The brightness produces ecstatic relief. When the sun retires to colour the horizon pink, he withdraws into peaceful musing. Draped in either black or white, stylist Luca Kingston concocts a clean palette for Shaun to be the focal point.
Model turned musician Shaun Ross doesn’t allow things to get in his way. During a year where many felt an extreme loss of control, he was preparing to finalise his shift into music. As a born and bred New Yorker, he deflects any incoming obstacles. His self-assured disposition rubs off. "You are always in control", he says. When making our way through the structure and themes of his debut album Shift, Shaun blesses me with a private, impromptu concert over Zoom. This is a first for me over video call. His soulful voice fills the intimate setting, revealing his ease and confidence as a performer.
The album name, Shift, and many of the songs were completed before the pandemic hit, but the songs conveniently resonate with the year we’ve just endured. WX5 taps into loneliness and encourages introspection. LIVIN captures the relief of overcoming hardship. Blue Ego teaches patience while Waterboy cautions against idolising the self. The album captures the universality of this time. We’ve faced loneliness. We’ve practiced patience. We’ve reconfigured. We’ve prioritised protecting the vulnerable over our ego’s desires. I think this signifies the beginning of a shift, the empathetic shift Shaun prescribes for the world in his music.
Shaun Ross’ debut album Shift will be available to accompany you in the transition from ‘new normal’ back to ‘normal’ from 7th May. Listen through Shaun’s curated R&B journey, and I’ll guarantee that afterwards you’ll be wiser and more compassionate towards yourself and others.
We’re seeing the end in sight of this very period, what will you take away from this time?
Oh lord, what aren't we going to take away from this time? I now understand how to repurpose. I think all of us understand that now. My biggest take away is just that tomorrow is never promised and that you really have to live for today. What you want to do, do it now. Not only was last year a big transitional period for everybody, but also it was the last year of my 20s. I turn 30 in a month. Everyone says it's the same, but it just feels scary because it’s like, 'oh my god, I'm 30'.
You began your music journey in 2017 with the single Symmetry. Now you're preparing to release your debut album. Was music always the plan?
No, music wasn't always a plan, to be very honest with you. I knew that a change was the plan. I feel like an era for creatives is almost like five to 10 years. I would say music was never ever the plan, but it just ended up happening, simply because I would always hang around music friends. I always make sure I have friends in different industries, so I have friends that work in finance, in the arts and culture and in politics. A lot of my friends work in music and since music and fashion go hand in hand, I would always find myself in a studio. Eventually, I was just, 'sure, why not'. My best friend, Rush Davis, was always trying to push me to do music, but in my mind, I was a model. I thought that if I'd do it, nobody would take it seriously. In the end, I knew I had a good ear so I just started trusting it and here we are.
You recently released WX5 and the theme of loneliness felt very on point for this time. Many have experienced loneliness during Covid-19, but it's also a problem outside of the pandemic, especially amongst men. Talk me through this theme.
With WX5, I definitely tried to evoke a specific feeling of loneliness. But it's also like what you are saying… I felt there was this lack of awareness, which is why the first lyric is: 'It's so quiet, it feels right' - meaning you can finally hear yourself. You're finally looking around at what's happening. It's funny because WX5 was made months before the pandemic started. WX5 was probably made around October and the name of the album, Shift, was already thought out. I felt we needed to go through a shift. People weren't accepting and understanding. We had kind of lost our way and forgotten what our purpose is. What are we doing here? We were just living in a cycle. WX5 is very much about reconnecting with our issues. We put things off. We don’t pay attention to what's going on around us. We don't see the cause of the problem. I always say there is a very sweet soft spot in oblivion. Oblivion can be good sometimes, but we've been too oblivious.
Your single LIVIN released recently. I love how positive this song is. It's like: I’ve overcome hard times, and I’m now on the other side just enjoying life. Would you say this song is a reflection of how you're feeling right now?
100 per cent how I feel mentally. I came out with LIVIN at this time because, for me, music really goes with the seasons and the mood. When I look at LIVIN now, the song is definitely a reflection of how I feel and how I think the world feels right now. Finally, I can do this. I can at least try to breathe. LIVIN is definitely a spring moment.
It was definitely released at the right moment. Spring signals new life. This is probably a difficult question because it's probably like choosing a favourite child... What's your favourite track on the new album, and why?
