’s not just women, despite expectations and how we socialize ourselves.
Let’s talk about your Dirty Girls music video! It’s simple yet captivating. Can you tell us about the choices behind the shiny silver space suit and the switchups with the close up scenes vs the scenes with you just rapping?
I always have my hands on a lot of different tasks. That's why I've never seen myself as a specialist, but I like to do a lot of different things, and that was just me going in a minor directorial direction.
We didn’t really know what we were going to do at first. I was collaborating with someone who was supposed to choreograph the video, but then something came up and it was like a day or two before the actual lockdown happened... and I was like, I don't care, I need to make a music video. Everyone was getting scared, saying like, “oh, no, I'm not doing this,” so it ended up being just the director of photography on the camera and the gaffer-lighting guy. We went in and were like “what can we do?” Luckily, having the director of photography was useful because he understood more about perspective and diversifying a video, even though it was literally shot in two rooms.
Yeah well it definitely worked. It was a great video.
Thank you. It was really low budget. I'm quite good at organizing things, so I had this running order of what we were going to do, to minimize wasted time. I set up, you know, the scenes and the backdrops and helped everyone understand what I was going for. I also did a treatment of how I wanted the video to look, which was really ambitious and acted as a guide for what we were trying to achieve. Yeah, we winged it, but it was fine. If you put passion into something, I think it can be quality regardless of the budget.
Do you play a big part in the creative process behind like your album art and things like that? I love the cover art for Cosmic Blues.
The previous art for Nighthawks and Blue Melon was done by me, but the work for all my Cosmic Blues related releases were all made by the same artist from Brazil, Pedro Correa.
The process started off with me going on Pinterest and making a board for inspiration. I went and wrote this very long email to [Pedro] about all the things that I wanted, and he came back with this silhouette-like figure, you know, of me looking out into space. I didn't like it. I ended up taking a picture of myself in this room doing exactly the position that I wanted on the cover, so I was definitely quite involved in the direction. That said, I do really like seeing the ideas that other people bring to the table as well. It’s definitely a balance between not trying to take over, while still having creative direction.
Out of curiosity, you know, is there anything special you do to prepare for like studio sessions or performances?
Oh, yeah, I think for the studio - or rather, for both - I kind of like trying to make it really easy. I usually have loads of teas... like herbal teas, and baths. So I do that and I try to sleep. Very important, just basic life stuff hahaha.
What can we expect from Shunaji in the future?
In the short term, I have a few collabs coming up. I've got to work with some really interesting producers, who I won’t name cause I don't kiss and tell. I also have remixes of each of the songs on Cosmic Blues, and we’re going to release them as a remix EP. I haven’t done anything like that before, so it’s new to me as well.
In the longer term, I'm planning out my debut album. I'm thinking about how that's going to be, and what it's going to sound like. But I’m going to take it really slow because I don’t want to put too much pressure on the timing of the release. I’m just kind of riding the wave and taking it step by step, because obviously we're in a time where it's harder to make plans.
Any plans to go on tour in the future?
I just had a chat with my agent and we've moved all my festival bookings to next year. So if those places and spaces are open and safe, I’ll be there. Then I'll probably be doing a summer festival tour. Right now it's all about continuing to put out new stuff so that I can actually inspire new audiences in different places.
Typically the way that it works is that you start off opening for people or doing a support tour in different regions, which helps you get exposure to different types of audiences. From that point on, they’ll see you and hopefully you'll get your own tour. I’m just hindered right now, because there aren’t as many concerts, so I don’t get that exposure to different live audiences. I’m focused on trying to figure out how to put myself out there and get new listeners without touring.
For those seeking to go into the music industry, is there a piece of advice you can give that you think would resonate with them?
Definitely take your time before you go public. I can be very instinctive and I just do whatever and I don't really overthink. And that's the extreme route. But I think, if you have patience and really plan ahead, there are a lot of things that you can do for your career even without releasing any music. There’s a bit of pressure (especially from social media) to jump right into doing things, but in reality if you need a few years before you’re ready to put out music, that's fine. And that's something that I'm learning to accept now myself. So don’t pressure yourself with deadlines - just take it easy, build your creative practice and then go.