The Bluesy Life of Crystal Shawanda

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Crystal Shawanda - spWith a career changing move from country to Blues, Crystal Shawanda took the route she felt most comfortable with, regardless of any consequences she could have faced.

And those risks have paid off.

Highly established as one of the leading female Blues singers in North America, she’s once again nominated for a couple Juno Awards at this year’s ceremony on June 6.

The Ojibwe Potawatomi Indigenous singer was born in Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in Ontario and even though she now lives in Nashville, she keeps her roots close to her heart and soul. One has to look no further than her latest CD “Church House Blues” to feel the connection.

She jumped on Zoom to let loose on her Blues stance, why she left country and how she stays rooted close to her First Nations home.

The Juno Awards are coming up. You should be pretty familiar with them by now, I would think.
Yeah, but it’s still really, really exciting for me and it never gets old. I never get blasé about it. I’m always very excited to still be hanging in there. I’m just grateful that people keep letting me hang around and keep singing. It’s the coolest job in the world. I’m very grateful to be nominated once again, especially to be nominated twice, so it’s very exciting.

Other than winning in 2013, is there a favorite Juno moment that you’ve ever had as a nominee, as an audience member, or watching on TV?
Oh, my God, there are so many but I’ll try to narrow it down. When I performed on the main stage for the televised broadcast and when I was nominated for Best New Artist and Country Recording of the Year.

I performed on the stage and we did a medley, so it was Divine Brown, and then they switched over to me and then it switched over to Serena Ryder. That was really cool to be sharing the stage with some awesome Canadian women artists that I really admire and respect.

Being in the audience, one really cool moment that I had was when k.d. lang was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame – being in the audience, just being in the same room as her, I totally cried like a baby because I just think she’s the most amazing vocalist.

One private moment for me was when they were doing the rehearsals for the Juno Awards and Sarah McLachlan was on stage rehearsing her performance. I was walking around where the audience would be sitting in the seats because I was in between interviews and I was standing there all by myself. So basically, it was like Sarah McLachlan was putting on a concert just for me. I am a huge fan and she really inspired me as a woman in music, being a Canadian woman in music, and as a songwriter. She’s a brilliant songwriter and vocalist. I think those are my top three favorite moments.

Congratulations on the Blues nomination for “Church House Blues”. Not many artists can say they’ve been nominated in four different categories. We’re talking Aboriginal. We’re talking Country. We’re talking New Artists. And now we’re talking Blues – that is incredible.
I’m so thankful, I’m so excited. Especially with this nomination, we worked hard for this and earned this Blues nomination. Because, when I made the switch from Country to Blues, I met a little bit of resistance and rejection. Some people in the Blues world were like, “Well, you can’t be a Blues singer, you’re a country music singer”, and then some of my Country music fans were like, “Well, I’m not gonna listen to you anymore, now that you’re singing Blues”.

I was like, Okay, thanks for telling me. You could have just not listened to me, you didn’t have to send me a message and tell me that. Sometimes it was tempting to not make the switch, because the easiest thing in the world would be to keep singing Country Music because

I was established there, but, at the end of the day, I’m just like everybody else. I’m trying to figure out where I fit in, where I belong, where I make sense, and I’m just following my heart.

For me, when I’m singing the Blues, it’s like letting a bird out of a cage, and I just can’t stick her in the cage anymore. So when we were nominated for this award, I literally jumped into my husband’s arms, it was so exciting. It’s just amazing.

There’s definitely a lot more money in Country than Blues. You could have taken the safe path, the richer path, but you almost define what Blues is about. Blues is the harder road, the harder path. What is it about Blues that made you make the change?
It was the honesty, the rawness. I’m very passionate about wanting to do music with a message. Music, that means something.

I’m not putting down Country Music at all, but everything is very pop right now, and that’s when I decided to leave.

