Sha Shakusky

Interview by Jesse Hooper
Issue 51 • May 2017 • Richmond

Armed with a digital sampler and unyielding determination, this underground beatsmith is using her music to galvanize an entire community of DIY artists.

Inside an unassuming home in Malvern Gardens, externally indistinguishable from the surrounding 1950s-era real estate, a creative collective hides in plain sight. The occupants of this house-as-studio-space are a faction of artists and creators, including one Sha Shakusky, the 21-year-old beat punk extraordinaire. Though she arrived in Richmond just shy of two years ago, her freewheeling groove collages have attracted a dedicated audience, at least within the city’s sweeping network of artist-centric DIY house concerts. In recent months, her output has been nothing short of prolific, including two limited edition cassette tapes, FRM RVA w LUV from Monked Records and XXI (Vignt et Un) from Citrus City Records, plus a live recording of her set at Harrisonburg’s indie music festival MACROCK. That latter release is indicative of Shakusky’s growing presence at more mainstream venues, although the crowds at those shows can’t quite live up to the energy of the ones surrounding the pop-up basement stages – at least not yet.

FRM RVA w LUV by Sha Shakusky

Though her roots are deep in rural Maryland, Shakusky spent her teenage years on the other side of the Potomac in Northern Virginia. After drifting for a bit, she eventually settled in the River City, attracted by those two things that many NOVA communities lack: booming culture and cheap rent. “I’m glad to be part of this new wave of Richmonders,” she said. “There’s definitely a renaissance in art happening here right now. It may take years down the line for people to look back and realize.” The fact that she still identifies as a newcomer despite her recent notoriety seems intentionally humble, a grounding reminder to stay focused on her craft in a community rich with artistic expression.

Shakusky’s music is a lush patchwork of randomly captured utterances, found sounds, and timeless old soul, all heavily warped through her Roland SP-404SX sampler. “I consider myself a sound collage artist,” she said, explaining her creative process. “What I essentially do is no different from a physical collage. I take a book or a record or a piece of music. I flip through it, listen through it. I see or hear something cool. I cut it out and glue it onto the page. I loop it. I’ll sample different parts of a song and find a way to weave it together to make a constant melody.” She rarely uses external software when creating music, relying instead on the inherent effects of the sampler itself. The resulting button mashing and knob tweaking give the process a raw, kinetic quality. “I’m really blessed to have such a device that, once you figure out how it works and how to use it, performing with it allows you to perform more than just staring at a screen. There’s just something really intimate about it.”

Lacking any formal training, Shakusky’s soundscapes are formed from her own intuitive aesthetic. As she explained, “I can’t read music. I don’t understand a lick of theory. I got rhythm, I got soul, I got flow.” Similar to the way that hip hop started with DJs looping break beats at block parties, she sees her work as the most recent chapter in the story of performers making music for their own purposes, despite the lack of resources available to them. “People in lower-developed communities couldn’t afford guitars or drum kits, so they just took records and record players and figured out ways to manipulate sounds, replicating things they couldn’t do. That’s literally the same shit I’m doing.” The challenge, of course, is to define your own sound while at the same time respecting tradition. “I guess I’m finding a sense of style with it, rather than being happy that I just understand how to do it,” she said. “I want there to be a feel that people can really pull in.” Her sound is loose, slightly unhinged like the rule-breaking improvisation of a jazz player: someone who appreciates her history, but knows when to break away from it.

During our conversation, in an attempt to learn whether her family was in favor of her move to Richmond and musical aspirations, I asked, “Are they supportive?” Shakusky’s answer: “I came out to my mom two months ago.” Given my ambiguous phrasing, it’s not a surprise that she misunderstood the intent of my poorly considered question, especially because Shakusky’s gender identity has been a frequent topic of intrigue. “I feel like sometimes people will book me because they’re trying to have that queer representation on their bill. Given who I am, it’s bound to happen, but at the same time, it’s just ugly how it unfolds sometimes.” Despite these sentiments, she made it clear that whatever the impetus for our encounter, she was happy to be talking. As for her family, Shakusky had this to say: “I can’t say I’ve always had a healthy relationship with my mom, but she’s my number one fan. If something goes down, she’ll drive down here ready to kick ass. I love my motherfucking mom. My mom has held it the fuck down.”

“We enforce safer spaces. We don’t play any bullshit.”

Sha Shakusky

Ice Cream Support Group, an artist collective Shakusky regards with a familial tone, hosts parties around town – including one I planned to attend later that night at a basement venue called Lovejail. These houses fly under the radar, but they’re everywhere, sporting names like Rock Bottom, Three Moons, Witch Mountain, Underground Orchard, Sad House, and Crystal Palace. “There’s a lot of them,” Shakusky said, “it’s overwhelming.” Prior to her current residence, she lived in the Carver neighborhood at a house known as Ma and Pa’s. One of Shakusky’s earlier tapes was a tribute to it, the fittingly titled RIP Ma and Pa’s, produced by her own label, Masterhand Records. Pointing to the tape’s cover, she reminisced, “This is the last picture taken of me identifying as a boy.” In another photo on the album art, her likeness was wearing a coonskin cap. She quipped that in that shot, she felt like Sam Shakusky, the adventurous pelt-domed main character of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

Commenting on the goals of Ice Cream Support Group, Shakusky said, “No scene is the best scene, but there’s a rise in awareness here and people give a fuck.” By looking out for each other, the collective not only ensures that artists get their due, but also that audience members are protected participants. “We enforce safer spaces. We don’t play any bullshit. We like to make sure artists get paid. We make sure there’s a cover or, if not, that people are making donations. We like to make sure that people can be safe, we like to make sure that people can have fun, and we like to make sure that people can enjoy the goddamn music in the space that a lot of people are busting their ass to get up off the ground and running. And if it’s at a venue, we just try to keep it so we can come back, so we can keep bringing business.” That uncompromising drive to create her own opportunities has gotten Shakusky this far. As her music gains a wider audience beyond the underground, it’s clear that there’s no limit to how far she could go.

Follow the musical adventures of Sha Shakusky at shashakusky.bandcamp.com. To hear more artists from Masterhand Records, visit masterhandrecords.com.

Photography by Tristan Williams

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