People say Shae Altered is a very intense person. And this could be true. Her fiery alternative pop packs a punch, weaving emotion, anger, and vulnerability all into a unique electronic package. However, there’s a disconnect between Shae Altered, the version you hear on the tracks and see personified in the new video for “Control,” and Shae Williams, the girl sitting in front of me at a coffee shop in Downtown Portland.
Shae Williams is a bubbly person, and no sense of intensity was felt when we first met. The only traces of a dark pop persona lying beneath the surface is a shirt from Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo, blood red and adorned with images of skulls and crosses.
This may seem to be the case, but watching the video for “Control,” the Shae on the screen seems so different from the Shae in front of me. So I bring up my point. Is there a disconnect between Real Shae and Shae Altered?
“I feel like there are two sides to me a lot of the time,” she replies. “I feel like you have regular normal Shae, and this darker other part of me. Those two people, who I am inside, are constantly fighting. For me specifically, [“Control”] is about how I feel because I struggle with mental illness, and as much as I hate the personified part of this mental illness, this darkness, at the same time, that’s where some of my most creative shit comes from.”
Music has been a part of Williams’ life for as long as she can remember. After childhood time spent belting out tunes like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a tutu, she finally picked up a guitar at the age of 12 and began to write. She wrote her first song the day she picked up the guitar, but she uses the term song very loosely.
“It wasn’t actually a real song,” she says, laughing. “I think it was like three sentences and it was about dandelions or some stupid shit. But I fell in love with it immediately.” She asked her Mom to give her guitar lessons, and the rest is history.
For Shae, music quickly went from a hobby to a survival mechanism: “It was a way for me to express myself. And I’ve also always been a writer, so it just kind of made sense. I can sing my poetry, I can put these two things together. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I don’t know what it would be like… not doing it.”
Now, Shae Altered is, arguably, one of the most unique and exciting voices in pop and alternative in Portland. The creativity that goes into her music and the aesthetic behind her dark pop persona make her stand out in a crowded field. There’s a dark energy behind it all, a fire inside of her, and paired with her knack for pop songwriting, the result is a sound that makes you feel, pure emotion with an explosive texture.
One of the things that separates her from the rest of the pack is her approach to honing that sound. When it comes to the writing of the song itself, she says, Shae takes a very traditional approach. However, when it comes to the sound, the texture, and that spark that gives it that fire, the process is very much visual.
When working with her producer, Justin Abel, Shae knows exactly what she wants the song to sound like… or look like, depending on what perspective you give it. Moodboards play a large role in her process, gathering photos and art from herself and other sources. Abel and Williams then take these visual elements and work to translate them into the song. The visual aspects of the sound go even deeper for Williams. In our conversation, she begins to describe her music in very visual ways. When discussing her song, “Sleep Talk,” she describes it as “a very specific twilight purple blue.” I ask her to elaborate.
“I’m one of those people where sounds are colors for me. Not like crazy, I’m more chordal,” she says. “I think once, offhand, I told Justin ‘this synth needs to be more orange.’ And he was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’” She laughs. “But now working with him, he understands my weird language. I’ll be like ‘Make it redder’ and he’s like ‘Okay.’”
Listening to Shae’s music, knowing that it comes from that visual standpoint, all the elements begin to make sense. Behind some of the most unique sounds, production and arrangements in music is often an artist with synesthesia, a rare crossing of the senses that affects only a small 2% of the population. Taking the visual and putting it into sound seems to connect in ways a lot of people don’t see. But Shae sees the connection, and in the end, it creates more unique productions. And, in creating the video for “Control,” this visual approach is an asset.
“As soon as I’ve written the song, I’ll know exactly what visual would go with it,” she tells me.
Moodboards and Shae’s own art found their way into the process of creating the visuals for “Control.” Working with director Brandon William Fletcher, Shae takes the visuals into her own hands, sending him art and watercolor storyboards. “This is what my art looks like. This is my aesthetic. This is what I want these spaces to look like,” she tells him. “Maybe you can get a sense of who I am visually.”
Fletcher then takes these scenes, these visuals, and adapts them into real live sets. Together, Shae and Fletcher came up with the mirror room and the plant room, perfect recreations of Shae’s artistic brainchild, and central elements of the “Control” music video. Just as the song itself details her dueling personalities, the video gives visual to the internal fight between Shae Williams and Shae Altered.
“There’s two sections of the video,” she explains. “You have the mirror room and then you have the room with all the greenery and the plants and stuff. I wanted to create these two different narratives. In the green room, that’s like more set in reality. The plants are kind of holding me captive, they’re taking over, I’m struggling against them.” This, she says, represents the struggle against herself. “Then you have the mirror room. There, we give the thing I’m struggling against a narrative shape. In that situation, I’m a lot more empowered. I’m moving around, I’m not tied down by the plants anymore, and I’m chasing this thing around this space. And then at the very end, I take the baseball bat and I shatter the mirror. To me, that represents killing the thing that I’m fighting against. I’m taking this and I’m breaking it, but at the same time, the thing that I’m trying to break is myself. And I can’t really get away from that.”
Though there may be a disconnect between Shae Williams and the Shae in the video, “Control” makes it clear that no matter how much they may fight, they will always be connected. And as I watch her explain this, every detail, every bit of symbolism behind her art, the true intent of her music takes sharper form.
Shae Williams is a bubbly person, sharp, witty, and full of exuberant energy. Shae Williams is also a genius, visual, talented, and ambitious in her work. She wears a House of Voodoo shirt, red tortoiseshell glasses, enjoys gothic novels, and can’t get enough of A Quiet Place. The darkness underneath is already there, and Shae Altered is it’s gateway out, a personification of what Williams holds deep inside. For Shae Williams, Shae Altered is a saving grace.
“I feel like if I wasn’t a creative person, and I wasn’t born with any creative talent, drive, or skill, or whatever you want to call it, inclination....” she pauses. “I think that I would be way more messed up of a person than I am now just because… I have so much going on inside my body and head that if I didn’t have art and writing and music, if I didn’t have those creative outlets, I feel like all those things would eat me alive.”
Watch the brand new music video for “Control” below. For more of Shae Altered’s music, visit shaealtered.com. And to find more of Shae William’s art, visit shaewilliamsart.com.
Review by: Brendan Swogger
Brendan Swogger is a music writer and college student in Portland, OR. He is the Creative Director for The Crush blog. You can follow him on IG and Twitter @indiealtpdx.