First Nations Girl: An Interview with Crystal Shawanda
Born on the Wikwemikong Native Reservation on Canada’s Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Shawanda learned early on that music was almost as integral to her community as food and shelter. Storytelling came easy through song. It told the history of the people, the stories of their natural surroundings and kept the traditions of her First Nations tribe, the Ojibwe, alive.
Her father was a truck driver and early in her teens Shawanda accompanied him on a trip through Nashville and got hooked on the music scene there. Multiple trips back and forth from home resulted in several independent albums and eventually, a permanent gig at the famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway in Nashville. While working at Tootsie’s, she met her future husband, met her future producer Scott Hendricks (Faith Hill, Brooks and Dunn), and was signed by Joe Galante to RCA Records/Sony Music Nashville. Her first single, “You Can Let Go,” reached the top 5 in Canada, the top 20 in the U.S. Her debut album, Dawn of a New Day — a direct translation of her surname — went on to sell 400,000 copies. She’d go on to be nominated for several awards, winning the Canadian Country Music Association’s Female Artist of the Year in 2009 and the 2013 Aboriginal Album of the Year Juno Award for Just Like You.
Though Nashville is Shawanda’s second home, the reservation is never far from her mind, and it continues to shape her musical direction and chart her course according to the traditions she learned as a child. She’s home frequently these days doing charity work and she proudly represents her people wherever she goes.
She’s also working on a brand new blues project that she was kind enough to talk about with Engine 145 while at home on Manitoulin Island.
What was it like growing up on the Wikwemikong Native Reservation?
It’s a tight knit community bursting with our rich culture, and history. We are a resilient people and it’s their sense of humor and their expression through music and art that has seen them through the hard times. In the winters, it’s a hockey town with a side of cabin fever. In the summers, it’s the island life. Manitoulin Island is the largest fresh water island, so it’s swimming and fishing every day! When it came to my music, I found both support and challenge there because not everybody supported me right away- which ended up being a good thing as they taught me to work for it. My community showed me by example that no matter what, to always rise above anything in life.
How much does it define you and your music?
It defines me a lot! Growing up where I did, I grew up fast. Within our community, I watched families dealing with suicides, alcohol-related deaths and addictions — some even within my own family. So this made me very empathetic at a young age when I sang a song, I can’t help but live in that song. It also defines me in the way of my passion for the music and my cultural influence bleeds through in the tribal rhythms I tend to unconsciously slip in!
And what was the link from there to Nashville and country music?
My family had a great love for country music, so I grew up singing and picking with my dad, who was a closet musician. My mom constantly played music in the house. She said it made the housework fly. And riding in the car, we’d always sing at the top of our lungs. The feeling I got was that country music gave them hope: like if those singers could live to sing about it, so could we. I watched Loretta Lynn be a friend to my mom through her music and I just wanted to grow up to be that for somebody else. My grandpa was always talking about Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry and how someday I’d be there too. I believed him and planned and plotted my escape to Nashville. Thankfully, my dad became a truck driver and we came south every chance we got ever since I was 12.
How important was Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to your career?
The world-famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge was very important to my career! The first time I sang there I was 13 and I received a standing ovation. I knew someday I’d be back. I started playing pickup shifts there after I moved to Nashville when I was 16 and decided to plant my anchor there permanently playing as many shifts as I could for the next few years working for tips and tips only. Shortly after, I met my guitar player, who later became my husband, and we played five to six days a week, three to four shifts a day. Some days we’d get there at 10 a.m. and wouldn’t leave till 3 a.m. It was rough, but it taught me how to work hard and it taught me how to entertain. Most importantly, I realized just how much I love to sing and that there is no stage too small. On the brutal days when we made no money and the crowds weren’t listening, the music always got me through. I got my wings there, built a name for myself, found support and met the people who would make everything happen for me.
What are the differences between the Canadian and American country markets?
Wow, that’s a loaded question! I guess the biggest difference is the difference in the size of the market. For example, on a radio tour in the U.S., you hit over 200 stations and in Canada, it’s around 30, but only 12 of them actually move the charts as far as industry standards. In America, it’s a huge market. If you don’t make it in the top 40, it’s okay; there are secondary markets that you can build a career off of. In Canada, it’s a smaller community, at least within the country music genre, so it’s a bit more limited. As far as the music, it’s all really diverse right now, but it’s all really good too. Across Canada and the U.S right now is a melting pot of different styles! In Canada, you have a little bit of influence from the East Coast, as well as some influence from the storytelling style of the prairies. This is just like America where it has influence from Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and more. It does seem lately though; everybody who is trying to get on the radio is definitely following a certain formula- including myself. That formula will garner commercial success. Or so we hope. It’s a tough market in the north and the south, there’s a lot of talent and a whole lot of politics.
