Crystal Shawanda gets first-ever Juno nomination for blues

Crystal Shawanda

TORONTO – Island superstar Crystal Shawanda is up for two honours at the 50th anniversary edition of the Juno Awards, Canada’s foremost celebration of musical artists in the country, as her 2020 album ‘Church House Blues’ earns her nominations for Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year and Blues Album of the Year at the 2021 awards event, coming later this year.

“I was screaming and jumping up and down. I literally jumped into my husband’s arms off the ground,” Ms. Shawanda told The Expositor last week. “After this crazy year of not being able to tour or play shows, it’s been really tough. We really needed this; it helped a lot mentally.”

The Wiikwemkoong musician who now makes her home in Nashville won her first Juno in 2013 as Aboriginal Album of the Year for her 2012 release ‘Just Like You.’ She got her first Juno nomination in 2008 and also received nods in 2015 and 2017.

Her publicist with True North Records encouraged her to watch this year’s nomination announcement livestream, something Ms. Shawanda hesitated to do because she was worried about heartbreak.

“We were trying to mentally prepare ourselves to not get bummed out if we didn’t get it,” she said, but instead was overjoyed with her pair of nominations. She writes and records her music alongside husband Dewayne Strobel, who is also her creative partner.

This marks the first time Ms. Shawanda has gotten recognized in the blues category. She began her career with a multi-award-winning start in the country genre with small twinges of blues, but made the full transition to that style within the past decade.

“We’ve been working very hard for this for several years. We feel like we’re finally accepted,” she said. “When we switched to blues we did get a little resistance from some people in the blues world and some country fans who said they weren’t going to listen any more. So it was a hard decision but I’m just following my heart.”

Ms. Shawanda has earned a few Indigenous Album of the Year nominations since the switch but nothing, until recently, for blues specifically. She got nominated for three accolades at this past February’s Maple Blues Awards through the Toronto Blues Society.

Seeing the nominations come in for her newest work is extremely rewarding, she said, alongside the numerous calls, texts and online messages of support from family and friends back home on Manitoulin, as well as many of them sharing posts about the news.

The other nominees in the Indigenous Artist of the Year category, presented by Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, are Burnstick, Julian Taylor, Leela Gilday and Terry Uyarak. Blues album of the year nominees are ‘Hell Bent with Grace’ by Angel Forrest, ‘Spirits in the Water’ by Dione Taylor, ‘Solar Powered Too’ by Rick Fines and ‘The Reckless One’ by Samantha Martin and Delta Sugar.

The pandemic has not halted Ms. Shawanda’s creative output. When The Expositor spoke with her last week, she was on a road trip to Florida to shoot the cover for her new album, due out later this year.

“We’re done recording and moving into the mixing and mastering phase,” she said, noting that travelling during a pandemic has meant opting for a car rather than flying, and staying in a tight bubble.

The new record features more original music, much of which follows a lighter, uptempo sound to help bring some joy in a challenging year.

“As we were writing the songs, we were trying to brighten ourselves up through the pandemic. It’s been a real downer, this whole pandemic, and mentally really straining on everyone. We came up with some songs to reflect on how we’re being resilient through that,” she said.

There are still a few potential titles bouncing around for the record so Ms. Shawanda said her fans would have to wait in suspense for the reveal. A surprise on the record is “a cover of another Canadian icon.”

On her last album, she covered The Tragically Hip’s hit ‘New Orleans is Sinking’ to much acclaim.

“(The mystery musician) is not a blues artist at all so I’m hoping it’ll be interesting for people to see which Canadian icon we’ve chosen to cover,” Ms. Shawanda said, adding that these covers serve as a way to honour her Canadian roots. “The head of our label said ‘that’s a bold choice,’ but he liked it and said I killed it.”

She expressed gratitude to all of the people back home who continue to support her art, even though she has moved to Music City, saying it “always means so much to me.”