Girl, the London-raised singer and songwriter’s spectacular second EP, is the result of a two year quest to capture her unique identity. A fresh, organic blend of electronics and acoustic instruments, the five tracks may be steeped in tradition, but could only have been written by a young woman in today’s time of great transition.
Built on a twitchy tabla beat, lead single ‘Girl’ was inspired by the #MeToo movement, but deals in the personal as much as the political, while planting one foot on the dancefloor.
“I don’t know one woman my age who hasn’t been harassed at work,” says Shaefri. “Just thinking about the scale of the problem is almost too much to take in.”
Both the slinky ‘Kerosene’ and sinuous ‘23’ ride bewitching Middle Eastern rhythms while telling tales of twentysomethings navigating new territory. The former is a tempestuous track about standing together to help a friend exit an abusive relationship; the latter captures a generation facing a future unlike any before it.
“Girl is me trying to find my place in the world,” says Shaefri. “No one prepares you for adulthood. In terms of self-development, it’s a terrifying time.
“But it’s also exciting, not knowing what’s coming next. Some of the themes on Girl are quite dark and serious, but sonically, it’s all upbeat and uplifting. I’m not wallowing in what’s gone wrong. I’m addressing issues and actual events that are affecting my generation. Talking about them gets them out in the open, which is where solutions arise.”
Nowhere on Girl is that clearer than on sensual, yet strident opener ‘Say You’ll Be There’, an ode to support networks and speaking out penned after losing a friend.
“I’m cautious of bringing up mental health because it has become such a click bait topic,” says Shaefri. “Most people suffer from depression sometimes, myself included. It’s how you handle it that matters. The song is about communication, about both sides reaching out.”
Recorded between London, Paris and Montreal with the Canadian/Caribbean producer Traxx, Girl marks Shaefri’s move in to the mainstream after her acclaimed debut EP, 2017’s Cracks, which explored the dark side of love and was described as “divine” and “a breath of fresh air” by the likes of Clash, DIY and Hot Press and had several of its songs, notably lead single Pixelate, played on Amazing Radio, Radio X and RTE.
Where Cracks was intimate, raw and atmospheric, its lyrics delivered as though revealing secrets, Girl is brightly-textured and addictively melodic, favouring more straightforward story-telling, brisker beats and real instruments. In short, it’s the sound of Shaefri growing up.
“I wasn’t in a great place mentally when I wrote Cracks and that definitely came across,” says Shaefri. “Every interview I did, I’d be asked if I was okay.
“I’d messed up at school and been through some awful relationships. I’d been trialled by a publisher to be signed as a writer and fucked that up. I’d run away to Ireland for a year to try to work out what I wanted from life. I wasn’t even sure if I should be making music.
“The reaction to Cracks changed that. I knew I’d found my calling and that gave me confidence. By the time the EP came out, I was much happier, despite promoting these dark, introspective songs.”
Eager to move on, Shaefri took time out to find a new sound. Her ambition was to mix the music she grew up on with more modern influences, which proved harder than she had expected.
“There were lots of false starts,” says Shaefri. “Trying to push two genres together doesn’t work. It has to be effortless. I had lots of sessions with producers who didn’t understand that. At one, I ended up making ‘70s-style reggae, wondering what on earth was going on.
“At another, I was put in the studio with six French trap musicians. They spoke no English and my French is terrible. It was hilarious. They were making beats that weren’t my vibe and I was singing lyrics in to Google Translate.”
It was meeting Traxx that finally got Girl underway. On their first day together in Montreal, they came close to the sound Shaefri had in her head. On the second, they wrote Girl and the project clicked in to place.
“Traxx came in with this fantastic tabla beat and I started singing over it,” recalls Shaefri. “#MeToo was taking off and I was angry at why all these stories had taken so long to come out and what was being done to change the situation.
“With ‘Girl’, we both knew straight away that we’d nailed it. It had all the sonic elements I’d wanted, but it sounded natural. Plus it was a song that had something to say.”
Two months later, the pair reconvened in Paris then London to complete Girl, which closes with the lively ‘Home’, a celebration of Shaefri’s new-found happiness.
“’Home’ is about being with someone who makes you smile, not necessarily a partner, maybe a friend or family member,” says Sheafri. “It’s a banger for me, a song to just let go to. Recording it reminded me of nights out in Mayo.”
Brought up in West London by an Irish mother and a half-Egyptian, music-mad dad, Shaefri was taught to play recorder almost as soon as she could speak – her dad has a collection of 20 different types of the dreaded instrument, which Shaefri’s siblings also had to learn. By six she was playing clarinet and piano.
Her first stage performance was aged 10, playing in a family recorder ensemble at London’s Bush Hall and wishing the ground would swallow her up. Nevertheless, she was writing her own songs by 12 and, at 15, formed a band for a school competition with the jokey name of PEN 15, playing Chase & Status covers.
Despite failing her music A-level, Shaefri was determined to pursue songwriting, having spent her summers in Mayo singing in pubs and regularly visiting family in the Middle East, where she fell in love with Tunisian music in particular. She spent a year alone in Dublin playing open-mic nights and going to gigs, before returning to London, where she reconnected with two members of her former school band hoping to become producers, with whom she recorded Cracks.
A chance meeting with the owner of Because Music resulted a distribution deal with Believe and led Shaefri to Paris, where she was asked to sing on a Nelson Mandela documentary soundtrack, which also featured Beyonce, and later found herself recording vocals for the German producer Fabrich’s dance hit Hundred (featuring Jae Fly & Shaefri).
She recorded with over a dozen producers before clicking with Traxx.
“As challenging as it was, in retrospect, it was all good experience,” says Sheafri. “You have to learn to roll with the lows and speak up when you don’t like something.
“I’m not a naturally authoritative person, but when they’re your songs, it’s your show. I know I succeeded because when I hear Girl, I hear me and the music I grew up with. I don’t think these songs could be by anyone else.”