In late 2022, Canada’s Queen of R&B Jully Black released her first album in 13 years, Three Rocks and a Slingshot; dance-pop artist Shawn Desman released his first solo single in about a decade, “Maniac”; and R&B singer Glenn Lewis expects to release several singles this year, and an album by the end of it.
Somewhere along the line, as the clocked ticked and days turned, since releasing their debut albums — Black’s This Is Me in 2005; Desman’s self-titled album in 2002; and Lewis’ World Outside My Window the same year — these rising stars became seasoned veterans, with all the respect, esteem, and influence that come with it.
Last summer, Drake was one of those people acknowledging their contributions, inviting all three to perform on his first-of-its-kind “All Canadian North Stars” OVO Fest show to celebrate and thank the hip-hop and R&B acts who “paved the way for all of us,” as the global superstar wrote on his Instagram.
It was good to see these Canadian legends getting flowers from one of the biggest artists in the world. But as Drake, The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, Jessie Reyez, and others took over the charts in the past decade, Black, Lewis, and Desman have been busy with other creative endeavours – and sometimes simply handling responsibilities that come with getting older.
“There was no, ‘I stopped [releasing music] because of this,’” says Black. “Yeah, my mom was sick, I was taking care of her, but that’s not the reason why. You have to live a life to tell a story and, for me, it’s really about the path of least resistance.
“I have a friend that went back for her Masters [degree] and decided to have a career change, and no one’s saying, ‘Why are you doing something else?’” she says. “It seems that everyday people, not in the music business, are allowed to change directions or change careers; it’s not ‘You’ve taken a break’ or ‘You’re making a comeback.’
“We’re these anomalies, or these mutants, with this talent, that the business expects to continue to pump out music like we’re machines. If I don’t feel like singing for the rest of my life, that’s my business.”
Of course, Black has been constantly singing; she just hadn’t pumped out music, as she says, though she’s been performing live onstage. She also starred in a major theatre production, Caroline, or Change; frequently hosts events and award shows; and runs a highly successful motivational 100 Strong and Sexy wellness program, and The Power of Step classes.
Making an album in her forties, the topics and tones she chose to write about showcased the strong, decisive woman we’ve witnessed in recent years, from the conviction in the lyrics to “Half Empty,” to the resilience of “No Relation,” and the I-can-take-it “Mi No Fraid.” The album title itself refers to David vs Goliath: fighting giants.
“There’s way more confidence in being able to speak to the subject matter without any shame or embarrassment – especially for myself being in this business since I was 14 years old,” says Black. “Some of the topics were really grown when I wasn’t grown yet. So now to speak about love loss, or being in love, or having sex, or whatever, I can talk about it, and be, like, ‘Yeah, I’m grown up, so it’s no big deal.’”
Glenn Lewis put out his last solo release in 2013, but in 2017 he collaborated with DJ Jazzy Jeff on his annual PLAYlist project, singing on the album Chasing Goosebumps, uniquely created in a week with three dozen contributors. In early 2022, his longtime friend and A&R executive, Kardinal Offishall, signed him to Universal Music Canada. He’ll release several singles this year, with an album expected by the Fall of 2023.
“This time around, I’m very selective in terms of the content” – Shawn Desman
Lewis says he’s never stopped writing songs, and even records them and puts them away. “Sometimes things will pick up, if I I’m concentrating on working on a project, like I am now,” he says. “But, mostly, in the past several years, I’ve just been doing the family thing.
“My only real outlet musically would be if there’s other artists that I admire, and I like their songwriting, or I like their songs, I’ll keep my chops up by singing along, or just trying to get a feel for how people conceptualize, and how they communicate through song now. I was trying to stay up to speed on that.”
For his new project, Kardi – who recently accepted a global A&R role at Def Jam – has taken the position of consultant for Lewis. Now in his late forties, Lewis says his perspective on many usual subjects has matured.
“I’m still wanting to speak about things that we might think about, but don’t always come up in conversation – whether it’s things that are happening in the world and how they make us feel, and, in particular, romantic situations,” says Lewis.
“I might not say all of it in one song, but my experiences have brought me to the understanding that a lot of love has to do with how I love, even how I love myself – the kinds of things that you look out for, and begin to understand, with regards to the give-and-take of relationships, and the delicate balance of what that dynamic can be.”
Shawn Desman, who’s signed a new publishing deal with CSS Rights Management, and new record deal with Wax Records, admits that in 2015, after he parted ways with a record label, “I kind of hated the music business, if I’m being completely honest. And on top of it, my wife became really sick, and I had to step away and just be a committed father and husband.” He was still running the annual nationwide dance competition Move – now in its 15th year – but he hadn’t released new music since his 2013 album, Alive.
“Then, just before the pandemic, my best friend [singer and professional songwriter in Nashville] Tebey calls me, and he’s, like, ‘Hey, I have this idea about doing the project, me and you, and we called it RadioClub. We’re gonna write, produce the music. We’re not necessarily gonna be the voices on the music, we’ll get features, and we’re just gonna put it out,’” says Desman.
“Now, looking back, I know exactly what Tebey was doing. He was just trying to get the bug of music back in my life, ‘cause he knew that there was this huge void. I wasn’t happy. There was just something missing. So the first thing we do is this house/dance remix of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley, independently. We’re sitting on 25 million streams [of the song] right now.”
Desman says it did re-ignite his love of music. That, coupled with Drake telling him at the North Stars show that he needs to make music again, brought Desman back. He’s in the studio almost every day, and has a few new songs on the go, including one called “1985,” which he calls a “feel-good, nostalgic-type record.” He’s been working a lot with Wax owner Jamie Appleby, artist Alyssa Reid, and songwriter/producer Ryan Stewart.
“This time around, I’m very selective in terms of the content, because I do want it to resonate with where I am in my life, and not feel forced,” says Desman. “Let’s not try and be cool just for the sake of being cool. I’m not that 20-to-25-year-old guy, hanging out with the boys in the club. That’s just not my life right now. I’m seriously adulting. I got three kids at home.
“Anytime I get into a [writing] session with people, I’m, like, ‘Guys, I’m not talking about X, Y, Z,’ but then on the same coin, I think the reason why people continue to love Shawn Desman music is because it makes them feel a certain way. It makes them feel good. It’s happy. It’s positive. So I’m trying to stay more there, but what would I say in 2022, ‘23?
“I just want to make sure it resonates with me, and also with my audience – because my audience is not 15-year-olds. Although it’s funny, because I have a son who just started high school, and I was asking if his friends have heard my new song. What do they think? And he’s, like, ‘Dad, they actually love your new song.’ It’s really cool to see my kids finally being the age where they can see, and kind of realize, ‘Oh, my dad was – and maybe still is – a pretty big deal.’”