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Issue 1101

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Feature

Shena: The Time Is Now

Shena @bluesandsoul.com
Shena @bluesandsoul.com Shena @bluesandsoul.com Shena @bluesandsoul.com Shena @bluesandsoul.com

Pete Lewis discovers why Berkshire-raised Shena - one of dance music’s most in-demand featured vocalists - now feels the need to go it alone with her soon-come soulful debut LP ‘One Man Woman’.

… Indeed, as one of Britain’s most sought-after session/backing singers for the past 15 years, Shena (born Tracey McSween in Reading just over 30 years ago) boasts an ultra-impressive resume that ranges from working with bona fide legends like Chaka Khan and James Brown to contemporary names like Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone; not to mention high-profile ad campaigns for KFC, Coke, Nissan and Kodak!

Nevertheless - pioneered by the punchy ‘nu-disco’ grooves of her current, Radio 2-supported single ‘Can’t Stop The Rain’ - she now, in no small way, feels finally ready to strike out on her own via her aforementioned new album. Which finds Shena’s soulful, sassy vocals fronting a set whose big sound blends contemporary production values with real strings and brass on uptempo cuts like the urgent ‘A Love Sensation’ and confidently funky ‘Sex Factor’. Both of which match the hedonistic, late-Seventies disco vibe of time-honoured icons like Chic and Donna Summer with a razor-sharp 21st Century pop-dance twist.

“Yeah, I just feel like I’m ready do to my OWN thing now!”, asserts a bubbly, fast-talking Shena over afternoon drinks in her publicist’s Central London office: “I feel like I’ve been in the background happily observing for long enough. You know, I’ve worked with some fantastic people like the late James Brown, etc. And, because of that, I think I now have the experience to know what it takes to be a solo artist. So me releasing my own album basically represents me saying ‘It’s MY turn now!’… It’s been produced by my husband James Winchester, who’s also co-written a lotta the songs on it with me. Musically I think I’ve touched quite a few bases, and my general aim was simply to have an albums-worth of good tunes that people can relate to in different ways. I tried to get people’s attention by combining strong, emotive lyrics with funky production and melodies that they can sing along to and remember.”

With Shena coming from a highly musical family (which includes three singing/dancing sisters; plus a dad who “sounded like a calypso Nat ‘King’ Cole”), it was definitely befitting that, on leaving school, she should prestigiously receive an unconditional offer to study at London’s Royal Academy Of Music: “As far back as I can remember, music has always been a big part of my life”, she recalls clearly: “I sang in a gospel choir when I was young; I used to get all the solos in the school plays... And it all just sort of grew from there really. When I got to comprehensive school, my music teacher convinced my headmaster to pay for me to have singing lessons... Then, when I left, I got a scholarship and went to The Royal Academy.”

“And one of the most important things about that whole experience, I’d say, is that it’s given me a massive amount of confidence”, she continues: “You know, just having that piece of paper with that certificate on it - which proves I’ve been to one of the most prestigious music colleges in the UK, and probably the world - means that, if someone says ‘I hate your voice’, it really doesn’t MATTER! Because you know that you’re part of a great legacy of great artists like Elton John and Annie Lennox who all went there.”

Meanwhile, the first highlight of Shena’s career arrived when she joined the mid-Nineties London cast of the musical ‘Mama I Want To Sing’, which at the time starred legendary US soulstress Chaka Khan: “Oh, I LOVED working with Chaka Khan!”, she gushes genuinely: “She drank like a fish and she smoked like a chimney! But, at the end of the day, she pulled it OFF! And there’s not many people that can do that! You know, to be knocking back JD’s or whatever backstage, but then going out there and blowing everyone away with your vocal talent is a GIFT! And what I like about real stars like Chaka is that they’re humble! They don’t have anything to PROVE! Their talent speaks for itself, and most of them are just like ‘This is who I AM! Take it or leave it!’… And I really admire that!”

“Plus, what a lot of people don’t appreciate is the amount of WORK that goes into being a real talent and a real star like Chaka Khan or James Brown”, she adds with sincerity: “These people are constantly working on their voices; they’re constantly trying out new dances, or whatever it is they specialise in; they’re constantly trying to come up with the latest, greatest tune, or putting a fantastic new mix on it... You know, they’re constantly WORKING! But then, when they do come out, all everyone sees is the finished product! They don’t see what goes INTO it! So, that’s definitely something I’ve picked up and learnt from my experiences over the years.”

While other musicals Shena later went on to appear in include ‘What A Feeling’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, over the last decade it‘s nevertheless been her featured vocal appearances on dance hits by ‘name’ DJs (including such massive club and pop anthems as Michael Gray’s Grammy-nominated ‘The Weekend’; Junior Jack’s UK Top 20 ‘Dare Me’; and Alex Gaudino’s ‘Watch Out’) that has proven her long-term forte. However, it’s also an aspect of her career she now views as a double-edged sword: “I’m very, very grateful to the dance world. Because, without it, I don’t know what I’d have done, to be honest”, she acknowledges without hesitation: “Flying around the world fronting these big, massive tunes has given me a taste of being a solo artist, and has also been a fantastic source of income. However, the bad part of is it that yes, you are faceless - particularly if you put yourself with a big, massive name. You know, you become invisible. It just becomes all about the name of the producer or the DJ who’s done the track.”

“So you get to the point where somebody like myself - who’s been on like 40 dance records - still doesn’t get her name said right on the radio”, she adds passionately: “Or you go along to the club to perform and they’ll say ‘Who’s that?’, or ‘So why weren’t you in the video?’... And that is the PROBLEM with it for me! Because I think ‘Well, if my voice is fronting the track and I’m gonna be promoting it, then I SHOULD be in the video!’. You know, if you’re the vocalist on, say, a pop or a soul record - whether it be Leona Lewis, Taio Cruz - you get your NAME and your FACE out there! So my issue is ‘Why, in dance music, am I denied that right?’! So that is really one of the main reasons I’ve now decided to release my own record independently.”

“I basically think I’ve been backward in coming forward for quite some time now”, she concludes: “To where people around me have been saying ‘Shena, it’s time to be SEEN! It’s time to get yourself out there and put yourself up for scrutiny!’... Which is why I just wanna go out and promote this new album as best I can; to get and out and to be seen in as many places as possible! Let’s just say the inner diva in me has finally spoken! It’s been unleashed, and it won’t let me go back to being just a faceless voice! So I’ve got to make this solo thing work, basically!”

The single 'Can't Stop The Rain' is out now. The album 'One Man Woman' follows May 25, both through No Prisoners Records
Words PETE LEWIS

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