Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Shontelle: show & telle

Shontelle Shontelle Shontelle Shontelle

With her 2009 debut album ‘Shontelligence’ having seen her dubbed “the new Rihanna” and even “the female answer to Ne-Yo”, 24-year-old Barbados-born-and-raised singer/writer Shontelle Layne has this month released her haunting new transatlantic hit ballad ‘Impossible’ - which in turn precedes her forthcoming, second LP ‘No Gravity’.

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 music export, global pop/R&B superstar Rihanna.

With Rogers and Sturken going on to secure Shontelle a recording deal with SRC/Universal Motown, her aforementioned debut LP (the wittily-titled ‘Shontelligence’) instantly provided her with an international hit single - the catchy, sexy UK Top 10 ‘T-Shirt’ - while additionally teaming her up with her label-mate - worldwide urban chart-topper Akon - for ‘Stuck With Each Other’, theme to the Disney box-office smash ‘Confessions Of A Shopaholic’. Meanwhile, said album’s motivational anthem ‘Battle Cry’ was prestigiously used by now-US President Barack Obama as a track on his Campaign Trail compilation LP ‘Yes We Can: Voice Of A Grassroots’.

All of which in turn - following 2009 tours with both New Kids On The Block and Beyonce - brings us to the present-day. As an ever-articulate Shontelle hooks up with Pete Lewis to discuss her aforementioned new single and forthcoming second album, plus her relationship with fellow pop /R&B songstress Rihanna.

PETE: Let’s start by discussing your new, transatlantic hit single - the haunting ballad ‘Impossible’

SHONTELLE: “As soon as I came off tour with Beyonce, my management were like ‘No more touring! You gotta put new MUSIC out! Get in the studio!’… So, once I started thinking about it, I was like ‘OK! What sort of music do I wanna put out there? What’s going on on the radio right now?’… And what I noticed was, there were no BALLADS! It was all just four-on-the-floor dance music! So I thought ‘Oh, come on! There’s gotta be some people out there that don’t really feel like dancing right now!’… You know, I just thought there was no song for heartbroken people! So, when Aristotracks - the producers - sent me the demo of ‘Impossible’, I was like ‘I gotta record this song! Because I know there’s people out there that’s feeling this way right now, and they NEED a song like this!’… And I actually recorded it while I was in Sweden - which is the perfect place to record a haunting type of ballad because you’re in the DARK so much!.. Plus, when I was there it was really COLD!”

PETE: What’s the story behind you titling your forthcoming, second album ‘No Gravity’?

SHONTELLE: “First of all ‘No Gravity’ is the title of a song I wrote that’s on the album. But then in turn it also became almost like this mantra that I adopted to my life and to the whole project. I was like ‘OK, after the first album - and your first hit - you don’t wanna be a one-hit-wonder! You don’t wanna be that artist who shows up and then disappears’… So I basically thought ‘I really can’t let anything stand in my way; I can’t let anything stop me from rising to the top; I can’t have anything holding me down or holding me back. There has to be no gravity, so I can float higher and higher and higher! So, if I just adopt this mantra ‘No Gravity’ to my life and to my project, then I have to WIN!’!.. And that’s literally what it was ABOUT! Just me motivating myself to keep climbing higher and to have nothing hold me back!”

PETE: So what in general can we expect from ‘No Gravity’?

SHONTELLE: “I’d say ‘No Gravity is a lot more radio-friendly than my first album, ‘Shontelligence’. Basically my intention was to have a lot more presence EVERYWHERE - including the clubs! Which is why there’s a lot more uptempo, edgy tracks on this album. Then lyrically, while I touch on a lot of the things MOST artists touch on - personal experiences, love, life, relationships - my main goal was to either make people happy or give people HOPE. It’s basically an album where I just want to bring JOY to people - whether you need some sort of catharsis; whether you’re having a bad day and you just wanna listen to a song where you think the person singing it knows how you feel; whether you just love a song purely because it makes you feel happy... You know, I didn’t wanna make any songs to bring people DOWN! It’s just music that’s supposed to hit you in the heart and make you feel better.”

PETE: What are the main ways in which you feel ‘No Gravity’ represents a difference or progression from your 2009 debut LP ‘Shontelligence’?

