On ‘NYMPH,’ the artist melds love, lust, and folklore to create a mythology for the modern day
First and foremost, Shygirl is a storyteller.
With her long-anticipated debut album NYMPH, the UK-based DJ, rapper, singer, and lyricist has established a world where fairytale mythology and London’s underground clubs meet. The idea of weaving fantasy and imagination into reality is one that stemmed from Shygirl’s passion for fantasy books growing up. “I always liked this idea that you can make your world reality through your words,” she says.
It’s useless to try to confine Shygirl’s music to one category, as it dips into a handful of subgenres: club, grime, hyperpop, industrial hip-hop. But across her discography there is a thread of overt sexuality, acting as what feels like a reclamation of eroticism for women. NYMPH continues this theme. There’s the lustful lullaby “Coochie (a bedtime story),” with its lyrics, “Sticky and sweet, it’s too good to be true / Thinking ’bout the coochie, gotta get the coochie coo.” The album’s lead single “Firefly” is a highlight; Shygirl sings, “I guess I need to hear the truth this time / You kept me waiting on a lie,” over a poppy beat—the epitome of a song you’d want to hear on the dance floor of a club.
Hours before NYMPH’s release, Shygirl released a music video for “Shlut,” which at times feels like stepping into a medieval erotica. In a cabin in the woods, Shygirl gazes into the camera seductively wearing a white teddy, as a man presses up against her and kisses her all over.
Shygirl works to create spaces for herself where they don’t exist. She and Atiena Riollet played a huge supporting role in the creation of PDA, a cult East London club night founded by friends Mischa Mafia, DJ Larry B, and Crackstevens, which intends to give non-binary and queer people a space to express themselves. Shygirl also co-founded the record label and collective NUXXE along with fellow musicians Oklou, Sega Bodega, and Coucou Chloe.
Ahead of her debut album, Shygirl has already collaborated with a handful of big names, including FKA twigs and slowthai. She’s also garnered attention from the likes of Rihanna—who’s used various NUXXE tracks in Fenty fashion shows and advertising—and Lady Gaga, who featured Shygirl on a track on the remix album Dawn of Chromatica.
On NYMPH, Shygirl looks to the past to inform her own evolution—bringing the record’s mythical namesake, and herself, into the present tense.
Madeleine Beck: Where did the album name NYMPH come from?
Shygirl: I was going to call a song ‘Nymph,’ and then I decided I didn’t want to finish it. But I had a really strong affinity with the word—I didn’t want to let it go.
There are already so many stories [centered on the word nymph], and I feel like I’m adding to that. The image of a nymph that I’ve read about—this elusive, alluring being, something connected with nature, beautiful in essence and presence—I wanted to add a modern look at it, something that wasn’t antiquated. I think a lot of the album was about existing in the present tense. And for me, what it means to be that today; what it means to be sensitive, desirable, sexual—all those things that encompass what this ‘nymph’ being is.
“The album was about existing in the present tense. And for me, what it means to be that today; what it means to be sensitive, desirable, sexual—all those things that encompass what this ‘nymph’ being is.”
Madeleine: How does NYMPH differentiate itself from your earlier work?
Shygirl: I think it’s a natural progression for me as a songwriter, for how I’m honing my taste as a musician. It really is a time capsule of where I’m at currently. And also the effects of putting out my other two EPs; once I released ALIAS, there was a perception of me, and I could hear that perception: that people considered me to be this strong, assertive, confident, sexual woman. I wanted to add more to that story, a bit more of the depth that exists in reality.
Madeleine: There’s an irony in the juxtaposition between your confident, strong persona, and the name ‘Shygirl.’ Is that an intentional move, to tease at those layers?
Shygirl: I was DJing with a friend of mine, and she thought of the name. But when I started making music, I didn’t think I was gonna be making music seriously—so I just used that name. Then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy almost; you name a child without knowing exactly what they’re going to do, but they tend to grow into their name. And I feel like Shygirl kind of did that. Sometimes I want to be shy, but it’s not all the time. You can’t be one thing all the time—well, I can’t, anyway. I think it naturally made a space for me to immediately subvert that and all the other stereotypes that I’ve existed within.
Madeleine: Your music has already caught the attention of big names like Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Does that elicit any kind of pressure for you?
Shygirl: My journey in music has been completely unprescribed; I didn’t have clear goals when I started. There may be some now, but at the time it was really just organic, and it was me following the thread of my interests and trying to uncover if I would be good at it. I don’t really feel any pressure in terms of my peers. I never really was a massive fan of anyone. There are people, in hindsight, who I realize influenced me, but I really just focus on music and not so much the people or the celebrity around it. I was probably more of a stan for actors than musicians [laughs].
