Photo by Larrieu Lenz
Written by Jewly Hight
Girl group vocal pop has evolved across many generations, without always getting its due as a legitimate musical tradition. Thanks to gendered, rock-centric notions of artistry, people have tended to overlook the creative labor and performing precision it takes to not just polish a multi-voice sound and repertoire, but present a cohesive and engaging group identity.
While hardly known as a hotbed of girl groups, Nashville's music industry has often been similarly underestimated, its performers' fine-tuning of familiar forms taken as inert reliance on formula. As a sophisticated girl group rising out of the Nashville music-making community, the Shindellas are positioned to defy all these perceptions and more.
Tamara Chauniece, Kasi Jones and Stacy Johnson, the singers who make up the trio, are in tune with the individualistic bent of current pop and take pride in their different backgrounds; Johnson's includes both reggae and advertising jingles, Jones' jazz and musical theater and Chauniece's church-rocking, contemporary gospel. They relish arrangements that highlight the distinctive character of their voices — voices that were, in a series of events not unlike those that launched some earlier groups, brought together by the studio and touring duo Louis York as part of the Weirdo Workshop, a Nashville-based label and music-making hub. (The partners in Louis York, singer Claude Kelly and multi- instrumentalist Chuck Harmony, have ample hit-making experience between them; Kelly's co-writing credits include Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA," Britney Spears' "Circus" and Bruno Mars' "Grenade" and Harmony served as a writer and producer on Rihanna's "Russian Roulette" and Ne-Yo's "One in a Million.")
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The Shindellas are self-aware students of a lineage of showbiz professionalism, executing playfully poised choreography and attired in tailored velour, vinyl and sequined jumpsuits in stage shows and music videos that can swing from futuristic sensibilities to throwback supper club gestures. But when Chauniece, Jones and Johnson arrive for their World Cafe interview, the week before they're scheduled to start working up material for their debut album in their first-ever group writing sessions, the coordinated costumes are nowhere to be found.
NPR Music: Where did your solo pursuits take you before you teamed up?
Tamara Chauniece: I was part of season 5 of The Voice in 2013, Team CeeLo. It was an awesome experience. After that, I wanted to pursue an independent career, but I wanted it to be on my terms. ... After experiencing the show, you learn so much about Hollywood. There's so much smoke and mirrors. So I went back home and the first thing I thought about was, "How can I build a team of people that I feel comfortable sharing this journey with?"
Claude Kelly found me on social media, came across one of my viral videos, and reached out. ... They flew me out here to Nashville. I was able to meet the team at Weirdo Workshop. I heard some of the music, the demos, and their ideas and vision for the Shindellas, and I was sold on the whole idea.
Stacy Johnson: I started off at 15 singing jingles for commercials. I sang McDonald's and Cheerios and Pillsbury commercials. All the while I was learning how to play guitar and write my own music. ... I moved around the country. I went to Atlanta. I spent some time in Florida and California singing demos, and joined a band and started to spread my wings on stage. I met Chuck Harmony in California, who was a part of bringing us all together. He was a safe space for me, because I'd been all over and been treated crazy all over. He's such a gentleman. He allowed me to be myself, and he really enjoyed using my voice [the way] it sounded. I didn't have to sound like anybody else. I found myself wanting to be a part of something more than just me. ... Chuck and Claude invited me to hear music and hear about the idea. I helped them develop the songs. I was a part of recording the demos. I helped them to find the perfect women [for the trio]. We searched all over this country.
Kasi Jones: I just knew that I wanted to sing. I was doing session work, just doing whatever I could. Then I ended up going to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and studying musical theater. While I was there, I started songwriting. I ended up moving to Tokyo to work for Disney, singing in a jazz show. That's where I really started performing original material and kind of finding my voice. When I got back to the States, I just got into it heavy, which was when I met Chuck at a networking event. He was the keynote speaker giving us feedback on our songs, and he was just really supportive of me. ... From there I recorded a solo EP and toured in Japan. ... Then Chuck messaged me on Facebook and was like, "What are you doing?" Mind you, we haven't spoken in, like, five years. ... I was like, "I don't know. I've been finding my voice, workshopping this music and trying to figure out what direction I wanna go." He asked if I'd be interested in doing that with a group.
Tell me more, from each of your perspectives, about how The Shindellas' vision was pitched to you and why it seemed like it would be worth altering your paths to pursue?
Jones: It was what [Chuck] said and how he said it, because it lined up so much with what I wanted to do in music but wasn't sure how—how to talk about sisterhood and inclusivity.
Chauniece: I actually grew up in the church, and that's how I got my start singing. I was touring the country, just singing at different churches and church events. When I met Claude and Chuck and Stacy for the first time, I felt more of a spiritual connection to them and to the music. ... It was a huge jump for me, going from gospel music into mainstream music. But they made me feel so comfortable and the music made me feel so comfortable and I connected so much to it.
