SHONTELLE: STAR POTENTIAL
Already being dubbed “the new Rihanna” and even “the female answer to Ne-Yo”, 23-year-old Barbados born-and-raised singer/writer Shontelle Layne enjoys a bright’n’breezy afternoon chat with Pete Lewis over drinks at West London’s media-friendly K-West Hotel.
Initially discouraged from going into show-business by her more academic and business-minded parents, Shontelle spent much of her adolescence representing her native Barbados in international swimming and track-and-field events while also enjoying a lengthy stint as an army cadet. Nevertheless, as time went on - with her delivering A-grade after A-grade at school - Shontelle’s love for music became difficult to suppress. And, with her aunt being popular Bajan singer Kim Derrick, she began writing songs for other people while still in her teens.
Meanwhile, by her early twenties - utilising everything she was learning from her Media Law course at University - an ambitious Ms. Layne was already setting up her own publishing company. With her first major break coming when she wrote the internationally-successful ‘Roll It’ for Caribbean soca songstress Alison Hinds, Shontelle instantly found herself the recipient of numerous prestigious awards in her homeland. Which in turn attracted the attention of New York-based producer/writers Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken (who additionally happen to be the managers of Shontelle’s childhood friend and Barbados’ hottest musical export, global pop/R&B superstar Rihanna).
With Rogers and Sturken securing Shontelle a recording deal with SRC/Universal Motown (also home to worldwide urban chart-topper Akon), her debut album - the wittily-titled ’Shontelligence‘ - arrives this month. Pioneered by its catchy, sexy UK Top 10 single ‘T-Shirt’, said LP boasts production from the likes of Stargate (Ne-Yo/Beyonce); Wayne Wilkins (Leona Lewis); and Supa Dups (Estelle). Its musical moods ranging from uplifting pop/R&B moments like the motivational ‘Battle Cry’ and acoustic guitar-laced ‘Superwoman’; to the stringy, Sixties-tinged loper ‘Cold Cold Summer’; plus the message-driven reggae chug of ’Life Is Not An Easy Road’.
Taking time out from her UK arena tour supporting New Kids On The Block, an articulate and talkative Shontelle - who now resides in Westchester, upstate New York - gives ‘B&S’ the lowdown.
Her debut single ‘T-Shirt’
“I really like ‘T-Shirt’ a lot because, when you listen to the song, there’s a lot of elements in there that will definitely appeal to girls. Like even the strongest women at some point can have that guy in their life who, if for some reason you can’t be with him, is gonna have that effect on you -where you’re not gonna feel like going out, hanging out with your girlfriends, partying, or doing ANYTHING. And, if you do miss that person, the best thing to have of theirs is a T-shirt! Because it usually smells like them and you can put in on, curl up with it - and kinda pretend the person is THERE! Also, I reference a lotta things in the song that girls like - like Jimmy Choos. Plus the melody is very catchy. It’s immediate, hard not to get into… Which to me makes it a really good first single. Because, when you’re a new artist, putting out a song that’s very easy to catch onto is the easiest way to get people to notice you.”
How she titled her LP ‘Shontelligence’
“Oh, that’s a really good story! We were actually hanging out in the studio, kinda waiting for things to bubble up - you know, the guys there tend to get a bit silly sometimes with their sense of humour. So one guy somehow comes up with this bright idea - ‘Hey Shontelle! Let’s play a word-game with your name today! Whoever can come up with the most words using your name gets free lunch!’! So they’re like ’Shontel-evator’, ‘Shontel-evision’, ‘Shontel-icopter’... Then my engineer, Al, suddenly turns round and says ‘Yeah, that’s some real Shontelligence there!’... And straightaway everyone in the studio turned around at the same time, and were like ’That has to be your album title!’… So I was like ‘It does sound cute and catchy, but people are gonna be like “This girl is so cocky! Who does she think she is?”!’... But then they said ’No, we think you DESERVE it!’ - because, at the time we were putting my album together, I was actually studying at university. So in the end I was like ‘Yeah, why not?’… You know, everyone else thought it was really clever. So the name just stuck!”
