Crystal Shawanda isn’t bigger than the blues, but her voice might get close!!

Crystal Shawanda is driving fearlessly across Michigan while we speak: unlike earlier less-pragmatic musicians we’ve spoken with (I’m looking at you, Ms. Hou!) she’s a passenger in the Shawanda travelling revue, and the simple fact that this exists following the Dark Ages of the Covid Times is a delight!

“We just spent last year getting back on the road, and getting our feet wet with that again. And working on the new album (Midnight Blues, available in June). We were able to play some shows in Ontario last summer, and we’ve been playing a lot in the South, down in Florida, and Alabama, and Kentucky. And up in . . . the Connecticut area.

Smiling woman looking up with her jewelled blouse arm visible
You wouldn’t think such a gentlewoman would have a killer blues voice, but Crystal does! Image courtesy of the artist.

We compare her country music start with her blues changeup, and her Juno-winning album (2nd JUNO, we’ll note) Church House Blues, being a mixture of bluesy things: where does she think it’s going?

“That’s just who I am in my essence. that’s why I switched to the blues: it just oozes out . . . Every once in a while I’ll have a fan who will call out and request one of my country songs, and I’ll do it for them! That’s part of my career: it made it possible for me to pick and choose where I wanted to go with my future. . . . And you know it fits in just fine with my blues stuff.

“Shortly after I switched over to blues I made the decision (to just sing and not play guitar) because i felt like singing blues music is really pushing myself, and I felt that in order to do it justice I needed to put the guitar down. So I could use every part of me to get that vocal out, to finish that song; and I feel like it’s worked!”

Woman with dark hair holding microphone singing onstage
Crystal at the TD Jazzfest in Toronto belting it out just before the Covid-19 thing came along. Photo by Randall Cook.

MUSICAlive! asks Ms. Shawanda to tell us about Dewayne (Strobel, her main co-writer and husband.

“He played all the guitars, and produced the album, and co-wrote most of the songs on the album . . . When he plays the guitar he tailors it around my voice: he always says ‘I don’t want to get in the way or take away. I want to add and uplift.’ It’s very musical: he follows the melody of what I’m singing . . . And y’know we’ve been playing music together for 18 years, and I’ve always felt like his guitar playing is essentially part of my sound.

“When fans come to our shows, they’re just as excited to see Dewayne as they are to see me!”

MUSICAlive!goes on about the tour and their performance here at the Engineered Air Theatre, an intimate space perfect for blues and perhaps dancing!.

“We’re excited! It’s been awhile since we’ve played in Calgary: when we play there it’ll be our stripped down duo show; just me and my husband. A lot of the time our fans tell us they prefer our duo show, because it’s very intimate: it’s way more personal; we share more stories, and as far as our set list, anything goes!

“it’s a lot of fun! we both have played on all the albums, so we both know all the same songs, and we’ve played honkytonks on Broadway and Nashville, and we’ve played blues bars in the south, so our set list if pretty wide and long.”

Medium closeup of woman in white tasseled jacket with microphone
Every singer has to have a microphone as a prop, right? Photo by Nora Canfield.

MUSICAlive! gushes expansively about “New Orleans is Sinking”, the Tragically Hip song Crystal has transformed on this 2020 album.

“Thank you! I really appreciate that. We’re real proud of that song! Ever since I was a kid, I used to sit there (thinking), ‘it would be so cool to sing this and really just tear into it!’ And I could hear it in my head, how I wanted to do it. I brought the idea to my husband, and he picked up the guitar and we just started taking it to where it sounds good! This is where they inspired me to go with it.”

We suggest it’s the bluesiest song on the album, with the harmonica and slide guitar and Crystal’s earthy range.

“it was kind of intentional: we were trying to prove a point, y’know? Since we’ve broken into the blues scene, sometimes people will tell us ‘that’s not blues!’ and we’re like ‘There’s all kinds of blues’ . . . So when we recorded the song it was ‘Could we take a song from a Canadian rock band and turn it into a blues song?’ And I felt like we did that, y’know?

“There’s a quote from willie Dixon: ‘Blues is the roots and everything else is the fruit!’ (laughter) and we’re firm believers in that! I grew up on country music, but I grew up on bluesy country music: Hank WilliamsSr. was what I grew up singing, and he was inspired by old blues artists, that’s why he has songs like ‘Lovesick Blues’, and ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’.”

Given that recognition of her influences, we ask her about daring to create a song called “Bigger Than the Blues”?

“Y’know when we first started telling people that we had a song called ‘Bigger Than the Blues’, everybody immediately thought I was trying to say I was bigger than the blues! (we laugh) And maybe that was intentional on our part, trying to mess with people? It’s entertaining to us to do that sort of thing! (more laughter)

“But the song was really written from a heartfelt place: it was inspired by honest conversations about suicide and mental health. It was shortly after hearing about the suicide of Kelly Fraser, who was a very talented Inuk pop artist, and we thought we wanted to write a song to say all the things that might help somebody when they’re in that moment: feeling like there’s no other way out; and they might hear this song and it might inspire them to stick it out for another round.

“ I’m saying YOU are bigger than the blues. So that was the point we were trying to make: that you’re bigger than your problems; you’re bigger than whatever; your anxiety, your depression, you’re bigger than you think you are! You’re stronger than you think you are.

“We all have that inside of us: you’ve just gotta pull it out!”

“On my first blues album (Whole World’s Got the Blues) ,I had this song ‘Pray Sister Pray’ which raised awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (Crystal is Ojibwe). And (that heritage) comes out sometimes in the production: for that song as an example we actually had a Jingle-Dress dancer come into the studio and dance, and we recorded the sound of her jingles, because it’s a healing dress, and when they dance, it’s for healing: they usually request the Jingle-Dress Song when somebody is sick.”

Come out and dance to her music and heal yourself:

22/05/18 Salmon Arm, BC at North Shuswap; 22/05/20 White Rock, BC at Blue Frog Studios; 22/05/26Edmonton, AB at Commercial Hotel-Blues On Whyte Pub; 22/05/27 Calgary, AB at Arts Commons; 22/05/28 Calgary, AB at Arts Commons

Posted by Carey Rutherford

Author: Carey Rutherford

Swallowed by the mutual loves of words and music (but far too chicken-shit to perform them with a band), Carey’s writing career started slowly as a freelance writer in 2003, starved him nearly to personal bankruptcy until 2008, and changed directions while writing for FastForward, Beacon Calgary, GayCalgary, and Examiner magazines. With the death of many old-school periodicals, and the explosion of musical diversity in Calgary, the modern approach to writing about live music performance in the Calgary region presented uncluttered landscapes for the focussed passion that Carey’s conversations with musicians, drag queens, festival producers and small animals has uncapped. He was moulded by the brilliance of paper-based periodicals old and new (Life, rolling Stone, Swerve! and Adbusters etc.), and sees the info-verse as needing creative, empathetic, but clear-eyed Agents to communicate these performances.

3 Replies to “Crystal Shawanda isn’t bigger than the blues, but her voice might get close!!”

  1. The Author says:

    Stand Back! Blues & country blues & kickass slide guitar & knockout singing & holy crap what’ll they do when the rest of the band shows up?!

  2. The author says:

    Hi David: Crystal will not get notifications from this article, but I’ll send her a note about yours. Thanks.

  3. David Hail says:

    I luv your music specially, the blues! Coming from a Native Indigenous. I’m indigenous from Oklahoma USA. From the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes. Ty for the great music.

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