Interview: Model Shaun Ross completes a music metamorphosis with ‘Shift’

Shaun Ross

Shaun Ross, courtesy.

With Shaun Ross’ debut album, Shift, the world-renowned fashion model completes a metamorphosis started in 2017 with his first single. It’s no small feat to switch gears like this when you’ve been so successful at something already, but Ross is already no stranger to transformation, which is a theme in his music starting with 2018’s “Chrysalis” and running throughout Shift.

Shaun Ross
JEX Records, May 7

“I think everybody should experience a different career path,” Ross said in a call, expressing that after the world puts us in a certain place where we fit, we can easily get stuck in that. “I just wanted to try something different, something that I resonated with—and I also love music.”

While Ross’ obsession with music goes back to childhood, it was around five years ago that he began seriously dabbling in making it himself. By that point he’d already appeared in music videos by Beyoncé (“Pretty Hurts”), Katy Perry (“ET”) and Lana Del Rey (“Tropico”).

Created with producers and musical collaborators Michael Tritter and Carlos Chairez, and guests like Rush Davis, Shift charts an eclectic course through R&B and soul with electronic and pop textures, ranging from shimmering to avant-garde experimentation.

“Michael Tritter and Carlos; one thing I love about them is that they’re also old-school and they come from that world of electronic experimental-ness,” Ross said. “They’re like these cyber funk mavericks. They’re just so dope. When you find someone who understands your sound and understands what you’re trying to do, it just works so well.”

While it offers accessible entry points like the pop stars with whom Shaun Ross has appeared in videos, on the whole it puts him—as a musician—closer to the company of adventurous and genre-bending artists like Janelle Monae, Thundercat and Blood Orange, whose idiosyncratic creations draw freely from the sounds of the late 20th century, even as they look forward into the third decade of the 21st.

This diversity of influences and styles is something clearly expressed in Shaun Ross’ own music: firmly rooted in Black American styles—soul, R&B, hip-hop—while also drawing from ’80s pop and contemporary and experimental electronic music that has its own but not always as clear roots in Black music.

“A lot of people don’t realize how house music actually heavily originated from Black culture, because it stems from gospel music,” he said.

Ross’ exposure to music in his parents’ home in the Bronx was eclectic, which left a deep impression.

“My parents always allowed creative music to be played in the house over anything that was played predominantly on the radio,” he said.

Early inspirations included Donnie Hathaway, Lalah Hathaway, Amel Larreiux and Bjork.

“If I could collaborate with, like, anybody on music, it would be between Meshell Ndegeocello and Boards of Canada,” he said.

Ross said he feels that some of the distinctions between hip-hop and R&B are arbitrary, drawing connections between Frank Ocean and rap legends like Biggie Smalls and Jay Z. Ocean also “paints the image of what is actually happening” with his music, he said.

He’s comfortable with the description of his music as soultronic or future soul, a fusion of soul sensibilities with electronic production.

“What I love about soultronic or soul electronic music, it’s all so colorful,” he said. “There’s so many different people in my mind, you have Moses Sumney, veterans like Jamiroquai, Remy Shand, Maxwell.”

Ross also cited Beverly Glenn-Copeland, whose electro-acoustic, ambient creations are in a category of their own, as an inspiration.

Shift starts and ends with spoken word poetry about social transformation that, despite being recorded pre-pandemic, very much evokes the upheavals of the COVID era. These interludes are voiced by Ursula Rucker, Philadelphia poet and performance artist whose collaborations with King Britt, The Roots and other producers and musicians made her well-known in the ’90s. He said that he wanted young people in the generations coming up to know about her work.

“I’m a massive fan,” Ross said. “I had known of Ursula’s work ever since I was a teenager.”

After Ross connected with Rucker, he found she was a fan of his as well.

Shift’s first two singles, “LIVIN” and the ethereal ’80s-style pop of “WX5,” follow the intro on the album. From there, it delves into the more introspective “You Care,” which floats almost free of percussion. It’s a mood picked up later on the album with the dreamlike “Learn Something New.”

The album shows other moods on “Simple,” which is upbeat and nostalgic, and “Blue Ego,” which has a clear house influence, more dancefloor-friendly than the other tracks.

Ross said “Cream,” a collaboration with Rush Davis and the album’s third single, as a track that stood out to him personally. He said Davis is a dear friend and frequent collaborator who introduced him to his producers.

“I just love his mind and what he’s willing to create,” he said if Davis.

“Cream” is a song about “having the strength and the resilience to basically go through anything and like come out on top,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, Ross said he felt as though most people are moving too fast through life without stopping to appreciate the magnitude of the universe. With the variety of sounds and styles featured on Shift and its timely themes of change, renewal and resilience, Ross’s debut album will be one to stop and savor.

“I’m going to slow you down,” he said.

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