Crystal Gazing: Artist and family wait out COVID-19 pandemic at Wiiky as new album debuts

Crystal Shawanda

WIIKWEMKOONG – Normally singer/songwriter Crystal Shawanda would be hard at work in her Nashville home promoting her latest CD Church House Blues, officially launched on April 17, but the Wiikwemkoong country songbird turned blues powerhouse is nestled in her home community—and still working just as hard.

“I am pretty excited about it,” said Ms. Shawanda in Friday interview. “I signed with True North Records and it is nice to be working with a team again.”

Ms. Shawanda has her own record label, New Sun Records, but working with the True North Records label has given her access to an experienced team of professionals that is quickly proving its worth.

“It is great to be working with a team of people who believe in me,” she said. “I have to give a shout out to Geoff Kulawick and everyone at True North Records for believing in me and pushing me to believe in what it could be.”

Ms. Shawanda noted that “a lot of people thought I was crazy” when she turned away from country music to explore the blues, but for her it made complete sense. “I had a lot of success in country music,” she said,  something of an understatement considering she cracked the top 20 country music charts after years of working her way up from busking on Nashville’s Broadway Street. “I played for the president of the United States, all of the big festivals,” she said. “But I wanted to do something that I felt was right for me.”

“I have always been more old country,” said Ms. Shawanda. “The country music scene now is getting very close to pop.” The singer was quick to add the caveat that there was nothing inherently wrong with that. “There are a lot of wonderful writers in the industry right now and they are doing amazing work,” she said. “But it just isn’t me.”

“This is the music I grew up with,” she said of the blues genre. “Staying in-country would have been taking the easy road.” If anything about finding success in the music industry can be labelled as “easy.”

Ms. Shawanda said that many of the songs on Church House Blues were developed over the course of several years working and writing with her husband DeWayne Strobel.

“We would pick up a song and tinker with it, put it away for a while and then go back,” she said. The songs and their arrangements just kept getting stronger with each revisit, with one hilarious side effect. “The reviews have been incredible,” said Ms. Shawanda. “But one critic found something, he said the CD was too polished.”

There are also a couple of covers on Church House Blues and when asked to list her favourite songs on the CD, Ms. Shawanda listed one in particular as her third favourite, The Tragically Hip’s ‘New Orleans is Sinking.’

“I just love it,” she said. “There is music that we all grew up with, music that brings us back to a special time. Besides, there are plenty of great American bands out there, lots of great American songs, but the Hip are ours. Their music touches the soul of who we are as Canadians, no matter what community we come from, that music binds us together.”

The first song Ms. Shawanda listed from Church House Blues was ‘When it Comes to Love.’ “Me and my husband DeWayne wrote it when we first started dating,” she said. Mr. Strobel courted her by playing just about every song he had written. “That’s how he won me over,” she laughed. When it came to this song in particular, “we would change it, rearrange it, start over and finally finished it about a year ago. Hang in there for love until you find the right one.”

The second of her favourites is ‘Bigger than the Blues.’ Ms. Shawanda noted that she is no stranger to the challenges of depression and mental health. “It was born out of conversations with people we have loved that had committed suicide,” she said. “It has affected so many people in different ways. I had to take all of those conversations and put them in a song.” She said that she hopes it will bring people to a place where they understand that “they are bigger than the blues. No matter what is hurting you, no matter what is making you sad—you can overcome it. You are bigger than the blues.”

All the songs on the CD are outstanding, due in no small part to Ms. Shawanda’s continuing growth as an artist and the passion she taps into. “My voice is more precise these days,” she said. “More controlled, but I also don’t have to hold back.”

Ms. Shawanda, her husband and her daughter had come home to Wiikwemkoong to celebrate her daughter’s birthday back in March, but as the pandemic restrictions began to take hold they found themselves with a difficult decision. “We would have had to make a run for the border in order to return to their home in Nashville,” she said. “By then there were 800 cases in Michigan alone and our son who was still back in Nashville told us that resources there were strained. He said ‘maybe it would be better if you just stayed there.’ We decided to stay.”

Although the ambitious touring schedule Ms. Shawanda had lined up for the spring and summer has largely come to nought due to the pandemic, she and her husband have been performing online in livestream. “We put up a virtual tip jar,” she laughed. “It’s like we have come full circle from when we started out performing on the streets in Nashville.”