• By: Keith Whittier

Shawnee Carries a Warrior Heart

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Taking her sense of excitement and community back into her music, Toronto-based Mohawk singer Shawnee has a lot to say. Going from humble beginnings as an impersonator, she's taken her career so far that now she's giving back. Using her track "Warrior Heart" to fight suicide amongst Indigenous youth, Shawnee is truly making the most out of her music. We caught up with Shawnee ahead of her set at Ottawa Pride on August 27th to talk music, giving back and how she went from Shania Twain to Shawnee.

Ottawa Life: So how did you go from a Shania Twain impersonator to where you are now?

Shawnee: I listened to Shania Twain growing up, so I was in this awkward pageant thing. You had to pick a talent and I picked a Shania Twain song, and because I listened to her so much I sounded like her. I started getting hired as a Shania Twain impersonator, and that was my introduction to live performing. I was still writing and listening to different kinds of music, and I did some other stuff. I was in a cover band and made some money doing that after school. I moved to Toronto after high school and that's when I really dived into performing my own music. Any little music joint to perform. Then I met some people in Toronto and it's worked its way from there.

What initially drew you towards music at a young age and made you realize it was something you wanted to focus on?

The way my parents explain it is that I was drawn to music before I could even remember. There was an aspect of it that came naturally. My brother played piano so there was a piano in the house, and my dad played guitar, there was always music in the house, so I would play the piano and it felt natural. I have tapes of me in the basement recording myself talking on a recording. When I got into my teenage years, music spoke to me on a deeper level, I had a hard time in school and with my peers, not knowing my place in the world yet. I had a hard time and music is what drew me into this place that saved me, it was my medicine, my therapy and my outlet for my passion. It was then that I knew music was powerful, to express myself and get out what I was going through in lyrics and instruments. I knew it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Can you talk about your single "Warrior Heart" and how you're trying to fight youth suicide within indigenous communities?

There's a suicide crisis in Canada amongst indigenous youth. These youth are in kind of remote areas, living in homes on the reserve. There's specific issues, they don't have the same resources and they don't have the same contacts as someone would like me in Toronto. For me "Warrior Heart" is less of a political song and more of a dedication to those kids, feeling like there's nothing for you to turn to. When you feel alone as a young person, knowing that there's someone else out there who's felt and survived that desperation and darkness is important. Hopefully the song can save them from that place in their life. It's speaking to people going through that now to connect with each other, connect with music and their culture.

How did you get involved with the We Matter Campaign and what kind of work are you doing there?

"Warrior Heart" came naturally to support the campaign. When I first sat down to express what was going on in Canada, I was thinking "What is out there, what resources do these kids have?" Finding out about the campaign, I knew it was important to support them in their efforts, so that's why I donated the sales to them, because what they do is important to me.

What other issues inspire your lyrics?

Life has a way of opening your eyes up to all the things going on in the world. I'm all about empowering women, my community and young people, to create stronger communities and a stronger future.

What was it like to work with Hill Kourkoutis and Dan Shub on this single?

Dan Shub and I go back. We come from the same community and we've been looking for excuses to work together, since before I moved to Toronto ten years ago. It felt natural to work with him. It's the first time I've work with Hill, but it's a tight-knit community as far as the music world goes. I'd heard so many great things about her  work  and her personality so I was really looking forward to it. It was everything I expected it to be, she's really down to earth and super talented. That collaboration was really important too, Dan brought that cultural influence into the song as well as Hill's modern influences into the song.

Has your way of making music changed over the past few releases?

People who have been listening to my music have said the genre's changed. For me, I've pushed myself to go deeper, but it's hard and intimidating to be that vulnerable so I push myself to that point. This past year, I feel like I'm stronger to say what I want to say and not think of anything but what I can do for me, letting go of any expectations that come with it.