How Shontelle feels about her album musically
“I just think I was lucky to have the opportunity to achieve what I WANTED to achieve. Because, stereotypically, when people know you’re from The Caribbean they expect reggae, soca, ragga or dancehall. You know, it’s been a battle for a while for artists from The Caribbean to break out and show people that we can make ALL types of music, and that we’re not just limited to those specific genres. Basically it hadn’t really ever happened until of course Rihanna burst onto the pop/R&B scene a few years back. And, even when I first got signed to Universal, my album started out just being a collection of reggae tracks. So I basically said ‘Guys, how about giving me a chance as a songwriter to experiment and blend different styles of music, so I can create something more mainstream?’… And basically they said ‘Go ahead’... So that’s what we DID! And while I’m very happy that I did get to include elements of where I’m from - which is the music I grew up with in Barbados - I’d definitely say that, for the most part, my record will come over as more or less a mainstream pop/R&B album.”
Her song ’Battle Cry’ being used as part of Barack Obama’s campaign
“To me that was a very big deal. Because, while I always loved ‘Battle Cry’ in its own right as a power anthem and for its really inspirational theme, for me the coolest thing about it now is that we actually got a call from Barack Obama’s people saying they’d heard the song, they felt its theme really suited their campaign, and that they’d love to feature it on their fundraising record ’Yes We Can: Voices Of A Grass Roots Movement’! You know, as soon as they told me that, I was like ‘You don’t even have to ASK! You can use ANY of my songs for ANYTHING to do with Barack Obama!’... And then when - on top of that - they told me that also featured on the album were Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, Adam Levine, Jill Scott... I could not believe I’d been given that opportunity! Because those are all artists whose music I grew up on, and who I aspire to be like because of the level that they’re at! So that became a very exciting experience for me, and I was like ‘Any way I can be involved in spreading the word and getting the message, I’m there! Call me ANY time!’!”
How she came to sing ‘Stuck With Each Other’ - the theme-song to the new Disney movie ’Confessions Of A Shopaholic’
“What happened is I’d heard Disney were working on a theme-song for their new movie ‘Confessions Of A Shopaholic’. Diane Warren was going to be writing it, and it was gonna be produced by Rodney Jerkins. So then you can imagine my shock one day when they called us and said ’We’ve been deciding on the right singer for the song, and you’ve been chosen’! I was like ‘You’re kidding!’… I mean, first of all Diane Warren is a genius. There was a time when every year this woman would walk away with the award for Songwriter Of The Year. Secondly, Rodney Jerkins is one of the most fantastic producers out there... Then, when they next told me Akon was gonna feature on the song with me, I was like ‘This is like an instant three-punch knockout!’! Because these were three people I’d always wanted to work with! Not to mention the fact that I was always a Disney fanatic! And the fact that all these incredible things are happening for me so early in my career just blows my mind!”
Her family’s early attitude towards Shontelle pursuing a singing career
“My parents - just like Barbados society as a whole back then - were very old-fashioned, and weren’t too keen on the whole entertainment thing. They viewed it as a very fickle sort of industry, and so naturally they were very fearful about a lotta things. You know, especially with me being a girl, they - quite understandably - had a lot of concerns. Whereas my aunt (popular Bajan singer Kim Derrick) would always ENCOURAGE me to sing. She’d be like ‘I know your parents don’t like it, but I’M a singer and I know how you feel. And one thing you’re gonna learn is that you’ll not be happy in your life UNLESS you’re doing what you’re passionate about. And, if you have the opportunity to do something that you’re passionate about, you’ll most likely do it well and be successful at it’... So, you know, she’d always encourage me, despite my parents’ attitude.”
