The self-confessed perfectionist on her next steps...

070 Shake spent last summer working with her idols, then channeled the experience into creating a debut album to remember.

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There’s a clip on YouTube titled “070 Shake Dancing to ‘Ghost Town’ in Wyoming.” Shot on a phone last summer, the video shows a 20-year-old Danielle Balbuena wearing a black ‘Wyoming’ hoody - from Kanye West’s merch range - head banging to the sound of a fuzzy guitar sample, booming from a sound system that’s been set up in the middle of a field. It’s late at night, but she’s illuminated by a gaudy floodlight that washes over the scene while somewhere off screen Kanye West hosts a live-streamed playback of his latest album ‘ye’, the second of five records he intends to drop across consecutive weeks.

Danielle is far from the centre of attention. On the outskirts of the gathering, she’s fully immersed in the music. When the track hits its climax, she spreads her wings and dashes off across the field. “We’re still the kids we used to be,” her voice wails from the speakers. “I put my hand on a stove / To see if I still bleed.” She begins jumping up, as high as she can go. “And nothing hurts anymore / I feel kind of free.” She’d only learned that the song would make the album earlier that day.

The one-minute clip manages to express so much about 070 Shake: her carefree spirit, authenticity, presence, dedication and a transcendental connection to music. It feels like a truly transformative moment. “It felt like off a fucking movie, like a game or something,” she says, sat in an empty sports bar in Brooklyn, where Jumanji is playing on the TV screens. “I didn’t really process it. It felt kind of surreal. I grew up listening to Kanye and [KiD] CuDi, so it almost felt like, ‘How am I here? Why am I here?’”

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For the past few years 070 Shake has been building a cult following online, with a string of singles, a mixtape with the rest of her New Jersey-based 070 collective in 2016, and her ‘Glitter EP’, released on G.O.O.D Music a few months prior to her stint in Wyoming. But having the opportunity to work with her idols last summer - where she’d end up contributing to four of the five albums - has made a huge impact on the North Bergen native’s artistic process. While she isn’t closed off to the possibility of releasing it in the future, the debut album ‘Yellow Girl’, which she’d been teasing for some time, took a back seat while she began work on an entirely new record. “Experiencing working with Kanye West, I think that taught me a lot,” she explains. “So I had a whole different mindset. I saw what I could do, and it took me to my fullest potential.”

Alongside a tight knit group of collaborators - including legendary Houston rap producer Mike Dean, Dave Hamelin (formerly of Canadian indie band The Stills), Sean Solymar, J.Sebastian and some of her crew from back home - Shake set up shop in a Los Angeles studio. “[It was] just a peaceful environment. I had this sage that came in, incense burning,” she describes. “We had decked out the whole studio with tapestry. We had writing on the walls. If we thought something or felt something we’d write it on a piece of paper and just put it up on the walls.”

For a month she’d record in one room while beats were being built in another, and then feedback would be exchanged. “I’d be like, ‘Take everything out, just leave the bass, leave the drums and add this’,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll do vocals and they’ll be like, ‘It sounded better when you did it in this type of [way]. It’s a team effort.” While many of her peers are used to recording to beats pulled from their email inbox, Shake believes it’s integral that she be involved in the production process. “I feel like no one ever gets it right,” she admits. “It’s more of a thing that’s crafted, it’s massaged. You know, it’s sculpted.”

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Her journey as a writer began with poetry, which would provide therapy during her school years. “It was the only way I could express what I was feeling,” she recalls. After leaving school, she felt propelled by an urge to make her mark on the world. “I feel like I’m just meant to change something,” she says. “And that’s the only reason I’m here. Music isn’t the big picture.” She pauses before clarifying: “I mean I love music, and it’s what can bring people together. But it’s not my goal to be a Grammy-winning artist or stuff like that.”

She began to pursue music as a vehicle towards her higher purpose. “I just came up with a plan and executed it. I was like, ‘I can write. I can sing, kind of. So let’s try and put these together.” Without access to the kind of custom-made instrumentals she’s used to today, she began searching for ‘ScHoolboy Q Type Beats’ online and began to apply her poetry. “It came out pretty good,” she says, as if still slightly impressed. “Surprising!”

No longer content with “pretty good”, Shake, who admits she’s a perfectionist, will obsessively tweak and embellish a song long after everyone else in the room has decided it’s complete. Sessions at the LA studio would regularly exceed 12 hours. “If I see food, I don’t have to be hungry, I still want to eat it, you know?” she says, with a grin. “So the song could be done, but it’s just there and it’s not out yet, so I want to pick it and do different shit. The way I think of it is if you think it could be better, make it better, then you’re going to have a great product. I didn’t always live by that. I learned from trial and error. I learned from the past set; if you don’t think something is great, don’t put it out. You’re going to have to perform this song, so just finish it until you love it.”

