Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Finding her voice

Two spirit singer-songwriter Shawnee talks identity and empowerment

Two-spirit singer-songwriter Shawnee performs at Westfest Saturday, June 14. Her newest EP, Let It Burn, will be released Friday, June 13. Credit: Joanne Johnson

For queer First Nations singer-songwriter Shawnee, music is more than a job — it’s a way of life. She got her start at the age of 12 performing as a Shania Twain impersonator in her hometown of Welland, Ontario. But her interest in music began even earlier. “I’ve been playing guitar and piano and writing music . . . ever since I could basically walk and talk. I was banging on something and making music in whatever way I could.”

As a teenager, Shawnee transitioned to playing in a rock band, performing covers of bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. “[I] got a little bit of grit in my voice from that influence,” she says. As soon as she finished high school, she moved to Toronto to focus on her music career, appearing on Canadian Idol and navigating the world of management and self-promotion.

“I think it felt like it really separated me,” she says of the experience of performing from such an early age. “None of my friends did that, nobody that I knew did that, so I felt that it really did separate me from, you know, my peers and people that I grew up with. But I didn’t care because I loved it so much. I ate with it and I slept with it and it was my entire life 24/7.”

Even as a 12-year-old Shania Twain impersonator, Shawnee says, she understood that to make it as a performer she would need to have some business sense. “I had to figure out how to also run a business at 12 years old,” she says. “I was doing my own pictures and designing stuff as part of the marketing.

“I’d say it’s honestly a 50/50 split,” she says. “I call it owning your craft. You really have to own it and be in charge of it and understand the foundation of it so that you really know what you’re doing and you continue and you can make a life out of it and make a career out of it.”

Shawnee’s life, her experiences and her identity as a two-spirit Mohawk woman have had a profound influence on the music she makes. But, she says, she tries to make music that is authentic and from the heart rather than attempting to represent what she thinks people want to hear from someone with her identity. “When I’m writing my music, it’s pretty much my life that influences me, and I’m a lot of things,” she says. “My music is influenced by my experiences, and it’s influenced by things that inspire me . . . I write about what I’m passionate about, and I don’t really think too much about the rest.

“I’ve changed a lot throughout my career,” she continues, adding that much of her fan base has been following her since early days and has gotten to know her as an artist. She describes how her sound has transitioned from pop to more of a rock/country/soul vibe. “People have grown with me through that, and so I don’t really feel like there’s expectations,” she says. “Maybe on the business side . . . there’s a lot of expectation there, and there always will be.”

Even for a seasoned artist like Shawnee, the business aspect of music can be difficult to navigate. Particularly, she says, as an artist who is two spirited. “As far as the business side goes, it’s not necessarily the box that’s the easiest box to be in. It’s not the easiest to market.” But she tries to let her music speak for itself and to allow her life experiences, good and bad, to influence her work. She describes a recent management deal that went badly and the effect it had on her sound. Her song “Burn Baby” is about taking the experience and burning it to the ground. “A lot of my music has been about empowering moments like that in my life.”

Empowerment and identity, particularly for young girls and women, are strong themes for Shawnee. Her music often deals with the process of self-discovery and the importance of embracing who you are. Songs like This is Me and Mirror Me look at how other people’s expectations can make it hard to find your authentic self, and how much stronger you are once you do. “Every song that I write and that I’ll be releasing on my EP is about that. And not even on purpose — it’s just because it’s where I am in my life; it’s what I’m feeling right now.”

Despite some of the difficulties she’s faced trying to market herself as a two-spirit artist, Shawnee says the experience has, on the whole, been a positive one. “Being out, being proud and being strong — I wouldn’t have it any other way.”