Born in Los Angeles, but raised in Seattle, American songwriter, and electronic pop singer Shelita Burke is part of a new generation of independent musicians who are - through studious practice, talent, and focused online engagement - building audiences around the world for themselves in a heartwarmingly D.I.Y manner. In recent years, Shelita's divided her time between the City of Angels and Paris, playing hundreds of shows across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the US along the way.

A byproduct of her work ethic and artistry has been a sizeable online audience, and critical acclaim from the likes of NPR, The Village Voice, Billboard, and MTV. As of lately, she's been on a new journey - collaborating with pop producer Bellringer. Together, they've hit on a sound that pairs her majestic vocals with the shuffling, melodic minimalism of modern Californian club rap and RnB, all bubbling up inside sparkly, discothèque-ready sound redolent of 90s US house. It's catchy, and as her recent singles 'Belong' and 'Penetrate' illustrate, it's delivering those sought after viral play numbers on streaming.

On a warm and sunny Monday evening in late June, Shelita chatted with us about her unique journey and personal code, as well as the realities of navigating the current musical landscape as an independent artist. Warm and articulate, her answers to our questions came loaded with thoughts worth reflecting on.


Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you arrived where you are now?

I've been playing music in churches since I was seven. When I was sixteen, I went out on the streets and played music using the city as my audience. Venues approached me while I was on the street with my guitar, and I started playing in them. The type of music I was playing was really different to what people were doing at the time, so it was really difficult to get people out to shows. Eventually, I figured it out and took that formula to Europe. I thought to myself, wow, if I can do this in America, can I use the same mechanisms I use now to get people to come out to shows overseas?

In my early twenties, I started going to Europe and seeing how small Europe was. In the market I was touring in within the US, you're supposed to get 100-200 people out to a show, and that's a big deal. In Europe, the number was much smaller, especially for the kind of music I was doing. When I noticed how small things were, I thought, wow, I can really scale this! I started a mission to do a world tour. I toured Europe, Africa, and Asia. I love playing shows. Just a year ago, I did 150 dates in a year.

Now, I'm in the process - because I've changed and shifted my genre of music - of creating a different touring live show experience. When I'm performing on stage, I really feel like the more of an experience I make for myself, the more the audience will connect with what I'm doing. I don't always get that right, but it's a beautiful dance.

That walks us through how you handle yourself live, but what about your recording process?

I actually didn't start recording until a year ago. The first album I recorded - because I did a lot of live shows, and live show oriented music - I created in five days. I started touring that album, and then last year I started doing pop songs with a producer named Marcus “Bellringer” Bell. That was a different direction from what I was doing before. It's been really crazy. I just joined social media a little over a year ago. I went from 200 followers to more than 200,000 in a couple of months. I was releasing a song every 90 days, and leading with the music, as opposed to my everyday life, I'm not saying doing that is bad, but the people who liked and connected with the music were the ones consistently engaging with me.

Can you explain what you were doing musically before you pivoted into the pop space?

I was writing jazz-folk. A lot of the songs were improv. At my shows, I would play 90 minutes of improvised songs. At the end of every show, I would include the audience in the songs by asking them for words, writing songs with the words in them on the spot, and getting the audience on stage with me. The way I met Marcus was through a conference. I also do public speaking at events, but music is what I speak about. I was doing a presentation, and I played my weird jazz folk stuff - which I don't see as weird by the way - and he was in the audience.

To be really frank, I'd never had anyone in the music industry of that caliber reach out to me ever. I don't know what Marcus saw in me, but I do know that once I started writing pop songs, it was a different feeling. The songs I was doing before were about me, and the new songs are about me, but in a different way. I would always think about my experience, and how I would insert that into the audience experience in the way of, this is how I'm delivering the art. I thought I wouldn't be able to deliver that in pop songs, but we created this beautiful marriage of writing styles I didn't know could exist.

Do you think it is important to have a clear value structure or set of beliefs as a musician?

I don't think of things in terms of religion; music is my religion in terms of having a clear set of beliefs. I believe it is important to have a compass of some sort. That compass changes as you change in life. If you navigate from that same compass, and build upon it within levels, that is an important thing for an artist to have. At the end of the day, when you go back to the core things that make you-you, that's what's really going to change the way you evolve through your life. That's when you create the beautiful art you are meant to create. The cool thing is it all happens the way it's supposed to.

You're an independent musician. What are you looking for from music and the music industry?

I'm looking at disrupting the music industry because in my experience I've gone all around the world without a big team or label. It's definitely the new model, and you can do it. Most people are told they can't, and I don't believe in the word can't. You can create possibility if you think in terms of possibility. If you think in terms of self-doubt, and everything you can't do, you're never going to get there. No one ever told me anything or mentored me when I was starting out. No one was telling me what I couldn't do, so I saw the world as possibilities. I set some goals, and tried my best to make them happen. Those goals have happened. I've been very fortunate in that way.

In saying that, I do now realise that it does take good songs. I know that is subjective, but you have to lead with good music. If it's not good, just practice more, because the more you practice, the better you will get. When I was singing at seven years ago, I was really off-key. I don't think I was born with an amazing singing voice, but I worked at it. I was told as a young person that Miles Davis locked himself in a room, and he didn't come out until he had an original sound. I took that to heart. That is one of the things I wanted to offer, an original sound.

You're very engaged on social media. Do you ever worry it takes away from time you could be spending on music?

I will say my life changed after social media. The way I would engage with fans was on stage, then after the concert, I would have my life. It's intruded in a way because there are fans waiting to hear from you 24/7. That's very different from the way I designed my life before. As far as how I deal with it, I spend around 25 minutes a day on social media answering the fans, because they are important to me. Apart from that, I don't really spend any time on social media. I care about creating connections, in different aspects; social media has created a disconnection. My intention with social media is to create an actual authentic connection. If I'm not doing that, I need to log off; because it defeats the purpose of the intentions I walk in with.

Could you tell us about your new singles 'Penetrate' and 'Penetrate Part 2'?

With the first version of 'Penetrate' I wanted a sound that connected to the primal instincts of humanity. I know that is really, probably sounds really out there, but if it touched a person in any way, it's touching those primal parts of the body. I don't get to choose where that lies as an artist, but I know that is the intention I put into it. As far as the songwriting behind that song, I was walking down the street, and I heard the sound of this swing. I recorded it, and I tried to use my voice to mimic it. That song is actually the sound of the swing. I was inspired and thought it was really quirky. All the songs I write are about my life and my experience as a human. With the second version of 'Penetrate,' my intentions were to have an entire re-imagining of the first song, a completely different version.

Shelita Burke's new singles 'Penetrate' and 'Penetrate (Part 2)’' are out now.