When things started to go really pop and it seems like the only way you can get ahead is if you sing about sitting on a tailgate and drinking some beers around a fire. That’s cool, I love to do those things too, but sometimes I want to sing along to something else besides that.

I feel that’s my role in life as a creator, as a musician, as a human being. I feel like that’s why I was put on this earth. I’m supposed to do music that heals, and that’s always been my thing.

I feel like Blues music heals. People who don’t listen to Blues are like, oh, Blues is Wha, Wha, Sad, Sad, but it’s not.

Blues is about letting your frustrations out, facing your sadness straight on and then celebrating it and getting it out of your system.

When we’re singing so hard that you’re sweating, and you’re stomping your feet so hard and after you’re done dancing around and singing along and then it’s out of you. Those Blues aren’t inside you anymore. And when you sing about it and when I go and perform it on stage, or when I release an album, and people sing along to it, I’m hoping that my music helps people get their Blues out of their system – get it out of their hearts, get it out of their minds.

That’s what I love about the Blues, because that’s what Blues Music did for me when I sing along to my favorite Blues records. I feel like I’m not alone and I feel like if they can make it through their hard times.

Crystal - church house blues album cover-minWhen Blues is done well, it’s so authentic, and it goes right to your soul. I want to twist the question a little bit. I’m curious how authentic you thought the country music was that you made?
I think some of it was really authentic. Some of it was also aimed towards trying to get on Top 40 radio. I am very proud of my big hit record with my big hit single “You Can Let Go” because although it was a little bit contrived, in the sense that it was still derived from a real moment. The songwriters who wrote that song were writing about something that they went through and connected to.

When I heard that song at that time, my grandfather was sick in the hospital and we knew that he would be leaving soon. When I heard that song, it reminded me of him.

I watched my mom go through that moment with her mom, I remember being nine years old and watching my mom say that to her mom – “you can go now, I’m going to be okay, we’re going to be okay. I’m going to take care of everyone”.

That’s why it went so high in the charts, into the top 20, because it really was the kind country music that I grew up on. I grew up on old country music – the traditional country music like Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Patty Loveless. I feel like my song “You Can Let Go” stayed in the same lane as those songs that I grew up on. There are a couple songs on my first debut Country Album where I feel like I was almost forced to do them.

I did love them though, but I felt like there were other songs that we could have recorded, but I had to do those ones because that’s what everybody felt was going to be a hit on radio.

It sounds like you really need to connect to the music you’re playing. Was there a special connection when you made “Church House Blues”?
Definitely, there was so much connection. Every single song is something I’ve been through or somebody that I really care about has been through. I’m a storyteller and sometimes it’s not my story. Sometimes it’s the people around me, for example, the title track “Church House Blues”. I really connected to that, in every sense, because of the way I grew up.

I would say that I have received training musically and socially from two different worlds. Growing up on an Indian reservation, I grew up like a lot of other reservations in the same atmosphere. At a young age being exposed to things like alcoholism, addiction, depression, and high risk lifestyles, so I was really understanding of people’s personal traumas and that everybody has their own thing that they’re dealing with.

I started singing so young and my parents were always trying to look for places for me to sing. My mom would take me to church to sing. I sang a lot with the choir, but I also performed a lot by myself. I would sing at weddings and I sang a lot at funerals. So, I was very familiar with death at a very young age. By 10 years old, I had been around it so much.

Then on the weekends, my mom and dad would hear about a band playing at a local tavern or a bar and grill somewhere, they would always go in disguised like they were just coming in to eat. Then while we were there, my dad would ask me if I wanted to sing. I said Yeah yeah, and he’d go ask the band. So they’d be like, oh, what do you want to sing? “Puff the Magic Dragon”? and I’d be like, no, let’s do some Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues. Then I would get up and sing.

After a while a lot of these bands got to know me, so when they would see us walk in, I didn’t have to ask anymore, they would just invite me up to sing. I got a lot of training from a lot of local bands and people who were passing through.

