Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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Shena: The Time Is Now

Shena Shena Shena Shena

Pete Lewis discovers why Berkshire-raised Shena - one of dance musicâs most in-demand featured vocalists - now feels the need to go it alone with her soon-come soulful debut LP âOne Man Womanâ.

⦠Indeed, as one of Britainâs 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 ânu-discoâ grooves of her current, Radio 2-supported single âCanât Stop The Rainâ - she now, in no small way, feels finally ready to strike out on her own via her aforementioned new album. Which finds Shenaâs soulful, sassy vocals fronting a set whose big sound blends contemporary production values with real strings and brass on uptempo cuts like the urgent âA Love Sensationâ and confidently funky âSex Factorâ. 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.

âYeah, I just feel like Iâm ready do to my OWN thing now!â, asserts a bubbly, fast-talking Shena over afternoon drinks in her publicistâs Central London office: âI feel like Iâve been in the background happily observing for long enough. You know, Iâve 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 âItâs MY turn now!â⦠Itâs been produced by my husband James Winchester, whoâs also co-written a lotta the songs on it with me. Musically I think Iâve 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 peopleâs attention by combining strong, emotive lyrics with funky production and melodies that they can sing along to and remember.â

With Shena coming from a highly musical family (which includes three singing/dancing sisters; plus a dad who âsounded like a calypso Nat âKingâ Coleâ), it was definitely befitting that, on leaving school, she should prestigiously receive an unconditional offer to study at Londonâs Royal Academy Of Music: âAs far back as I can remember, music has always been a big part of my lifeâ, she recalls clearly: âI 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.â

âAnd one of the most important things about that whole experience, Iâd say, is that itâs given me a massive amount of confidenceâ, she continues: âYou know, just having that piece of paper with that certificate on it - which proves Iâve been to one of the most prestigious music colleges in the UK, and probably the world - means that, if someone says âI hate your voiceâ, it really doesnât MATTER! Because you know that youâre part of a great legacy of great artists like Elton John and Annie Lennox who all went there.â

Meanwhile, the first highlight of Shenaâs career arrived when she joined the mid-Nineties London cast of the musical âMama I Want To Singâ, which at the time starred legendary US soulstress Chaka Khan: âOh, I LOVED working with Chaka Khan!â, she gushes genuinely: âShe drank like a fish and she smoked like a chimney! But, at the end of the day, she pulled it OFF! And thereâs not many people that can do that! You know, to be knocking back JDâs 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 theyâre humble! They donât have anything to PROVE! Their talent speaks for itself, and most of them are just like âThis is who I AM! Take it or leave it!â⦠And I really admire that!â

âPlus, what a lot of people donât appreciate is the amount of WORK that goes into being a real talent and a real star like Chaka Khan or James Brownâ, she adds with sincerity: âThese people are constantly working on their voices; theyâre constantly trying out new dances, or whatever it is they specialise in; theyâre constantly trying to come up with the latest, greatest tune, or putting a fantastic new mix on it... You know, theyâre constantly WORKING! But then, when they do come out, all everyone sees is the finished product! They donât see what goes INTO it! So, thatâs definitely something Iâve picked up and learnt from my experiences over the years.â

While other musicals Shena later went on to appear in include âWhat A Feelingâ and âJesus Christ Superstarâ, over the last decade itâs nevertheless been her featured vocal appearances on dance hits by ânameâ DJs (including such massive club and pop anthems as Michael Grayâs Grammy-nominated âThe Weekendâ; Junior Jackâs UK Top 20 âDare Meâ; and Alex Gaudinoâs âWatch Outâ) that has proven her long-term forte. However, itâs also an aspect of her career she now views as a double-edged sword: âIâm very, very grateful to the dance world. Because, without it, I donât know what Iâd have done, to be honestâ, she acknowledges without hesitation: âFlying 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 whoâs done the track.â

âSo you get to the point where somebody like myself - whoâs been on like 40 dance records - still doesnât get her name said right on the radioâ, she adds passionately: âOr you go along to the club to perform and theyâll say âWhoâs that?â, or âSo why werenât you in the video?â... And that is the PROBLEM with it for me! Because I think âWell, if my voice is fronting the track and Iâm gonna be promoting it, then I SHOULD be in the video!â. You know, if youâre 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 âWhy, in dance music, am I denied that right?â! So that is really one of the main reasons Iâve now decided to release my own record independently.â

âI basically think Iâve been backward in coming forward for quite some time nowâ, she concludes: âTo where people around me have been saying âShena, itâs time to be SEEN! Itâs time to get yourself out there and put yourself up for scrutiny!â... 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! Letâs just say the inner diva in me has finally spoken! Itâs been unleashed, and it wonât let me go back to being just a faceless voice! So Iâve got to make this solo thing work, basically!â

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

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