Interview: Crystal Shawanda

Crystal Shawanda burst onto the music scene in 2008 after her debut album “Dawn of a New Day” hit the Canadian Country Albums charts at number 2, and the Billboard Top Country Albums chart at number 16. Poised to be Canada’s next big country star, instead she opted to follow her heart and true musical spirit to become one of the country’s gutsiest blues performers. With a career that began before she was old enough to babysit, Shawanda discovered the industry at a tender age, and with that “opportunities” that weren’t always appropriate for someone her age. Growing up in Northern Ontario and as an indigenous artist, she discovered how hard it would be. We spoke from her home in Nashville while she was packing for the road, with her two year old under foot…

Mb: Hey Crystal, is that you?
Crystal: Ya it’s me! How’re you doing?
Mb: How’s your day? You at home?
Crystal: I’m at home in Nashville! Day is going great. I’m just running around with a little two year old and trying to pack for us. We’ll be gone until basically, September. And then I’m also getting ready to go to the studio, so it’s kinda crazy, but it’s a good crazy.
Mb: Have you toured with your daughter before?
Crystal: Oh yes. I never leave home without her! The longest I’ve ever been away from her was the length of a show.
Mb: So you didn’t have a baby and then take some time off?
Crystal: No, no! It’s funny, I had her and a month later we’re at the Juno Awards and I was playing different events because I was nominated that year, so it’s a part of her every day life. If she ain’t on the road, she’s in a studio.
Mb: A source of new inspiration? I saw the latest video I’ll Always Love You, which stars your daughter!
Crystal: It’s a real good place. She’s making me better because I found a new focus. You get into survival mode where it’s “I have to do this!” (laughs) It’s made me more sharp in other areas. For me, I feel my voice has gotten stronger, the music is getting stronger, the live show, we’re not slowing down… and I’m in a good healthy place in my life. Being a mother is my focus so…. it makes me make better choices in every way.
Mb: Speaking of choices, you burst on to the scene with your debut album Dawn of a New Day in 2008, landing on the Billboard Country charts… how did you end up becoming a blues artist?
Crystal: You know it was a lot of my friends in radio. They kept telling me, “You have a really bluesy sound. You always seem to be leaning more and more in that direction.” In my live show, I would do covers by Aretha Franklin and Etta James and everyone’s like “Aren’t you suppose to be a country artist?” (laughs) For me it was a song I felt like singing, and more and more I felt like singing those songs. It just started to feel more natural and Country radio started to get a little more Pop… and I love it, but that’s not where I want to go. For me it’s just about fulfilling my soul, my heart. So when I did my first blues album, I could do all these things with my voice from singing country music, so it was like letting the bird out of the bird cage. “Ya, I’m free!” (laughs)
Mb: I imagine you have a few Blues Brothers’ “Bob’s Country Bunker” stories. People coming to hear country and getting the Blues…
Crystal: Ya, it happened a lot! Sometimes, not everybody liked it. Most of the time though, people just love good music. That’s what I found. Some of my Country fans listen to my Blues stuff now and say “Oh, you still sound like you!” Ya, Country derived from the Blues originally so, it’s all the same. It’s honest, sincere, raw emotional music. It’s just produced differently. In life we can get stuck in a rut, and scared to try new things… I like to live on the edge! (laughs) In a good way!
Mb: In a good way.. now! Your bio suggests you may have made some poor decisions as a young person, as we all do…
Crystal: Absolutely. For me, a musician is all I’ve ever been. I’ve never had a day job. I started making a living from music when I was 10 and I never looked back. So you know, Rockstar life ensues and you get exposed to things and people forget you’re just a kid. Then trying to maneuver my way through the music biz, my first trip to Nashville being told by music executives “I don’t think there’s a place for Native Americans in Country music.” Remember this is back in the 90’s, so it was still new territory. That sent me into a tailspin for a minute, and then I got it together. Music is what I love . It’s really that simple.
Mb: Is there pressure now to be an indigenous artist? I think of Susan Aglukark, as an example…
Crystal: It’s kind of always there. It’s always put on us as indigenous artists. “You’re a role model for the younger generation”, a definite pressure, but I embrace it. It is my responsibility. I do a lot of motivational speeches, and go to schools and I’m always really honest and always tell them “I made lots of mistakes, but you’ve just got to keep trying. And keep rising above it.”
Mb: Do you think growing up in Northern Ontario, seeing the community struggles and challenges has influenced your writing?
Crystal: I definitely think so. I think it has a lot to do with shaping me as a person, even as a musician. Who I listen to and how I’m connected. I think that comes through in my music today. For example, on my new album, which will be coming out later this summer, we actually covered New Orleans Is Sinking by the Tragically Hip. Across Canada people listen to the Tragically Hip whether you’re cruising the back roads of a reservation, or the back roads of some prairie town, or the bush roads or BC or along the beaches of the East Coast, music connects us. We find our sameness in song.

Crystal Shawanda appears at Hootenanny on Hunter Street, Downtown Peterborough, Saturday August 10, 6pm.