Shawanda brings the blues to Camrose
2013 Juno Award winner Crystal Shawanda will be taking the stage at the Camrose Resort Casino on Feb. 11. Supplied
Though Crystal Shawanda made first impact on the Nashville music scene as a country artist, the blues have always held her heart.
It has always been a more authentic style of music that has spoken to who she is and her experiences growing up on the Wikwemikong reserve in Ontario. On Feb. 11 she will take Camrose residents on a trip back in time to when B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Etta James ruled the stage and the air waves.
"I could recognize this desperation in a lot of their voices and in the way they sing, it's very vulnerable and it's just the shedding of heart break and the shedding of all the troubles going on in your world," said the 2013 Juno Award winner for Aboriginal album of the year. "That's the world I was seeing around me."
Shawanda says on her reserve there was a feeling of isolation and depression and alcoholism and addiction, but she was also inspired by many in her community were movers and shakers who showed a resilience not just to survive but a willingness to fight to succeed.
"It was those two things you see in the blues music," she said. "They're talking about their troubles and they're sharing those stories … but it also gives the mentality that I'm going to sing about those troubles right now, but I'm going to make you dance a few too, and tomorrow morning we're going to start all over again and we're going to be OK."
She grew up with both, her parents playing country on the radio and throughout the house. But there was something different that was reverberating from the basement where her brother hung out and she would get lost in the deep, soulful sounds of the blues for hours at a time.
Shawanda knew she wanted to be a singer and it was those artists she wanted to emulate.
She and her family started making the trek to Nashville when she was 12 years old and by 16 she dropped out of school and moved to the Music City permanently.
It was her deep raspy voice that first caught the ear of producers while playing in the backroom at Tootsies singing blues hits. But RCA Nashville's vision for her was still the much more consumer-friendly Top 40 country. In 2008, her debut single "You Can Let Go" peaked at No. 21 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
She still loves country music, and often slips a few classics in while singing at home with her husband, but this is not the music she wanted she wanted to produce.
"When I sing the blues, it feels more natural too me," she said. "When I sing it, I feel like I'm floating in the air, I can just really be myself, there's a part of my voice I can just stretch out"
In 2009 she left RCA Nashville and started her own label New Sun Records and has since released four blues albums, including 2017's VooDoo Woman, which is about a 50-50 split between her own originals and covers.
Her favourite has always been the Etta James standard "I'd Rather Go Blind."
"It’s one that always made me stop because you can feel the heart break coming through the speakers," she said. "At the time I didn't even know her story, but when you grow up you find out what it's all about. That's what this album is about it's a tribute to women and the resilience of women. All of the women on this album they're survivors of life … and I like to think of myself as a survivor too."
Promoting a blues record provides a different challenge than a more commercially-produced album.
"Sometimes people are kind of curious about it because no one really does that anymore," she said. "The whole album was live off the floor, the whole album is my live take vocals, we didn't edit them, we didn't tune them."
Shawanda's concerts offer a similar mix, there's enough from days gone by to get the crowd singing along, giving her the opportunity to introduce her own music to the crowd.
"It’s a little bit of everything and there's something for everyone," she said.
Her music has been shaped by more than just heart-break and anger. She is back in the studio already recording her next album and it introduces the world to her first-born child, Zhaawande, who can be heard on some of the tracks as she holds her while she records.
"On the very first song you can actually hear her coo a little bit at the beginning of the song," said Shawanda. "The engineer asked 'do you want to take that out?' And I said don't you dare, you leave that in there. This is my life, this is my world."
Shawanda will be performing at the Camrose Resort Casino on Feb. 11, the doors open at 5 p.m. with a dinner buffet until 6:30 p.m. and the show starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at www.camroseresortcasino.com.