Last night, Danielle Balbuena was breaking the rules. At the debut show of her European tour, she was caught sneaking a fan in through the back door. Ahead of the gig in Dublin, the rapper-singer better known as 070 Shake tweeted that anyone without a ticket would be let in by her “people”. “We got in trouble for that too,” she flashes a wicked but warm smile. “He got kicked out, but he got back in.”
The tour is to honour her recently-released debut album Modus Vivendi, a record that’s futuristic and full of feels. When I arrive she’s soundchecking against a fuschia-strobing light show, her voice the soundtrack to what feels like an E‑number flavoured out-of-body experience. There’s something strangely holy about Shoreditch’s Village Underground when you’re the only person in the audience.
Backstage, Shake’s all cascading curls are piled atop a petite frame, with heavy-lidded eyes on a bare face, and looks like butter wouldn’t melt until that aforementioned grin comes into play. The 22-year-old speaks softly with an accent that’s a little gruff around the edges. Along with the dainty 070 tattoo on her temple that refers to the area code, her voice gives away her New Jersey origins – she rounds off every other sentence with an endearing, “you know what I’m saying?”.
It was back home in New Jersey where her rebellious streak became the catalyst for her creativity. Disinterested in lessons and defiant in the face of authority, Shake held the record for the most student suspensions at high school. Coupling that with an apparent ADHD diagnosis from her school, she was only allowed to attend the Special Ed classes she was placed in once she’d taken her prescribed Adderall. In turn, she put pen to paper to express herself outside of class.
Mental health battles are a poignant and recurring theme throughout her work. “I used to write a lot of poetry when I was younger in high school and going through all this shit, I was going through personal things and that carried on into school and was why I behaved the way I did,” she explains. “If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, that’s what inspired me.”
It got to the point where Shake was getting so many in-school suspensions, she’d bring a pillow from home so she could nap on the desk. “My mom worked for the town, so she used to come in [to school] so embarrassed. I put her through hell,” she explains with a look of retrospective apology. “They suspended me and they had to bring my mom in, and my mom was like: ‘That is MY PILLOW!’” She whispers hoarsely in a faux-scream between laughs. “She took the pillow and just threw it in the trash.”
Being given prescription pills by adults gave Shake all the agency she needed to start experimenting with other drugs in her teens. “That’s why when I was watching Euphoria I was like, ‘Oh I can’t even watch this shit!’ Because it reminded me so much of the shit that I went through,” she explains. Shake’s mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, trusted that the school knew what was best for her seemingly unruly daughter. “She didn’t know better. I don’t blame her for that,” Shake says, “which is cool, because I had to go through that. If I didn’t, then I don’t know what would have happened.”
Shake certifies her mum is a “G”, and explains that it was after she brought home a “broken-ass” keyboard she found on the pavement that Shake started putting her poems to beats. “It was fucking trash,” she laughs about the instrument, “but it was everything.” After deciding the role of beat maker wasn’t her calling, she started “low key stealing” backing tracks from YouTube users until her cousin was able to lend her the cash to pay them back. She soon had people complimenting her talent. “I had a lot of support to be honest,” she tells me. “I couldn’t pay for studio time, so I had this dude, they call him Beast, he was running this whole studio, like a warehouse with rooms in it, and he would let me record in there for free because he believed in me.”
After uploading her recordings to Soundcloud and generating a strong buzz, Shake signed to management. “I was literally like, ‘I’m not going to sign to anyone unless it’s Kanye West’s label’,” she tells me. “Couple weeks later, they reached out to me.” Her manager had got her tracks in front of GOOD Music’s president Pusha T and the rest played out in almost cinematic perfection: Almost Famous but for autotune-manipulated galactic emo-rap.
“The way it happened for me,” she exhales. “I fell out of this thing, I was like, in a dark bubble…” she breaks out of reality for a sustained pause and falls into her subconscious. “Sorry,” she snaps back into the dressing room. “I just remembered a dream I had.” A good one? “No, not really actually,” she says before continuing with her previous thought, giving some insight into the way her mind works. “I was in a dark bubble and the way I fell out of it, it went so perfect. As I was falling out, the whole Kanye thing happened, and it boosted me. It was just perfect.”
