'We need to keep living,' Manitoulin artist says about releasing new music during the pandemic
Crystal Shawanda's sixth album, Church House Blues, was released in April, her first new record since 2017. (Photo courtesy of Eric Alper)
SUDBURY -- With musicians looking for ways to stay relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, a well-known artist from northern Ontario is celebrating the recent launch of her new album.
Crystal Shawanda's sixth album, Church House Blues, was released in April, her first new record since 2017.
"It's really exciting," Shawanda told CTV News. "This album has a little bit of everything. It's a lot like my live shows -- it's an emotional rollercoaster ride. There's those songs that make you want to get up and dance and crank it up when you're driving your car, and then there's those songs that are going to heal your broken heart."
Shawanda, who is from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, had been recording under her own label, New Sun Records. But she released the new album – her fifth -- with True North Records and said it was nice to take a step back and be able to focus on the music.
"I had to wear a lot of different hats and I was always having to look at the business side of things and I was also co-producing my albums," Shawanda said. "With this album, I decided to step back and I let my husband/guitar player Dewayne Strobel produce the whole album.
"It felt so good to just step back and let somebody take the reins."
Church House Blues was released April 17 worldwide, at the same time the COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging countries across the world. They considered holding off, but with so much work put into the album already, Shawanda consulted with her team and decided to move ahead.
"Everybody decided that we don’t know how long this is going to (last), everything's uncertain and because of that we need to just keep living," said Shawanda. "The wheels were already rolling. My publicists were already making all the contacts, my radio guy was already pushing music out to radio so we decided to just go for it."
With public events and festivals not an option for the foreseeable future, Shawanda said she is focussing on engaging with fans with online shows and new content on her social media channels.
"For us, of course it's a lot different," she said. "My entire spring and summer tour was just completely cancelled and that is definitely a little scary.
"We have our good days and our bad days … All we have to do is think fast, improvise and just roll with the punches like everybody else out there."
Eric Alper is a music industry publicist who works alongside Shawanda. He said staying relevant online will prove critical for musicians after the pandemic.
"I firmly believe that those artists that still continue to release music during this time are going to be well rewarded when this thing is over," Alper said. "I think the fan base will take a look at those artists that maintained their music throughout all of this as being there for them during this time."
Shawanda has been following that advice and recently participated in various online concerts.
"I was a part of the National Arts Centre, they had me as a guest on their online show," she said. "There's a lot of different organizations who are supporting us artists who are currently out of a job, basically."
Alper works with a variety of talent, ranging from veteran stars such as Buffy Ste. Marie, to up-and-coming independent artists. He's encouraging them to stay engaged with their communities.
"This week I'm getting artists to put the focus on shopping local, at least online or curbside pickup," said Alper. "So they're picking three companies or three stores in their local communities that are still active."
The music industry is one of the worst hit by the pandemic, he said, so it's important to find the positives and capitalize on whatever they can. He said with so many at home in isolation, there is an audience there to tap into.
"If you're an artist, if you create something, even if you're a business that isn't open in the physical sense, this is your time to actually reach your fan base, and you're customers in a way that nobody can ever predict what it's going to be like," said Alper.
"So just keep going, be creative, put the spotlight on other people, as well, and you never know if that karma's going to come back to you."
Shawanda is wrapping up a recent visit home to Wiikwemkoong. With the First Nation currently in lockdown, she said she's remaining positive.
"For me, I don't mind because when I come home to my hometown reserve, I come home to be here, to stay here with my family and to get out into the great outdoors," she said. "So I'm here for safety reasons … I'm not really itching to get out there at the moment."
With many raising concerns over restrictions put in place by local authorities, Shawanda said it is best to keep an open mind and focus on the threat of the novel coronavirus.
"I haven't really let it stress me out. I know that our community leaders are doing what's best to keep us safe, to keep our elders and our children safe, and that's what I focus on. It's a much bigger picture than just myself."
While people continue to self-isolate as much as possible, Shawanda said they may be able to find comfort in a particular song on her new album called 'Bigger than the Blues.'
"All the isolation that we're going through can really bring on … depression," she said. "So the song that we wrote together is called 'Bigger than the Blues,' and it's just really reminding people that you're bigger than your sadness, and you're bigger than whatever is bringing you down at the moment."