CANADIAN VOCALIST CRYSTAL SHAWANDA is enjoying her change of direction from country music trailblazer to blues howler. After being discovered and making her mark in Nashville and on Country Music Television, Crystal decided to listen to her inner voice and take a left turn with her career, a move not recommended for the faint of heart. Turns out it is sometimes a good idea listening to the noise in one’s head. While on the road promoting her latest album VooDoo Woman, out now on True North Records, Crystal gave Red Hot Rock Magazine a call to chat about surviving in the music industry as a Native American woman, narrow-minded listeners wishing to place her in a box and, most importantly, The Blues.
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Hey, Crystal. How are you doing? CRYSTAL SHAWANDA: I’m doing great. How are you doing?
RHRM: Very good. Thank you. Let’s jump into some Crystal Shawanda music. CS: Awesome. Sounds good.
RHRM: A lot is being said about your trading country music for the blues with your new album, VooDoo Woman. But to these ears, your last couple of albums, Fish Out Of Water and The Whole World’s Got The Blues, had way more bluesy stuff on them than anything remotely connected to country music. CS: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve made a permanent switch to the blues. Hah ha ha. I think it’s just always been there. For me, even back to my very first country album, there was a couple of songs on there that kind of tipped the hat to, you know… On one of the songs, I even mentioned Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. And then in my live shows, back when I was still singing country music, I would go to country music festivals and I would show up and I would be singing BB King and Big Mama Thornton. And everybody’s like, “I thought she was a country music singer.” Hah ha ha ha. To be honest, what happened was, when I moved to Nashville, I grew up on country music, so I moved there to be a country music singer. But I was playing in the back room of Tootsies and I was singing BB King and Janis Joplin songs when the head of RCA Records at the time walked in and offered me a record deal to become a country music singer. So, I jumped at the opportunity and it was the ride of a lifetime. And I’m always glad I did. But as I kept going on that journey, I realized more than ever my heart was in the blues. And that’s what I want to be singing.
RHRM: All of the original tunes on VooDoo Woman are new versions of songs recorded on those two earlier albums I just mentioned. Why did you do that when they sounded good the first time around? CS: Oh, thank you so much. For me, when I first put out the first few blues albums, I was really just testing the waters. It’s basically like starting all over again. I’m a whole new artist. Nobody knew who I was in the blues world. I had to learn about the business because it’s a whole different terrain than the way things are done in the country music world as far as releasing a single, releasing an album, how to promote it, where to market it. Those first two albums, I was just learning as I went along. So, when we released them, we actually only promoted them in Canada, which is where I’m originally from. And so, there’s a lot of people in America and other countries who didn’t get to hear The Whole World’s Got The Blues and they didn’t get to hear songs from Fish Out Of Water. So, that’s why we decided to put some of those songs on VooDoo Woman. And then the other half of the songs on VooDoo Woman are all covers of different songs from different blueswomen who were, I would say, the pioneers that led me to the blues. The reason why I did that is because there’s a lot of people in the blues world who didn’t understand, they were like, “You’re a country music singer. You can’t sing the blues.” This is my way of showing everybody, you know, this isn’t a new thing. I’ve been listening to the blues since I was a kid. My oldest brother loved the blues and he would crank them. And when my parents weren’t home, that’s what I would do. When they were home, I would sing country music. When they left, I was singing the blues. My oldest brother always encouraged me to do that. He always felt that that’s where I needed to be. And I finally took his advice. Hah ha ha ha. When we cut VooDoo Woman, we released it on my own label, New Sun Records. We released it and then True North Records from Canada came across the album and they fell in love with it. They approached me about signing with their company and I went for it. So I’m signed with True North Records. They were kind enough rather than just starting a whole new project, they took my project and they did what I couldn’t. Because when I released it, I basically just released it. I didn’t have the means to do a big marketing or a big promotion. And so, they took the album and they rereleased it. They’re the ones who brought it to America. They’re the ones who are taking it overseas. They’re the reason why it’s being played on over a hundred ninety stations in America and we’re being played in like eighteen countries. So, I owe it all to them. And they said, “We’ll promote this, but you got to get to work on the next album.” So, that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been in the studio, working on the next album. We’re really excited about it. There are more originals on it. And it’s just a really cool album.
RHRM: OK. Great. So you’re already at work. And it sounds like you’ve gotten a good way along on the new record. CS: Yeah. We are. We’re almost done. We’ve got fifteen songs and we’re trying to narrow it down. It’s set for release in 2019. We’re really excited about it.
