Interview: Shantilly on authenticity, toxic gender roles and the influence of horror movies on the video for their new single ‘Cool Girl’

I always wanna be the cool girl 
Don’t worry ‘bout me it’s all up to you, girl  
I live in the dark
it’s all my heart 
I swallow my pride 
I swallow time 
I keep it inside 
It’s all that I hide 
It’s all about pride
My ego and pride 

Everybody always wants to be the cool girl
Don’t worry ’bout me it’s all going smooth girl 
Don’t show them you cry
Don’t tell them you mind 
Don’t show them, your brain 
Cool girls don’t feel pain 
Smile can hide 
The power of divine 
Just let them define
Who you are outside  

As they prepare to release their new single ‘Cool Girl’, Los Angeles based nonbinary singer, songwriter and producer Shantilly speaks with John Clay about the track, its video and the societal context into which it is being released.

John Clay: Firstly, well done on what you’ve achieved in your new single. The progression of the track, the gradual introduction of the guitars and the eventual reveal of the lyrical promise. Let’s introduce you to the readers with some clarifications. In your last interview you described yourself as a ‘Black Queer revolutionary and artist, a product of my experiences and the world around me.’ How has your self awareness grown since that statement? 

Shantilly: I really love this question. I realised that it takes a lot more to be a revolutionary & I can only hope to be worthy of that title one day. The world we’re in is definitely imploding around us. Outside of music, I spend a lot of time helping out various mutual aid groups & unions in LA. But there’s genuinely so much work to be done & I never feel like I’m using my time as wisely or generously as I could be. I’m also really not sure how one combines art with political action, I find most attempts to be performative & hollow, so I prefer to keep them somewhat separate. Like, my viewpoint as a person living on many intersections (Black, Queer, etc) is often political, but I don’t view my art as a revolutionary or radical act. It’s self expression that I hope can bring people catharsis. 

After that interview, I almost quit music because I felt like I needed to dedicate my life to community organising. But I found myself getting burned out very quickly without that creative outlet. Now, organising is taking a backseat while I put out new music & plan my upcoming tour. I hope I can figure out a way to do both. I look up to folks like Noname & the members of Rage Against the Machine who manage to do that. 

Fascinating answer, one which reminds me of a recent conversation about authenticity in music. A post-structuralist would argue that the search for validity via a flawless authentic construct is fruitless. Once a camera is turned on, or a tape machine is set to record, everything presented by the artist is therefore a performance. What do you make of this, and how does it impact the presentation of actions by an artist concerned with marginalisation? 

I try not to worry about being “authentic”, it’s more of a calculated and performed honesty. I hope to be able to communicate what I’m saying as accurately as possible and use whatever media to my advantage. I think I’ve microdosed fame multiple times throughout my life. I had a Tumblr account with 10k & my twitter was once at 20k, I tried really hard to always be authentic on these platforms, but I think some things should be kept to yourself & chasing authenticity is, like you said, a fruitless effort. You have to learn to edit yourself & persona, for the sake of your sanity as an artist, but also because platforms come with responsibility. When I’m talking about things like my mental health or my experiences as a nonbinary person, I don’t wanna worry people or accidentally share my unconscious biases. I think everything should be calculated and processed to present a persona that you can be proud of, communicates your points, & is hopefully entertaining. 

I know that as a marginalised person I’m always gonna be seen as the spokesperson for my various identities & people will take out their unconscious and conscious biases on me. I used to be a lot more reckless with the things I said on the internet & there are plenty of things I wish I could take back or clarify that I know will always be attached to me now. It’s human to make these sorts of mistakes & I’m trying to be gentle with myself as I learn and grow. So that’s why I take a more calculated approach to my art & also my persona as an artist. 

Healthy statements and sentiments all round there. Nice. We’ll get to talking about your cool ‘Cool Girl’ release, particularly your identity as a non binary artist in a world of pop with such a long cis-het history and all its supporting lexicon. Before we delve into that chat, tell me (and your audience) how your work is going on Poli? How has your life through a series of love songs been going? Did the project morph into this years’ upcoming EP This Is The End, or is it a separate project?

