Pianist, singer and mental health advocate, Shannen Roberts is an artist who paints vividly through her expressive nature as Cusi Coyllur. Deemed as the name of an Inca Princess, Roberts’ music, vocals, and style is completely her own and embraces a confident demeanor that continues to inspire. Classically trained on piano from the ages of 5-16, music seems to be a second language for the LA artist. In between yoga, music, and of course founding the self-help blog, The Strange is Beautiful— which aims to provide self-care through community sharing — Roberts simply becomes an artist we need.
Through many missed in person interviews, where Roberts desperately tried to put me on a hiking trail, (which never got executed for unfortunate reasons all of my own that my calves later praised), I discovered Roberts. Sincerity is what lives within the persona of Cusi Coyllur but thrives charmingly in Roberts. As we scarcely exchanged words throughout several months I found myself changing roles from reporting from the outside to now the inside; a natural and reflective quality that radiates from Roberts.
Diving into the video for “amivulnerable?“, Roberts’ message highlights domestic abuse and answers the whisper some may casually ask, “why don’t they just leave?” The video’s dance interpretation of physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse stimulated an aspect that may be hard for some with similar trauma to truly digest while simultaneously silencing those whispers. Resulting as an accumulation of stories from friends, family members, and own personal trauma, Roberts carried these through the evolution of the video with the hope to spread awareness and offer support.
“At first it was the overwhelming factor of hearing so many stories from friends who had sexual abuse, trauma and domestic abuse that led to “amivulnerable?”, explains Roberts. “At that time, it was supposed to be a music video on different types of trauma – physical, sexual and emotional / psychological – but not with a focus on domestic abuse. I wanted to show how mind obstacles such as panic attacks and depression can look similar in people who have experienced different types of trauma.”
Despite the raw truth, “amivulnerable” does not simply tell this story but offers a sense of relief for victims –you do have the ultimate power and control. The overall direction allows viewers to seep inside the shadow that victims of domestic abuse may feel, and at times still carry in silence, while Roberts’ becomes that voice. While the dance interpretation can be seen as hauntingly beautiful, there needed to be a balance of movement between choreographer Alex Floyd and Roberts.
“Alex Floyd loves to be dark and creepy – she has a horror dance company called OdDancity . I love this about her, but I didn’t want this video to be extremely creepy, I just wanted it to show and evoke darkness. I felt she was the perfect person to work with because she could create powerful messages with small or chaotic movements in a creative way that I’ve never seen.
“We worked a lot together on finding that balance for those you have experienced abuse and those who haven’t. I would say, ‘that’s too dark or creepy, let’s try something different,’ and we’d talk a lot about what images will be universally understood in the video. I think the most worrisome images I had were for displaying sexual abuse and physical abuse. We felt the shadow cast away from the body to show sexual abuse got the point across in an impactful way without being so triggering as well as the shadow and my duet to show physical abuse.”
“She had asked at one point if I wanted to dance with another person to show these types of abuses and I said no, that’d be too much. Alex thought of the shadow concept in place of a person and I think it was the most brilliant idea ever to represent these types of trauma. We collaborated a lot on the emotional / psychological / verbal abuse parts with her hands on my head, her hands on my shoulders and her hands on my stomach but the rest was entirely the mind of Alex Floyd. To get the ideas for the choreography, she talked to me a lot about what stories I was drawing from for this music video. To get the emotions to show in my facials and body she would have me remember specific stories – whether they were mine or someone else’s.
“The finishing touch to the video was the color and the content warning in the beginning. A friend of mine helped me with the wording for the beginning as well as the title of the zine and the color was actually a huge thing to think about in regards to maintaining that balance. We were at first thinking it would be in black and white. We tried that and a few other contrasty options but I felt it made it look creepy and not real and I didn’t want the music video to feel like oh, this just happens in movies kind of thing. So we kept a bit of natural color in the video but also desaturated it to give that feeling of numbness. Numbness to the pain, numb to the situation, numbed out emotions so that you feel powerless as many victims and survivors have felt.”
Resurfacing from “amivulnerable?” to past singles such as “Woke Up From A Lazy Dream“, none fully portrayed Roberts with justice only Cusi Coyllur. Then through my own human qualities, I re-stumbled across The Strange is Beautiful. Rewound our missed interviews and landed on Reflection in 5 Diary Entries — Roberts personal stories that offered more for 2018. Effortlessly disclosed and ripped open, the musician’s honest illustration shined.
Atmospheric and calming electronic beats grow from her music but her genuine root is what truly allows for the vibration to be felt. Grounding what connects us all through our stories and more importantly throughout the growing process, Roberts is a fresh voice, musically and individually.
When asked what she wanted her audience to obtain from her, the answer was painstakingly simple and justified everything prior: “Comfort. They’re aren’t alone. What they feel is valid. Encouragement to practice self-care or to change their life in some way.”
Los Angeles, join The Strange is Beautiful for a self-love date night Friday, February 9th.