Shaolinn interview: meet the Virginia Beach singer making emotional R&B from SoundCloud beats

When it comes to songs with emo­tion­al gut punch­es, Shaolinn is a young mas­ter at work.

Hail­ing from Vir­ginia Beach in the US, this 20-year-old singer-song­writer and her emo­tion­al­ly-charged R&B – about her strug­gles with bul­ly­ing, inti­mate rela­tion­ships and self-accep­tance – is noth­ing short of mes­meris­ing. ‘Heavy Heart’ sim­mers with the kind of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that many artists old­er than her strug­gle to express, and she hits you with a poet­ic flow that makes its bit­ter­sweet­ness all the more irresistible.

Shaolinn is the kind of artist that you can imag­ine being on the iPod (okay, Spo­ti­fy playlist!) of Zendeya’s MJ from the Spi­der-Man films. She’s wit­ty, she’s obser­vant, and she tells it like it is, even if that’s uncom­fort­able at times.

And while her name bares a con­nec­tion to the Wu-Tang Clan – so named by her moth­er – her songs are more akin to the psy­che­del­ic sto­ries of Odd Future alum­ni Frank Ocean and The Inter­net, with a touch of Mary J Blige.

Fol­low­ing the recent release of her spec­tac­u­lar EP, Black­stone, we want­ed to find out more about Shaolinn and how she goes about mak­ing her music. She told us a bit about her writ­ing process, how she found songs for the EP, and what’s next for her.

What’s life like for you at the moment?
Shaolinn: It’s great! Work­ing on a lot of music for my new projects.

You recent­ly dropped your sec­ond EP, Black­stone. And it’s real­ly some­thing. Right from the start, you hit lis­ten­ers with the apt­ly-named ‘Heavy Heart’, and open up about the dif­fi­cul­ties you’ve faced grow­ing up (bul­ly­ing, feel­ing uncom­fort­able in your own skin, not feel­ing secure in cer­tain rela­tion­ships). Where did this song start?
The song start­ed with all the feel­ings that I had built up from my time in high school mainly.

‘Heavy Heart’ sets the tone well for the rest of Black­stone, which explores the kinds of rela­tion­ship strug­gles and inse­cu­ri­ties we’ve all felt at some point. What was the process like for you express­ing all this stuff? And what (or who) gave you the courage to do so?
The courage was already there to talk about it, but who brought it out was the pro­duc­er [Sto­ic Beats] who named the beat ‘Heavy Heart’ and set the tone for me to fol­low. I hon­est­ly didn’t want to put it out, but my man­ag­er loved the song and encour­aged me to share it on the EP.

Let’s take things back a bit now. What got you into mak­ing music to start with?
ROCK BAND! The first Rock Band on PlaySta­tion 2 got me into music, and ever since then I’ve been con­stant­ly hog­ging up the micro­phone. I got into rock music, I got into per­form­ing, and that got me into writ­ing for myself. That start­ed with poems and then the poems turned into songs.

Where does song­writ­ing typ­i­cal­ly begin for you?
I most­ly freestyle and record in my voice mem­os. All of my songs are lit­er­al­ly in my voice mem­os and they all stem from there. I rarely, rarely write. For me, when I do write, it makes the process a lit­tle harder.

And, lyri­cal­ly, how do you like to approach song­writ­ing? A song like ‘Frank’ has a lot of poet­ic mag­ic to it. Espe­cial­ly the verse: “I wan­na be the Frank to your ocean… Maybe take the cur­rent off to bet­ter days”
I freestyled that whole song. There was no idea already laid out. I found the beat. Played five sec­onds. Knew I loved it. Restart­ed it. And just did it.

Vocal­ly, you have a beau­ti­ful, melod­ic reg­is­ter, as heard in ‘Heavy Heart’ and oth­er songs. For us, it brings to mind Syd of The Inter­net with a jazz­i­er edge. Who are some of the vocal­ists who’ve inspired you?
A lot of artists inspire me. I don’t real­ly have any spe­cif­ic vocal­ist. It’s fun­ny though because a lot of peo­ple com­pare me to artists I rarely lis­ten to, but I do like The Inter­net, though.

Tell us a bit about the pro­duc­tion on Black­stone. The rhythms are tru­ly deli­cious – soul­ful, blend­ed gui­tar riffs that get you nod­ding along to the beat (‘Heavy Heart’, ‘Frank’), some I’m‑in-charge-now trap tones (‘Lie 4 Me’), and melan­choly loops (‘Flow­ers’). Who did you work with?
I didn’t work with any­one in per­son. I just found music that inspired me on Sound­cloud and YouTube, made songs I loved, and then my team and I curat­ed the project.

What was the tough­est moment for you in the cre­ation of Black­stone? And what was the best moment?
The tough­est moment was mak­ing ‘Heavy Heart’, because I tend to not sit down and write a lot. It’s a lot to dive into all of those feel­ings and memories.

The best moment was mak­ing ‘Frank’ and ‘Flow­ers’. I fell in love with ‘Frank’ the first time I heard it and would lis­ten to it on repeat. ‘Flow­ers’ I made in an Airbnb in Atlanta, in the mid­dle of the night, before win­ning the Revolt Summit’s Be Heard competition.

How do you feel now the project is com­plete? And what’s next for you?
I’m just real­ly hap­py that it’s out. It’s been a long time wait­ing and I’m ready to move on and share all of the music I’ve been mak­ing in the meantime.

Final­ly, can you rec­om­mend some­thing you’ve read, watched or lis­tened to that’s inspired you, taught you some­thing new or just kept you going recent­ly?
All and all, new friends that have been inspir­ing me to be a bet­ter per­son and shar­ing their per­son­al inspi­ra­tions that encour­age me to try new things in life.

Black­stone by Shaolinn is avail­able to stream now on all major stream­ing ser­vices on Her Wave Music. You can fol­low Shaolinn on Insta­gram and Twit­ter.

Images: Malik Emmanuel (main), Riley Robins (body)