If you’ve not already heard of Bonzai, the Ireland-raised Brixton-based 21-year-old musician who’s toured with Mura Masa and sang with NAO, do yourself a favour and look her up right now. She’s signed a deal with Sony and her debut album is dropping next year and all signs point to it being packed full of addictive bangers. Last year Bonzai put out a handful of RnB inflected electropop songs that gave a taste of her serious talent. But, as she tells us, what she’s working on now is going in a different direction, with an “I don’t know what the fuck I would call it” sound.
We sat down with Bonzai (aka Cassia O’Reilly) in a cafe in Stoke Newington, to ask her a load of questions, which she answered in between mouthfuls of veggie breakfast (eggs scrambled, not poached).
You’re working on your album right now?
Yeah this year I’ve just been writing really. Because pretty much all of last year I was touring with my own stuff and with Mura Masa. So this year I’ve taken a bit of a rest, like a few festivals still, but I’ve just been writing. It’s been really good, my style has changed a bit now because I kinda just want to sing. Having toured with Alex [Mura Masa] and sung all those songs, and then I’ll do my stuff and it’s a bit intense and shouty — not as much singing. And having done the two, I’ve heard it and I want to sing. So this year has been about moving into that lane a bit more, having the production be a bit less crazy and have more space for vocals. It’s been exciting.
You grew up in Wicklow, near Dublin. What was it like for you growing up in a small town with not a lot of diversity?
I went to a school of 2000 kids and I was the only one of any colour. But I never really noticed it really, though I’d never like braid my hair or anything. I always straightened it. Then I went back this year with my hair like this and I didn’t even think about it, I was playing at this festival and the amount of people who came up to me and touched my hair — it was really annoying.
I guess they don’t listen to Solange.
I know, they would literally come up and grab my whole ponytail and be like, ‘So how do you like it here?’ And I’m just like, ‘I’m from here and that’s really upsetting.’ I thought — I mean I know it’s at a festival and people are drunk or whatever, but I thought they’d get that that’s not cool. I guess there’s not a lot of black people. But I was just like, really?
Yeah, that’s really not ok. I want to know more about your new sound, how would you describe it?
I really like genreless stuff. I listen to so much different music and love so much different music that when I make something I don’t want it to be a Trap song or an R&B song — I mainly like African stuff, so I like a lot of interesting rhythms but then taking those and using something else from somewhere else, so it turns into this thing with a lot of influences. That’s what I’ve been trying to do this whole time but wasn’t really doing it the right way, or didn’t have a clear enough vision to execute it, but now I feel like I’ve found a way. I’ve finally got the sound I’ve been trying to figure out in my head. I need to coin a phrase for it.
Yeah you should, otherwise you’ll get pegged with something.
They’re just going to say RnB anyway. This stuff is definitely RnB and hip-hop influenced plus influenced by a lot of South African music. My best friend who I live with is South African, so we listen to a lot of that stuff. Mainly the heavier kind of clubby stuff. So I’ve taken a nice balance of things that makes more sense. I don’t know what the fuck I would call it.
How do feel about the prospect of being really well known — do you mind the interview process and all of that?
The only thing I don’t like is photos and it’s something I need to get better at. But in terms of meeting people and doing shows and interviews, I really enjoy all that. I have no problems with it — just the pictures! I’m not photogenic.
That’s definitely not true, I’ve seen photos of you.
Yeah but see they’ve been selected. But it’s not, like with the really big stars, like Rihanna, who you could take a picture from below her chin and she would still look great.
She’s learnt her angles.
Yeah, it’s definitely a skill and something that you need to spend time on to know. But also, I can’t really take myself that seriously, if someone’s taking a photo — I mean you have to when it’s for a magazine, but in everyday life, like how social media is now, I just can’t make a straight face for that. I can’t pose.
You’re not into social media are you?
In my personal life I’m not a social media person. I had Instagram for maybe a week before I just gave up. I just don’t really get it. I have all of it now for my artist stuff, but it’s weird getting into it. Any artists that I really really love, like Erykah Badu for example, I will not follow her on social media because I just don’t want to fucking know.
I think social media makes everyone look like more of a dick than they really are though. It’s hard when you have to do it as part of your job – you can’t opt out, even if you want to.
Unless you’re Frank Ocean.