Following her passion: Two-spirited Edmonton artist named best undiscovered voice in Canada

An Indigenous, two-spirited musician from Edmonton has been named the winner of CBC Music’s annual search for the best undiscovered voice in Canada.

Shawnee and her song Building a Wall were chosen Thursday morning from more than 1,000 original songs that were submitted to the CBC Searchlight 2020 competition. 

The Mohawk artist who grew up in Ontario said she’d been timid about entering the contest in past years but was finally persuaded by friends to do so.

The song she entered, Building the Wall, wasn’t yet released but she thought it would be a “fun chance to take” given the “odd and weird, organic experience” in recording it, she told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“The day of recording, we had a film crew … but I was sick. I was really sick, so I had barely any voice,” she said. “There was no option for cancelling or rebooking because they were flying in from B.C. And so the show must go on.

“I had recorded most of the song as a demo on my phone on GarageBand. So a lot of sounds that you actually hear in the track that was released are from GarageBand. … I’ve never done anything like that but we were pretty limited as far as that day goes.”

Shawnee’s interview with Edmonton AM aired Thursday, just a few hours before she was announced as the contest’s winner by q radio host Tom Power. 

Another Edmonton artist, Josh Sahunta, was almost among the 10 Searchlight finalists.

Shawnee was born in Welland, Ont., and has also lived and worked in Toronto. She recently moved to Edmonton after coming to the city for a show and “loved the arts community, loved the vibe,” she said.

“It’s definitely more of a small-town vibe. Toronto is like ‘big, busy, go, fast and hard’ where Edmonton is more settled. It reminds me of where I grew up.”

Her Searchlight win — a first for an Indigenous artist —  is the latest in a string of honours that have included sharing the stage with artists Lady Gaga and Tegan and Sara after being named by Billboard magazine last June as one of the “11 non-binary musicians you need to know.”

The accolades are significant as they prove she made the right decision to follow her passion, she said.

“I came from a small town and I was told that, ‘music is not a viable career, pick something that’s on the list of careers.’ And writing music and singing about things that I’m so passionate about were not an option,” she said.

“I’ve spent so many years running toward this goal of helping as many people as I can through music, the same way that it’s done for me in my life in times that I really, really desperately needed.

“And so, to have that platform, to be able to reach more people — youth especially — it means everything to me.”

As part of the Searchlight win, Shawnee will perform during festivities at the 2021 Juno Awards in Toronto, take part in a national artist development program and experience a five-day residency at Calgary’s Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

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