How she eventually decided to become a professional singer
“Despite my aunt’s encouragement, when I was young I wasn’t that confident in my singing and I didn’t really want people to hear me. You know, I was at the kind of age where, if you can’t see other people, you think they can’t see YOU - and that you actually disappear from the world! So for years I’d hide in the closet and sing at the top of my lungs, thinking no-one could hear me… Until one day my mom knocked on the door and was like ‘Honey, just so you know, we can hear you! As a matter of fact, we can hear you from next DOOR! So you might as well just stop hiding in the cupboard and sing in FRONT of everyone!’... And, once she told me that, I was like ’Maybe my mom has a point’… And from there on various things happened along the way that boosted my confidence. My teacher told me I had a beautiful voice; my friends started telling me they thought I sang well… And so eventually I started participating in things like the school choir, to where every opportunity I could find to be onstage - pageants, talent contests, showcases - I TOOK! Which is when I really started to make up my mind that singing was something I could enjoy making a career of for the rest of my life.”
Shontelle’s relationship with one-time school-friend - and now fellow Bajan pop/R&B songstress - Rihanna
“In Barbados the cadets - a sub-unit of The Army - have a company attached to every secondary school. And it was during my time in the cadets that I first met Rihanna. In fact, I was drill sergeant for her camp! And I remember, even back then, she really stood out! She was taller than everyone else, but she also had these very striking features - those big green eyes. So I remember thinking to myself ’What is this girl doing in the cadets? This is hardcore, and she looks like she’s gonna be a supermodel!’... And one of the things we both think is hilarious now is how, when she was late for parade one day, I made her do punishment push-ups! You know, with us both out here working so hard, we don’t get to go home too often. But, when we DO see each other, we’re definitely like family. And the fact people have already started comparing me to Rihanna - with us both being Bajan girls - doesn’t bother me at all. You know she’s at the top of her game right now and so I definitely take any comparisons as a compliment.”
Her first taste of success, as songwriter of Caribbean soca star Alison Hinds’ internationally-successful female-empowerment anthem ‘Roll It’
“Luckily for me, along the way I was introduced to a wonderful lady called Sonya Mullins, who’s still part of my management team today. She took me under her wing and, very soon after I joined her team, I met Alison Hinds’ manger. He was like ‘I understand you’re a pretty good songwriter. Alison’s putting together her album. Here’s some tracks. See what you can come up with’... So I just remember popping in the CD, this beat comes on that I really like… So I start writing, and in literally 15 minutes the song ‘Roll It’ was finished and done! So I took it to him... And then, to my shock and amazement, I get a call from the studio saying ’You’re not gonna believe this, but we played the song to Alison and she wants to do it!’... So she records it, and suddenly all these things I never thought would happen start happening! All in this one year - my first time on the scene - I win Songwriter Of The Year at The Barbados Music Awards; I win various awards at Cropover (Barbados’ annual festival); a friend calls me saying she’s heard ’Roll It’ in a club in London; another friend calls me saying it’s on the radio in Canada... And I’m like ‘WOW!’!”
How Shontelle hooked-up with Rihanna’s management team - Evan Rogers & Carl Sturken - and got her record deal with SRC/Universal Motown
“I happened to be in New York when I got this random phonecall. I didn’t recognise the number, but the person was like ‘Hello, I’m Evan Rogers. You may have heard of me before. I signed Rihanna to my production company, and we got her signed to Def Jam. We heard your song ‘Roll It’, we really love it, and we’d like to meet you’... So I’m like ‘You’re not gonna believe this. I’m in New York right now, but I leave tomorrow!’. So he’s like ‘OK, can you get on the first train?’… So I hop on the first train up to their studio, and they’re like ’You’re kinda cute. Do you also sing?’. So I bring out the guitar, start playing and singing... And I guess it all went well, because they were like ‘We wanna sign you to our production company. Put together some demos, so we can get you a record deal’... And so said, so done! After a few months, we were shopping my demo to all the different labels; there was a lotta interest out there... And I ended up signing to SRC/Universal Motown! So it was actually all very random. Things just kinda happened by chance, and everything just fell into place. But I’m very grateful that they DID!”
The single 'T-Shirt' is out now. The album 'Shontelligence' follows March 9, both through SRC Street Records Corporation/Universal Motown
Words PETE LEWIS