Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Battle Cry of the Shontelle Republic

Written by Darla Musick
Shontelle3.jpgThough her music is of the variety likely to be blasting out of the car window on any given girl’s night, Shontelle is not your typical pop princess. This twenty-three-year-old Bajan songstress is not afraid to get her hands dirty (she was an Army cadet after all), or break a sweat achieving her dreams. Her second album, No Gravity, which released in 2010, garnered her most successful single to date, “Impossible,” and only drove her ambitions higher. Shontelle recently discussed her past in Barbados, what the future looks like for her career, and what it was like to go from being Rhianna's drill sergeant to co-writing "Man Down."
Photos By Dustin Cohen
Makeup by Jen Lombardo
Hair by Matthew Anthony
Shontelle1.jpgThough her music is of the variety likely to be blasting out of the car window on any given girl’s night, Shontelle is not your typical pop princess. This twenty-three-year-old Bajan songstress is not afraid to get her hands dirty (she was an Army cadet after all), or break a sweat achieving her dreams. Her second album, No Gravity, which released in 2010, included her most successful single to date, “Impossible,” and only drove her ambitions higher. Shontelle recently discussed her past in Barbados, what the future looks like for her career, and what it was like to go from being Rhianna's drill sergeant to co-writing "Man Down." 
Darla: What was it like growing up in Barbados? How much do you think this influences your sound?
I grew up with my mom, dad and two younger sisters in a southern suburban neighborhood called Durants in Christ Church. It was five minutes away from the beach and the beach was my life. I would literally cry and throw tantrums if the weekend came and my uncle or aunt or dad didn't take us to the beach. If I found out anyone went without me, we weren't friends for a while. Halfway through my childhood we moved a lot until we finally ended up in Bagatelle, St. James on the west coast of Barbados. I was an active and competitive kid. It always seemed like all the adults in my family had so many accomplishments and us kids always tried to represent. I made the Barbados swim team, as well as the Barbados track and field team. I became an Under Officer of the Army division of the Barbados Defense Force after completing the Cadet program. I played in the marching band where I was the lead drummer. And I still managed to juggle school and music with all this.
Competition was always a big part of my life. I attended the top high school so I really had to work hard even to prove myself academically. I then went on to study information technology and computer science and eventually philosophy and law at the University of the West Indies. I'm breaking a sweat just thinking about all this random stuff I did. 

Aside from all the demands and competition, we simply loved each other and being together as a family. We loved swimming and surfing and picking fresh coconuts from the trees. There is nothing better than throwing the whole coconut to your face and guzzling the freshest tasting, most quenching substance on earth. We always had family barbecues, and the best food in the world is a fresh catch of grilled fish and shrimp with a side of grilled potatoes and veggies and a ton of fresh homemade tartar sauce.
My family is huge and my family is music. Anyone who doesn't sing plays an instrument or dances. Whoever doesn't do any of that is creative in some way. We all paint and sketch or write poems and songs. That was my life. Family and friends, school, sports, and music. I couldn't live without it. Music is the root of our culture in Barbados and there's a song for everything. You can still feel and hear Barbados in most of my music today. You always will.
Darla: I know you’ve had a varied career so far, but was music always an ambition?
Shontelle: I always knew music would be my life. I would always tell my mom, “I will never have an office job and I will never work from nine to five. I'm going to be like the Caribbean Missy Elliot. I'm going to sing and rap and DJ and produce and dance and act! I'm going to do all of that. I'm going to make the world stop with my voice like Whitney Houston, work with Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins and Rockwilder. I'm going to meet Jay-Z and Destiny's Child. I'm going to write songs with Stevie Wonder and Wyclef and sing with Sting one day. I'm going to be like Michael Jackson and heal the world with my songs. I want to bring joy to people’s hearts and be their shoulder to lean on and their voice of reason when it gets dark and they can't see." Yeah, I said all that. She would always smile at me the way she knew she should, but I could see the fear in her eyes every time. She must have been thinking, "How am I going to tell her that doesn't happen to people from Barbados? She's my baby. I can't give her false hope. Plus, I'd much prefer if she would just do something normal, like be a doctor or lawyer, but I want her to be happy." So she did what moms are supposed to do. She encouraged me. She always said, "Well, you can do anything in this world you so desire. You have to believe in yourself, even when the world doesn't believe in you. You will have to work so hard if you want to be the best. You can never give up." But she would still remind me of how important school was, how smart she thought I was, and that I shouldn't neglect my education.
Darla: Are your songs more autobiographical or more fictional? 
How involved are you with the writing process of your songs?
Shontelle: I'm so involved. Even when I record songs written by other people, I tend to change lyrics and melodies and make personal modifications. Most people who work with me have just come to accept that I will probably never record a song exactly like the demo. It's frustrating for some writers and producers, but most have learned that's how to get the best out of me. Now they just give me creative liberty. I'll walk into a session and they'll just say, “Just do you Shon. We know you got this.” A song has to be personal, whether I wrote it or not. You have to believe me when I say something. After all, I'm not doing it for me. I'm doing it for you. But the songs I do write are most often autobiographical. Sometimes I'll write songs intended for one specific person or group. I just try to say what I know they are feeling. I feel the same things too. We are all human.

