Shawna James' soulful voice and penchant for haunting melodies bespeaks the influences of icons like Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Patsy Cline. But it is Shawna's earnest approach to storytelling paired with the spacious, ambient sound of her own band which places her at home in the decidedly more modern company of Fiona Apple, Beth Orten and Lucinda Williams.
Shortly after Shawna first began making waves on the music scene in her native Cincinnati, her talents garnered a prestigious CAMMY Award for "Best Jazz Vocalist of the Year"(Cincinnati Enquirer) from her performances with The Pavilion Music Company--a 20 piece big band formed in 1975. Not one to be stylistically pigeonholed, her versatility and country music roots also stepped to the forefront during her time with "Hey Hoss!" a Patsy Cline tribute band.
As Shawna's own songwriting aspirations grew, she honed her craft in venues around Cincinnati. As 2004 began, Shawna recruited a rhythm section comprised of drummer Todd Drake(Ruby Vileos) and bassist Chris Mundy(Tonefarmer) for when she is not playing solo acoustic gigs.
Armed with a smokey, soothing, expressive voice and deceptively simple songs that suggest a pleasingly dark amalgam of Jazz, Country, and the Blues, Shawna (Snyder) James offers an intriguing new alternative for discerning fans.
Shawna James--vocals, rhythm guitar
Todd Drake(Sweet Impala)--Drums
Billy Alletzhauser (The Hiders + Ruby Vileos)--Electric Guitar, Keys
Kevin Welch-Electric Guitar
Big Joe Duskin--courtesy Yellowdog Records
"Big Joe Jumps Again--The Cincinnati Sessions"
"Black Mountain Blues" album features Peter Frampton, William Lee Ellis, Larry Nager, Phillip Paul and Ed Conley(King Records session drummer and bassist).
Cari Clara--courtesy Tiberius Records
Self-Titled Debut (Eric Dietrichs--Beautiful Disaster Music Company)
"HONEY"--Shawna James debut CD recorded with Billy Alletzhauser-2007.
Say What's On Your Mind-HONEY
Nothin' To Lose-HONEY
Black Mountain Blues w/ Big Joe Duskin
I'll Be Alright
Don't Let Lonely live @ SGH
I Lost Mine-HONEY
Nothing Good live @ SGH
I'm A Ghost-HONEY
MidPoint at 10: Best memories From soundcheck to hosting an afterparty, local musicians share their top moments
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Ric Hickey/Sparrow Bellows I can’t recall if it was 2005 or 2006, but my favorite Midpoint memory i...Ric Hickey/Sparrow Bellows
I can’t recall if it was 2005 or 2006, but my favorite Midpoint memory is seeing the crowd’s response when local singer/songwriter Shawna James first opened her mouth to sing. Shawna and her band played the outdoor stage at Neon’s that year and when she unleashed her bittersweet blend of Ella Fitzgerald and Lucinda Williams on that audience they didn’t know what hit them. Conversation stopped, eyes bugged out, mouths dropped open in shock. It’s the same thing that happens every time Shawna sings. If Jack White ever gets her in a recording studio, she’ll mop the floor with every chick singer in a thousand-mile radius. With her scorched earth approach to singing, Shawna carpet-bombs audiences with pitch-perfect passion.
For me, this memory kinda sums up MidPoint at its best. Here’s a local artist that walks among us, holds down a day job to make ends meet just like everybody else, loves and supports the local music scene, and occasionally takes a turn at the microphone. When she does, people freak. She’s amazing. Her talent defies comparison and in all honesty I have heard very few singers that come anywhere near that girl’s hurricane force lung power. Microphone optional.
Top 10 of 2007
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Shawna James - Honey Shawna James is one of those artists you’re not going to find unless you sea...Shawna James - Honey
Shawna James is one of those artists you’re not going to find unless you search them out. I was lucky enough to stumble upon her via a message board. Honey is a lovely little album, with the right balance between acoustic and electric. James is an inspiration for aspiring female singer/songwriters everywhere. She speaks her mind, hitting on everything from issues of gender roles ( in “Helping Hand”) to religion (in “I’m a Ghost”). In a world of breathy pop stars barely articulating a single word, she sings from the gut, making sure her voice is heard.
Rosie Berkman contributes to Glorious Noise and helps with Whiskey Bender Productions. She made an awesome intern.