I feel like I got training from both the Church House and the Roadhouse, and that’s what that song is about. It’s about playing at a Roadhouse on a Saturday night and then going to church on a Sunday morning and realizing that, instead of focusing on the differences, it focuses on the similarities.

We’re all more the same than different and that’s what I’ve seen, being in both worlds – hanging out in churches and hanging out and bars at a young age. We’re all more the same than different. We’re just trying to find something that gets us through life and whatever you find as long as you can keep it in a healthy place, then all the power to you.

It sounds like there was a lot of country around you when you were growing up. Was there a lot of Blues?
My parent’s listened to older country music and then my oldest brother listened to Blues – straight up Blues like Muddy Waters. Etta James, B.B. King, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. My brother liked to go hunting, so he’d be in the basement messing around making bullets and cranking up the Blues and he’d be singing along. I could tell because my brothers aren’t singers, but they always sing along with whatever is playing.

And in Blues, particularly, I would notice that Muddy Waters would really get him going. When Muddy would rock back and kind of let out a moan, that’s my brother. He’d be working and then all sudden, he just lifts his head and he’d let out the same moan, and I could see that my brother connected to that music for his own reasons.

Also, playing in a lot of different variety shows all over Ontario, I would see a lot of indigenous musicians and artists and bands, who were playing Blues music. When I was a kid, I used to wonder why, and as I started to grow up, I started to realize why, because we connect with it, because we’ve been there, we relate to it.

I love when music gets mixed around a little bit, do you think we’re ever going to hear a sort of a First Nations Blues?
Yeah, I think it’s already out there. A great example is Derek Miller, he’s an amazing Blues musician. “Music is a Medicine” – that album was killer, and I’ve heard a few people refer to it as a rock album. But I don’t know, there’s some really great Blues music on there too. Murray Porter has been around for a long time.

I grew up on Murray Porter. My very first Blues album that I put out was “The Whole World’s Got the Blues” and on that album, I had a song called “Pray Sister Pray” which is actually really about raising awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women. When I put that song on the album, some people said it’s not a blue song, that’s it’s an Indigenous song.

I don’t have the right to try to tell somebody else’s Blues story – somebody who grew up in the south, like a black person who grew up in the south and the oppression and the obstacles and struggles that they grew up with, that’s not my story to tell.

I’m trying to tell our stories and that’s why I felt like “Pray Sister Pray” absolutely belonged on a Blues album, because that is our Blues. That’s what we’re dealing with. I think those are some really good examples.

Crystal-Shawanda-1-minYou could sit there and make album after album of all the issues that First Nations have had in Canada over the years. I bet you could go on and on and on.
I try to pick and choose and what stories I’m telling and when I’m telling them. Obviously they have to fit with the other songs on the album. I feel like they do, for instance on this most recent album, “Church House Blues”, there was a song on it called “Bigger than the Blues” and that song was actually inspired by some honest conversations about depression, mental health and suicide.

Unfortunately, after the suicide of Kelly Fraser who is very talented Inuk pop artist who took her life last Christmas, I think our battles with depression and suicide still happen a lot within our Indigenous communities.

I grew up with it a lot, a lot of cousins, and childhood friends who didn’t make it into adulthood. That was something I told my husband, I want to write about this – everything we’re talking about – I want to put it into a song in the hopes that when somebody’s struggling, they’ll hear the song and it’ll help them deal with it, go to bed and wake up in the morning with a fresh mind and realize that it’s going to be okay, and that they’re bigger than their Blues.

You moved to Nashville a while ago? Do you still feel a strong connection to Canada?
I’ve been in Nashville now for 18 years, but Canada has always been super supportive of me. I tour a lot in Canada, I do a lot of shows in the south in America, but Canada is just so good to me.

I can’t stay away. I have my favorite places that I love tour and that I love to play. All my family is still in Canada. I purposely try to tour as much as I can here so that I can see my family as much as I can. If we have an average show in the West, like in B.C. or Alberta, I’ll always say to my husband, why don’t we swing by Manitoulin Island and go see my family?