Darla: Is it the same thing with the recording and mixing process? Do you come in to the studio with an idea of the final outcome, or is it more of an organic process?

Shontelle: Just like the writing process, I tend to get super involved, even in post. I really feel like an artist should be allowed to do what comes naturally to them. It's often what makes us interested in them in the first place. I'll get really pissed if a master comes back without my input on the mix or arrangement. I need to feel like I got to sprinkle my magic dust all over it. Sometimes I'll sit through the entire mixing process. Most artists leave once they're finished recording, but for me it’s just fun and interesting to see how a song really comes together. I feel like you should perfect your craft and the more understanding you have of what it takes to get the final product, the more you can appreciate it and respect it. So many people go unnoticed in music: the writers, the mixers, the engineers, the interns, gofers, and even the random people showing up in the studio. They help to create the atmosphere that often influences the music, the vibe. They also come up with great ideas and I make sure to credit them. 

As far as how organic the process of recording can be, it depends. Sometimes I come to the studio knowing exactly what I want. Other times we start from the ground up and just go with the flow. I love the organic process so much, especially with producers like Jerry Wonder, The Runners, Rock City, Rockwilder, and Tricky & Dream. But sometimes it is nice to be able to let your brain rest when you get a chance to work on a project that's already been devised and planned out. All you have to do is show up and sing.
Darla: There are a lot of comparisons between you and Rihanna. Do you feel these are accurate or far-fetched? What is your relationship like with her?

Shontelle: Rih and I don't see each other often because of our schedules and simply being at two completely different stages in our careers. I get to see Rorrey and RJ a lot more. The last time I spent any significant time with her was when we were working on her studio bus on "Man Down." But I'm always excited to see her and I love it when we get to hang out and catch up. I love her to death and support her fully! We've come a long way since the days of me being her drill sergeant, yelling "Fenty and crew!" and giving her pushups. Neither of us pays attention to, nor do we really care about, comparisons. We just keep doing our thing. We kinda laugh at it to be honest. It’s common for every new artist to be compared to at least one known artist. When something is unfamiliar, the brain tries to make sense of it by making comparisons. We always want something different and fresh but we don't really ever feel quite comfortable with something we don't understand. The beauty of this is that eventually the truth becomes clear and the differences become more tangible. It's no different than looking at two leaves from the same tree or two snowflakes. At first they look the same, but after looking closely, we see how very unique and different each one actually is.
Likewise, I think this is now beginning to happen with myself and Rih. We expect comparisons because of the nature or the likeness of our origin and the simple fact that it's not normal for artists from Barbados to hit mainstream music success. We've always had the potential but never the resources. Now we do and suddenly it's like "Hol' up, whoa dere! Who are these girls from this place we never heard of? This is just some novelty thing. We let the first one in but there's no way this can be done again. And if it is it'll probably be the same." I don't see people comparing Beyonce, Erika Badu, Janis Joplin, Miranda Lambert, Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson, and Jessica Simpson because they are all from Texas. But that's because you've seen so many artists from Texas and enough time has passed to show that diversity, originality, and uniqueness can be found in the same place. It will be some time before artists from Barbados can be as privileged. But we're proud just to be able to be a force to be reckoned with. We wave our flag high and with pride. It feels good.