Johnson: I didn't know it would show up in this way, but I knew I wanted to be a part of something like this. I was in some groups in L.A.; I tried it and it didn't work, because of the chemistry. I really valued that part of it. ... So when I met these girls and we were able to be honest and transparent and I heard them sing, I was sold.
How has the collaboration with Claude and Chuck worked so far?
Jones: The first six songs were written and demoed when we arrived. What was really cool about it was taking what appeared to be kind of perfect pop songs and then making them ours, changing vocal arrangements, changing a few of the words, trying different things. ... If you were to hear the demos, it's like [they were] totally different songs, particularly with the harmony arrangements. All of our voices are very different and we all have such different influences.
Johnson: Chuck and Claude are really cool. Chuck is inspiring in the studio. He's really quiet and he's always working in his little corner with his headphones on the piano. Claude is really good at pulling different cool parts of your voice out. He writes a lot for women, so he knew how to express from a women's perspective. He knows how to pull that out of us really well. ... When you hear what Chuck is working on in his headphones, it makes you want to go even harder.
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You're still a relatively new group, but it seemed like you skipped right over the process of doing low-key, exploratory showcases and rough recordings and went straight for a polished, completed presentation, with choreography, costumes and a high level of production. Why was that important?
Jones: We came into it as fully developed performers. We have over 60 years of experience [between us], because we all started when we were babies. We could've come in and been a little bit demure and kind of deferred, but we all came in guns a-blazing and we wanted to present what we already had individually and then take it a step further. ...There's been a lot of us trying to level up to each others' strengths. But doing that does require a lot of preparation. A lot of it too is our outfits, I think, really seal the deal.
Johnson: I would also say that there's a culture at Weirdo Workshop to have really great quality, whatever we put out, whether it be music, art, videos, always trying to push us to make sure it's our best.
Chauniece: I feel like we all came into the situation as perfectionists — like, extreme perfectionists. We aligned ourselves under the tenet of excellence, so anything that we do, that's what has to be reflected.
Who and what do you identify with in the lineage of girl groups across various eras?
Jones: We start with the Andrews Sisters, then we move to the Supremes, then on to the Clark Sisters, gospel, then the Pointer Sisters, then En Vogue, SWV, Destiny's Child, Spice Girls. I actually think that there's a lot of En Vogue elements. I also see Spice Girls elements, the strong messaging of women empowerment, girl power.
I think we're allowing ourselves to have a lot of personality, because a lot of times with groups it's so curated that you're not sure who you're talking to.
Do you feel like girl groups have gotten the credit they deserve for their precision and artistry?
Johnson: I would say that sometimes they don't get as much as they should. A good example is the Pointer Sisters and what they did here in Nashville and at the Opry and at the Grammys, the country music that they wrote. They could get some love. They need a billboard out here somewhere. ... I think we have a unique opportunity to get a lot of love because we are on our own path. We're not taking the same path as other girl groups.
Chauniece: One of the things that I feel is a disadvantage for women in music is that we have to work harder to get any kind of credit that we're due. That's just a historical fact. ... They don't understand the work that goes on behind the scenes and how much goes into putting out music or putting yourself out there and being naked to the world.
What makes you sound the way you do singing together?
Johnson: My inspirations are drawn from Bob Marley and reggae music, soca music. My voice on the bottom, if you could solo my part in there, the melody is very Jamaican. ... I know I sound nasally now because I have the sniffles, but you're usually a little nasally. You push through a little harder to get a buzz in your voice. Also my influences vocally come from people like Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.
Chauniece: We're all pretty aligned on that!
Jones: When we're in the studio, we record all of our harmonies together in the room together. We do a lot of vocal instrumentation, I guess I would say. When we're in there, we're like, "But if we were horns, what would it be? ...If we were strings, what would we do?" You hear a lot of orchestral background vocals. ... It's easy to miss, but if you're paying attention you're like, "Oh, these are voices."
There's often a message in your lyrics and spoken interludes — a call for self- respect and self-love. As performers, you're always striving to please the audience. How do those things fit together for you?
Johnson: One of our mantras is, "You're allowed to be yourself, without fear." It's helped us as a band. We feel like it can help all of our listeners if they take that into their lives. As we're performing, we're first trying to connect with everybody and let them be seen. I think that's the really special part about it, is for them to feel seen. Then we challenge them to ask some really hard questions to themselves, like, "Are you happy? Are you being yourself? Are you speaking up for yourself when you need to?" That's the conversation we have with our listeners.
Jones: There are three of us, and we all have those moments with each other during the show. ... Every single show we come off stage and someone's like, "Y'all really love each other. You really do." It's beautiful and it's also why we came together — the fact that people assume that three women on stage can't get along. It breaks down a lot of barriers, just them seeing our love.