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  • Annette Dawm

Chasing Dreams with Crystal Shawanda

Updated: May 15, 2023

For Crystal Shawanda, singing is the only thing she’s ever done, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Initially known as a country singer, Shawanda made the switch to blues music.

This decision was not always welcomed by fans. However, she knew the change was necessary and today she feels “very happy and fulfilled”.

“I travel and tour with my family and I’m just living the dream!” She explained. Crystal’s husband, Dewayne accompanies her on guitar. Their six year old daughter, Zhaa Zhaa has joined them on stage as well. Zhaa Zhaa inspires her mom in many ways, but especially when it comes to music:

“….Sometimes she has a direct influence on my music. On this most recent album, Midnight Blues, one of the songs is called, ‘Take a Little Walk with the Moon’. Crystal said that although she and her husband wrote the song, it was their daughter’s idea.

“….During the pandemic, we would go for night walks because there were a lot less people out here in Nashville. So we were out one night and she said, ‘Come on, Mommy and Daddy! Let’s go take a little walk with the moon!’ We were like, ‘Oh! That would make such a great song!’ So we started writing it and we would insert things she would say on our walk. She listens to it. She knows what we’re doing when we’re writing a song. Sometimes she’ll say, ‘Listen to this! I made it up!’ She’s very conscious of what songwriting is and what that can turn into.”

“At this point, I’d be very surprised if she didn’t [pursue music] because she just loves it! She wants to be a part of things…. I asked her, ‘Do you want to sing a song with us on stage?’ and she said, ‘Yes! I do!’”

“She comes out and joins us for a couple songs in the show. She sings one of my country hits with me, ‘You Can Let Go’. Then she also sings, ‘Midnight Blues’, the title track of my new album, with us. So she loves it right now, but who knows? Maybe in the future she’ll want to be totally something else. Whatever makes her happy, that’s what will make me happy!”

At the beginning of her career, Crystal visited hundreds of radio stations across America in order to promote her music. She recalled that when “You Can Let Go” was released, most people connected to it emotionally.

“It is a very sad song. When we did our radio tour, the radio stations actually asked me to do this fun, little thing where I would say, ‘Hey! This is Crystal Shawanda giving you ladies a mascara alert for my song, ‘You Can Let Go’, because everybody would cry and their mascara would run.”

The first time she heard her music on the radio was actually as she was leaving one of the many radio stations on the tour. The moment was extra special since Crystal was far away from her home in Ontario.

“….We were just driving down the road. My song came on the radio and it just felt like, ‘Wow! This is really happening!’ because we were out there visiting hundreds of radio stations and to actually finally hear it on the radio was an incredible experience! ….I’ve always been pushing to try to break through internationally and to be seen as a mainstream artist. It was a really big milestone for me, for sure!”

Another milestone came later in 2008 when Crystal took home The CCMA Award for Female Artist of the Year. It was a moment she shared with her long-time friend, Shane Yellowbird. Sadly, Shane passed away in 2022.

“As soon as I went backstage… he was like, the first one there! He was waiting to congratulate me and he was so proud of me! We always had kind of a brother/sister relationship or friendship. We were always encouraging each other and cheering each other on. For him to be there in that moment, it was really, really special. He of all people knew how hard it was for us to break through, because at that time, there were no Indigenous country music singers on the radio. There certainly weren’t any performing at The CCMAs or at The JUNO Awards…. I’m glad that he was there and we had that moment because when we would see each other, we were just like two little Indian kids again. Like, ‘Is it ever cool we’re here, eh?’”

“He was really good to his fans….” She continued. “He would really connect with people and that was one of the most special things about him…. We had lost touch the last couple years and you always think you’ll have forever and you’ll catch up later. So it’s definitely one of my biggest regrets that we didn’t get to do that.”

On a lighter note, Crystal has also formed many bonds with her own fans and she can’t wait to see them again. Having just returned from a tour in Florida, she and her family are headed back to Canada for another three-week tour. It’s a process that requires “a lot of packing and unpacking”.