Darla: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like collaborating on "Man Down"?
Shontelle: I really enjoy collaborating much more than working independently. I think the best stuff comes from putting great minds together and just going with the flow. Working with Rihanna has to be the highlight of my career so far. We've worked together a few times before on "Roll It," a song I also wrote, the official "Unfaithful" Reggae remix, and on the Save The Last Dance 2 soundtrack with a song called "The Hotness." But "Man Down" was obviously the most successful collaboration between us. The success of this song seems to have catapulted me onto a whole different level in the music industry. I think more people wanted to interview me for this song than when I toured with Beyonce or after the worldwide success of “T-Shirt ” or “Impossible,” or when President Obama selected my song “Battle Cry” for his campaign. I can't thank Rih enough for that opportunity and privilege. She truly blessed me on that one. I still look at the credits on Loud and it's so unreal when I see my name in the credits of Rihanna's most successful album to date. I didn't even think it was going to be a single. I was just happy to work with her again.
That day was one of the best days of my life. She invited me to the Jones Beach, NY show of her Last Girl on Earth tour with Ke$ha, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I cried at some points, thinking of all the shit she's been through and how she was still standing taller than ever before. I'm so emo. She walked right off the stage and met me on the studio bus and went right to work! I was like "Aren't you exhausted?" She said, "I really can't feel anything except happiness and excitement right now. Lemme hear wuh you got. I hear you in here killin it." I laughed, nervously 'cause it’s like my homie but it’s still Rihanna. I played her what I had written so far. She jumped off the bed and giggled and all her famous expletives burst from her mouth. I was dying. She's so fun! She said, "Shon, you're the shit. WTF! You *bleep* slayed this *bleep* song ya *bleep*! High *bleep* five!!!" It was like the "Cheers" video on that bus. What a great *bleep* night! 

Darla: Amazing! How much do you rely on social media to get exposure to your music and acquire fans?

Shontelle: Right now, to be honest, almost entirely, especially in these times. All I'll say is thank god for Twitter and Facebook. Without social media I'd be dead.

Darla: I know you are involved with various charities. How did this involvement come about? What draws you to certain causes?
My involvement with charities simply comes from my passion for people, a passion for life itself. I'm always trying in some way to help improve the quality of other people’s lives. I feel empty when I'm not doing that. I'm especially drawn to charities which concentrate on causes affecting children. Operation Smile Jr., She's The First, and UNICEF are just a few of the foundations I regularly support. Anyone who knows me knows that children are my ultimate weakness. I become one of them when I'm around them. They gravitate towards me, and I can never have too many kids in my arms. There's always room for one more. Other major charities and foundations I work closely with or support are Wounded Warriors, Angel Ball, Think Pink, Music Unites, Save The Music, Save The Children, United Way, AMFAR, (RED), ONE.ORG. Most recently I got on board with Monica Watkins, founder of Art In Motion, and GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Service), which benefits the children of the Diakonos Orphanage in Carrefour, Haiti. The program I'm most proud to work on to date is AAW PEACE. I worked with Barkue Tubman and the first and only female head of state in Africa, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Wow. What great women. The way they are turning Liberia around is truly remarkable. I'm proud to be a part of it. These are the types of stories you want to be able to tell your kids. How you help change the world or make it better even if it's just one person at a time. It still makes a difference and is way better than no change at all.
Darla: You’ve stated that you were aiming for No Gravity to be more experimental than your first release Shontelligence. What are you aiming for in your third album release?

Shontelle: The Grammys.

Darla. Nice! With lyrics such as “Free yourself girl / You got class and you got pride / Come together ‘cause we’re stronger unified,” and images of females taking over the club on both of your albums, it seems you have an inclination towards empowered women. Is this important for you to portray?
Shontelle: I'm the first of three sisters, and my parents separated before I was in my teens. It was a house full of estrogen! So, I have always been motivated, inspired, and driven by the beauty and strength of women. Strangely, most of my real friends are male.
Darla: Are you conscious of being viewed as a role model for younger girls and the impression that you make on them?
In the words of Lady Gaga, "I was born this way." Being “big sis,” the role model situation is pretty much inherent. I'm far from perfect but I do always strive for improvement. I just try to "do me" in such a way that if I found out my sisters were doing the same thing, I wouldn't really be bothered. That goes for my fans, as well. They are like my extended family. I enjoy hearing people tell me they are proud to be parents of Shontelle fans. I enjoy seeing the look of comfort and approval when their children are around me. I enjoy knowing that something I did or said, might somehow be a part of the reason why some little boy or girl grew up to be effin’ awesome!
Darla: What can we expect next from you?
Shontelle: The unexpected. I'm working on my third album (yet to be named), and the final designs of my ferocious line of signature boots in collaboration with Caterpillar (CAT) have been approved and are in production! This is probably the most exciting thing I've ever done in life! My boots will be in stores in over twenty-five countries. Un-freakin-real. I mean, becoming a singer wasn't that far-fetched considering my musical family history and culture. But who would have ever thought a little beach girl from a little rock in the Caribbean would be designing a line of badass boots to keep your cold toes dry and warm around the world? Thank you God!

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