Crystal Shawanda is not only talented, not only dedicated to her craft, but also, really nice.
Nice to talk with, nice to listen to, but also, just really nice.
Nice enough to agree to speak to Sudbury.com despite being in the middle an all-day, multi-artist live concert, one that had been taking up her time since 5 a.m. that morning.
Of course, it might be the hometown advantage. Shawanda is from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island. She visits every chance she gets, and spent a fair amount of time there during the pandemic. But now?
“We’ve been really busy,” she told Sudbury.com. “But it’s been a good busy.”
Busy includes being the first Indigenous person to win a Juno for Best Blues Album of the Year. So yes, good busy.
The concert in question was an all-day live event held June 18 in honour of National Indigneous Peoples Day, June 21. Shawanda was excited to participate because it is important to learn the Indigenous peoples' role in the history of Canada, but also, their cultures.
“I think it's important for everyone to learn the history, and also to learn about the culture that they're surrounded by,” said Shawanda. “I think when people take the time to learn about other cultures, it really brings those walls of separation down. People understand each other better, people relate to each other better. And that just makes for a better world.”
She said the entire concert experience had been wonderful, especially because the entire lineup was Indigenous.
“There are dancers, singers, and they had a poetry reading that just blew me away,” said Shawanda. “I'm always looking at the latest Indigenous music releases, but getting to see each other in person is really special. Representation will help to encourage and inspire our indigenous youth to reach for their dreams and aspire to do things out of their comfort zone.”
And speaking of stepping out of your comfort zone, or rather, stepping back into it.
Shawanda made her name in the country music game, with hits like ‘You Can Let Go’ charting on radio and earning her Juno nominations and awards. Her first win was in 2013 as Aboriginal Album of the Year for her 2012 release Just Like You.
And then, she decided to go back to her roots, the music she had loved all her life, behind the scenes. She went to the blues, and in the blues, specifically, Church House Blues, her 2020 release, she found another nomination, and another win — this time with the addition of being the first Indigenous person to do so. She won Best Blues Album of the year for her very first foray into the genre.
Shawanda said she doesn't think it is a coincidence that there's a lot of Indigenous blues musicians out there.
“We relate to it, it speaks to us, we understand the feeling of raw emotion and that this music stemmed from that rise out of oppression,” she said. “That was inspiring for a lot of Indigenous artists, and I think that's why they connected so deeply; I know that's why I connected to it so deeply.”
She mentions legendary and influential artists like Big Mama Thornton.
“Her voice blew me away, but it was also who she was as a person,” said Shawanda. “She was strong because she had to be, life made her that way.” Shawanda said that fortitude reminded her of family. “It reminded me of my grandmothers, my mom, even myself, and the obstacles that we rose above.”
Blues was also the music of her soul, said Shawanda, even if she didn’t always give in to it. “The whole time I was singing Patsy Cline on stage, I was singing Etta James at home,” she said with a laugh. “It just finally got to the point where I just needed to follow my heart. I would hate to look back when I’ve got gray hair and I'm sitting in my rocking chair, to look back and wonder what would have happened if I just gave it a shot. I don't want to live with those kind of regrets, so I just kind of went for it.”
It went well.
She said the album is representative of who she is. As is her newest album, due in the fall. Soon, she’ll be touring for both her first blues album, and her second, Midnight Blues.
Shawanda is also finding herself becoming a motivational speaker, something she said has just happened gradually.
“For me, it was just a chance to share my story so that other people can learn from my experiences,” she said. “And I I share very personal stories of hardships from from growing up and leaving the reserve for the first time and experiencing racism and discrimination and dealing with stereotypes.”
Shawanda said she covers her childhood, her experiences in the music business and her life up to now, but it’s also about following your heart, trusting your path and healing yourself.
“You’ve got to do the work because if you don't, if you don't deal with it, it'll deal with you,” she said. “You'll never have the chance to do something good with your life, something that brings positive positivity to the world but also makes yourself happy.”
You can find more information about Shawanda’s upcoming tour here
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.