Interview – Crystal Shawanda.
I was honored to forward a few questions to internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning songbird, Crystal Shawanda and here is what she had to share on February 10th, 2021.
Crystal Shawanda grew up on the Wikwemikong reserve and unceded Territory and is the First Nation reserve in the north-eastern section of Manitoulin Island in Manitoulin District, Ontario, Canada. Her parents raised her on Country music and taught her to sing and play guitar, but it was her oldest brother who introduced her to the blues. He would hang out in the basement cranking Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Etta James, and Crystal would sit at the top of the stairs, straining to hear those soulful sounds. There was a part of her that often wondered if she would ever be able to sing like that. And when no one was home, Crystal would practice singing the blues. She learned early on, by observing her family, that music was like cheap therapy. That’s what the blues is all about: releasing and healing. While she was secretly pining to be a blues mama, out on stage it was Patsy and Loretta. She started performing country when she was six and started getting paid gigs when she was 10, relentlessly playing every stage she could. Crystal’s dad was a truck driver and they started taking frequent trips to Nashville when she was 12. She recorded her first album when she was 13 and moved away from home that same year to attend a music school. Crystal got restless, however, and dropped out at 16 to move to Nashville. She didn’t know anyone but was determined, so she spent days playing where she could and busking in between.
During a chance meeting with a well-respected music executive, Crystal was told, “I just don’t know if Native Americans make sense in country music. I don’t know if fans would be receptive and I wouldn’t even know how to market you.” She finally came to terms with what was bothering her. “If I was out of tune.I could take voice lessons,” she reflects. “If my song was bad, I could write another. But I couldn’t change the color of my skin.” So Shawanda moved back to Nashville one more time with a mission to prove him wrong. She paid her dues, playing at Tootsies Orchid Lounge six days a week, three shifts a day, and managed to build up a buzz and land a production deal with Scott Hendricks. She was later signed to a record deal with RCA Records by Joe Galante, who had heard Crystal cover B.B. King and Janis Joplin. This venture produced a top 20 song on country radio and the highest-selling album by a Native American in BDS history. After this, she found herself feeling like a fish out of water. She says, “I so wanted to be what everyone wanted me to be, I lost myself along the way.”
So Crystal took some time off and, one day while watching the news and feeling overwhelmed by the headlines, she walked into her music room, picked up her guitar, and wrote: “The Whole World’s Got the Blues,” thus began her first blues album. ”The songs just fell out of me and throughout the recording, it was like setting my voice free,” she says. “I can’t help but feel like I’m home, no longer holding back.,” says Shawanda.
DEB: Hello, once again Crystal. It seems like a lifetime ago that we got to hang out and chit chat at Hugh’s Room Live back in 2016, almost 5 years ago, time sure flies. Congrats on your April 17th, 2020 album release of Church House Blues, making this your 7th studio album in under 13 years. With three Aboriginal People Choice Awards, five Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, a CCMA, and a Juno under your belt is there much pressure these days with regards to being an Indigenous artist? CRYSTAL: “Hello Deb, thank you so much for reaching out, it’s so great to catch up with you! So let’s get to it….I don’t feel any pressure as an Indigenous artist because I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought I would, and so everything else is just icing on the cake, and I’m just very grateful. I try to express myself through my art as honestly as I can and do my best to represent it in a good way and continue to trust my path.”
DEB: Some of the most hysterically revered music has always played a deep role in the transformation of society and some consider how their art relates to current social-political landscapes or how their music can address these themes. Does your music touch on social and political issues?
CRYSTAL: “Yes, I think some of my songs do touch on social issues, maybe not so much political. But songs like The Whole Worlds Got the Blues, Pray Sister Pray, and even Churchhouse Blues, and Bigger Than The Blues” raises awareness and understanding. When we can understand each other, there is more empathy, then we can realize we are more the same than we are different.“
DEB: Contrary to popular belief making it in the art of Music isn’t merely a game of luck and requires talent, strategy, and determination based on visions and goals. Explain your creative writing process?
