By Erin McCallum Photo Credit: Norah Canfield
In each edition of Behind The Curtain, the quest is to share something exclusive about the featured artist; something that can only be found by looking within an artist’s bio, and finding curiosities that can’t always be read between the lines. The only way to provide that unique insight for readers is to investigate by going directly to the source. In this issue, a conversation with contributing member of the Canadian Blues Collective, Crystal Shawanda, provides readers with a deeper understanding of herself as an artist. Through an objective conversation – one which covered many topics - that exclusive peek ‘behind the curtain’ emerged. For those who would like to learn more about Shawanda’s career, it is always encouraged for readers to investigate; all artists featured in this column have in-depth biographies and noteworthy careers that cannot be outlined in this forum. This instalment will be strictly focused on that exclusive search for something more than the bio explains. For those who are already familiar with Shawanda, it is obvious that she shares her life and career very openly with fans and public outlets – she’s an open advocate for mental health awareness, she can be seen on the road with her daughter (who’s even been known to take the stage with her from time to time), her husband (DeWayne Strobel) is the guitar player in her band, and she embraces her life and culture as an indigenous person. In other words, Crystal Shawanda is an open book. In one way, being an “open book” presents a challenge in trying to discover something exclusive, yet, in another way, the foundation is there to have an open discussion about a variety of topics. In this feature, it serves as an asset to have studied Shawanda’s career for approximately 15 years, because it affords the opportunity to have a discussion while already having that glimpse into her life - the one that she shares so openly with fans already. The portions of the conversation with Crystal Shawanda that serve as evidence for the investigation’s conclusions have been put on the record, offering readers credibility while they make their own objective conclusions.
For those who are not familiar with Crystal Shawanda, it makes sense to offer readers enough biographical information to have a sense of her history. Shawanda grew up on Wikwemikong Reserve – a component of Manitoulin Island, Ontario. That being said, the description must be much more involved in order to profile the complex structure of who Crystal Shawanda is, and how she has arrived at her current position in life, and music. There has been a lot to navigate for Shawanda, and throughout her extensive musical journey to date, there has been a quest to arrive at a destination she’s been at from the beginning – The Blues. Although ‘Behind The Curtain” typically avoids the incorporation of a featured artist’s bio in the content, it is justifiable to offer readers a glimpse of Shawanda’s beginnings as a professional; this portion of her story helps put her words today into credible perspective.
Music has been part of Crystal Shawanda’s foundation from the beginning. While her brothers listened to Blues music in the basement of her childhood home, Shawanda was raised on Country music by her parents. She was singing and playing guitar at a young age, and even performing live at age 6. At the seasoned age of ten, performances were paid, and a natural progression seemed like it was in the works. By age 12, Crystal was taking regular trips to the country mecca of the World - Nashville. Although she always loved those sounds of Blues permeating the walls of her home on the reserve, Country music seemed to be her place in the performing spectrum. Progressing into her teenage years, the natural abilities Shawanda was regularly showcasing live got recorded for the first time as she made her first full length album. As soon as the recording was pressed, she enrolled in a music school, nurturing the obvious direction her life path was taking. It might be safe to say that by the time many girls start thinking about boyfriends and high school, this young talent knew what she was put here to do.
The momentum of Shawanda’s career did not slow down either. Restless to continue on the course already in motion, she dropped out of music school and moved straight to the music scene of Nashville, with stars in her eyes and ambition in her soul. Just as it looked as though the course was set, the road veered in another direction for Shawanda. During a chance meeting with an influential music executive, Crystal’s hopes were dashed when an age-old issue reared its head. The fact that Shawanda is Indigenous was something that the executive thought would be an issue moving forward in the Country music scene. Crystal’s account of that instrumental conversation recalls what that executive had to offer: “I just don’t know if Native Americans make sense in Country music. I don’t know if fans would be receptive, and I just wouldn’t know how to market you.”
When reflecting on what was said respecting her race, Crystal offers; “If I was out of tune, I could take voice lessons. If my song was bad, I could write another. But I couldn’t change the colour of my skin.”
