SHHE's Su Shaw on creativity, change and identity

Now performing as SHHE, and on the verge of releasing her self-titled debut, Su Shaw talks about defying traditional expectations and pressures to pursue her individuality, how location has inspired her creativity and growing into your true identity

Feature by Tony Inglis | 03 Oct 2019
  • SHHE

One day Su Shaw took a moment to breathe and thought: is this what I want in life? The stable relationship; the paid for home; the steady income. Settled, yes, but fulfilled? It seems almost cliché to then write that the talented artist gave that up to chase creative endeavours, when so many would pine for the former. 

But is it? Even in a much more liberally-minded and forward-thinking world, whether from a position of privilege or not, the traditional pressures and expectations placed on young people maintain: get a job that pays well, find someone you're compatible with, buy a house and watch life roll by. It takes immense courage and self-actualisation to push back against that and actually figure out who you're meant to be as an individual. 

“When I think about certain decisions I made in my life up until that point, I know that I wasn’t always completely honest about certain things,” says Shaw about that period. “I was working a full-time job completely outside of music; I was organising what I loved around these other things. Music was on the side. It wasn’t just a hobby, but I certainly wasn’t giving my best energy to it. I had fallen into that trap, that to survive you needed this and that. I had created that life for myself, and it wasn’t until I took a break to rethink that I realised I had been avoiding making changes in my life.”

Born in Fife to a Scottish father and Portuguese mother, Shaw, until a few years ago, self-released traditionally-minded, acoustic-tinged songs under the name Panda Su. This brought her moderate attention but, as she admits, was a persona she was drifting away from, both in her personal and artistic life. Now, Shaw is set to release her first collection of songs under the moniker SHHE, a fiercely different, uncompromising and independent project, barely foreshadowed by her previous work.

Where Panda Su was timid and happy to fall into the background, SHHE is daring and confrontational. Conventional features are replaced with experimentation and electronics. On her self-produced, self-titled debut, released via the Björk-associated One Little Indian label, whirring synths and ghostly loops can be both warm and confrontational. BOY is jarringly off-kilter, as if Mica Levi’s Under the Skin score were rewritten as a pop record. On Saint Cyrus and the double movement of Maps, Shaw is unafraid to allow small moments, and melodies squeeze out from incidental to drawn out, hypnotic, strangely moving, beat or synth-driven instrumental passages.

“This was the first time that I felt completely in control of how I was making music and putting it out,” she explains. “I had this new-found courage, not really worrying about whether people would love or hate the music. The main thing was just writing honest music that I wanted to release on my terms. I never really felt like that as Panda Su.”

As with many an artistic reawakening, it took Shaw’s strength to uproot and move somewhere new and unfamiliar to tease all this out. “I’ve been kind of wary of people thinking ‘wait, she just literally moved across the River Tay and this is like a new life for her. How does that work?’” 

It may not be New York or Berlin she upped sticks to, but Dundee presented something Shaw had yet to experience as an artist – a place buzzing with a youthful energy and an opportunity to meet other like-minded people. “When I was in Fife, I was living in the country, in almost complete isolation. It was a very solitary sort of existence. Even just moving [to Dundee], and surrounding myself with other creative people, opening myself up to working with them, it was a place that gave me that almost instantly.” Fittingly, as a torrential downpour occurs on our end of the phone call in Glasgow, Shaw’s Dundee is bathed in sunlight.

This push and pull between extreme isolation and collaboration became integral to what was ostensibly a solo project in more ways than one. With the music recorded in the twilit hours of late nights and early mornings alone in her home, and mixing and mastering aided by Robin Sutherland and Heba Kadry, Shaw sought out other figures to bring her compositions to life visually.

Through videos – such as the one designed for Saint Cyrus, in which the central amorphous figure is stretched, elongated and deconstructed – Shaw’s ideas of identity, in its myriad interpretations, and how it can be altered fluidly, are burrowed into. Work with photographer and dance theatre performer Harry Clark helped her accomplish this. “I always found it quite difficult to articulate how I wanted things to sound. When I took some time out, I found out how to communicate that. With Harry though, he just gets the music. We'll talk through ideas, but I never really have to explicitly explain. And he doesn't feel like he needs to explicitly understand either.”

Two other very different places from Dundee allowed Shaw to work through what was essentially a crisis of identity. “When you move somewhere new, people like to think of having this opportunity to start afresh, but actually what tends to happen is you carry a lot of those learned behaviours or characteristics, your personality, with you. If you're looking for change, it's really about figuring out what change you want that to be.”

For Shaw, that meant seizing opportunities to put herself out of her comfort zone. Last year, she took part in the Westfjords Residency in a small town in Iceland, tasked with composing music using minimal tools and instruments in a makeshift workshop in often harsh, if beautiful, surroundings. “It's hard to find words which aren't used so often, like magical,” Shaw says about where she was living. “I mean, it is. But they were extreme conditions. There, you’re never really in control. You can plan things, but you have to be prepared to change them. And I had never really lived like that before. It made me start writing music in a completely different way.”

Shaw has since returned, and is scheduled to again. Call it a mystical pull (Shaw described being in an “altered state” while there); call it simply being forced to adapt (“it forced me to work with what I found there rather than some predetermined thoughts and ideas”). But all her experiences there fed into this new music – its expansiveness, its willingness to be chilly and sparse, to leave silence in spaces.

Shaw’s roots in Portugal even allowed her the opportunity to explore her identity in terms of history and heritage. Working on a project using field recordings and samples in Lisbon forced her to turn her gaze even more uncomfortably inward. Having grown up in a country now increasingly divided, it emphasised its importance in her life. “It's something that’s on everyone's mind in the current climate. I don’t tend to talk about politics, I guess because music is my escape from all of that, but I think it's important to not remain ambiguous.

"I think the difference is clear when you look at the fact that I just recently applied for my Portuguese citizenship and it was granted almost immediately and without question, while my mum, who has been living in Scotland for more than 35 years, and has worked and raised her children here, is being questioned about her right to stay. It's why I wanted my heritage to be part of all this."

Mimicking what she’s learned over these last few years, SHHE is a culmination of Shaw’s inquiries into her personal identity in all its facets – her romantic, cultural, professional and artistic identity, but, most importantly, her identity as a young person navigating fulfilment in life.

SHHE is released on 11 Oct via One Little Indian