We’ll fly through Toronto a lot and my husband will be like, that’s like 16 hours, we’ll have to drive all the way there and back to the airport again. I’m like, yeah, that’s nothing. I’m still very connected to Canada. All my family is here and I’m very proud of my Canadian roots. I have so many idols who are Canadian artists who have inspired me to be the artist I am.

Do you go back to the island for inspiration at all?
Definitely for inspiration. I go to Manitoulin Island to rejuvenate my soul. When I’m there, it’s being around my family, my community and even just the land.

I always tell my husband because even if my family comes to visit me in Nashville, I still want to go up there.

It’s the island, the water, the land.When I’m there, I feel inspired. I go for a lot of walks, hikes, drives, and I just do a lot of thinking. When the pandemic was declared last spring, that’s where I was  – on the Island. So I kind of bunkered down there for a couple months. It was cool, because all of a sudden, I started remembering things I didn’t remember for a long time; things that made me want to be a singer that made me want to go out into the world and what I wanted to try to bring back to my community.

Is some of that quarantine going to make it into some new songs?
There are a couple songs in there that I don’t feel the pressure because I’m doing Blues – I don’t feel pressured to do up tempo positive things all the time.

We ended up doing a couple songs that were not up tempo, but positive. It was totally unintentional.

It’s just came out.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve struggled with depression, so when the pandemic was declared and my whole tour was canceled for the spring, summer and fall, I knew that there was a danger of me getting lost in my depression.

My busy career is what keeps me from succumbing to my depression, so I was a little bit scared about what was going to happen to me mentally. I have a little girl now and she’s four years old and she needs so much attention. I immediately went into survival mode, and I’m like, Okay, I need to focus on keeping her happy and we got to stay happy because we got to stay positive, because I can’t get depressed.

We work really hard every day to fill our day. We always try to do something fun, one special thing every day with our little girl as a family. We’re playing all day, but I always pick something different to do with her.

As a family, we have really banded together in our little bubble – we even got a little dog. Because of all the isolation, some of the songs we were writing ended up being kind of happy, and it’s a very genuine happy.

There are a couple songs that are about relationships, the person that you’re with and the people that you’re surrounded by – and they just have this really feel good vibe.

Of all the songs that you’ve either written or sang, which one would you feel is the most definitive Blues piece that you’ve recorded?
I think definitely would be “The Whole World’s Got the Blues”, which was the title track of my very first Blues album. Just because it was so honest. One day, we were watching the news and after I was just sitting there and I was just so overwhelmed with all the headlines. I just picked up my guitar and just started writing.

I wasn’t trying to write a hit song, I wasn’t trying to appeal to this person, or this group, or these people.

I’ve always said songwriting is like cheap therapy, and I feel like somewhere along the line, I lost that when I was shooting for Top 20 Country radio. It stopped being therapy and it started to be a job.

When I was watching the news that day and I started writing that song on the guitar, my husband came running out of the kitchen into the living room and he was like, that’s really cool. We sat down and wrote the whole song. After we were done, we’re like, what do we do with this? It’s obviously not country. And I say yes, but I love it.

At that time, I was on my own record, label New Sun Records, so I said, well, let’s do a Blues album – isn’t that why we started our own record label, so we could do whatever we wanted. We could do stuff that meant something to us, so we did the Blues album and that was the beginning of my Blues career.

I was just going to say it sounds like you’re so comfortable with the Blues. Almost like it was supposed to be the real deal to begin with.
I definitely think so, looking back on my life, in the direction my music went, and why it went that way. Growing up, I think my dad was just trying to help me find places to sing. There’s nowhere to sing this kind of music or that kind of music, but there’s country music, so you should do country music. But he never forced me. Nobody ever forced me.