Poli has definitely morphed into This Is The End. Poli’s original concept was a meditation on love from the perspective of all the people I’ve loved in my life from friends to family to romantic relationships. But as I continued to work on it & I realised I wanted to create something a little darker & more from my standpoint. This Is The End is more about how our past & the world we live in impacts our relationships & how all of that can really come out during a breakup. I’ve found every project usually goes through different stages and multiple names as it becomes itself. I started therapy, moved to another city, experienced a lot of relationships ending and beginning throughout this process and I think that reflects in the changes made to the EP itself.

On that note, can you tell us about the origin of ‘Cool Girl’, presumably a track which was there in the early stages of crafting the EP?

‘Cool Girl’ was actually finished all in one day fairly recently & the last song I wrote for the EP. The other tracks were written in 2020. I just got out of therapy & I was discussing feeling blocked creatively. I try to sit down and work on something music related everyday & everything I was writing felt very…Blah. But my therapist told me to stop judging myself and just go for it. So I was messing around with my midi keyboard and came up with the chord progression. The drums came really easily & I finished the backing really fast. While I was doing all that, I started humming a melody & then I freestyled the lyrics, recorded them really quick and that was that. Then I thought of the confessional opening of another song I wrote (‘Youth‘, from my previous EP). So I played the song back and spoke about where my head was at that day. ‘Cool Girl’ really just appeared out of thin air & I thought…yeah this has to be my first single. 

Cover art for Shantilly's 2022 single 'Cool Girl' - the singer with their face splattered with blood

It certainly sounds like a mission statement. Is it fair to say that the arrangement has more dynamic than anything off the previous EP? Not that your material is in competition with itself. Or perhaps it is? Feel free to reveal your songwriting philosophy in regards to a steadily growing body of work.

I hope it is! It took so long for me to put something out because I really wanted to show how much I’ve grown. I’ve learned how to play the piano & the guitar since then. I’ve learned a lot more about sound engineering, producing, writing etc etc etc. So I really hope my hard work shows. I also have an amazing team behind me on this one (I made Myth in my bedroom & did EVERYTHING myself). But for this one I had the AMAZING Daniel Gensel mix, master, & play guitar, my absolute gem of a manager Maja Groves pushing me in all aspects of my artistry & teaching me about the logistical aspects of the music industry & my very talented friend Matisse who played guitar for ‘Cool Girl’ & consulted me a lot during the songwriting process. I try not to be in competition with anyone and anything because I don’t find it healthy, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t constantly trying to outdo myself. My songwriting philosophy is just to challenge myself. Learn something new every day. Always look for opportunities for growth. 

It would be remiss not to discuss your history as a nonbinary artist and get your take on the use of language in ‘Cool Girl’. Is there a dissonance inherent to language in pop when taking our understanding and inclusivity of non binary folks into consideration? Or perhaps, do we have to check our internal bias at pop music’s door before settling into enjoying the music? Your thoughts, if you please. 

‘Cool Girl’ is a song I wrote as a goodbye to womanhood. It’s filled with frustration and angst. When I was trying to live up to the idea of “the cool girl” I was miserable. The Cool Girl shouldn’t be aspirational. The song is a warning. I definitely got worried thinking “wow people are really gonna misgender me because of this one” & I’ve definitely had a lot of people take the song to mean the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to. But I think that’s a risk you take as an artist. I’m honestly not too worried about it at this point. I trust my audience to understand. But yeah ‘Cool Girl’ represents the most toxic parts of the gender roles associated with womanhood. 

I think there’s a dissonance inherent to all art at this moment in time. You kind of fuck everything up when you make it about money. The most profitable is the most palatable and that’s usually what rises to the top. I think most of the things that are playing on the radio aren’t really subversive and are upholding white supremacy, heteronormativity etc etc etc.

We should be critical about the media we consume & we should also be critical of the internal biases that cloud our view of the world and the music we listen to. 

Are there particular genres which embolden white supremacy and heteronormativity that you steer clear of, and are there tracks which you like despite the ethos which tends to obscure or downright deny your experience? 

I think that it’s less of a genre issue and more of a money thing. The music industry revolves around money & the only way to achieve extreme amounts of capital is to uphold capitalistic values. I guess it’s a shaky bridge I’ll have to cross when I get there, but for now I’m just doing my best to pay my rent. There are a lot of very catchy tracks that I like that are problematic to say the least. I try not to listen to them too often but you know, I love a catchy hook as much as the next person if not more. I think as long as we’re critical, try not to internalise it & spend time educating ourselves & committing time to practising what we learn (mutual aid) then I hope we’ll be okay. 