I feel incredibly blessed that I’ve been able to talk to people like Björk and FKA twigs and SOPHIE and Arca, and have been really nurtured by them and affirmed. You might not reach out for affirmation, but when you get it, it works. Having people who you respect say that they like your music when you’re just following what feels instinctive—that’s a really affirmational process.
Madeleine: What impacts do collaborations have on your songwriting or creative process?
Shygirl: It’s nice to experiment [collaboratively], without the constraints of what I’m trying to deliver.
But I still felt like I had something to assert in my own narrative with this record, especially because it’s in a slightly different sonic direction to what people would have expected. I wanted to almost prove that it was my own, and that it wasn’t influenced by another vocalist. This was what I needed to say, and how I needed to say it.
Madeleine: Were there non-musical influences that informed the album?
Shygirl: I’m always referencing film; with ‘Coochie,’ the films that I was thinking about at the time were Grease and The NeverEnding Story and Princess Bride.
Loads of people ask me how London and the club scene influence me, but honestly, it’s the times I leave that I get to have a space to reflect on how I’m interacting with the world as a whole, and my place within it, and what is important to me. It’s only in these vast spaces—like in Joshua Tree, or the countryside in Wales where I grew up visiting—that I have time to reflect.
“I’ve always felt unique, and that hasn’t always been comforting. It can be quite lonely to feel like you’re experiencing the world in a way that no one else is.”
[I’m inspired by] mythology and history, in terms of women who have been pushed into legend and the kinds of people we have admired and praised. There’s something I’m exploring as an undercurrent to my relationship with my artistry: this idea of the cult of something, and how we worship something, in a sense—not just artists, but also this method of making music and entertainment; how it’s something I’m so drawn to, and other people are, too. I think that’s why I like the mythology of the nymph, and the idea of this pagan worship.
Madeleine: Speaking of nymphs and mythology, I’ve heard that you grew up reading a lot of fantasy books. Are there any particular favorites?
Shygirl: There’s this book called Inkheart. It was super popular and they made a film out of it, but the film was so bad. But I always liked this idea that you can make your world reality through your words.
I love reading Thomas Hardy, and I like the relationship between realism and brutalism; brutalism was a big inspiration for this album, as well. And romanticism: this romanticism in art, like the relationship with nature and with us as humans. Sometimes I like that fantasy of being someone who can forge their own path within an unreal space. I think that’s kind of what I’ve tried to do with NYMPH—taking things that I relate to and reorganizing them in a space that feels entirely welcoming to me. Like, if I was the god of that space, what would it feel like and what would be the focus? My focus has always been love and emotions, and being provoked by my surroundings.
Madeleine: Do you think that fantasy books have influenced your personal and musical aesthetics?
Shygirl: Totally. I think I’m constantly trying to subvert what we consider to be real, and inject some of that fantasy into real life. Because ultimately, it is our imaginations that have conjured up this space. We have designed the reality that we live within, and we can constantly push the boundaries of it.
Madeleine: How has the club night PDA informed your work?
Shygirl: It gave me space to explore while being supported and surrounded by friends and. That’s invaluable, to have something like that.
Growing up with mixed heritage, I didn’t always identify with what was perceived as Blackness all the time; it’s been a journey for me. I didn’t know what I needed was Black queer spaces, because that’s actually the truest essence of how I identify. That is an experience so unique—having that and not knowing it was to be out there to be surrounded by. I felt so emboldened by finding other people like myself.
I think that’s something I always search for. I’ve always felt unique, and that hasn’t always been comforting. It can be quite lonely to feel like you’re experiencing the world in a way that no one else is. And I did feel like that for a lot of my childhood. The more I share of myself, the more I find people who relate to my experience. And that’s something that I really treasure in this whole process of sharing music.
Madeleine: You’ve talked about words being an important way for you to express yourself in various mediums. Can you talk about the significance that words have played in your life—on the day-to-day, or in different ways you’ve learned to communicate?
Shygirl: I’ve learned a bit of Spanish and a bit of French, but I found it really hard to let go; there’s a moment where you have to let go of being confident with words. I find that really difficult, because I hold a lot of my personality in my vocabulary. [There’s power in being] able to manipulate situations with your words. Manipulate always sounds bad, but it’s satisfying if I know I’m gonna say something to someone and they’re gonna respond in a certain way, or you’ve maneuvered the emotion of the room with your words. I think it’s so fun.