Shaun Ross is no stranger to the spotlight. From his rise to prominence as the first major fashion model with albinism, to his appearances in music videos for Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey, the dancer, model, actor and activist has, in his own words, “always had a very free mind and the urge to create”. With his debut album, SHIFT, released last month the multi-hyphenate turns his attention to the world of music.
SHIFT embodies movement and change, it is inspired by Shaun’s past and current relationships, his creative circle of companions, and his Bronx upbringing, where he would wake in the morning to the sound of his parents playing Björk, Everything but the Girl and Donna Hathaway. Thematically, the album shifts from loneliness to queer relationships and the artist’s experience of having albinism. Generically, it shifts from R&B to pop and spoken word. Threaded throughout, unchanging, is the unmistakeable and inimitable voice and vision of Shaun Ross. Join METAL as we chat with the artist about harnessing his vulnerability, pushing through his past and expressing the contents of his “mind, body and soul”.
Listening to some of your past interviews, I could immediately tell that it was from New York – I love the accent. Is that where you grew up? Do you still live there?
I was born and raised in the Bronx, New York, later on I lived through Europe but now I live in Los Angeles.
You got involved with dancing at six years old, so really young, and then started modelling at sixteen. You’ve since continued to dance, act, model and have been involved in activism. Add singing to your list of talents, and the result is a really talented individual. Where does this stem from? Is anybody in your family creative?
Everyone in my family is a creative. Limits were never placed on anyone but we were urged to be creative in all types of mediums. My parents always played eclectic music that allowed my teeth to grow so wide. I’ve always had a very free mind and the urge to create. I’m very happy for my upbringing and my family allowing me to do so.
You released your first music, Symmetry and Chrysalis, back in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but your debut album SHIFT seems like a more serious step into the industry. Has it always been your goal to make music, even while you were dancing and acting? What felt right about the current moment to make the ‘shift’?
To be very honest with you — no, I did not have any true love for making music. It was later on in life when my two close friends ADiV & Rush Davis, who are also artists, started to realise my taste in music, pushing me to eventually make my own. Throughout the years being around a lot of artist friends, I have learned a thing or two. One of my missions was that I wanted to give the world a true piece of work and to start a conversation about myself entering the music industry. As an artist you must consistently reinvent yourself and I truly feel as if it was the right time.
Do you find it easier to release music, given that you already have a platform to work with? Or perhaps it’s more difficult, given that people already have preconceived notions about you as an artist?
I can say it’s a little bit of both but I would rather talk about the more difficult side. I wouldn’t say it’s challenging all the way but it’s reinventing myself, which I think every artist in this world should know how to do to a great capacity. If you look at my album artwork, shot by my boyfriend David Alan Madrick, You will come to find out that it’s purposely been taken of the back of my head because I have been in the forefront for so long. All I want people to do is look at where I’m going versus where I am.
So let’s talk about your album’s name: SHIFT. The word is applicable on so many levels, to so many situations, which is something that comes across in your album. There’s obviously your own shift into the music industry, but certain tracks also deal with ‘shifting’ past old relationships, away from trauma through healing, and into new creative capabilities. What does SHIFT mean to you, in your own words?
I made this title before the pandemic occurred because I felt like the world needed to shift someplace new. We were existing safely in limbo, which I find not to be so good. I am 30 now and have this feeling of change that only I can describe. SHIFT for me is moving into one’s purpose. A lot of us just exist without realising why we are here before we are long gone. We must wake up to our purpose.
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You Care and Waterboy are the album’s two emotional pillars for me. Waterboy is particularly resonant, in part due to your haunting vocals on the track. It feels like a really candid glimpse into the experience of a queer relationship. Can I ask, why is it titled ‘waterboy’? What does that refer to?
I had dated a man from Louisiana who worked in the consulting business. Even though he was a great guy and very driven, he also had a lot of loose ends that weren’t tied up when it came to his self-confidence. I was dating a person who is in love with the image they were painting of themselves, rather than who they actually were on the inside.