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Once she’d whittled down over 100 songs to a concise set of nine, the album was complete and just required a title. She’d find that in 1951 novel Raising The Curtain, by Mexican writer Rodolfo Benavides, which her videographer Bharata Selassie had brought along for the trip. “It’s a spiritual book about mediums and stuff. It’s a story about a boy that he’s telling from his perspective, life after death - he’s speaking like he’s dead,” she explains. “I was reading it and they mentioned ‘Modus Vivendi’. I looked it up and I just fell in love with it.” The Latin phrase describes an arrangement that allows people with different opinions or beliefs to work together. “I feel like that is the answer to everything,” says Shake. “Just separating your differences and saying, ‘We can coexist with our differences. We’re going to put that aside.’”

The first songs from the album to be shared with her fans are ‘Morrow’ and ‘Nice To Have’, which she summed up on Twitter as “One to Dance and One to Cry.” With its galloping bass line, the former sounds like a copy of G.O.O.D Music’s ‘Cruel Summer’ compilation travelled back in time and landed in the hands of Hertfordshire prog rock band Babe Ruth before they recorded their seminal 1972 track ‘The Mexican’. The latter is a sorrowful ballad about celebrating good times spent with a former lover. “I felt like this would be a good introduction, because it still has some of the old Shake sound, then it’s introducing the new sound,” she offers. “Because everything on the album is definitely different.”

The new sound she describes feels like a refinement of everything that fans already love about her. Every detail on ‘Modus Vivendi’ has its purpose: her lyrics delivered with more intent, hooks are infectious, and instrumentals are carefully crafted to evoke an emotional response from her listener.

One of the major influences for this new direction has been live performance, which is her favourite part of being a musician. “That’s kind of how I thought of these songs,” she asserts. “I just thought about me performing them. A lot of times when I’m writing I don’t even hear it in my voice; I hear it in a crowd’s voice, like a group of people chanting.”

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Her first experience of live music as a fan came relatively late in life. “I didn’t go to any shows growing up,” she says. “I had different things to worry about. The first show I ever went to was The Weeknd’s show. I love him. It was at [Madison Square] Garden, so just watching him on that stage inspired me, and I wanted to be there.”

The weekend before our conversation, Shake played some of her new material at Coachella. “This is my first time performing with this new energy,” she says. “So expressing that… it felt good, I guess.” She admits that the prospect of performing can be daunting, although any anxiety has a tendency to evaporate at precisely the right moment. “I get in my head and I get nervous,” she admits. “But once I’m on stage it just disappears. It’s like an exchange of energy, like you’re playing ping-pong with the crowd. It’s such a powerful moment that it takes over every other thought or feeling that is within you.”

Buried in a generation content to grab their Warholian 15 minutes of fame from a viral video, 070 Shake is driven by the desire to make her listeners feel. She’s impressively present in every aspect of her life, and careful to avoid distraction. She doesn’t own a mobile phone, which is a constant topic of conversation for her press team who are trying to talk her into getting a prepaid flip phone, and she laughs when asked about it.

“Phones just scare me,” she explains. “I feel like you have to disconnect a little bit. You got to know that you’re still who you were when you came to this Earth. I want to be as pure as that. Sometimes you get too involved to the point where you’re not even yourself anymore. You’re with Kiki in the Bahamas, looking at her Instagram pictures, or you’re with someone else in the studio. You’re just looking at everybody else’s life and forgetting you gotta live too!”

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Rather than competing with her peers for likes and follows, 070 Shake’s legacy will be built on making timeless records with a deeper connection. She lists Michael Jackson and Queen, alongside the aforementioned Kanye West, KiD CuDi and The Weeknd, as musicians that have all made her feel strongly.

“The songs you remember now are songs that said something, because you translate this feeling through words and rhythm. Feeling is the only thing that you’re going to remember. There’s so many things in life that I feel like I don’t remember because I didn’t really stop at that moment and feel something for it,” she explains, with a hint of regret. “So when you think about a significant other that you’ve had, you remember the feeling that they gave you. That’s all you remember really, and you remember that time, even if it’s the most random thing: in that moment you felt something that you carried with you.”

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Eric Chakeen
Fashion: Rachael Wang
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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