Music Editor's Letter To Citybeat Issue of Aug 22, 2007
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Local singer/songwriter Shawna James’ debut album is called Honey, and a more appropriate descriptio...Local singer/songwriter Shawna James’ debut album is called Honey, and a more appropriate description of her magnificent voice cannot be found. James has the skills to sing Jazz, the soulfulness to sing trad Country like a coal miner’s daughter and the songwriting chops to make a real serious go at a career in the Rock world. C.A. MacConnell spoke with Shawna about her new CD and her recent adventures in Scotland, which were inspired by some chance meetings on MySpace. Go listen to her right now at www.myspace.com/introducingtheslacks
Locals Only: Shawna James
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Think of the smooth, yellow ooze. Honey. Picture it dripping slowly from jars, spilling, sticking to...Think of the smooth, yellow ooze. Honey. Picture it dripping slowly from jars, spilling, sticking to fingertips, the sides of lips, the backs of throats. One slight drop is enough to wake a tongue. A little liquid sugar goes a long way.
Singer/songwriter Shawna James speaks like a sure woman, and her singing voice inhales and exhales with a moving, vulnerable, longing presence. With a strong, soulful edge, her 2007 debut, Honey, packs a sweet punch. Hard to believe the powerhouse voice comes out of James' slender body.
From one story to another, James flutters, rapidly switching tones, alluding to her scopey pipes. With reddish-brown, choppy-artsy hair and small, chiseled features, James is thoughtful and playful, and she chats freely and openly.
From Cincinnati, James' mother, Myra Snyder, was a regionally famous Country music singer who opened for Hank Williams Jr. and Loretta Lynn, among others.
James says, "When I was 6, I was sitting in my grandma's lap at Latonia Downs and I was embarrassed watching my Mom sing. Then I saw the adulation of the crowd and decided that's what I wanted to do."
In 2003, James hocked her violin, took a spontaneous Nashville trip and switched to guitar. Winning a Best Jazz Vocalist award for performances with the local Jazz big band Pavilion Music Company, James credits Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Nancy Wilson as early influences.
"I think that's why my voice became so big," she says. "I'd listen to them and try to sing over them."
Soon after, she submitted songs to the local MidPoint Music Festival and was accepted:
"I only had four songs," she says. "I wanted to write like Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams. I walked around the house with my guitar to get used to the feel of playing standing up."
Local musician Mike Landis played guitar with James until one Southgate gig when Landis had a scheduling conflict. James was forced to handle the show alone.
"I struggled my way through it," she recalls.
Honey's songs grew out of James' love for Scotland and "a life turn."
"I went through a depressed spell, didn't write for like two years," she says. "Then I snapped myself out of it. I had a friend who was reading trashy novels set in Ireland ... it made me want to travel. Then I got online to see if I could meet anyone interesting and these connections excited me. Call it foreign inspiration."
Online, she met Glasgow singer Paula Knight and others who sparked a creativity surge. During the 15 weeks before leaving for Scotland, James recorded Honey and booked numerous gigs overseas. Then she hauled her CDs and guitar around Scotland's streets this past July.
Already playing on local NPR outlet WNKU, Honey was recorded by The Hiders' Billy Alletzhauser, who played guitar on the album. Ed Cunningham (The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars) and Todd Drake (Ruby Vileos) also contributed. Live, Chris Mundy (Tonefarmer) also plays guitar. James plans a CD release party before she returns to Scotland in the fall.
On songwriting, she says, "Basically I stumble on a chord progression and the emotion it makes me feel. I'm not one of those people who bought a bunch of records, but I have a grasp of my emotions. I know what sounds right to me. I'm not a revisionist ... the way it comes out, that's the way it stays."
Honey begins with "I'm a Ghost," which holds the sexy feel of Beth Orton's Central Reservation. As the album progresses, slowly, the sound strays, shouting out to jazzy deep throaters, often as deep, sensuous and deliciously mean as Fiona Apple. James' work is that of a crowded soul, with hearty vocals, raw Jazz, Blues and Patsy Cline-ish old-school Country mixed with modern biceps. "Helping Hand," a sultry ballad, screams for attention; this track is aching and gorgeous, from the belly.
"I get a feeling that comes over me, where it feels like everything's aligned, and I pick up the guitar and what comes out comes out," James says. "That's my goal -- to transfer my emotion from me to you and let you have your own feeling about it."
Locals Only: Dilated Pupil
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From Loretta Lynn to Billie Holiday, up-and-coming singer/songwriter Shawna Snyder has learned from ...From Loretta Lynn to Billie Holiday, up-and-coming singer/songwriter Shawna Snyder has learned from the best
Interview By Dale Johnson
Photo By Dale M. Johnson
Award-winning vocal powerhouse Shawna Snyder has a wide palette to draw from as far as influences go -- from Country to Jazz to Blues to Rock. Her mother, Myra Snyder, was a regionally famous Country singer who performed with greats like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn.
From those Country roots, Shawna has branched out to Jazz (with The Pavilion Music Company), Blues (with Big Joe Duskin) and now Rock, with her own band featuring Jay Aronoff on guitar, Chris Mundy (Tonefarmer) on bass and Todd Drake (Ruby Vileos) on drums (Shawna plays guitar and sings). She also returns to her roots now and again with The Hollowbodies for a Patsy Cline tribute, "Hey Hoss." But Shawna is nothing if not original, and despite a wealth of influences, she has her own sound that's hard to pin down.
"If I could put Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple, Patsy Cline and Bessie Smith on valium (and) in a room for four hours, and let them kick each other's ass and then go in a recording studio, that would be kind of what I'm like," she says.
CityBeat: How and when did you start singing?
Shawna Snyder: When I was really young, I saw one of my mom's shows. My grandmother was there too, and I was so embarrassed. I started crying, and I crawled into my grandma's lap. I was thinking, "Get (my mom) off of there! That's so embarrassing! " By the end of that first song though, I said to myself, "You know what? One day I'm going to do that, and I'll be bigger and better than you." I saw the (Loretta Lynn bio) movie Coal Miner's Daughter, and that changed everything. I made my mom type out the words to (the song) "Coal Miner's Daughter." I was about 7 or 8 years old, and I'd sing every single day. I'd turn up the music really, really loud, and then I'd try to sing over the people on the record. That's why my voice is so big, I think. All those years of working my diaphragm paid off.
CB: You have a diverse range of music that you perform. You grew up with Country music. Where did everything else come in?
SS: I grew up listening to all these women Country singers, but my mother had a tape of (Jazz singer) Nancy Wilson, who is the bomb. And she did that big band, jazzy, Blues type stuff. I would go to record stores and get Ella Fitzgerald records ...
CB: Why would you go get Ella Fitzgerald records, for instance?
SS: Because I wanted to learn how to sing right. I heard -- probably it was Billie Holiday -- sing and I thought, "Man! I want to sound like that!" (The Jazz/Blues singers) were great music teachers, and they were pretty much free, for all the hours I spent with them.
CB: I really like your voice. You can go from low to high in a heartbeat. You have a very "Blues voice."
SS: That's what (Cincinnati Blues legend) Big Joe Duskin said. He said, "Aw, honey, keep doin' that because you're goooood." And it's funny, because I've only written one song, "I'll Be All Right," that I think has any kind of Blues feeling to it at all.
CB: You're a very demonstrative performer at times -- you really get into the songs. Where does that come from?
SS: Basically, for me, music is like an emotion. That's why I like to do it so much, because not only is it an emotion, but it's cathartic for me. I think sometimes, "My God, if I hadn't been singing all those years, I might have just gone nuts." Or started shooting people.
"May We Suggest? Bands insiders are going to see"
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"If you have ever heard Shawna Snyder sing, you need no explanation for this one. I won't miss this..."If you have ever heard Shawna Snyder sing, you need no explanation for this one. I won't miss this one." Susan Vitello-production manager for Midpoint Music Festival
Cammy Award Nominees
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"Snyder's unique feature is how low her voice is, comparing her to Bessie Smith, says music director..."Snyder's unique feature is how low her voice is, comparing her to Bessie Smith, says music director Rob Mulhauser. "The first time I heard her I was really surprised."
Big Joe Jumps Again
"with cameo performance by amazing local vocalist Shawna Snyder"
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"another special guest Shawna Snyder grabs you with her powerful voice on 'Black Mountain Blues' bac..."another special guest Shawna Snyder grabs you with her powerful voice on 'Black Mountain Blues' backed up by guitar slindin' William Lee Ellis"
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"Cincinnati singer, Shawna Snyder is one of the rising talents on the scene, her big soulful voice f..."Cincinnati singer, Shawna Snyder is one of the rising talents on the scene, her big soulful voice featured on numerous local recordings as well as performances with her band"
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"Shawna James is a tiny powerhouse. From small beginnings come great things, a Tardis of music. She..."Shawna James is a tiny powerhouse. From small beginnings come great
things, a Tardis of music. She will wake your neighbors in the wee
small hours; they might stumble - bleary-eyed, Pied-Piper led - towards
the place where this huge voice is coming from, and be overwhelmed and
not so ready to say “Shhhh”. She, who might so easily be blown over by
a brisk wind herself, can knock you down onto your ass, Jack, with
vocal chords alone. Ole Crooked Foot
has played in Europe and can correctly pronounce the names of several
cities over there. Buy her music, please, so she can purchase cupcakes
and overpriced plectrums in her pursuit of indie rock and roll victory."
There are no upcoming dates at this time.