Just like any other day in the studio with Mike Tritter, Carlos Chairez and Rush Davis, something is always been created. Rush and I knew the relationship very well, so the concept was about giving insight from an outside perspective on how I coped with dating a narcissist. Later on, the concept became about the story of Narcissus, how he was in love with his reflection in the water and eventually fell in and drowned. This concept was accompanied by the amazing production Mike and Carlos did, with an added Maxwell flare.
Waterboy is, however, only one moment of many in the album where you draw from your own vulnerability and experiences. In WX5, you deal with loneliness in a way that anyone who’s ever experienced it will immediately understand: “I’m the only one there for me. The TV’s the source of light”. Have you always been so emotionally in touch with yourself? Where does that come from?
I’ve always been inspired by the artists I grew up listening to, like Zero 7 and Sia in their song called DESTINY. I love how she painted the scene in the room and I wanted to do the same thing. We often drift in spaces that allow us to think, but sometimes they may not be the most quintessential, idealistic locations. During this time I felt very alone in my thoughts, which I found to be quite lovely to be honest with you.
To come at this vulnerability from another direction, most artists feel vulnerable after releasing their art into the world. Releasing a debut album seems like a particularly vulnerable, sometimes scary process. Do you get that feeling?
As a child growing up with albinism, I never had the idea to think about what people thought of me all the time, therefore why should I start now when it comes to my art?
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True! I’ve been lingering on SHIFT’s ‘deep’ moments so far, but it’s also got lots of uplifting moments, too. The track you created with Rush Davies, Cream, is one of them, with its groovy beat, layered flowy vocals and positive lyrics. It’s this combination of tracks that make you want to dance, and tracks that make you want to cry that gives the album its depth. Was this intentional?
100% intentional, and very happy! Originally the song was supposed to be for a project being created by Rush Davis and the producers of JEX records. Later on I got wind of the song and most definitely had to have it on my project. Cream paints so many different feelings, but one thing I love is that it represents exactly what I feel we’ve all been going through.
I was glad when I realised you had made music videos for Livin, You Care and WX5. You have quite a penchant for music videos, having acted in Beyoncé’s, Katy Perry’s and (where I first encountered you) as the Adam to Lana del Rey’s Eve in her short film, Tropico. How does it feel to return to making videos for your own songs?
Honestly, it’s a blessing to have a director like Anastasia Lebedeva Delmark and her creative eye. I sincerely love everything that she has done for me and I am beyond thankful for her husband David Solomini, who recently passed, for introducing us. Anastasia has such incredible talent and definitely conveys the message beyond measure when it comes to her work. The collaboration seemed more than fitting, almost serendipitous.
Your album closes with the track Shift 2, echoing its opener, Shift 1. Both tracks feature monologues by the amazing spoken word poet Ursula Rucker about change, transitoriness and the power of healing and moving on. In a way, her words frame the project. Was it always your idea to collaborate with Ursula? What was that like?
Ursula Rucker is a phenomenal individual. I’ve been such a fan since I was a young teen and followed her career for so long. I believe her to be one of the best poets from our time. She speaks with such wisdom and conviction, but also from a place of experience. I am beyond honored to have her colours paint the book holders of this project. We had a great conversation over the pandemic as I have been stalking her career for so long, only to find out that she is also a fan of my work in the fashion industry. Including Ursula really made me feel as if I got the diploma I never received. Most definitely a life accomplishment!
Finally, I noticed on your Instagram that you’ve been taking some lessons in Ableton and learning how to produce your own music. Is this something we should listen out for in the future – beats by Shaun?
Completely accurate. I want to create what I feel in my mind, body and soul and I hope that the world can appreciate it as well. It’s been quite a journey and I’m very happy that I’ve taken on something new. I definitely recommend everyone to do the same.
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Leather overall vintage, shoes DR. MARTENS.
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Jacket DKNY, trousers BONELLI, shirt stylist's own, shoes DR. MARTENS.
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