The current resurgence of mainstream R&B is partly due to women's vulnerability. From Summer Walker to Ari Lennox, the genre's new wave of female singers embrace their flaws and use their lyrics to reveal their journey to healing. Shari Marie, a rising singer-songwriter hailing from the Bronx, hopes to do the same with her debut album Reflection.
Released on Sept. 12, the 21-year-old exclusively worked with Swagg R’Celious (the Grammy-winning executive producer of H.E.R.'s Vol. 1 and 2). She opened up about the pressures of being a dancer (which ultimately led to a short-lived eating disorder in high school), dealing with the absence of her imprisoned father and simply finding her voice in an industry that is quick to rip apart new artists. Throughout her come-up, Marie has had her biggest fan by her side — her mother Debbie Alston.
"I knew she was a star right from the beginning," Alston says as she lovingly gazes at her daughter across the table at the Billboard offices. "She was singing before she was talking. I had to look for somewhere in the neighboorhood where she could take vocal lessons. I found a studio and soon as she saw her they scooped her up to compete."
Marie, who looks to her mother as a big sister, says their bond has helped her get to this point: "We're really close, and I think it's because of the fact that my dad is away. She was the only parent home, so it was me, her and my brother all the time. We're so much alike."
The singer got her start by uploading funny videos on the now-defunct Vine at age 14, but soon noticed her singing clips came with more followers. She later transitioned to Instagram, which helped her secure a record deal with Same Plate in 2017.
Below, Shari Marie speaks to Billboard about the message she wants fans to receive from key songs on her debut LP, Reflection.
Take me back to when you were just a kid growing up in the Bronx.
My parents would play music all day nonstop, so it was an everyday thing for me. I would feel the most comfortable when I performed for them. I was singing Michael Jackson, Barry Manilow and more old-school artists. My childhood was very nice until when my dad was put in jail when I was four years old. I remember a change in environment, we moved into my grandparents' house. I started dancing at 7, and that was my first love. I did lyrical, contemporary, modern, jazz, tap — everything.
Who were some of your inspirations?
Michael Jackson, Chris Brown, Dream Street, Play. I was obsessed with Justin Bieber. His music actually inspired my own music. Sometimes when I do certain things, I think of him right away. "Baby" actually taught me how to riff. I was in the car with my friend and we were like, "How does he do that with his voice?" We kept listening to it and got it right by moving my jaw a certain way. Laughs.]
What was your experience like at LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts? The school has so many notable alumni, like Nicki Minaj and Jharrel Jerome.
My experience wasn't the best. It was different than everybody else's. I went there for ballet and contemporary. Once I started doing the classes, I realized how skinny every single girl was. I was skinny at the time, but I just felt like that's how I was supposed to look. I felt a little out of the loop. They would brag about not eating for breakfast.
I ended up having anorexia. I would try my hardest to have a little cup of Cheerios, then I would get to school and feel like complete shit. I was starving myself to look like a perfect, skinny ballerina. I was losing weight quickly and purposefully, and that's what was messing with me the most. So LaGuardia] wasn't a fun time for me, and got home-schooled for the rest of the year. After that I transferred to Spelman.
For fans who may be struggling with an eating disorder, what would you say to them?
Nothing matters except for being healthy. When you're doing something to please other people and you're not pleasing yourself, at the end of the day it's gonna hurt you. It's a complicated situation and hard to get out of. A lot of girls feel like it's never-ending when they get into the headspace of having to starve themselves to look good. Learning to love yourself on the inside and who you are as a person is way more important than trying to please other people's opinions on how you look.
Getting into the album, I thought it was pretty bold of you to not include any features.
I don't want to pop off another person's numbers. I wanted people to just hear me. When I started working with Swag, our main focus was to work around my story. So features weren't necessary for the project. I thought it was cool to showcase my voice. I did a lot of different types of songs, and in every one I use different styles.
And I know Swagg R’ Celious is the album's executive producer. What did you learn from him?
Before I started working with him, I wasn't 100 percent there when it came to writing and the format of a song. I was being trained with him and now it's a breeze to make a song. His style also really helped my own style more tasteful. He helped a lot in building my confidence in making music.
The record is titled Reflection. Did you find it easy to open up so naturally?
The point I want to make on this album] is that I'm an open book. I'm someone that many people can actually relate to. We were thinking what could be the perfect song to showcase what I'm trying to say, and the title track] was it. No matter what's going on, when you look at yourself in the mirror you should know that you got this. There's a lyric where I sing, "How can you judge the outside before you heal the inside." Even to this day I still have issues with that, but it gets better.
There's a lyric on "Exclusive" that says: "No possession, I’m not your toy.” How do you stand your ground with relationships?
Guys love sliding into the DMs and just trying to play me! I'm worth more than just a DM and a meetup. Dealing with men, in general, is pretty easy for me because I know exactly what I want and when I want it. If I'm completely not into a guy, I make sure I don't lead them on.
When I was 21, I didn't have that mindset at all. I think it's so interesting how your generation looks at dating because of social media.
Social media 100 percent changed everything, especially relationships for sure. I'm way more hesitant than a lot of 21-year-olds. I don't let myself just be with anybody. When you're on Instagram and have that following, sometimes people just want clout. Even when there's celebrities sliding in your DMs, you can tell they just want one thing. It's just like, "Nah not happening!" Laughs.]
You previously told me that “I Don’t Want It" was about haters. Do you still experience that?
I've always dealt with haters from when I was young. This particular song is more about my experiences with people I was once close to, who were just trying to take away my shine and not bringing me to a positive place. I wasn't in the zone with people I was surrounded by. Like I said in the song, I really just didn't want the fake shit. It got to a point where I cut them off. It's been a breath of fresh air once I removed those toxic people.
“I Belong to You” really dives into your relationship with your father. How has his jail time affected your life?
Once I recorded it, I knew it can be something that will touch a lot of people. The love story is more about my parents than me, and it's emotional. My mom always says that my dad is her soulmate no matter what. When I was young, him being in jail affected me more because of the fact that kids would ask where he was. I was embarrassed because I didn't have anybody to relate to. But our relationship grew stronger — we visit him all the time. So it's not a sad experience anymore. My dad is really happy that I'm in the right hands and making good music that he knew I could make.
Now that I'm talking about it, more people are coming to me about being in the same situation. I was visiting my dad not too long ago, and there was a girl sitting next to me crying. When her mom walked away, I complimented her nails to make her feel better. She turned to me and said, "I follow you on Instagram!" Laughs.] I told her that she shouldn't feel alone and there's always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel — whether our dads come home or not. She couldn't even believe I was there, it was such a shock. I just wanted her to feel comfortable and know that it's not something to be ashamed of.