I did love some of the country music I grew up on. My favorite country music artists was Hank Williams and he’s a Country Blues man, whether people realize it or not. The way he grew up is that everything he knew, he learned from a black Blues man in his town. Hank Williams used to shine shoes and then he would take his money and go and pay the Blues man. That’s why when you look back through his catalogue, he’s got stuff like “Lovesick Blues”, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”, “Moanin’ the Blues”, and he even did a cover of a Blues song “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”.

The honest truth is a lot of people don’t realize that when I was signed to my record deal with RCA Records, I was playing in downtown Nashville at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which is one of the most world famous honky tonks, but we were playing in the backroom when I got discovered.

We were playing in the background because we didn’t do country music. I was discovered when Joe Galante walked into that bar and I was playing Janis Joplin. I was playing Big Mama Thornton.

I was playing Etta James and Muddy Waters and when they signed me, they were like, we don’t do Blues we do Country, do you want to do a Country Music deal? I would have been an idiot to turn that down. I took the opportunity. I never regret that because I learned from some of the best people in the business.

My manager at the time was Doc McGhee, who’s the biggest rock manager in the world, and Scott Hendricks is one of the biggest Country Music producers.

I had the chance to work with these people. They taught me everything I know. They taught me to be an artist, and not just a singer.

I feel like even though I got sidetracked in my path, I feel like it was meant to be so that I could be the artist I am today.

Working with Doc McGhee, did you get a chance to hang out with some of those Rock legends?
A little bit. One time we did get to do a fundraiser golf tournament. It was a bunch of guys from KISS, and a couple of guys from Warrant and a couple of members of The Eagles. There were a lot of people there, a lot of big names, and the whole time I was just like this little kid giggling and walking around.

There were some people who like me, were newer artists, and they’re really trying to push their way in there.

They really wanted those rock singers to hear them sing, and for me, I was just happy to be there. I was just like, whenever it’s my turn sing great, and when it isn’t, I’m just gonna stand here and giggle like a little kid because I can’t believe I’m here.

Doc took us out on his big sailboat out in the Caribbean, and we sailed around there for weeks. He told us a lot of cool rock and roll stories about everybody he’s ever worked with.

He’s got some amazing stories from Diana Ross to James Brown to Bon Jovi, it was pretty cool getting to work with him.

Speaking about rock, I wanted to ask why you chose to record “New Orleans Is Sinking”?
Well, for one, I’m a Canadian girl and I’ve always been a huge Tragically Hip fan. I’ve always said that their music is the soundtrack to my misspent youth (laughter). I’ve just been listening to them ever since I can remember when we were kids up to no good.

That’s what we’re listening to at the parties, and at the fire pits out in the bush parties and I would booze cruise and all that kind of fun stuff. I grew up loving it, and I remember every time that song came on, I would think it would be so cool to take the song and exaggerate the Blues elements.

When we were working on this album, I brought the idea to my husband, Dewayne Strobel, who plays all the guitars on this album, and he’s the producer as well.

I played the song  and he said we should do it. We’re always trying to show people that Blues doesn’t fit in this tiny little box, it’s so much bigger than that.

It’s like Willie Dixon said ‘Blues is the roots and everything else is the fruits’, and whether people realize it or not, Blues is in every genre of music that has come after it. You just got to look a little bit closer to see it.

When I first came to the blue scene, people were like, Oh, you don’t know nothing about the Blues, you’re a country music singer and then some people were like, why would you do a rock song, you’re already having a hard time getting accepted as it is, and I’m like, because that’s just the way I am.

I don’t mind the struggle. I don’t mind a fight.

For me, I just felt like it was when we went into the studio to record it. I actually didn’t even play the original version for the musicians. We just sat down – Dewayne sat down with his dobro – and I started singing it and we played it for them. Let’s just feel the spooky vibe and just go with it.

So we started playing it and after that first take was over, our bass player Dave Roe says “We ain’t playing another take, that’s the one” and so that was our one and only take in the studio on that song. It’s just magic.

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