On a sunny afternoon in Van Nuys, California, Shay Lia is staying shaded inside the studio. Situated next to a bright blue pool, the former supply shed was converted into a full-blown recording space. It’s the singer’s second time trekking to California in less than a year. She’s working hard on her next career moves, but more importantly, working smart.
“You don’t have the choice, especially as an independent artist,” she explains. “You don’t have the resources, so you have to try and be strategic with the way you move and how you want to spend your money.”
Shanice Dileita Mohamed was born in France and lived in the East African country of Djibouti from ages 5 to 18. “We’re less than a million there — it’s tiny.” Though she has many fond memories of her formative years, Lia describes much of her childhood as lonely. “I’m mixed — I feel like I wasn’t white enough and wasn’t black enough.”
An introvert by circumstance, a young Shay would spend much of her free time on YouTube, watching “a lot of Beyoncé concerts” and looking for her next favourite artists. Inadvertently, YouTube also served as her classroom, offering daily lessons in both musical inspiration and the English language.
The singer first arrived in Montreal in 2012 with the intent of studying communication at UQAM. She knew little about the city, besides its bilingual status. “I wanted to do communication because it was kind of vague and close to art stuff. I thought maybe I could arrange the events, but I realized after a few years that I wanted to be the event!”
Lia was quick to fall in love with the city’s bubbling nightlife, where she would often go and dance by herself. “I would attract people who would be like, ‘That’s cool you’re dancing.’ Also, my energy. I think when you really want something, you shift your energy and attract people.”
It was at one of these events where she would meet an essential collaborator: Kaytranada.
“Someone introduced me to Kaytra at a Jazzy Jeff show at la Mouche; we started dancing. People kept on telling me he was a weird weirdo producer, then I listened to (his music) and thought, ‘That’s amazing!’ He quickly became the one that I was a real fan of from the city.
“One day, he saw a video of me singing for a cousin on Facebook, an a cappella cover of Rihanna’s ‘Man Down.’ He commented a little smiley, and asked me at another show, ‘Are you a songwriter? I want to do more original stuff.’ I said yes, even though I had no idea if I could!”
Of course, the work relationship would blossom into a fruitful one for both parties, with Shay laying down vocals on “Leave Me Alone,” a standout track on the producer’s debut album, 99.99% and the recently applauded “Chances.” Kaytranada has also produced a number of Lia’s singles.
Outside of the studio, fans may also remember the singer from Kaytranada’s famous Boiler Room set — she was the one grooving next to him through its entirety. She laughs looking back on the memory, insisting she was completely sober.
“People thought I was on drugs or something. I wasn’t! I had an oral presentation three hours before at UQAM. Kevin knew that. He was like, ‘Come, but you better dance.’”
This May, Shay Lia is preparing to release her still-untitled debut EP. Its fierce first single, “Dangerous,” written alongside Planet Giza’s Tony Stone, is set to debut on April 19. She hopes that the project will serve as an extension of herself, diversifying her soundscape while also drawing back the curtains on her personality.
“I like music that sounds timeless. I’m trying to write songs that I’m going to still love in 10 years.”