Did winning the CCMA Female Vocalist of the Year Award feel like validation for all that hard work?
Yeah, validation for sure. It was a moment of confirmation that it wasn’t all for nothing, that I was officially legit. I first stepped on stage when I was six and became relentless. I started getting paid to sing when I was ten and left home when I was 13 to attend a school with a decent music program. I then moved to Nashville when I was 16, so I grew up pretty fast. My parents and I made a lot of sacrifices, so when I won I was very emotional to say the least. I also feel like this award acknowledged all the hard work Sony Canada put in because they really worked their tails off and pursued every opportunity. It paid off. They are a monster team.
Compare that reaction, those feelings, with your Juno award this past year.
The reaction was different yet the same! It was definitely very emotional again, because it was validation and confirmation at a time I needed it more than ever. At this point, I had been separated from every heavyweight and all the big companies I had been associated with so I was officially on my own with my little modest team. The album that won was on my record label, New Sun Records. So I felt like this award was confirmation that I’ll be allowed to exist in this business even without being attached to a major label, manager or agent. I also felt like it was validation as well for my latest venture, my record label and all the blood, sweat and tears my little team invested in the last couple years. I will always be very thankful to the Juno Awards for being true to the music and for being a true support to artists.
Why did you start your own label, New Sun Records, with your husband?
It really started out as a necessity. I am not one to sit idle. I have to keep going no matter what. Right after I parted with RCA, I won my CCMA and wanted to keep up the momentum. Every label I spoke to after either wanted me to develop some more or just didn’t get me musically. At this time I had been producing quite a few different acts on the side, so developing new talent was fast becoming a full time passion. Considering that I had just received the best education in the world, learning from the best of the best at RCA Records and Sony Music Canada, it just made sense to start my own label. I’ve always been an entrepreneur and music is my life. My husband has been in the business on stage and behind the scenes forever and we are both very passionate. We’re just very lucky that we both believe in each other’s crazy dreams!
How much does your career allow you to stay connected to your tribe and family back home?
These days now that I actually have a say in my life, I have reconnected with my family, community and tribe and we’re closer than ever. When I was with my former professional team, I was told everything from, “Your success may not change you, but it’ll change your family,” to, “You have to start phasing your family out, they are a distraction.” I was constantly encouraged to keep my family at a distance. Almost everyone resented the fact that my dad and my brother were my bus drivers. Even though they worked cheaper than the drivers in Nashville, minded their own business, were safe and actually sober, that was the case. In fact, we were sent many drugged out drivers with bus companies leased out by the label in the beginning. My decision to keep them on as my drivers turned out to be one of the main reasons I was later deemed complicated. The final straw for me was when my agent said I needed to stop doing shows for native events and communities because they didn’t affect the market. I think happiness means something different for everyone. Even though I was surrounded by the successful movers and shakers, I wasn’t happy. If I can make a living while staying connected to my family and who I am, then it’s a good life and that’s success. And that’s where I’m at right now!
You’ve been back in the studio and you’ve hinted at a little different direction in style in some of your social media. What can we expect?
Yes! I’ve actually been in the studio working on a new blues album and I am very excited about it! When I first moved to Nashville, I scored a meeting with a big wig A&R dude and he said he was blown away, but that I was way too bluesy and soulful to be a country music singer. Fast forward to now, the last few singles we released were “too bluesy and soulful” and that sounded familiar. When I write, that’s just how it comes out, so it just makes sense to pursue something that’s so natural to me. The more I dug in and started to write towards this new direction, the more the songs just fell out of me. I was able to let my vocals fly and it felt so good to not hold back and to get just as gritty as I wanted.
Any specific themes or overall messages on this album?
This album is a little bit of everything. Some make you want to dance and some tell a story. It’s definitely an ode to all my influences from the raucous raunchy juke joint jams to the lonesome laments of great storytellers. There is a song on the album about the rising issue of missing and murdered Native women up in Canada called “Pray Sisters” that’s almost spiritual. It was actually while researching this subject that I found so many stories of missing women in other cultures in different parts of the world and the rising problem of violence against women and injustices against women. I wrote another song called “Blue Train” that was inspired by their stories. So there are a lot of influences from different directions all over this album. Yet at the same time, it’s a defining moment for me. I feel like I found myself. Will I quit singing country music? Never. But if I have the energy to do both, then why not? If there was an overall theme, I’d say it was strength and resilience. That’s what the blues taught me and that’s also what defines me. So the album is appropriately called I’m Not Your Baby. I’m hoping to release it in the spring, so wish me luck.
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