RHRM: Your being a Native American Canadian woman, I find the most interesting tunes you write to be about the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls such as on songs like “Blue Train” and “Pray Sister Pray”, a track from The Whole World’s Got The Blues. The depth of your feeling towards that subject matter is obvious in these compositions and the delivery of them. CS: Yeah. Definitely. You know, some people kind of questioned that song in particular, “Pray Sister Pray”. They didn’t understand why it was on a blues album. For me, that’s my blues. That’s the blues of my people. That’s our truth. And the awareness needs to get out there, what’s happening. The rates of missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada is startling. A lot of people don’t know that this is happening. So myself, I’ve always been traveling around since I was a young girl. And I consider myself lucky that I’m still here because a lot of times I would go into unknown areas all by myself. I could have easily been one of those girls. It’s very important for me to use my platform to raise that awareness and also to show people, you know, when I’m singing all of this blues music, we have our own stories as well. I’m definitely not trying to steal anybody else’s stories. I’m trying to tell my own story through my music. So I appreciate you recognizing that. It’s really cool.
RHRM: I don’t have any time for narrow-minded people who would like to keep things in a tiny, little box. Of course, covering the greats is fine. But when writing your own songs, it wouldn’t make sense for you to sing about the same exact subject matter as a contemporary white blues artist or a black musician from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Everyone should take this music and put his or her own stamp on it. Everybody has their own story to tell. CS: Absolutely. I agree. I feel like it’s keeping the blues alive, it’s drawing in more of an audience and it’s just widening the genre. And I think that’s really important in order for its survival.
RHRM: You grew up on a Native American reserve on an island in Ontario. I want to make sure that I get this right. Is it your nation that is called Wikwemikong or is that the name of the area where the reserve is located? CS: My reserve is called Wikwemikong. Yeah. That’s the name of my town and the reserve. My tribe is Ojibwe and Potawatomi. My mother is Ojibwe and my dad is Potawatomi. So that’s my origin. I grew up in Canada and my dad was a truck driver. We started traveling south as soon as we could. My dad always wanted me to understand that any place you want to go is just around the corner. He wanted me to not be afraid to go out in the world and explore it and chase my dreams. So he started taking me to Nashville when I was about twelve years old. I was instantly hooked. So I made the move there when I was sixteen years old for the first time. And so now I’ve been living in Nashville for sixteen years, seventeen years. So, yeah. It’s my home now.
RHRM: But you still sound Canadian. Ha ha. CS: Ha ha. I go home a lot. I’ve been blessed with a very good career up in my home country and I’m thankful that all of my people up in Canada support me the way they do. I go up there and I do a lot of touring and then I come back down to America and I just keep trying to break through down here. You know, I’m chasing the American dream. Ha ha. My dad always told me about America and he said, “All of your dreams will come true down there.” And so, I’m still chasing them. Ha ha.
RHRM: With all of the craziness going on at the moment, I hope that people from other countries still feel that way about America. CS: Yeah. I think it’s a wonderful country. Like I said, I’ve been living down here for seventeen years. And I’m always treated so wonderful. People are always curious about my culture. They’re inquisitive. They ask questions and they’re excited to learn. I always feel very welcome here. I’ve never felt like I wasn’t. America is a big, beautiful melting pot. There’s bad stuff happening no matter where you go. I think the good will always rise to the top. Everybody’s just gotta keep fighting the good fight.
RHRM: In your songs, you like to relate the disappearance and murder of indigenous women to the missing and murdered black women of the American South. That is done effectively in “Blue Train”. It is interesting that you do this when you could just as effectively make the connection between indigenous peoples across North America. Do you make this comparison in your songs so that it is easier for mainstream society to identify with your background? CS: Yeah. Absolutely. Because “Pray Sister Pray” was more focused on just the indigenous. But when we sat down and we wrote “Blue Train”, we felt like the story wasn’t finished yet. We really wanted to capture, to show the correlation between the missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada and the missing and murdered black women in the South. Oppression is everywhere and the oppression against women in different cultures. We really wanted to bring that to light. And also, for me, it was also… When we started to write that song, it was my way of really trying to communicate why I found solace in the blues, why I found comfort in the blues. As a Native woman, it’s been hard for me… You know, there’s nobody in the media that looks like me. There’s nobody on the TV or in the movies when I was growing up, there’s nobody I could relate to. The music that was being released on the radio, I couldn’t relate to these stories that were coming from suburbia. I didn’t relate to that. And so, I was always searching for someone I could relate to, someone who I could connect to, somebody who could tell me that I had the right to go out in the world and chase my dreams just like everybody else. And I found that in blues music and soul music, r’n’b music. These were the women that I connected to. So that’s why I wrote that song. I was showing how connected I feel. Our cultures are very similar in a lot of ways. And also our fight, you know, through the oppression, the way we fight and we kind of rise above it all. And so, that was really important to me.
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