With an impressive array of awards and accolades, thousands of concerts to rapturous audiences throughout North America under her belt, and a remarkable recording pedigree to her credit, Crystal Shawanda still struggled mightily for many years to find her place within the music industry.
A Juno-winning singer/songwriter whose soulful, rootsy sound has allowed for a nearly seamless bridging of the traditional country and blues worlds, Shawanda’s unique aboriginal cultural background has left her feeling like an outsider at times.
But that search may be at an end, as the process of creating her latest album, the cathartic, bold and refreshingly authentic Fish Out of Water sees the talented Shawanda not just coming to terms with her unique place in the industry, but embracing and truly celebrating it.
Fish Out of Water stands as an example of an artist who has truly found her voice, and it is a voice that is rich, powerful, charming and intimately real. And much of this revelation came about after a long and emotional conversation between Shawanda and her mom.
“I always felt like a bit of an outsider on the country scene and some people in the blues community said I didn’t sound like real blues. So I was discouraged. I didn’t know what to do or what direction to go so I called my mom and cried my eyes out. I told her I still felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere personally or musically and sometimes I feel like a fish out of water trying to fly,” she said.
“And she said, ‘maybe that’s what you are. Just write about it, embrace it and you will find other people who feel the same way you do.’ So Fish Out of Water was the first song we wrote and it became the inspiration and whole theme for the album. It’s a universal message to not be afraid of who you are, where you come from and where you are going. And that it’s okay to not fit in sometimes.”
Shawanda grew up on a First Nations reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, and was introduced to both country and blues music through family members at a young age.
“My parents grew up listening to country music and that’s what I grew up singing and loving. But when my parents weren’t home my brother used to sit in the basement and he would crank up a lot of B.B. King and Muddy Waters. He also really loved Etta James, and I had never heard anyone sing like that. I used to sit at the top of the stairs and just listen to these amazing songs and these incredible voices and I knew I wanted to sing like that, with that much passion and be so unbridled. I could feel the hurt coming through in their voices and music.”
Even as a youngster, the sensitive and emotionally attuned Shawanda identified with the tenor and tone of blues and old-school country music, as it documented the trials and tribulations of people who were living lives of disappointment, despondency and often despair. It was music of the downtrodden, the forgotten and the forlorn and it proved to be an emotional and spiritual balm for helping Shawanda deal with the heartache and pain that she was surrounded with in her daily life.
“I come from a loving and close family but at the same time I grew up being very aware of alcoholism, addiction and depression in my community. I could always feel their pain and watched how people dealt with their pain. And I went through some abusive relationships and dealt with racism since I was 9 and as a kid I had family members and friends commit suicide. By the time I was 12 I probably sang at 30 different funerals. So I connected with the blues and that pain and sadness came from a very honest place. And that’s why I always loved the stories behind a lot of the great old country and blues songs.” she explained.
At the age of 16, Shawanda moved to Nashville, eventually landing steady local gigs, including at the prestigious Tootsies’ Orchid Lounge. While there she was ‘discovered’ by an executive from RCA Records and signed to a deal. Her 2008 RCA release, Dawn of a New Day, spawned the hit ballad You Can Let Go. The album entered the Canadian Country charts at number 2 and the Billboard Country chart at 16, eventually selling more than 400,000 copies. She was named CCMA Female Artist of the Year in 2008, won Best New Country Artist honours at the 2009 Canadian Radio Music Awards, and was nominated for two Junos that same year.
Creating her own label, New Sun, shortly thereafter, she has since released a Christmas album in 2009, followed by another country record, Just Like You in 2012, earning a 2013 Juno for Aboriginal Album of the Year, and then pivoted stylistically releasing the critically acclaimed blues album, The Whole World’s Got the Blues in 2014. Shawanda has also earned three Aboriginal People’s Choice Awards and five Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in her career.
Following the theme of a Fish Out of Water, the song Skin Deep looks at the other side of the same coin, encouraging people to revel in who they are but also understand that we have more in common as human beings than meets the eye.
“When our hearts get hurt we just need to treat each other the way we want to be treated. Skin Deep was pitched to me because I was sharing stories of my experiences with racism in the music community and someone in the blues community sent me that song. I was hesitant to record it at first because it was going to force me to be open and to talk about and deal with what I went through. I realized it was a good thing – it’s good medicine to talk about what hurts us, so that’s what I am doing.”
One of the most delightful tunes is the wistful and country-tinged Laid Back – an ode to the sense of contentment, peace and fulfilment Shawanda has found with her creative and life partner, musician Dewayne Strobel.
“I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it. Since I was a kid I have been totally focused on my career and vowed I would never get married. I was very restless, always on the move with somewhere to go, and so many things to do and felt that a relationship would slow me down. And then I met Dewayne, fell in love and we got married. So this song is about finding that somebody who makes that restlessness go away. In the song it says, ‘you’re the only man who ever made me feel free,’ and that happened with me. He turned every place we were into home. I didn’t feel I needed to go somewhere and do something, I felt like I was already home and right where I was supposed to be,” she said.
Shawanda pays tribute to the importance of family with the poignant and powerful song Ancestor, with its powerful message of passing down wisdom, life experience and a sense of community from one generation to the next, regardless of one’s cultural background.
Fish Out of Water sees Shawanda emerging as a confident artist who is finally becoming more comfortable within her own skin as an individual and a songwriter. Through the process of creating the album, she has learned not to shrink away from her own uniqueness, and to be bold about who she is and the music she chooses to make and interpret.
“I feel this album is a happy medium for me. It’s a little bluesy, a little country, a little rootsy, but with a lot of soul. I love every song on this album and I want to perform them all live. I really think I have hit my stride: this album is who I am, I really have found my voice, and I couldn’t be happier.”