“What I’m most looking forward to is just getting out there and playing shows this summer! I’m so excited to see everyone again and catch up! ....A lot of my country music fans didn’t follow me when I switched over to blues, but some of them did! So I’ve known them since 2008! What’s really cool is that a lot of people were kids when they came to my shows. Now they’re coming to my shows and they’re bringing their kids for their first concert! It’s just really special to be part of somebody’s life for that long and to see them grow up! I remember them and I get to see their babies! So that’s what I’m looking forward to the most!”

Although Shawanda now lives in Nashville, due to the nature of her work, she is often unable to attend concerts herself. She was disappointed that she missed Taylor Swift’s recent stop there:

“….Oh my God, I wish! I wish I could have gone! I’m always working. I never get to watch cool concerts. We always have such amazing shows here in Nashville but I’m always touring. It’s the story of my life. Everybody comes to town when I’m gone! I believe that was her last show in Nashville. I heard it was crazy! She was performing in the rain until 2 AM! It was incredible!”

Even when Crystal does get to see other musicians on tour, she said they are like “passing ships in the night”.

“We’re always waving, ‘Hey!’ Then we’ve got to keep going.” She laughed.

Aside from Taylor, Shawanda had a long list of musical influences that put her on the path to where she is today:

“….I’m such a big fan of everybody in all styles of music. I feel like there’s something that I can learn from everybody, no matter what kind of voice they have, or what style they sing. Some of my biggest influences were Etta James, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. Then I love a lot of singers like Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples and Big Mama Thornton. I love Stevie Nicks, so you know, my influences are all over the place!”

In 2019, Crystal felt that commercially, her career “was having a bit of a lull” despite the number of shows she played.

“At that point in my career, I had already switched to blues music and I was kind of stuck somewhere in between…. Some of my fans weren’t supporting me anymore because I wasn’t doing country music and the people in the blues world were not really fond of me coming to the blues world….”

Then an opportunity came to join Brett Kissel on stage for Canada Day. They sang Brett’s song, “My Story”.

“It was amazing to be on that big stage and to see all of those people and to be singing for them! The energy was just unreal and it was one of my favourite moments of my career. We sang a song that Brett had written. It was the first time that I had heard the song and performed the song…. So the words in that song really were inspiring. I felt like I was meant to hear those words because it reminded me of my journey. I just keep on going and I keep chasing my dreams and it’s not over yet! There’s still a lot of good stuff around the corner yet to come!”

When Crystal fully committed to being part of the blues world, she remembered that it was “very scary”. She was even told on multiple occasions that this would be “career suicide”. However, she did it anyway, in spite of her fears.

“….I knew it was the right thing…. I could just feel it every time I sang a blues song. It was like I was letting a bird out of a cage. I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t. Now I was just being myself vocally, musically and creatively. As scary as it was, I just kept trudging through the dark spots until I got to the light again. It was totally worth it!”

Crystal Shawanda was not only recognized for her work, but she became the first Indigenous person to win “Blues Album of the Year” at The JUNO Awards in 2021. She was also nominated again this year.

At the time of her win, most places still had strict COVID-19 restrictions. This meant the awards ceremony took place via Zoom. Shawanda was more prepared to lose than to win. So when her name was announced, it took her by surprise.

“….My husband and my daughter were right there with me…. They actually had to tell me, ‘You won! You won!’”

“I was like, ‘What?’ So my acceptance speech was a big, fumbled mess because I was not prepared at all! It was just amazing, you know, because that’s what it’s all about for me—representation. I want to show our Indigenous artists out there that we can do anything! Yes, we are Indigenous artists who can create Indigenous music, but if we choose to, we can also exist on the mainstream radio waves. I want Indigenous youth to look and say, ‘I can do that too! I can dream as big as I want to be and I’m a part of this world as much as everybody else!’” She added, “Just go for it! Follow your heart! Do what makes you happy and never mind about the negative things that people say. It’s your life, so you’ve got to build a life that makes you happy!”

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Photo courtesy of Crystal Shawanda.

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