My favourite tracks on the album are the intro and the outro. Essentially, they are one track but it's divided in two. The intro and outro are by Ursula Rucker, who is my favourite poet of all time. I was a fan of hers when I was a young teenager. I remember the first time I heard this poem of hers called Return to Innocence Loss featured on the same song by The Roots. Then I heard this other poem that is kind of like a sonnet that she did called Circe. I found her voice and delivery so calming. I met her in person but she wasn't the warmest person, to be honest. I didn't care though because this lady is a genius. She's one of those people who could curse me out today and I’d still blast her tomorrow. She's just too good. The fact that I was able to get Ursula Rucker to take part in this album is really dope. The intro and outro are definitely my favourite tracks. I see them as a milestone.
I see every album as a journey and the sequence of songs is very carefully curated by the musician. How did you decide on the structure of the album?
The sequence of the release versus the sequence of the album is completely different. We start off with Ursula who gives you the trajectory of what you're about to listen to through spoken word. It starts out in this very cyber city, dark world where it's like, 'we're taking you through a journey', but then it opens up to LIVIN. Then we take you through WX5 and You Care, which are moments to really listen. Then there is Simple, which is, in reality, an interlude. The first lyric goes: ‘Let's go back to where we started and take a moment to renew'.
We take the listener through a little dip, but then take you back to the beginning and give you that same feeling. That's when you're presented with another feel-good song, Blue Ego. With Blue Ego, I wrote it and didn't care to take on any changes or suggestions from anybody that I usually work with. ‘Blue Ego’ kept coming up in my head. What the hell is a ‘Blue Ego’? It's a bruised ego. We always want something when we want it and we want it fast. However, slow and steady wins the race. Then there is Waterboy, which was a big one for me. I dated this guy who turned out to be a big life lesson for me. He had a great physique. A great job. The full package. I watched him be so obsessed with himself, and my best friend Rush, saw the same thing, so we wrote Waterboy. It basically plays off the Greek mythology of Narcissus, the man who fell in love with his own reflection.
Let's get a bit introspective. Who is Shaun Ross?
Oh gosh, that changes all the time. It really does. Today, I am all-knowing. I know that it is okay to feel the way you want to feel. I think that we don't allow ourselves to feel more often. Let me speak to myself… I don't think that I allow myself to feel what's happening sometimes, like actually sitting in it and acknowledging that it's okay to go through whatever it is. I am human. I am resilient.
What makes you happy?
What makes me happy is definitely my art, and having it be reciprocated. I love it when my art touches or resonates with someone. Most importantly though I would say that the one thing that I really love is that I know I am aware. I know that I can always make a change at any given time. I think that's something that everyone should always remember. Every day that you wake up is a new day and an opportunity to change it all. You are always in control.
What makes you angry or sad?
I don't get angry that often. Do I get sad? See, it's weird. I'm weird. I live in the same space all the time. I don't get really angry or severely sad. I get melancholic sometimes but that's only for short periods. It's just random things. I get sad when someone close to me passes away, but I don't get upset over things that people would normally get upset over. I may get angry when someone close to me doesn't understand something that I'm trying to convey, or we butt heads. Other than that, I think something that may upset me is when I see somebody close around me who's not going as hard as they can or as hard as they should. For the most part, I'm pretty levelled.
When a lot of people look at things, they're like, 'oh my god, this is so fucked up, I'm so fucked', but I go, 'how do you fix it?'. I'm a New Yorker and New Yorkers try to be as resilient as possible. It's always about figuring out how you can do it better. A lot of people don't realise that. It's about positioning your mind.
Even though fashion is home to trailblazing, fashion can also be slow to accept change and there is a high pressure to be and look a certain way. What are your thoughts on the fashion industry?
Looking back at it, I don't think fashion actually accepts change at all. Fashion is 100 per cent trend based. It has become this culturally appropriating thing - and that goes beyond Black culture. It goes way beyond that. Fashion appropriates but it doesn't really let people in. It hops on the bandwagon of whatever seems to be acceptable. The bandwagon does allow certain subjects and lifestyles to be seen. I love it when I see people from different industries make an effort to understand what it is like to live as a trans man or trans woman. With fashion, they put someone in a campaign because it looks cool, but that’s not them actually trying to understand who this person is and what they’re going through. When the campaign is over, they don't care anymore. If you get a Vogue magazine cover, you're lucky if you last a week.
Where in the world do you feel most at peace?
Paris. I have this weird relationship with Paris. It’s something about the sounds of the city. Waking up at 7 AM, all you hear are Vespas. I just love Paris. It's a city I want to go back to eventually to live. I used to live there for a short time but I want to go back.
As an activist, what are you feeling most hopeful about?
I'm feeling more hopeful about the fact that the world is starting to understand that hate crimes happen to all types of people all around the world. People are also starting to see how real police brutality is and how unnecessary it is. We've always known how crazy it is but now we see it. I'm hopeful that things will change slowly. I think it's gotten policemen thinking. They think twice now. Twice more than they ever did.