Elle Shimada: Navigating Melodies and Emotions - An Interview with the Fearless Music Maverick
From Tokyo to Melbourne, we talk music, independence, and blending genres for political soundscapes.
Elle Shimada is a DJ, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from Japan, based in Melbourne. Generating immersive soundscapes through a blend of different genres and styles, her music presents itself as a beautiful contradiction, combining elements of jazz, electronic, house and classical. The multifaceted, textured sounds are an embodiment of Elle’s life experience and influences which amass into a complex melody of emotions.
It’s 1 AM in Australia when I meet with Elle on a video call from my London room, she assures me that the lateness doesn’t bother her - “1 PM scares me more than 1 AM does” - so we jump right in. In the conversation that follows, we examine music as a peaceful protest, navigating the industry, collabs with your dad and quite a bit in between…
You’re chatting to me from your home in Melbourne, what brought you to Australia?
I grew up in Tokyo, in commission housing - in a beautiful community by the way - but I always thought, “I'm gonna get out of here”. When I was about fifteen I went to New York and experienced a lot of what I do now for the first time. I ran out of money quickly - obviously, because I was fifteen. I told all my friends “I'm gonna go to America, and I'm gonna be the next Beyonce” so when I got back to Tokyo, everyone was like “Okay Beyonce, you're back early!”. After that, I had to go somewhere else to prove myself and an opportunity came up to study in Australia so I took it, half out of shame. I had no idea what Australia was like, all I knew was that there's more sheep than people there. Not quite the next Beyonce but it’ll do.
You were a pretty fearless child then. How has this translated into adulthood?
I think a lot of people see me as fearless because I’ll do such impulsive things. Actually, I do have a lot of fear but I have a good relationship with it. Doing something out of my comfort zone still really excites me, the fear of the unknown is something that I actively lean into.
Your music certainly reflects this, what’s your thought process when creating something new?
I just make what I like to hear. I get bored easily and I'm always looking for something to please my chaotic brain. It's not like I haven't tried to make something that could be considered pop before, but I realised that I was assuming someone else would like it. I know what I like and these days I stick with it. At least then I can please myself, you know? I recently had a lesson with the incredible violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson who told me, “You have to be gentle with your own creations, don’t judge them too harshly” and I really stick by that. Making music has got to be fun.
A lot of what you make has some political charge, do you think that having a creative platform comes with an obligation to address social issues?
When we have a voice we have a responsibility and that can be as simple as being true to your authentic self, sometimes being non-political for many politicized bodies is a powerful statement. For me, my music often ends up becoming political but not purposefully - I’m a political person and I'm just trying to be authentic to my thoughts. This voice comes with a beautiful privilege, music is a vessel to reach others.
You’ve previously addressed the difficulties of moving to Australia and starting a career in a male-dominated, white-centric society, how has this affected you?
Growing up almost exclusively surrounded by a patriarchal, white environment actually helped me in a way - the only time that I could express what I wanted to say was through my music.
In a really roundabout way, I'm grateful that I went through that because it pushed me to have my own voice. There’s a sense of excitement for me as new sounds are emerging from this cultural melting pot, imagine the types of music we will see as they become normalized.
Your song ABOUT BLANK ____ with Rara Zulu addresses this. Can you tell me more about that?
Rara Zulu is an incredible singer and songwriter, based in Melbourne from South Africa and she’s my best friend. We were bitching about some experiences we had in the industry where we didn’t feel heard or accepted - and we were angry about it. The song came from just being emotional. In my album before that, I thought really carefully about the concept behind it, but ABOUT BLANK ____ emerged so quickly because we wanted to capture our raw emotion straight away. I have my equipment at home so there was not much difference between us being on the couch bitching and then us actually recording.
Yeah, you studied audio engineering, right? How does that affect your work?
Studying audio engineering has been such an empowering tool to stay authentic to my ideas. I have my laptop and all my audio equipment at home so whenever I feel like making music, I make music. There isn't a buffer between my idea and what I make which is such a privilege. I think especially being a woman of color - and a broke one too - it's invaluable to be able to express myself without having somebody else telling me what to do.
A lot of what you do is independently made or directed, the short film for ABOUT BLANK ____ was shot on an iPhone. Are you hoping to direct more projects in the future?
I'd love to. We have another video coming up soon, which is also self-directed and shot on iPhone. That just might be the way that it's going to be until we get more budget. Something special about the lack of resources though, was that I got my father to shoot the video - he’s a filmmaker. Working with my family and seeing my father through the lens of professional and artistic collaboration brought us a lot closer.
Can you tell us about something that's inspired you recently?
I recently went on support in Australia and watching Liv.e live was really inspiring. It felt like the first time that I’d supported someone that musically makes a lot of sense for me to support because she’s blending elements of different sounds and genres. She's so free on stage, kind of unhinged but very loving, she'll scream into the mic like “Do love yourself or what!?”. I can be a little bit calculated and nerdy in my delivery of music so this level of totally letting it go inspires me - I want to be more like that. Watching Obongjayar was super inspiring as well. I cried to a song called I wish it was me and everyone in the audience was cuddling me, my friends, as well as a bunch of strangers - it was beautiful. Of course, I’ve got a ton of records I listen to, but it’s these real-life experiences which truly inspire me.
Follow Elle on Instagram @elleshimada and give her a listen!