Shantilly covered in blood holding up their middle finger

Perhaps the trick is to be contextual? Do we rethink our relationship to the music when listening to it alone or do you believe that it’s impossible to separate the art from the artist? Isn’t there a danger of our private lives being under the watch of our own thought police? 

Art exists in a context that is almost always inseparable from the artist. There are some artists who have done things so horrible that I honestly can’t ignore it when I listen to them. It kind of spoils it for me. There are some that I listen to in private and don’t stream as to not send any more money their way. 

When it comes to the thought police I think we should definitely kill the cops in our heads. But that doesn’t mean we are then free to live our lives without thinking about the impacts of our actions, even our private ones. Everything is nuanced!

You’re right on the topic of nuance, an easy variable that gets left out of discourse, particularly online when discussing art. How did you go about the visualisation of the ‘Cool Girl’ video? Considering the horrific elements, were there any second thoughts in its creation?

I knew when I wrote ‘Cool Girl’ I wanted to lean all the way into its horror/thriller inspiration. I was really fascinated by the way femininity is treated in horror films & the ways that marginalised folks have used horror as a metaphor for their experiences being oppressed. So I started watching every horror movie I could find that fit into this subgenre. I took a lot of notes & was trying to teach myself basic film theory off of YouTube videos. It was a really fun process. There were never any second thoughts the more I researched the more inspired and empowered I was to make it happen. 

The shots are well done and flow together well. Care to talk about the clear nod to Gone Girl or would that be one deconstructive question too far?

I just really love that movie! I remember hearing the ‘Cool Girl’ monologue somewhere & had to know where it came from & the movie was really great. There’s something really satisfying about a woman getting revenge and being that level of evil. It felt like the first time I saw the way misogyny made me feel on film. It’s the jumping off point for the song & the music video. 

Is there a chance that the misreading of Tyler Durden in Fight Club as being the model to style oneself on could be repeated with Amy in Gone Girl? Intriguing that both films share the same director, each movie spotlighting an extremist personality that is the result of a larger societal toxicity.

I feel like I could write a doctoral thesis answering this question, but I’ll keep it short for now. I don’t think the reception & cultural impact of the two movies are really different. Most of the things I see about Amy are telling people to not look up to her. When Fight Club came out, people weren’t talking about things like toxic masculinity in the same way they are in 2023. 

True, Tyler was seen to be more of a lifestyle guide than a cautionary tale, the buyers being the very men who would go on to form red pill and incel groups citing the ‘cool girl’ as public enemy No.1. This begs the question as to the reception of extremist characters in fiction now as opposed to twenty plus years ago. Global conversation has evolved and yet, the division in worldwide culture let alone our news platforms has markedly increased. How these characters transport their subject matter downstream to pop culture has changed, yes? More subjects for another interview with you hopefully. For now, do tell us about the release date of your EP and what plans you have for your live shows. Or/and, feel free to remark on a few of the former cultural points before wrapping up with your release and live show updates!

As of right now the release date of the EP is up in the air. It was slated for March 10 but I feel really lost on how to promote it. I think with everything going on in the world right now it can feel really strange to put out music. Everything feels so dire and heavy. I’m hoping I’ll have something figured out by April. I’ve got two shows in San Fran & Austin Texas on the books right now. I’m in talks with other venues. The hope is to be putting out music and performing it all 2023. But I’m also already feeling burnt out by the state of the world and all the work it takes being an indie artist. So I guess all I have to say is only time will tell and I hope folks will stick around for the journey!

Your music really is worth listening to and there’s never a right time to release a piece of art. Arguably, it’s during the seemingly worst times that an artist can offer some respite or other perspective, so, please put your work out there when you get a chance. Considering how much you question the role of your art during late stage capitalism – well – that’s a good sign. You’re not just putting anything out there, and for a lot of us that’s definitely the bottom line for our desire to follow you on your journey.

Cool Girl’ is out now across all streaming platforms.

Find out more about Shantilly and stream their music and videos here

Interview by John Clay:

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