2018’s Glitter EP was released by GOOD but was made “in a very dark place”. The six-track release encompasses sexuality (Shake is averse to labels but dated her girlfriend Sophia Diana Lodato since before Glitter), depression and drug use. Where Modus feels like an ascension with laser beam pings and transcendent transitions, Glitter seems like a solo battle focused on Shake pushing against the things that threaten to cage her. “Sometimes dark places are fine, but it was to the point where I didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” she admits. “I started healing after the Glitter process and my mind started clearing up, and I started learning more. I was able to really manipulate my talent, you know, and take control of it.”
Travelling to be part of Kanye’s Wyoming sessions later in 2018 was central to Shake’s epiphany. “Meeting him was everything, everything,” she affirms. “But it also showed me who I was. It showed me that I’m bigger than what I think I am, you know what I’m saying? It showed me more about who I was than who he was.”
After her stint out in the mountains, Shake was included on Pusha T’s Daytona album and her profile was boosted thanks to her show-stealing performance on West’s Ye track Ghost Town. She took his unrelenting work ethic as a souvenir and put it into practise while recording Modus, along with a newfound hunger for experimentation. She fell into a Pink Floyd black hole and put the studio into lockdown, even covering the clock on her computer screen with tape. Revered indie-musician-turned-producer Dave Hamelin worked on the bulk of the album, while GOOD Music stalwart Mike Dean was brought in for the final flourishes. “It wouldn’t exist without them,” Shake says. “It’s not just mine, it’s ours.”
In the YouTube comments for the video of album opener Don’t Break The Silence, someone has commented “shhh the movie starting”. It’s an accurate summary as any. When she did allow distractions in the studio, her and her team would slink into the room next door and watch movies on a projector, even matching closing track Terminal B to a specific scene in Kill Bill: Volume 2. Don’t Break The Silence unveils the full frontal, gritty grandeur of the record, setting the listener up for the trip. The manufactured quality of autotune layered through Shake’s vocals juxtaposes against the sheer emotion, longing and power of her voice and lyrics, while melodies flip between sonic assaults (see: The Pines especially) and welcome respite in free-falling moments.
Fuelled by love, paranoia and influenced by intoxication, this time round Shake’s stronger, learning from every curve ball life throws that she can’t be contained. On Terminal B, one of her own favourite tracks, she sings: “I be feelin’ free in your prison”. Seemingly a fan favourite, on Microdosing she warns against losing yourself in another person: “I don’t wanna be your everything, ‘cause I don’t wanna leave you with nothing.”
The idea for Microdosing came “from the motherfucking stars”. In the studio she put a sugar cube that was infused with LSD in a water bottle and sipped a cup throughout the day. She stuck the word on a piece of paper on the wall along with anything else that came into her mind and from microdosing acid, came the concept of microdosing a person. “I start singing that melody while playing the drums and shit and it felt pretty good…” she explains. “It’s like something is giving me these words. Something is giving it to me, because I didn’t even make that connection prior.”
To understand feelings better, Shake likes to observe – to try and see things, like when on the acid, from multiple perspectives. There was even a point when she was considering acting over music., “I like how you can really just go in to become something else that’s from a deep part of the brain,” she explains. Laying herself bare within the warped atmosphere of Modus Vivendi – which in itself means: a way of life that allows separate parties to coexist peacefully – she hopes listeners will get to understand her better, and as a result, perhaps themselves too. “My music is literally my feelings being dispersed into sounds,” she says. “So when they listen to it and indulge in that feeling, and receive it, they’re receiving a piece of me. I’m sharing my soul with them.”
Shake is eager to share her soul tonight, asking everyone we encounter in the venue if they’re sticking around for the gig. “The whole purpose for me is to do it for people…” she grins infectiously again, describing the unspoken connection in a crowd when everyone has their own relationship with the same song. “That’s what amazes me about shows – that everybody in here is searching for the same feeling, for the same thing.” While it might have been the loneliness in being misunderstood that pushed Shake to make music, now she’s easing the experience of others with her words.