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when Shawnee Kish was just starting out as a singer-songwriter in her early 20s, she was immediately surrounded by a particular type of industry person.
“I was coming into music with big hopes and dreams, not knowing how to get there, and also struggling with my identity,” says the Edmonton-based Kish, who is nominated for Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the Year at Sunday’s Juno Awards. “So I was vulnerable, and dealing with certain men who were successful in controlling my identity, as well as the way I saw myself and portrayed myself publicly.”
Artists being molded into something they’re not a common refrain in the music business, but the two-spirit Mohawk musician eventually decided she didn’t want any part of that nonsense. The experience did give her fodder for new music, however, with a new song called Mr. Tie. It’s a no-holds-barred retort to every man who ever tried to make Kish into what she’s not, summed up in the lyric, “you don’t like my attitude / I’m good, boy, I don’t need you unto.”
Kish, who married former national rugby champ Jen Kish in 2021 during a ceremony presided over by Rachel Notley, is clearly long past hiding her sexuality or soft pedaling her Indigenous background. She’s also not interested in taking directions on her hair, her weight, or anything else image makers dictate as a pop-star necessity. Kish may have started out as a 12-year-old Shania Twain impersonator, but she’s feeling very much herself these days.
“It was hard for me,” she admits. “It took me time to come out as two-spirit and embrace my identity, my culture, my people, my history, my family. It was dangerous to attempt to take that away from me all for someone else’s idea of what a pop star should be. I never wanted to be a pop star, I wanted to use my voice and make a difference in the world.”
Kish is well on her way to doing just that as she goes up against Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Jayli Wolf, DJ Shub and Adrian Sutherland for the newly-created Contemporary Indigenous Artist or Group award at the Junos, happening in Toronto on May 15. She’s thrilled to be nominated and reflects on being a part of the Juno Awards as a dream of her younger self, not because of the glory to be gained, but because she feels it’s part of her greater purpose in life.
“I’m here to heal from my experiences,” she says. “I’m also here to share that healing journey, and I hope that I can reach out to someone else and help them as well. Music is medicine to me — it saved me, it’s been there for me — and I don’t care about the glamor that can come with it. It’s about hardship, and it’s about self-growth. As soon as I embraced that, everything changed for me. My entire voice changed. The way I stand on stage, the way I talk to people and interact with them has changed.”
The pandemic has messed with Kish’s career the way it’s messed with every other musician’s career, but she isn’t deterred. Kish recently signed with Amelia Recordings, a boutique Canadian label, and together they’ve been putting together a plan. With a number of new songs ready for release through 2022 and a Juno nomination under her belt, it seems like the sky’s the limit.
“I learned so much in these past two years,” Kish says. “I’ve become a better performer having to sit in front of a camera and iPhone to perform, and it’s taught me so much about myself as a singer and songwriter. I’m challenging myself to share my most vulnerable places and my experiences in life, and I think that people know when you’re being real. I’m going to continue to push past boundaries, and find what’s going to make me uncomfortable and see how I’m going to overcome that.”