Singer-Songwriter Shay Lia Is Spreading Love on Her Own Terms
Shanice Dileita Mohamed, known by her stage name Shay Lia, delves deep into the complexity of human emotions through her music, inviting her listeners to reflect upon the nuances of love and vulnerability.
Much of her musical inspiration is derived from her eclectic cultural background. Shay was born in France but moved to the East African country Djibouti at a young age. Upon moving to Djibouti she immediately felt like she did not fit in. This feeling of otherness lead to self-exploration journey that greatly influenced her early years as an artist. She spent much of her childhood watching YouTube videos, where she learned about new genres, music production, and artists all over the globe, and eventually posted her own covers, which garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
In 2012, Lia moved to Montreal to study communications at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She was largely influenced by the R&B community in Montreal and her personal YouTube content galvanized the attention of local artists and music producers, one of whom was Kaytranda. After meeting with Kaytranda, who later became a frequent collaborator, she was able to kickstart her career as a songwriter by writing “Leave Me Alone” for Kaytranda’s 2016 album 99.9%. One year later Lia made her solo debut with the release of Blue, a single produced by Kaytranada and BADBADNOTGOOD.
Lia released her solo debut EP Dangerous in 2019, which quickly attracted international attention and received a nomination for the 2019 Polaris Music Prize. Later in the year, she was invited to perform at Coachella and AfroPunk, two of the most renown music festivals in the world, though they were her first times performing on stage. Later in the year, she had her first mini-tour around Europe, during which she performed in Berlin, Paris, and London.
In the three years since her debut single, Lia’s music has become globally recognized for its soulful melodies and vulnerable messages. Inspired by her multi-cultural identity, her music continue to expand across genres and sounds.
The R&B singer spoke with The Folklore about her career path, the inspiration behind her work, and the message she seeks to convey to her listeners.
How did your upbringing in France and Djibouti influence your work?
My work is tied to my identity and my identity is tied deeply to my origin story and the duality of my experience. I was born in France to parents that are in an interracial relationship. We moved when I was young and I was raised in Djibouti. I was never afforded the opportunity to copy anyone because there was nowhere for me to “fit in”. I had to affirm my identity my own way, while being raised in an otherworldly, soul-stirring environment that inspired so much curiosity. This experience influenced my work and my methodology.
Tell us about some of your early work, and how it changed when you relocated to Montreal. How did the R&B scene there impact you and shape you as a musician while you were in college?
When I arrived in Montreal to study communications in 2012, I discovered what it was to have a community that shared my passion for music. I met all these artists, producers and singers. It was a revelation for me. I wrote my first song in Montreal after meeting Kaytranada. He liked my voice and suggested working together. I said yes to him not knowing I could write a song. When I did it, it was a VOILA moment. With Kaytranada, I really practiced my songwriting. He would send me batches of beats and I would write demos for fun - and then “Leave Me Alone” came to life. After that release, I realized I could really make it my job but I had to finish my studies. I kept writing but I didn’t start my career until I was done with college. I knew I needed the right team and the right plans. These years of practice, self discovery and the success of the few songs I released gave me enough confidence to envision my own career. I’m grateful to Montreal for this.
As a song-writer, where do you draw inspiration for your music? Walk us through your song-writing process.
My methodology starts with me tapping into my emotions and the human condition. I also get a lot of inspiration from the instrumentals I choose to write to. That’s why I’m very particular about the beats used and why I’m the one deciding when it comes to my music, I’m producing from a high level. It has to be genuine, I have to love the beat and feel the excitement when I play it. Then I usually take a minute to visualize and pray that I will create the right song so it can be mine! It’s a spiritual experience for me. You can love a beat but if you don’t write the song that beat was meant for, then it will go to someone else who will do it and that’s fair enough. There can’t be ego here, I have to focus on the art.
After selecting the beat I always start free-styling to it. It’s my favorite part of the process; exploring with my voice and getting lost in the music, finding the tone, the main emotion, trying all kinds of things until I get butterflies in my stomach. When the butterflies come, that’s when I know I have a good melody, a potential verse, or hook. Then I listen to what I’ve recorded and try to select the best part then I structure everything into a song. Then I usually work on the lyrics after that.
For me, approaching a beat with melodies first makes it all more organic than starting with set lyrics and trying to make them fit into an instrumental. It’s a more cerebral experience for me. Once the lyrics are done, I like to go into the studio. I like the studio empty so that the energetic exchange is just between me and the engineer or other producers.
What message do you seek to convey to your listeners through your music?
Messages of love and vulnerability. The complexity of human emotions. I’m highly sensitive and I try to convey that in my music. My favorite topic is, and will always be, love. Love is endless and has so many facets. Love of self, of others, of nature. Or anger that comes as a result of love. I also want women to feel good when they listen to my music. I want them to sing and dance to it, to be soulful with it. I write from my point of view, one that is often very feminine. I try to give people and myself a sense of warmth through my songs to convey the comfort that music has continued to give me since I was young.
Leave Me Alone (2016) was your breakout single. Tell us more about how you felt when the song hit the charts and your experience performing it at Coachella.
Leave Me Alone was truly Kaytranada’s moment more than anything and I was the singer and songwriter that worked with him. It didn’t really change my life but it definitely let people know that I was here and gave me the confidence that I had a talent as a writer and could potentially make a career of it.
Coachella is a cherished memory for me and it reinforced my newfound confidence at the time. I still can’t believe I went on this huge stage and sang Leave Me Alone for Kaytranada right before DJ Khaled’s show. After this, I knew I could do it even though it all felt unreal. Going back to school the following Monday was depressing but I knew that I couldn’t ignore my abilities and passions anymore. I took my time and I’m glad I did. Since then, my foundation has been getting stronger everyday and now it’s just a matter of practice, consistency, cultivating a good team and honoring my intuition.
Your performances have this electric energy and undertones of funk. What do you seek to convey as a performer?
I’m a naturally shy person so performing is always incredibly exhausting and demanding. It’s something I’m still working on and will probably work to improve all my life. You can’t fake experience when it comes to this part of the job, you have to do it again and again small stages, big stages, in front of 10 people one day and 10,000 people the day after. I just try to let my natural energy come through.
I always loved dancing, since I was a baby and that definitely comes out in my show. My family didn’t know I could sing but I would dance all day everyday. Dance is a very natural form of expression for me, it’s also something I want to explore more. I want to be able to convey love, fun, authenticity throughout my performance. I’m working really hard on this part right now. I have a lot to give and I seek togetherness when I perform. I want to feel close to the people watching me. Music heals and artists are the messengers, so shows are an important moment to be all together and go through these emotions together.
Tell us a little about your style and your creative aesthetic.
It’s natural for me to be feminine and sensual. I grew up in Djibouti so I’m all about the colors of the sun. Warmth and energy can be conveyed with beautiful fabrics. The French part of me loves simplicity–good cuts and beautiful jewelry. Really though, it’s all about confidence no matter what I wear. What matters is how I feel and move in the clothes, I don’t let them wear me. I’m really into skin care too so I’m all about beautiful skin, big hair, big smile …Voilà!
Words by Livia Caligor