Bonzai is the Irish Singer-Songwriter Bringing Technicolor Rave to Modern R&B: New Face, Fresh Style
Cassia O’Reilly belongs to a musical family. Born to a jazz singer and drummer, she grew up in the small village called Wicklow outside of Dublin, writing her first song before the age of ten. Today, she makes alternative R&B teetering on the edge of late night electronic dance as Bonzai (which, for the record, has nothing to do with the tree). Her bold, energetic sound and style have propelled her from singing backing vocals for British singer NAO to collaborating with emerging producer Mura Masa and opening for Flume’s world tour.
From the experimental rap-singing of Bonzai’s 2015 debut EP Royah to the virulent house beats of her 2016 EP Sleepy Hungry, the 21-year-old has been flexing her wide range of musical influences as well as her own creativity. “I was raised on literally all sorts—indie, R&B, rock, a lot of hip-hop, opera,” O’Reilly tells Billboard. “My brother is more into the underground stuff and that’s what I really got into for a while. I was listening to beats and industrial stuff from producers like Mumdance and Sega Bodega.” She counts Azealia Banks, M.I.A., Ashanti, and rave music pioneers the Chemical Brothers as fundamental inspirations behind the creation of Bonzai.
Much like her music, O’Reilly’s personal style is largely informed by her carefree exploration and individuality. By 14-years-old, she was clubbing with a fake I.D. In high school, she busked in a band and freestyled at parties with friends in high school. Eventually, she graduated a year early to study music in London at 17. “I just wear what I like to be honest,” O’Reilly muses. With the same nonchalance she speaks of her budding musical career—“I was kind of just experimenting”—she talks about her colorful, oversized, and intuitive style as “pretty casual.”
O’Reilly likes to thrift shop in Brixton, London, where she currently lives. She becomes super animated when talking about her latest find. “I actually just bought myself a fucking sick Suzuki motorbike racing jacket that’s like way too big for me, but it looks amazing,” she explains. “It’s got some white, blue, and red which are my favorite colors right now, so it really hits the spot.” A self-proclaimed brand amateur, she looks to icons like Rihanna and the 2000s-inspired aesthetics of fashion blog Instagram V.Ri0t for ideas. “I follow this Twitter page called Fenty Look with all of Rihanna’s different outfits when I’m trying to wind down for a minute,” she says. “And the whole glittery vibe [of V.Ri0t] is fun—you gotta love a but of glitter and diamonds.”
For her first official music video for “I Feel Alright,” O’Reilly complemented her bright red braids with a scarlet look by sustainable latex fashion brand Hanger. “The director was friends with this girl who makes her own clothes called Hanger. She’s sick. So, I had a chat with her and really got to go through all the outfits and think of some ideas with the girl who does my hair.” Though not quite at the place O’Reilly wants her visuals to be, she did have the chance to work closely with the director and share her ideas. “It was fun, but from now on I think I might just do videos with just me,” she clarifies. “I really like that about Björks videos—her older stuff is just her being crazy with literally nothing else going on. I think that it's just so cool to carry a whole three minutes by yourself when people's attention spans would usually drop in the first thirty seconds.”
Bonzai is currently working on a debut album that, according to O’Reilly, is a sonic departure from her previous works. “I’ve really put a lot of time into writing and put a lot of thought into what I want to do live now,” she tells. “A lot of that was solidified when I got to work with Rostam. He really sees what I’m trying to do.” More soulful than rave, the album grew from a desire to become more grounded as a musician. “When I started doing my own shows, it was mainly me just screaming at people. I wouldn’t mind just singing and getting into that and not doing 3:00AM shows every time I’ve got a festival. It’s all still dance-y because that’s what I love, but maybe just more sexy than hardcore.”
With her debut on the horizon, O’Reilly plans to bring her vision to its full potential. “I’ve got maybe six songs that I definitely what on the album that I love, and I’ve got a video idea for every song.” With a deeper emphasis on her stunning vocals and a newfound ownership of her evolving aesthetic, Bonzai’s future is brimming with promise.
Catch her "I Feel Alright" video below: