A new addition to The Cultural Reset's Artist Interview Series, indie-pop sensation Shenna sits down with TCR's Nick Lee and Shay Ervin for a lively discussion of her career journey. From moving to NYC at the age of 17 to reinventing the pop genre for women of color, Shenna gives TCR an in-depth rundown of how she is unapologetically breaking down barriers in music.
Photo: "Shenna"-Kevin C.
Click here to listen to Shenna's FULL INTERVIEW
Nick Lee: Hello, everyone and welcome to another episode of The Cultural Reset. My name is Nick!
Shay Ervin: And this is Shay Ervin!
N: And we are here with an incredible artist. Could you introduce yourself?
Shenna: Yes. Hey guys, thanks for having me. My name is Shenna. And my pronouns are she and her and I am from Virginia currently living in New York City.
N: We are so happy to have you here with us today. And we just wanted to start off with a standard question that we ask all the artists on our artists series, and that is when and where did your individual creative journey begin?
S: I would say my individual creative journey started when I was seven years old. I came from a small town where a lot of people didn't do music. I wanted to be a singer. I remember going to the mall, and Beyonce was at the mall signing autographs, with Destiny's Child. It was the most random thing. I was singing to her, “Kelly, can you handle it?” Really loud. I was trying to get their attention in the mall and singing it.
Shay Ervin: You just said Nick’s trigger word, by the way.
N: I don't know if anybody knows this, but I'm a huge fan. That's traditionally a very odd thing for a male to say. But I love Beyonce. Yes. That's cool. Continue.
S: A lot of people thought this was a new group. And I'm like, they're not new. They're amazing. They're everything. It just fueled my creativity. I studied so many music videos. I would do little dance parties in my room, but I never grew out of it. So at first, my family thought it was a hobby, they tried to get me into sports and basketball. I'm clumsy. I was like, I don't want to do this. This isn't my calling. I just really loved the arts. I felt like I was able to get my message out by writing and telling my story. I love watching people and meeting new people and writing my songs. I feel like it's therapy, not just for myself, but for my friend who is going through things and all of that.
Shay: That's something that we have found common between a lot of artists. They use creating music and listening to music as therapy. It definitely plays into the creative process. I was reading a bit into your EP, Blue memories. And it said that those six songs were for mental health awareness. And is that something that you would say is your mission in your art?
S: Yeah, definitely. I'm a huge advocate for mental health. I released that project during Mental Health Awareness Week, last year. Each song...even though some of it has happy beats and melodies and there's an underlying message of each one. It was my different stages, how I handled my depression. There's a song called Alone. Sometimes I'm alone, I get sad, but I like to dance. In the house, I'll play music really loud like I’m having a good time. It's okay to be your own best friend. I have the title track of the EP, Blue Memories, where you have a lot of self doubt in your head. A lot of us go through that, where you could be doing great and everyone else's eyes, and you're just so hard on yourself. I just wanted people to know in that project that even for people like me, even though I'm like a smaller artist trying to build my way up, it's not all rainbows and sunshine. It's hard out here trying to get to that top. I feel like more people need to know that they're not alone in this.
N: I completely agree with that. That's why we exist, to help POC and LGBTQ+ people know that they're not alone in this at all. That's something I wanted to ask you about specifically. What was it like for you being African-American and Syrian growing up as a creative?
S: To be honest, it was really challenging because in the small town that I came from, I didn't see a lot of people of color. My mom is African-American and my dad is Syrian. In the Syrian household it is very, “college, college, college.” I went to college and I didn't finish...It just wasn't my thing. Then music started to call me in. But my dad asked, “What are you gonna do with this? Be a music teacher, what are you gonna do?” Then I said, “Alright, I'm gonna try it out.” But now he's one of my biggest supporters, because he just sees, that is really doing something for me. And he supports me 100% he always calls me like, “I have a friend that could help you that I've met”. I'm like, “Okay, dad. Thank you.” It was just amazing to see. But, growing up, it was just hard, because you're used to the Syrian household. My mom's always been supportive. But the structure is, you get the grades, go to college, you get your degree. And if you want to do music you become a music teacher. That's what it was for me. I think it was a little bit of a challenge to me. I wanted to do what I wanted to make happen.
N: We've talked to artists before who say “My parents weren't on board.” But then once they become successful and once they start forging a career in it, then their parents become their biggest fans.
S: My dad is so funny, because he will come to some of my shows now. I live in Brooklyn and you know it's crazy in New York City. And he's tapping my friends shoulders, who he doesn't even know and says “That's my daughter.” And my dad has an accent. I'm so used to him that I don't realize it, and my friends tell me, “Your dad is so fun.”
Shay: Everyone who wants to become a musician seems to take an unconventional path. But it's a huge career. There's so many people in the music industry. It's not like you have to go to school, and get a degree in it and become a teacher in order to be able to do music. My parents definitely have the expectation of me to go to college, get a degree, and use that degree.
S: They definitely want the best for us. When they finally see us grow up, and follow our passion, and we're making some money from it and doing our thing. Then they're okay, and on board.
N: Tell us about the influences in your art. We were listening to Blue Memories and found some really cool parallels between your sound and some other artists' sounds. Who influences you directly?
S: One of my biggest inspirations is Lady Gaga. I love her so much. All around the vibes. I love Lady Gaga. Just her individuality. I was just watching her documentary on Netflix the other day with my mom. She's just so raw. She has this emotion. I'm an emotional person. I get really into it when I'm into something. I'm so passionate about it. I share that vibe with her and how she dresses and everything. I love Rihanna, just her whole Bad Girl vibe. I love Corinne Bailey Rae. I listen to a lot of UK music, because I feel like the lyrics are very raw.
N: I have trigger words. One is Beyonce, the other is Gaga. When I was younger, I too was definitely a Little Monster.
S: They're both everything, just the performances. I love watching great performers. I admire them.
N: That's why I love her, because there's this work ethic. Right? This grind that is unmatched. How have you incorporated that into your career?
S: As far as my work, I think about it every day before I go to bed. I make a to-do list, even during quarantine. A lot of artists and creatives are not as busy as we used to be. The venues are shut down. You can't really have these one-on-one interviews in person and things like that. I'm used to just being on the go, especially in New York. I'm out the door at 9am and I don't come back till late at night. So what I've been doing during quarantine is making a list and I'm more busy now than I was beforehand. I just made myself motivated by telling myself, you got to wake up, even though you're not working per se, you got to wake up early and do your vocal exercises. There's always somebody out-working you. You have to just make yourself your own top priority. That's what I've done as an artist to try to get my name out there. Whether doing interviews, meeting people like you all, chatting it up, and practicing my instrument, writing songs, sending out X amount of emails a day...I just try to keep myself as busy as possible. I have the motto: Send out 100 emails, you might get back five replies. But that's five more than you had.
N: So many young artists should be adopting that attitude when it comes to pursuing a career as a creative in this industry. I love what you said about, how there's always somebody outworking you. That is the key. There's so much talent out there. There's so many different voices, so many different perspectives, but you have to be willing to do the work and do more work than the next person by you to really get to where you want to be.
Shay: I also think your passion comes across. It's a combination of being able to get out of bed and get work done, but it's also the passion behind it, because that's when people recognize you're willing to put in this work because you are invested. You’re mentally and emotionally in it.
N: What fuels you? What makes you do the music that you do? Is there an emotion? A cause?
Photo: "Shenna"-Malcom Fong
Being a woman of color in pop music has been hard because sometimes people see me and they do not expect me to do this kind of music. I love every type of music, but this is what I feel in my heart.
S: A lot of times, people will say things like “do you write a song per day?”, or “Do you do this (or that)?”. When I tried to force myself it didn't work. If I'm writing for another artist, or something like that, I could write from their perspective, because that's how I understand their story. But for myself...man when I'm mad, I write the best stuff!
I love people who piss me off. That fuels me. I love people watching. During the spring and summer, I'm always sitting outside and I just watch people...on a train, especially in New York. I see some crazy stuff. I see something and think that's the song right there. I have this one song I haven't released yet, but I was walking outside...I had my umbrella. It was raining. Of course I had just done my hair. I'm like, “oh no my hair” and then I step in a puddle. I started singing ‘dum dum de dum dum dum dee dum dum day’... I was like “okay, it's a song, keep going with it” and just started writing.
Shay: It sounds like your creative process is watching people and feeding off their emotions. That's how you process your creative energy best?
S: It’s for sure how I process my creative energy best just because I don't want my songs to be just for me. There's some that are personal. I want one of you guys to listen to one of my songs and be like, “I can relate to this.”
Shay: “Blue Memories” is relatable, even though it came out in 2019. I think that it had good timing. Because now here we are and we are alone. Mental health awareness is always important. It's so important because I feel a lot of people who maybe have never had to face mental illness who haven't had this isolation before are now facing something that's so unfamiliar to them. So it's guidance.
Do you want to talk to us a little bit about the themes that come across in your EP, specifically the parallel between the first song and the last song?
S: I like to watch Netflix shows and write about them sometimes. I’m watching this one show called The Killing and I started crying because my favorite character died. So I wrote a song about her. And then I started thinking, because I started seeing a lot of stuff that people were passing away. It was such weird timing. I watched the show and then I went on my Facebook, and this person passed away. I wrote a song called Faded Memories, this is dark, but people grieving people after they transition. You cannot replace them with these “faded memories”. You cannot replace them with somebody else. They're always going to be there. And ‘Blue Memories’ is the thoughts in your head, the self doubt. In the music video, I go into this room. I'm all dressed up and it's almost like a day in the life of performing. I get all dressed up, get off the stage, I’m singing, and then just having this freak out and then I’m in my room, maybe I’m beating myself up about my performance or about something I did that day. And I’m saying, like, I'm stuck in my head...I can't get rid of these “blue memories”. At the end of the bridge, I'm saying, I got these secrets. I know the answers to my secrets because I battled this self doubt. I know it was pushing me to my limit. I'm aware of all this craziness in my head. I'm trying to work it out. And it was weird, because that song, I didn't have a title for the whole project and that song brought it together.
N: That's such a good explanation, because I feel a lot of what you are describing is like the entire album, honestly. It feels like I'm really connecting with you and your intention as well. So that's really good. Taking a step away from the art itself. I want to talk about you being in this industry. You're a woman of color navigating this industry...you have a clear goal and you're staying positive. But what does it mean for you as a woman of color in the industry.
S: Being a woman of color navigating this industry has been very tough, especially once moving to New York. There's so many false promises. Just being a woman in general. It's just hard out here. I know people say that all the time. But when I first moved out to New York, I was 17. I was really young. And people were just pulling me in these directions. I'm from Virginia. Everybody's like really gullible-like. I was getting invited to these events and all these guys coming up to me like “I could help you”. I had this one interview. I had this one interview and this person said, “I want to interview you over dinner”. And I said, “Okay, yeah, no problem” . Long story short, it was a setup. I just felt so crushed because it was my first interview ever for a blog. But, it was a date, it was not an interview. It has been hard out here. But now, I have this attitude. Who is she? Who is this person? Because it's made me a lot stronger. And I love the person I have become. Being a woman of color in pop music has been hard because sometimes people see me and they do not expect me to do this kind of music. I love every type of music, but this is what I feel in my heart.
N: I’m glad that you mentioned specifically being a woman of color navigating the music industry, because what I've noticed, is the way that black women specifically are positioned in the music industry is in competition with one another. You're expected to be this cookie-cutter image of what a black female in music should be. But also you're pitted against these other stars. For example, as an emerging artist who just happens to be black and woman of color, you’re put up against Beyonce, or Rihanna and expected to have the same type of performance style as them...even the same music as them. And that's just not how it goes. Could you talk about that?
S: Yeah, for sure. There's always so much competition, especially with image. I feel it has been a big thing, especially when I first came to New York. They asked if I want to do R&B? I almost had a label deal. They wanted me to have this certain look and a certain sound...trying to pin me with the certain producers. It was a vibe, but it wasn't my vibe. I just don't feel like I have to be over sexualized. That's not what I want in my music. If you go to my page, you don't see me in those types of outfits, nothing like that. I'm all about individuality. I don't care. I feel you should feel as confident as possible. Own it, you know? I love that. I freaking love that I don't like people to just feel like they have to play this part. And yeah, as for a woman of color in this industry, it's hard. But I feel like I want to be the one to help break that barrier, especially being a black and Syrian woman.
Photo: "Shenna"-Fernando Salazar
"I used to be so nervous to even mention things like that. Because of this industry, I feel like you have to literally walk on thin ice. And I’m gonna be real."
Shay: I'm sure you could have taken that role and been an R&B artist, but it wouldn't be true to yourself. And it would have followed the expectations of being a woman of color. It's awesome for you to break into this industry in pop specifically because that's a place where there needs to be reset. There's this image that you have in your mind when you think of pop artists, and that needs to be reimagined. That needs to be opened up. I don't like how each genre has this category of people. Music is for everybody. It's a universal thing.
S: That's why I love Rihanna. She's done so many different types of genres. You never know what she's going to do, this Caribbean sound? Or something like Four or Five Seconds? And I don't like being put in a box.
N: We want to make sure that our audience, the young creatives that are going to be listening to this, know you don't have to fit in. You really don't. We live in an environment, especially after the pandemic, that’s resetting the music industry itself. We're living in an environment where you just have to be yourself. And people admire that authenticity; they admire that integrity and staying true to who you are. And that's really what gets you out there and just keeps your work as quality as it should be. I love that. I love that you touched on that. And that is something also too, that makes you so important, Shenna. I just love the fact that you're a woman of color, going into pop, that's major. And there's gonna be people looking up to you and seeing what you've done in the past that you're paving a way for them. I admire that.
S: Thank you guys.
Shay: I'm relieved that we were able to share your story too, because I'm sure it's gonna inspire other people. That's what's going to make the change in the music industry is inspiration and people opening the door that's previously been closed in their mind being like, “oh, this is an option for me. It's not that I have to follow this path, because this is the set path before me.” I really appreciate that. And I'm really glad that you know, we can provide a place for you. And hear you.
S: Thanks for letting me be heard. I appreciate it. I used to be so nervous to even mention things like that. Because of this industry, I feel like you have to literally walk on thin ice. And I’m gonna be real. I want to be real with you guys. I don't want to hide if I'm feeling sad. I'm going to tell you, if I feel super excited about something I'm gonna tell you because I used to just hear that I, “must follow formula”. There is no formula. There's no real formula...but just keep grinding. That's all.
N: So are there any other injustices or like insufficiencies that you see in the music industry that you would want to change?
S: Just mainly over sexualizing women in the industry bothers me a lot. Beauty standards. That's the main thing actually. Especially on Tik Tok. What I was doing at 11 years old versus what you're doing now? I had like an apple computer growing up and made these weird videos of my face.
N: I could be wrong, but I think it's the result of pop culture programming that's being instituted in kids nowadays. I think we had that too when we were little. I think that it's kind of different now. That's why it looks different to us. It's not the same programming.
Shay: I think social media has encouraged that, because we didn't have social media when we were kids. The fact that you have to be able to appear on social media a certain way. For example, if I were to post pictures of myself when I was 12, on social media, I was awkward and strangely dressed in bedazzled clothes.
Over sexualizing women is something that is pretty common in the music industry. Especially with music videos. Music aside, when you actually have to appear and show your image. You get put into a box because that is what people want to see.
S: I love my stylist now. He knows if you show me a dress, that's not for me. I would rather wear a suit. I tell people that at my wedding I’d rather wear a suit. It shouldn't be like that anymore. Obviously, there's times where we don't look how we want to get this little filter. You're like, “thank God” for this filter. But I feel like so many girls feel like they need to look like that. I want plastic surgery, I want to fix my nose, I want to do this. You don't need to do that to become famous or to become who you are. You're beautiful. But it is all about confidence. Confidence is the most beautiful thing to me. So that's what I want people to know, too. And I hope I can help push that a little more. That's why I'm so against it, for me, not for other people. If they want to do that, own it, do you. But for me, I'm not going to do that. Because I want to be that little spice and just be myself.
Shay: We like to get advice from artists that we interview because a lot of people coming to our page are young and up and coming in the music industry. They're just trying to get to know you as a person. What advice would you give to them?
S: I always say the same thing in the sense of just rock your individuality. Don't be in competition with other people. Be in competition with yourself. Always try to do better than you last did. Don't look at your feed and say “I need this opportunity”. I follow so many different music artists that I meet and people are killing it. And I'm happy for them. I'm not looking in an envious way. “Why did they get this? Why don't I have it?” If I did that I would drive myself crazy. Of course, it's normal to look at things and say “wow, that'd be so cool if I got that.” But be happy and applaud people. There's a lot of room at the top. I know they say there's little room. No, there's a lot of room at the top and build a community of people. So I feel like that's the thing that we need more. So don't be afraid to support other people that are killing it.
N: Do you feel it's more competitive now than it was back in that day when we were watching all those people on TV instead of social media? Do you feel it’s more competitive?
S: I feel that it is because of social media, I feel like people look at numbers so much and numbers could be fake. People are always looking at these numbers. It's not like how back in the day, you could pick up a magazine and you don't know what the celebrities are doing as much...so when you see Beyonce. It's a rare occasion. “What is she gonna wear now?” Other artists, they post so much on social media, that you're gawking at their lifestyle, and you should just be focused more on what you're gonna do.
N: Truth! So what are some upcoming projects that you're working on? I’m curious about that.
S: So each project I released as far as an EP or album has a color theme. And it depends on how I'm feeling in my life. So I had ‘Blue Memories’. And now I am feeling this red vibe. And it's not cuz of the hair! It’s because I get caught in it...red rage. That's how I feel right now, because we're in quarantine. We've had so many it might be over now. I'm just getting really antsy. A lot of things have happened during quarantine personal things, but I need to put this in my music. So I'm working on a new album. I can't put this in four or five songs. I gotta tell the story.
Shay: That’s so exciting. I think that I need that too. Because I’ll tell you what...I understand all the need for isolation. And wearing masks and everything and taking this all seriously, but I am pissed. This year was stolen for me. It was stolen from all of us. The hype was so high for 2020. Even the number 2020 was magic.
N: Yeah, this would have been a perfect year. We have all these holidays happening on the perfect days. And it all just went crazy. I'm really, really excited to hear about that new work. I think we've talked to a couple other artists who have been inspired by quarantine to venture into some new projects as well. So what is it like for you, using this time to be creative?
S: I was saying at the beginning of quarantine. This sounds weird, I guess because none of us ever been through something like this before. I was like, “well I never had time to work. This is not awesome.” But for me, I liked my time. I could do this. And then after a month, I wanted to get out of the house. But now, as a creative, I've had more time to really hone my craft. Even taking more time to do melodies and not feeling super rushed. I'm starting to practice my piano; I'm starting to learn a little bit more Arabic to put into my music because that is something I want to start putting into my new project. I've hinted at it. I want to do a song that's half Arabic, half English. I'm just really thinking outside the box for this new project. And I feel like it's definitely a challenge, a fun challenge.
Shay: I love that mix of languages too, because that definitely tells your story but also speaks to other people and sounds awesome too. Post-COVID are you gonna be practicing differently? When you get back out into the scene, are you gonna take things more seriously when you're on the stage? How do you see yourself post-COVID?
S: I was thinking about that the other day. In terms of shows? Post-COVID, people are going to go nuts. People are missing that live aspect so much. I need to start practicing now. Just different things, even if it's having one band mate over. Because before COVID, I was really starting to get into the Asian market. I toured in Japan, and I was supposed to go back out there for this big festival and obviously everything got shut down. Being overseas that is where it's at! Man, I get why are these artists disappearing! “What happened to this person?” They're making their money! So I really want to tap more into that market and just give them a show. I want to really make it interactive. So I'm trying to think outside the box.
N: Literally everything that you're talking about, it’s clear you're changing the game and I'm so happy that we got a chance to speak to you. You're my spirit animal...like I said.
You’re unmatched and everything you're talking about? You just spoke all facts. And I really hope our listeners pay attention to the fact that this is a really groundbreaking artist that we're talking to and she's doing things in a very unorthodox way. So definitely listen to her advice because she's killing it.
Thank you again for tuning into another episode of The Cultural Reset. Make sure that you check out the rest of our content on our website. And stay tuned for next week's Artist Interview.
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