Although she took the executive’s words with composure, it led her to abandon her dream in Nashville, and she returned home – back to her roots. After spending some time soul searching, Shawanda decided to rise up from the adversity she felt and headed back to Nashville, this time on a mission. Digging in and performing at every venue she could, she paid her dues, performing six nights a week, only this time, she was also authentically playing the Blues she heard and loved back home as well. Coincidently enough, Shawanda signed deal with RCA Records, and it happened as a result of Joe Galante (of RCA Records) hearing her sing B.B. King and Janis Joplin Blues covers. This endeavour produced the success Crystal was looking for - a Top 20 song on Country radio, AND the highest selling album by an Indigenous person in BDS history. Possibly the sweetest part of that success was breaking the race barrier that almost thwarted Shawanda’s ambitions in the music industry.
The aforementioned information is what one could reasonably conclude to be the first obvious examples of Shawanda’s ability to break through both the barriers of the music business and racial inequity within the music industry. In conversation with Shawanda, I asked a question that often comes up in discussions with artists who are in an interview setting with me – I asked her what she believes has been the biggest challenge in her career to date. Her answer parallels the experiences that have already been divulged in this feature:
“I would have to say that persevering as an Indigenous woman has been the biggest challenge. Sometimes, opportunities just aren’t given to you – lots of times, its unspoken, but it happens. People have even told me not to play “the race card” – I don’t want to play a card; it’s just the one I’ve been dealt. I’ve dealt with a lot of racism and discrimination in the music business as an Indigenous woman since the beginning of my career – some things, I didn’t even realize until I looked back on it much later in my life, but they have been there. And, although it’s getting better, it still exists today. There is this reality that’s referred to as “the Indian pile” – once you’re put in it, it’s very hard to break out of. It’s great that there are more opportunities with Indigenous categories for awards and recognition in Canada – I also think that sometimes it’s difficult to break out of that “indigenous box” once artists have been put into that category and get recognized in commercial markets that aren’t specifically for Indigenous people. I do think it is a really positive thing to acknowledge Indigenous people – and I am grateful to have been recognized for my music in the Indigenous category – however, even with that progress, there is still progress to be made.”
In contrast to asking Shawanda about her biggest challenges throughout the course of her career, it made sense to ask her what it is that she finds most rewarding. Although previously mentioned at the beginning of this instalment that Shawanda is an ‘open book’ when it comes to what fans and interested parties can find while investigating for themselves, perhaps this curiosity will reveal that exclusive insight Behind The Curtain readers anticipate. Although her response falls directly in line with what someone who is already acquainted with Shawanda’s offerings might expect, it is fair to assume that the most rewarding things are also the driving force that inspires her to make music, perform, and break through barriers in the first place:
“The most rewarding thing for me is connecting with people. When I get a message saying, ‘your music saved my life’, or ‘your song got me through a really tough time’, I feel so honoured. It’s rewarding to know that my music helped them, and it’s also a great honour that they shared that with me – it can be very difficult to talk about these things when you’ve survived suicidal thoughts or depression. That’s why I wanted to be an artist – I want to help people, and to make them happy, or even help them get through to the end of the day. It’s the human connection. – that’s what it’s all about. When people are having a good time – laughing, dancing, singing, and enjoying that positive energy – I feel that energy. I felt it when I was 6 years old, and I still feel it the same way today. We are all more the same than we are different. In music we find our “sameness” – it shows us that we really are on common ground.”
In having the conversation with Crystal Shawanda, perhaps the exclusive insight is this: regardless of the obstacles she’s been met with throughout her career, the founding inspiration that led her to a life in music remains. In her own words, Shawanda covers topics that have touched her own life and career, leaving evidence that she breaks down barriers for her own path and others equally through her music. The final words Shawanda offered in this particular conversation are also ones that support this conclusion. She was asked what message she would like to offer fans, listeners, or others who may come across her path:
“You’re stronger than you think you are, and you can get through the tough things.”
As is the case with all instalments of this column, there is much more to know about Crystal Shawanda that cannot be covered within the confines of this particular forum. The objective in this feature has been to investigate and discover something about Shawanda that offers readers insight into the nucleus of her creative process and musical origins. As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires them to investigate further.Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations.This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.
Photo Credit Above & Below: Harry Dunbar Photography.
Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.
Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound. www.erinmccallum.com
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