Backstage Pass: Soul Songstress Shawnee Dez on Growing Up in Chicago and the Influence of Nostalgia

Backstage Pass: Soul Songstress Shawnee Dez on Growing Up in Chicago and the Influence of Nostalgia
Backstage PassMarch 18, 2019

Since Shawnee Dez first performed at Sofar Chicago nearly three years ago, she’s become a hometown favorite, performing at over 20 Sofars. Watch a few seconds of her cover of “I’d Rather Go Blind” and it’s easy to see why. Shawnee talks to us about being a part of the ever-changing and influential Chicago music scene, some of her favorite artists today and more:

Her first Sofar:
My first Sofar performance took place at a beautiful high rise condo in Greektown, Chicago. I remember arriving and being more excited than nervous. By the show taking place in someone's abode, I was more comfortable in the space and genuinely eager to play.

On top of it being my first Sofar, it was a recorded set! I was shocked, as I imagined having to do 10 or so Sofars before actually recording one. The lineup included Jogford and Carlile, two incredible artists to share the stage with! My set was very stripped back, played only with an electric bassist, Matt Hines. We performed two covers and two originals. I figured this would give the audience a chance to really get a feel for the range of my voice. That's what I love most about Sofar Sounds, there lies a true opportunity for artists, whether starting out or mature, to convey their voice in the way they wish to be heard.

The room was calm, the audience clenched intently onto every note. I remember my mom and sister being there too. They were so proud and so emotional!

If she could play a Sofar anywhere in the world, it’d be:
I would love to play a Sofar in its birthplace, London. I would also love to play in Peru.

Artists she’s loving right now:
As an artist, I go through cycles where I rotate about four to five artists for months until the season changes and I break out of the pattern. My current rotation includes Saba, KING, Radiant Children and King Krule.

Her favorite artist she’s discovered at a Sofar:
During a show earlier this year, I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Cae Jones. His set was so beautiful; he has a soft singing voice paired with rap flows and acoustic guitar. Everything I needed during an intense snowy week!

Dream acts to see at a Sofar:
KING, John Mayer, Smino, Mick Jenkins

Shawnee performing at Sofar Chicago

How “lucid nostalgia” for Chicago and its music scene influences her:
Music is the heartbeat of Chicago. From House to Juke, from Soul to JB Skate Mix, from Do or Die to Tink, from Minnie, Donny, Chaka, Earth Wind and Fire to Chance the Rapper, Chicago’s sound reflects its infamous name, City of Neighborhoods. The music here is far and vast.

Much of my perspective pertaining to Chicago’s music scene is lucid nostalgia. Vivid memories of going to the skating rink on Wednesdays, where I got my first taste of soul music. The DJ would spin tons of James Brown. I was amazed by the tricks the older skaters would do to his tunes. Rock n Roll Soul! Saturdays I would travel to the same rink on 87th Street to hang out with the young folks for the Juke Jam. We would make up dance routines to the latest DJ Nate, Pretty Willie and Lil Corey and perform amongst ourselves during the dance function.

Growing up in Chicago, I remember being thirsty to go to Lollapalooza in Grant Park. With my birthday being in the summer, my only gift request would always be a Lolla weekend pass. Watching artists like Chance the Rapper evolve from a smaller stage at Lolla in 2013 to a huge stage in 2014 was a moment of truth for me. Chicago music is persistence and raw talent.

Now, being a music maker and performer, and having sung alongside Sofar family member Femdot at Lollapalooza in 2018, it's not hard to imagine what that persistence and raw talent will manifest into for myself. The Chicago music scene is generated by community, building with the supporters you started with. I see myself becoming a big name, a contemporary woman powerhouse taking my Chicago nostalgia worldwide.

Why performing at Sofar feels like performing at home:
The ambiance and tone Sofar Sounds sets for performing artists is unmatched. Facilitating spaces that bring community members, businesses and visitors together to really listen and engage with various artists is something I still have yet to experience outside of Sofar Sounds.

It’s a chance to tap into the moment. I get to sit quietly in the crowd and watch the other artists; I get to engage with the audience as if they are guests in my own home. This creates a different dynamic between artist and audience which fuels a much more genuine appreciation for the performance.

I have much gratitude for the Sofar platform, because each new fan or follower I gain from the show recognizes me as a person just like the,  but with a talent and a passion to share it. It’s real people connecting with real people in intimate spaces.

As someone who also loves venue concerts, I think Sofar stands out in that it is a very intentional space holding. The artists are respected and the exchange from audience to performer is a seamless flow.

Shawnee’s video “Slipped Up” is one of Sofar Chicago’s most viewed videos. Her memories of the performance and why people have connected with it:
The recording of “Slipped Up” took place on my birthday, July 13, in 2017. Being a summer baby, I’d say summer is the season I feel most alive, most true to self. I believe that comes through in the recording.

The show took place at a company in Humbolt Park called OutCold. The folks there were so warm and welcoming. I remember inviting all of my family as a celebration for my birthday and the OutCold staff helped make us comfy.

The original audio recording of “Slipped Up” is more upbeat but I decided to slow it down and bring the lyrics to the forefront. Keys player Robert Walker and bassist DeJon Crockran played many shows with me before this Sofar. Our chemistry and trust with one another was a major point in why the song has been able to breathe into it the life that it has. We all have major church backgrounds as far as the roots of where music and performance meet. In a song like “Slipped Up,” the words talk about faith in the unseen and not slipping by way of  temptation. The soul come through from the instruments, the vocal range and the truth in the lyrics.

Shawnee performing at Sofar Chicago

What it’s like to be an artist at this specific moment in time:
In the year 2019, being a performing artist is both challenging and beautiful. With the heavy shift to technology-based communication and experiences, it’s incredible how fast information, be it new music, new artists or gig opportunities, can travel. Technology is both a blessing and a curse. It’s the thing that connects us to people we may never get the chance to meet face to face and that’s incredible. The number of folks abroad who have commented and shared thoughts under the “Slipped Up” video really surprised and inspired me.

As someone who really believes in the power of sharing physical space and performance, I sometimes get worried that the mass number of options and frequent release of digital music can be overwhelming and sometimes desensitizing. Music is powerful!

Recently, we have seen a great number of artists really stand in their truth and support political ideas that represent social progression. I think this takes place when artists are honest about who they are and not afraid to put pieces of themselves in their work. We see this manifest in the works of artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Moses Sumney, Beyoncé, Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino. These are the moments that make it such an honor to be in the creative community. To have something to say that’s worth listening to and then sharing that something with the people. I understand that my identity in itself is historically political, so no matter what I create, that truth may show up.

What’s next in Shawnee’s career:
Currently, I am working on releasing music. I’ve been collaborating closely with Eddie Burnz “Floof”, Left Jones and Charles Lauste. These guys are incredible! I’ve been able to explore many sides of myself and translate that into my music. I think a lot of art making is living and allowing life to push the pen. That’s how timeless pieces are created. That’s what I’m here for.

I’m very hopeful to find ways to use my music for community building and really spreading hella light! I look forward to tons of shows, festivals and performing abroad.

Thanks, Shawnee! We can’t wait to see her perform at more Sofars and hear her music when it’s released.

Connect with Shawnee: Instagram | Facebook | Twitter

Cover photo taken by: Gabriela Chavez

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