August 24, 2017Feature

In District Magazine Issue 002 we interviewed one of Ireland's most talented R&B exports to emerge in recent years. Below is an extract from a conversation with Bonzai, featuring a shoot by Omar O'Reilly.

Bonzai performs live at Metropolis Festival 2017 alongside TLC and more. Click here for tickets.


At just 20, Bonzai has three EPs to her name. She regularly collaborates with producer and songwriter Mura Masa, most notably on his track ‘What If I Go’. She has supported Flume for a number of European dates, and has already played Glastonbury — something which most artists build up to over a long career. What’s most surprising about her are not her achievements, but how she takes them in her stride.

Chatting to the artist you get an overwhelming sense of just how important music is to her. It runs in her veins, quite literally, with a jazz singing mother and a drummer father.

She seems completely unconcerned with fame and all the other side effects that come with being an internationally recognised artist. Her three releases to date, EPs ‘Royah’, ‘Sleepy Hungry’ and ‘Lunacy’, have featured illustrations as opposed to her photographs for just this reason.

“That’s just how I wanted it at the start. A lot of female artists who are young rely on their looks too much and I just didn’t want to be associated with that. I don’t know if I’ll keep doing it but I think the next cover will be a drawing and I will see how it goes.”

We were lucky, however, that Bonzai agreed to do a photoshoot for this feature. Her brother Omar O’Reilly, a photographer and musician under the alias Witch Trials, shot the images. Talking on her relationship with her sibling who has recently joined her in London she says, “He’ll come to gigs and shoot them and he’s kind of the first person that I did a photo shoot with, because you’re usually asked for some press shots or something and I just don’t really like being in front of a camera too much. I did a shoot with him and it was cool and some of the first press shots we used were those.”

Bonzai has not been one to conform to social norms, and at 17 uprooted her life and relocated to London, from Dublin. She had just finished her final school exams, and although other teenagers her age were thinking about college and moving out of home for the first time, she was already living alone in Dublin and had her sights set slightly further afield.

“I felt like I had had a good time in Dublin, but I was ready to try something else and meet new people. I think it seems a bit scarier than it is, once you get over and settle in.”

Speaking on the lure of the UK capital she says, “It’s just bigger, there are more people, and it’s more diverse. In Dublin you know everyone, everyone kind of knows everyone, whereas in London there are just fucking loads of people doing loads of different shit. There’s a lot going on.”

If she had to confine her sound to one genre the musician chooses R&B, but it’s much more than that. You can certainly hear the impact her childhood favourites Destiny’s Child and Ashanti had on her music, but as Annie Mac described it in an interview with Vogue UK, “it’s part rave, part industrial, part hip hop, part soul — all brought together by her brilliant songwriting.”

With influences as wide ranging as Timbaland, Björk and Rihanna and an ever-developing style, listeners of Bonzai are treated over and over again to a refreshingly unique artist.

Discussing whether we can expect an album down the line the Indiana- born artist says, “Albums are cool but they’re probably more for the artist at this point, I’m not sure many people really listen to full albums.”

With her constantly developing sound, shorter more frequent releases have proven beneficial to Bonzai’s writing process.

“I feel like what I want to do is quite a specific thing and it gets clearer the more music I release. That’s the thing, the more music you release you can listen back on things and hear what you want to do differently. If you have something you’re holding on to sometimes you don’t hear it in the same way than if you just release it and put it out in the world. I have definitely done that to try and make my vision a bit clearer.”

And the vision in question?

“A kind of future, ravey, R&B thing. What really excites me is a more intense electronic sound. I’m not saying I don’t like slower stuff, I just want to find a good balance I guess.”

Bonzai was due to play District 8 in Dublin on December 30 but the gig was rescheduled due to bad weather conditions resulting in a cancelled flight from London. Speaking on the choice to play a club rather than a more traditional live music venue she remarks, “Obviously the later vibe is different and it’s something that’s maybe a bit more exciting. It works for how everything looks and sounds at the minute, but we’ll see.”

She’s currently writing new material and admits, “There’s definitely work to be done. I plan to just make some music that I’m really happy with and try to solidify the sound more.”

As ever with this energetic artist the work is never done. There’s always more to strive for and currently on her bucket list is a collaboration with Liam Howlett. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Prodigy recently so yeah, it would be good to work with Liam.”

Considering everything Bonzai has touched so far has turned to sonic gold we have a feeling that this would be so much more than just good. Watch this space.

Bonzai has since confirmed that the new music will come in the form of an album. Her debut LP will arrive on the back of her penning a record deal with Sony.

She recently released a video for ‘I Feel Alright’. Catch her at Metropolis Festival

Words: Hannah O'Connell 
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