Singer Crystal Shawanda has found her voice as a blues singer.
The Canadian-born, Nashville-based songwriter and musician built a decade-long career as a successful country music singer. She was even the subject of a reality show, Crystal: Living the Dream on the CMT television network.
Yet it has taken Shawanda until studio album No. 5 — the gritty, soul-drenched, Janis Joplin-esque Voodoo Woman — to sing the songs she really knows and loves.
Shawanda grew up on the Wikwemikong reserve on an island in Ontario.
Her parents raised her on country music and taught her to sing and play guitar, but it was her oldest brother who introduced her to the blues.
He would hang out in the basement cranking Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Etta James.
When no one was home, Shawanda would practice singing the blues.
While she was secretly pining to be a blues mama, out on stage, it was Patsy and Loretta. She started performing country when she was six and started getting paid gigs when she was 10, relentlessly playing every stage she could.
Crystal’s dad was a truck driver and they started taking frequent trips to Nashville when she was 12. She recorded her first album when she was 13 and moved away from home that same year to attend a music school.
She dropped out at 16 to move to Nashville.
During a chance meeting with a well respected music executive, Shawanda was told, “I just don’t know if Native Americans make sense in country music. I don’t know if fans would be receptive and I wouldn’t even know how to market you.”
She tried to take the critique with composure, but would end up moving back home to her reserve and abandoning her dream, but no matter what, found herself back in front of the microphone.
She finally came to terms with what was bothering her.
“If I was out of tune, I could take voice lessons,” she reflects. “If my song was bad, I could write another. But I couldn’t change the colour of my skin.”
So Shawanda moved back to Nashville one more time with a mission to prove him wrong. She paid her dues and landed a production deal with Scott Hendricks. She was later signed to a record deal with RCA Records by Joe Galante, who had heard Crystal cover B.B. King and Janis Joplin. This venture produced a top-20 song on country radio.
After this, she found herself feeling like a fish out of water. She says, “I so wanted to be what everyone wanted me to be, I lost myself along the way.”
She took some time off and, one day while watching the news and feeling overwhelmed by the headlines, she walked into her music room, picked up her guitar and wrote “The Whole World’s Got the Blues.” This was the start of her first blues album.
”The songs just fell out of me and throughout the recording it was like setting my voice free,” she says. “I can’t help but feel like I’m home, no longer holding back.”
The new album is a modern take on the blues, but is deeply rooted with heart-wrenching laments and catchy rump-shakers.
Michael Daniels, 7 p.m.
Crystal Shawanda, 8 p.m.