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