by Warren Schlote
TORONTO—Wiikwemkoong country music sensation Crystal Shawanda is up for three Maple Blues Awards from the Toronto Blues Society for outstanding achievement in blues music in Canada, including a nomination for female vocalist of the year.
“I was just blown away. I’m so excited and very honoured. I’ve been working really hard to be accepted into the blues world and earn my way in, so it kind of feels like my Sally Fields moment of ‘they love me!’” said Ms. Shawanda with a laugh.
The Expositor reached her by phone at her Nashville home last week to discuss her nominations.
Breaking into blues has been a lengthy process for the Wiikwemkoong woman who reached her previous stardom as a country singer. Many people in the blues world doubted her sincerity and dedication to the genre because of her past styles and Ms. Shawanda said she didn’t expect to achieve this level of recognition so soon.
For the musician, country music was a confining genre in which to perform because the genre has often fused with pop sounds in recent years. Producers as far back as her first album instructed her to hold back her voice from her full expressions because it might scare away fans.
“I had to really hide all of this cool stuff I could do with my voice just to make sure I’d get accepted. After a while, I just got tired of it,” said Ms. Shawanda. “I found myself singing along with old blues music, old singers, and I found that when I was singing to those songs I was finally being myself. That’s what inspired my venture into the blues world.”
When she launched her own record label New Sun Music in 2009, it freed her up to recording the music she wanted to create.
“I thought, ‘isn’t’ this why we started the label, so we could do what we want?’ So I decided to try one blues album and after that I felt like someone let a bird out of a cage. I was free and this was who I was meant to be, so I stayed in the blues world and in April, Church House Blues became my fourth blues album,” she said.
On November 1, the Toronto Blues Society announced this year’s nominees for Maple Blues Awards and Ms. Shawanda appeared in three categories.
First, she is in the running for female vocalist of the year against Angel Forrest, Dawn Tyler Watson, Dione Taylor and Samantha Martin.
She and her husband and musical partner Dewayne Strobel are up for the songwriter of the year category against Colin Linden, Dione Taylor, Kevin Harvey and Paul Reddick, and the two return for the recording/producer of the year award for her album Church House Blues. For the latter award, they are up against Hand Me Down Blues (artist Durham County Poets, producer Bill Garrett), Tribute (artist and producer Jack de Keyzer), Sonic Departures (artist JW-Jones, producer Eric Eggleston) and Ballad of Albert Johnson (artist Smoke Wagon Blues Band, producer Steve Sherman).
The Canadian public is invited to vote on their favourite artists at the awards’ website,
MapleBlues.ca, until December 1. People can only vote one time and late ballots will not be counted.
The artists who reach the shortlist of nominees have to pass through scrutiny from more than 60 individuals who are deeply connected to the blues world, including radio personalities, journalists and festival organizers.
Ms. Shawanda said her song ‘When It Comes to Love’ has been among the most popular off her latest record. Its music video includes footage from Wiikwemkoong, where she was when the pandemic began.
‘Bigger Than the Blues’ is the song that is being recognized in the songwriter of the year category. It digs into the topics of depression and mental illness and her inspiration came from Inuk singer Kelly Fraser’s death by suicide this past December.
Writing about true stories and difficult times is a hallmark of Ms. Shawanda’s style.
“There’s always a story behind my songs. People generally understand that all the songs I write with my songwriting partner, husband and producer (Dewayne Strobel) are all things that we’ve done or experienced individually or together,” she said, citing ‘When It Comes to Love’ as being based on the first song Mr. Strobel played for her when they began dating.
“My fans have always had personal insight into my very personal life. I always share everything with people on stage,” she said.
Her fans have largely continued to support her as she explores different musical styles, though many have come to expect that from the musician who often incorporated pop, jazz and blues music into her setlists as a country singer.
Ms. Shawanda recently had the opportunity to work with a fan on a ‘serious bucket lister’ project for the musician. On the November 12 episode of CBC’s Battle of the Blades, duo Kaitlyn Weaver and Bryan Bickell (a Canadian Olympic figure skater and a retired NHL player, respectively) danced to Ms. Shawanda’s ‘Ball and Chain.’
“Since I was a kid, I wanted to be a figure skater. After my first few lessons it became apparent that I wasn’t made for it,” she said with a laugh. “So, my dream changed that someday, someone would skate to my music. And I have very genuinely felt that since I was a kid.”
Ms. Shawanda got to meet the pair and Ms. Weaver revealed that she was a big fan of her music, listing off a myriad of her songs to which she would have also wanted to skate.
The duo figure skated to a silver finish in the weekly competition and will advance to the next episode.
Ms. Shawanda has been keeping musically active during the pandemic thanks to her and Mr. Strobel’s recording studio within their home. They have continued to make recordings with other musicians who also have home studios and have enjoyed being able to spend time with their young daughter in between recording sessions.