When Shawnee Kish was announced as the winner of CBC Music’s Searchlight contest in March of 2020 for her song “Building a Wall” – the first Indigenous artist to take home the top spot in the annual talent competition – it should have catapulted her to stages across the country. Except that a week later, all those stages were shut. There would be no performance at JUNO Week. Or anywhere, really. The global pandemic was quickly decimating so much of the arts, culture, and entertainment business, leaving nothing but uncertainty for most performers. So she did what she always does in challenging times: she wrote more songs.

“Whenever I’m faced with a struggle, I go right back to music,” says Kish, on the phone from her current home base in Edmonton. “The pandemic wasn’t even the worst part. In the past two years, a lot has changed in my world on a personal level. My mom got sick, and she’s been the one thing I thought could never change. She had this massive stroke. Watching her go through that, being there when she [was] on life support, it felt like all of a sudden my whole world was one big, ‘What do I do?’” So I use the art to launch me into self-empowerment and inspiration, to get over whatever I need to get over.”

Music as medicine was a lesson Kish learned at an early age. She began writing and recording songs as early as five years old. Then, as a teenager, she discovered it was a way to deal with the pressures of trying to fit in, as a young Mohawk woman coming to terms with her Two-Spirit identity.

“I don’t think I’d be here today without music,” she says. “I wasn’t out. And there was pressure from peers and family to fit into a certain place in the world. Not just my sexuality, but also my Indigenous background. I didn’t grow up on a reserve. So, [I was] trying to understand if there was a place for me. I remember waking up and feeling so alone. Then I ‘d take off on my bike and go into a bush and sit there, connect with the land, and write music. That felt like safety. Like healing and self-expression. I realized that I can be okay. And what if this could be my future? That I could have purpose and meaning? And I’ve never looked back.”

“I use the art to get over whatever I need to get over”

Indeed. Apart from Searchlight, Shawnee’s many recent achievements include sharing stages with Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Alicia Keys, and appearing on Billboard’s 2019 list of Musicians You Need To Know, and MTV’s list of Top Gender Bending Artists.

Shawnee’s self-titled EP (released June 25, 2021) features the singles “Got it Bad,” a fiery blues-rock song that reached No. 4 on the CBC Music Top 20 countdown, and the scorching, soulful pop song “Burnin’ Love,” featuring Jamie Fine, formerly of the duo Elijah Woods x Jamie Fine. The two met through the Allan Slaight JUNO Master Class, a development and mentorship program.

It hasn’t always been so smooth to navigate the Canadian music industry. Kish recalls being asked, when she was younger, to change her hair to be more appealing to an imagined straight male audience. And getting a lot of unsolicited advice from business associates who seemed to know more about who she should be than she did. Today, as a proud member of the LGTBQ+ community, who gives back to organizations like Kids Help Phone, Kish hopes that the songs she writes from all these life experiences will help others.

“I don’t have control over the hands my music will get into, where my career will end up, where music will take me,” she says. “But I do have control of growing as a writer, as a lyricist, as a person who can stand tall and tell my story. And I hope that I might be able to change someone else who’s like me.”