“I believe so wholeheartedly in the power of art and music,” says singer-songwriter Shawnee. “It’s my life’s mission to continue that healing for myself, and anyone else I can give it to. Whether that’s a powerful message, joy or just a sense of knowing you’re not alone, I want to do anything I can do.”
Shawnee infuses her infectious pop songs with messages we don’t hear enough. The Two-Spirit Mohawk musician and winner of CBC’s 2020 Searchlight Award for “Canada’s best undiscovered talent” has long shed light on the struggles faced by Indigenous communities. Last year, she performed her 2017 song “Warrior Heart” at Parliament Hill’s Canada Day event to bring awareness to the nationwide suicide crisis in Indigenous communities. Backed by an orchestra and traditional dancers, Shawnee used the spotlight to acknowledge Two-Spirit youth while tying her performance back to her ancestry. As the first Indigenous winner of the Searchlight Award in its 12-year history, she aims to extend her outreach even further with transmissions of love, healing and empowerment.
“Everything I’ve ever done is a step towards learning more about myself as an artist and who I am as a person,” says Shawnee over the phone from her home in Edmonton (a city she calls “a little windy”). “My writing has changed and evolved alongside my identity. I came out as lesbian and then discovered myself as a Two-Spirit person. It’s all part of my continuous growth.”
Though she moved to Alberta this past January, Shawnee grew up in Welland, Ontario, and her mother’s side of the family is from the Six Nations of the Grand River. Shawnee got her start at an early age, performing as a Shania Twain impersonator at parties and in parades. She later fronted a cover band before deciding to write and perform music of her own. After graduating from high school, Shawnee moved to Toronto and toured with the bands Roxette and Glass Tiger as a backup singer, performing to stadium crowds.
During this formative period in her early 20s, Shawnee began working with her first manager, who helped sign her to a record label. But this came at the cost: She had to hide her identity. “During that time I was very excited because everything was happening and it’s what I always wanted,” she says. “I was touring around Canada and getting on radio stations, but at the same time [I was] being told to stay in the closet.” She says industry professionals told her not to be out because “men need to feel like they’re invited, too.” Shawnee pushed back. “That’s not what I represent and I wasn’t going to fit whatever mould to be a product. My artistry is so much more important than that.”
Growing up, Shawnee didn’t know much about herself as an Indigenous person; it wasn’t until she experienced a racist incident that she started to look closer at her history and culture. After talking to family members and attending her first powwow, Shawnee spoke to Elders about what it means to be Two-Spirit.
In a 2019 interview with Kids Help Phone, Shawnee explained that being Two-Spirit means “knowing, understanding and walking in both gender worlds” and is something that her ancestors “honoured as a gift in their community.”
She says learning her culture really helped her connect to her identity. “I felt understood, complete and whole.”
Shawnee has operated as an independent artist since her negative experience with her manager and label—that “bad deal” in her early 20s. She now cherishes her artistic autonomy and has never looked back. There has been no shortage of highlights, from singing with Tegan and Sara at the 2014 Junos to sharing the stage with Lady Gaga during her surprise appearance at NYC Pride last year. Shawnee laughs at the memory of the Gaga gig. “She said she was nervous because she had to sing the national anthem,” Shawnee says. “I said, ‘You’re nervous? You’re Lady Gaga! Now I have to perform in front of you and thousands of people. I don’t know what you’re talking about!’”
Shawnee’s latest single “Don’t Go,” out June 19, is a catchy ‘80s-indebted summer jam, co-written with her drummer Matt O’Rourke, with a sound that stands out from her previous work. Carrying on the tradition of impassioned, romantic and deeply sincere Canadian synth-pop, it shares a rush with Lisa Lougheed’s “Run With Us” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away with Me.” There’s even a sly wink to Shawnee’s Shania Twain past with the pleading way she sings the lyrics “Come on over, baby.” But this time, the song is addressed to a different romantic interest: “You had me at hello/ Hey now girl come on let’s go.”
“I know you’re supposed to pick a genre and a lane, but I don’t do well in the lane going one direction,” Shawnee says. “It goes against my very core being. There are roots that come out in my music, but the instrumentation can be a little more country or a little more pop. On this day in the studio, we were working on another song when [O’Rourke] started dabbling and came up with that synth line. I was like ‘what is that?’ We wrote ‘Don’t Go’ on the spot.”
While she gears up to release an album in 2021, Shawnee will enjoy five days of recording at Calgary’s National Music Centre, part of her Searchlight prize. When Halifax’s Aquakultre won the award last year, they provided a model for how to inject vital messages (such as the history of Africville) into accessible pop—which, for them, meant a dazzling hip-hop/neo-soul sound. Shawnee continues this work by speaking up for her steadfast beliefs, sharing her own experiences in the music industry as a young artist and being open about how it might not be the best fit for a new generation.
“To be completely honest, it was very limiting. That was another growth experience, learning that all the bells and whistles are not always the best way to go,” Shawnee says.
“The most important thing I’ve learned as an artist is to always be true to what I believe in—who I am, what I represent and what I have to say. Otherwise, what do you have at the end of the day? Not much.”