SHONTELLE: “Well, to me ‘Shontelligence’ was a lot more, I guess, grass-roots. You know, back then I was coming fresh from Barbados, and I wanted to find a creative way of meshing the sounds of Barbados with mainstream music - which I think I achieved. Whereas now I’m a totally different person than I was two years ago, or even ONE year ago! You know, I live in New York; I’ve been able to travel all over the world and been exposed to so many different cultures and music... So, now that my eyes have been opened so wide, my sensibilities in terms of music have changed a LOT! These days I’m more like ‘Wow! There’s so many more people that I have to REACH!’! And I do think you’re really gonna SEE that and FEEL that on this album, in that some of the songs do have much more of a commercial feel... As I said, it’s definitely more radio and club-friendly. Because I just want to be EVERYWHERE! I want my music to be WORLDWIDE!”

PETE: How do you now look back on what ‘Shontelligence’ achieved as a debut album which hit on three different levels - an international hit single (‘T-Shirt’); a high-profile Disney theme (the Akon duet ‘Stuck With Each Other’); plus a track (‘Battle Cry’) on Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ Campaign-Trail LP?

SHONTELLE: “I m gonna keep it real and tell you at first I was very, very disappointed with the actual SALES of my first album. But then my record company kept saying ‘Don’t be disappointed. You’re a new artist, and even ESTABLISHED artists aren’t selling albums these days. You’ve sold more singles than this person, than that person…’. You know, I guess as an artist you just wanna sell, and sell, and SELL! But at the same time, you have to remember that there’s so much MORE that you can do as an artist! You can touch people’s lives, influence people, motivate people... And it’s only now that I really look back and go ‘Wow! I’m from Barbados, yet I was part of a project that involved one of the most historical events in America - the FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT?! Are you KIDDING me?!’…You know, Barack Obama sent me a signed limited-edition of the ‘Yes We Can’ album - I mean, how many people have something signed by Barack Obama saying thank you?!... And then to be able to record with Akon and work with Diane Warren - one of the most prolific songwriters of our time - on the theme-song to a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Disney movie (‘Confessions Of A Shopaholic’)?!… You know, when I look back at all these things it’s pretty incredible - and I feel really lucky to have accomplished it all.”

PETE: So what’s the relationship like today between you and your former school-friend and fellow Bajan pop/R&B songstress, global megastar Rihanna?

SHONTELLE: “I’ve actually just been in the studio with Rihanna. And, though I can’t really say too much more right now about what Ri-Ri and I are working on, we’ll definitely keep you guys posted! You know, because we’re two girls who’ve come from a small island that so many people never even knew EXISTED until she came out, the two of us are both so excited and so supportive of each other - because we’ve had to work really hard to have come such a long way!”

PETE: And what of those ever-ongoing comparisons that are constantly being made between you and Rihanna?

SHONTELLE: “As far as the comparisons go, I don’t get upset about it at ALL! Because I feel it’s just NATURAL! You know, people have never really seen a Bajan artist do what Rihanna’s doing before. And so, when you’ve never been exposed to something before - like this is the first time you’ve heard this accent, or heard this intonation - and then along comes a SECOND person with it, there’s gonna be a lotta things that might sound SIMILAR to you! And, because you have no other reference whatsoever, you might be like ‘That’s weird - they’re the SAME!’!.. But then the more you pay attention, the more you realise how DIFFERENT they are - not just as people, but also as ARTISTS... So no, those comparisons don’t really bother EITHER of us. Because we both know that over time the differences between us will show.”

PETE: So do you feel the international success of both Rihanna and yourself has impacted on the local Bajan music scene?

SHONTELLE: “Yes, INDEED! I mean, since Rihanna blew up and I got signed and started doing pretty well too, I think maybe three or four MORE artists from Barbados have got signed - including J. Cole, Vita Chambers, Livvi Franc... So it’s like Barbados is just PUMPING artists out these days! And I feel each one that’s been signed to a major label is gonna be just as big and make their OWN road to success! I mean, right now I’m seeing more studios blowing up there by the SECOND! It’s like every time I check home people are like ‘Oh, so-and-so has just built a new studio!’! Plus I also think the young artists and producers in Barbados today are much more CONFIDENT! You know, before we used to feel that no-one would be accepting of us making mainstream music. Because we were from the islands, they always wanted to put us in a box. They’d think we should make reggae music, soca, reggaeton - and that was IT! … Whereas we’d always be like ‘NO! We grew up listening to the same music YOU did! We watched MTV and BET; we listened to pop music and rock music’… So yeah, the music scene in Barbados right now is BUZZING! There’s hip hop; there’s R&B; there’s classical music, opera... You name it, and Barbados is buzzing with it!”

Shontelle’s single ‘Impossible’ is out now. Her album ‘No Gravity’ follows November 22, both through Island Records Group/SRC Street Records Corporation

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