CRYSTAL: “My creative writing process is I write what I know! I try to be honest, and sincere. Everything I write about is me trying to work something out, songwriting has always been like cheap therapy for me. Then as I write I try to apply what I’ve learned as a songwriter, for the last 18 years here in Nashville. I try not to let the formulas rule me, but I also respect and consider, and apply when needed.
DEB: List some of the ways you have chosen lately to engage with your fans whether it’s within the top echelon of international circles or based on your own community involvement or virtually despite the covid-19 pandemic challenges and restrictions? CRYSTAL: “I’ve been trying to stay engaged with fans by tending to my YouTube channel a lot more, posting videos and I’ve even started vlogging! I also go live from my Facebook page a lot more than I used to, doing everything from cruising around listening to music and chatting with fans, to just saying hello and doing a mental check, asking fans how they’re holding up. I’ve also gotten involved with trying to raise awareness to help the Wikwemikong nursing home, in my hometown, which is in desperate need of a new building. I’ve been trying to remind people we can still be community-minded and get involved, virtually. I’m all the way in Nashville and have lived here for 19 years, and still manage to be active in my hometown community, so it can be done.”
DEB: I do believe 2021 will see your daughter, Zhaa Zhaa (Zhaawanbe) turn 4? Do you think she will follow in the incredible musical footsteps of her stupendous mom and dad? CRYSTAL: “Right now music is Zhaa Zhaa’s whole world and she loves it. She pretends to record in the studio telling us to be quiet on the set haha! And she loves to perform every day, whether it’s singing, banging on a guitar, mashing the piano keys, smashing the drums, and even has recently written a song with us. We are currently working on a new album already, and one of the songs was inspired by things she has said. So we are listing her as a writer on it, but who knows! As she discovers more about the world and new interests she may do a complete twist and want a completely different life. As long as she’s happy and healthy, we’ll be happy too! “
DEB: How is your new interest in video production coming along, anything new to share?
CRYSTAL: “My interest in video production started as a necessity but it’s growing legs. I edit my vlogs every week and continue to do videos for our daughters YouTube channel, and I am working on a new music video for myself, and I have other things in the works. Right now it’s just something to feed my brain, I think it’s good to learn new things. It also makes it possible for me to help artists I produce, who don’t have huge budgets, but who still want to make art. I feel like I have a natural instinct for it, but I still have so much to learn on the technical side. So it’s a work in progress.“
DEB: What does success mean to you and what’s your secret to longevity?
CRYSTAL: “Success to me means doing what I love, staying true to myself, which is creating music with a message, while not compromising who I am and the values I was raised with, always keeping family first. There’s the idea of happiness and there’s really being happy. I want to really be happy. I think that has also attributed to my longevity because I’m not trying to do what everyone else is doing. I’ve carved out my own little slice, and so far I’ve been allowed to have my cake and eat it too, and I’m just so thankful to the industry for that. Thank you so much once again, Deb and I hope you’re staying safe and taking care through these crazy times! ~Cheers C
DEB: It was my pleasure to chat with Crystal, congratulations on the Nomination for Recording/Producer of the Year for Church House Blues / True North (Producer: Dewayne Strobel) at this year’s 1st virtual version of the 24th Annual Maple Blues Awards 2021, held on February 8th in Ottawa.
It was the blues that set her free almost seven years ago, and now her music finally feels like home. Her 3rd blues album, Church House Blues is a modern take on the blues but is deeply rooted in heart-wrenching laments and catchy rump-shakers. It’s where the north meets the south and captures the resilience of the human spirit — much like the way Crystal does. This album is reminiscent of a time gone by. She will make you feel every word with a powerful voice that never fails, pure and gritty at the same time. Do yourself a favor and see if she’s playing somewhere near you. Hurry, don’t delay, click on over to view the outstanding Church House Blues PROMO https://youtu.be/A4ljleAOsEg
Stay in tune by visiting and getting your copy of Crystal’s 2020 Church House Blues album or all 7 of her record collection while you are there. http://crystalshawanda.co/albums
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