Uncovering Bonzai (aka Music’s Best-Kept Secret, But Not For Long)

Meet Bonzai, the electric-soul artist you need to have on your radar. She sat down with us on a sun-drenched morning in Los Angeles to chat about everything from celebrating St. Paddy’s Day in the states to what it’s like working with artists like Mura Masa and Flume.

By Zarna Surti

Saturday mornings are usually reserved for hangovers, Postmates shame meals, or sometimes (ok, often) late, late nights. Last Saturday was a little different—I popped into Sawyer, a brunch spot in Silver Lake, to meet up with a semi-mysterious, cult-favorite Irish singer: Bonzai. I’d listened to all three of her EPs, seen her perform at a sold-out Roxy show, and even caught glimpses of her in Mura Masa videos. But somehow, I still barely knew anything about her.

Skip to a few minutes later when she popped into the restaurant wearing an off-the-shoulder blue dress with broken in Doc Martens and braids wrapped perfectly on top of her head—all with a hangover in tow. “Do you have tomahhto juice?” the 21-year-old singer asked. It was St. Paddy’s the day before and she was sourly recalling the green beer she drank the night before; “we had green Coronas—I’d never seen it!” When I asked her what they do in Ireland to celebrate (apparently there’s absolutely no green beer, or wine, or, well, you get it), she just laughed and said, “literally just get pissed.”

Although my conversation with the up-and-coming artist was hilarious and relaxed (much like Bonzai herself), her music is forward-thinking and extremely inspired. Bonzai’s millennial take on avant-garde soul music is reminiscent of her influences, Björk and M.I.A. She uses deep electronic beats and mixes them with the airy, R&B-inspired melodies she fell in love with as a teenager, citing Pharrell and Timbaland as favorites. Over the past few years, she’s toured with Mura Masa and Flume, and on her last EP, Sleep Hungry (yes, pretty much all of us every night), she’s brilliantly infused British-underground influences, aggressive instrumentation, and gangsta-meets-feminine vocal deliveries. On breakout tracks like “Where Are U Now” and “Lights On” she plays with intricate pauses and is careful not to interrupt strong instrumental moments with what most new artists would fill with riffs and rants.

Born in Indiana, Bonzai only spent a few months in the states before she moved to Ireland. Her musical roots stem from her parents—her mother is a teacher who loves to sing jazz, while her father plays drums for fun in rock band. When I asked her if she plays any instruments, she remembers a particular moment at age 13 when she quit piano lessons. “I’ll still play around with piano and shit, but I stupidly gave up and was like, ‘fuck this,’ but I wish I played drums because my dad is a sick drummer. He’s bringing over his electronic drum kit from Ireland, so we’re going to start doing lessons soon.” Even though that was a rough year for her piano skills, 13 was also the age she “properly sat down and wrote songs,” and before she knew it, she had skipped a grade, graduated by age 17, and was moving to London. “My second day in London, I got a job waitressing because I had to,” she remembers, “I stayed with a friend of mine’s aunt who I didn’t really know–but she was really lovely–until I sorted it out.”

When I ask her the difference between Dublin and London, she touches on the sensitivity of being black in Ireland and how culturally-related physical attributes wouldn’t even be an issue in a diverse city like London. She remembers a specific moment when her braids, which are an ethnically significant beauty choice, were mocked, recalling, “back in Ireland, I wouldn’t be comfortable having my hair wrapped up in something. Actually, the last time I was in a festival in Ireland, I had my hair wrapped in an African scarf and this guy started making rude noises at me. Stuff like that wouldn’t happen in London—you can wear whatever you want and do whatever you want.”

Opening up to the diversity in London has affected her both culturally and musically, but she’s quick to realize how different cities influence her craft. She’s been in Los Angeles for the past few days and has been in and out of the studio with Flume and King Henry (who produces for everyone from Beyoncé to Bieber), while also hitting dancehall nights, taking meetings, and of course, eating at Sugarfish. “The main thing here is the sun,” she says, “I just love being in the sun. As much as I love Ireland and England—it’s just the fresh air. Since I’ve been out here, the stuff I’ve written has been very major and happy. When I’m back in England, it’s no chords, just dark noises. So yeah, it makes a difference.” She describes the music she’s working on now as an infusion of R&B and African music, but don’t expect a full album anytime soon. Instead, she’s taking her time to do it right and will be putting out singles throughout the year.

Bonzai doesn’t feel the pressure to overthink things, especially songwriting. As she plays with her worn-in neon orange acrylic nails she says, “If you think about it too much, it’ll be shit or you’ll get stressed out. At the start, I was thinking about it too much, because I thought we were aiming for an album and I thought I had to have an album out really fucking soon. And then we decided we weren’t going to do that and then it was just writing for fun.”

Another thing that separates her from the crowd is that it’s rare to find photos of the singer online, although her cult, almost cartoon-like visuals she concepts with her friend Mica Warren are some of our favorites in the game. When I ask her why she prefers illustrations and graphics over photos she says, “I don’t know, I feel like I might be ready to show my face a bit more. At the start I definitely didn’t want to—I didn’t want it to be about my looks, because that’s so much shit, especially with girls and designers and stuff. Loads of people will be like ‘she’s pretty’ or ‘she’s not pretty,’ and I just want to be about the music.” She prefers strong women like Bjork, Erykah Badu, and Rihanna who just “do whatever the fuck they want.”

Next up? She’s performing at a few festivals overseas, she might pop out at your favorite desert music getaway (pro-tip: don’t miss Mura Masa’s set), and she’s working on new music that’s dropping very, very soon. But in true Bonzai fashion, it’ll be a mystery until she’s completely ready. In the meantime, she’ll be between London, Dublin, and Los Angeles kicking back with the very occasional green beer…or tomahhto juice.

For more on Bonzai visit her website or follow her on Instagram.