When embarking on a new recording project, most artists will have a clear vision of what they want to create, and throughout the process they’ll stick to that vision. But there can be times when self-doubt creeps in and jeopardizes those plans. Some of that happened to singer-songwriter Shakura S’Aida near the end of recording her latest album, Hold On To Love, her first release in 10 years.
“I knew I wanted to make a roots album,” she explained at this year’s Folk Music Ontario conference in London. “To me, roots is a much more open way of saying, ‘I’m doing what I feel from my heart and from my people. I’m telling my historic story.'”
To that end, in 2017 Shakura spent a month on the Caribbean island of Martinique writing new songs. Upon her return to Toronto, it was off to Minneapolis to collaborate with co-producer Donna Grantis on more songs. In the fall of that year, Shakura recorded five of the songs with her band. But illness and deaths in her family in 2017 and 2018 shifted her priorities. It wasn’t until 2020 that she was ready to resume recording, but of course the pandemic put an end to that.
“The plan for the entire album was to remain sane, in the moment and to not rush things,” she said. “By 2017 it had already been five years since my last album so there was no need to rush things.”
The theme of Shakura’s life became “hold on to love,” and once recording began again in 2021, the focus became “What do we want to say?” Besides working with Donna, Shakura had Roger Costa as associate producer, Lance Anderson as vocal producer and Keb’ Mo’ as producer of the song “Clap Yo Hands And Moan.”
“What Donna did was keep my intention to do a roots album in her head the entire time,” Shakura said. “With everything we recorded, it could have been a blues album. But as every new instrument came in, it was always about, ‘This is going to be a roots album.'”
At the end of recording, Shakura had about 16 songs to choose from, which were slowly whittled down to 11 through the process of determining “What is love?”.
“If there was any plan at all, it was to keep love in our minds and that the album was rooted in truth.”
Donna Grantis was also able to ease Shakura’s mind whenever she called to insist a song be dropped or a vocal re-done.
“She would say, ‘Let’s think about it’ and so provided this calm. Roger would say, ‘It’s really good. It’s okay.'”
Like many artists, Shakura has insecurities about her art, which is created in a vacuum until she presents it to an audience. It’s then the doubts about whether people will like the song come to the fore.
“How many artists actually like their voice or their voicings after it’s done?,” she said. “We can always do it better. Donna, Roger and Lance gave me the opportunity to sit in that but not to have to act on it. That was a lot of grace.”
To see Shakura S’Aida in concert is to experience an artist confident in their art and comfortable when engaging with an audience. To get to that point, she had some wonderful teachers to learn from.
“I was musically-raised with Jackie Richardson and Salome Bey, who always connected to the audience,” she said. “I watched these women constantly finding opportunities to connect. The sitting in stillness and being confident did not come early or easy. I have huge social anxieties, which I’ve only just been comfortable speaking about because a lot of young people talk about it. So I can say, ‘Yeah, I feel this too.'”
There was a time when Shakura didn’t feel she could be herself on stage, so she’d emulate her favourite singers. This helped her become confident in performance, but it wasn’t necessarily her true self. All of that changed one year during a workshop at the Calgary Folk Festival. It was her first western tour with her band, and all she could think about was the band’s daily monetary needs. How could she get the audience to buy her CDs and come to her main stage performance, impressing the festival artistic director and impressing Bettye LaVette, who was also in the workshop.
“I got off stage, and Bettye took me to her trailer and gave me advice, which amounted to, ‘You’re doing too much.’ Those people did not need what you gave them. You weren’t in the moment,'” Shakura said.
With so many things going on in her head, there wasn’t room for the music, the lyrics, her musicians or the audience.
“In every single show from then on, the band and I spend a moment in a huddle, look at each other and talk about what we want to bring to the show,” she said. “Then I say a little prayer for humility, mindfulness, authenticity and for staying in the moment.”
Shakura’s confidence on stage comes from knowing she’s in a blessed space and been given the opportunity to share the gifts she’s been given.
“There’s going to be one person out there who’s going to hear my message, and that message might change their mind,” she said. “I’m in a place of grace, I’m in a blessed place and what I do is a gift. That’s it.”
Hold On To Love has provided gifts to Shakura since its release. It was nominated for a Juno Award in the Contemporary Roots Album of the Year category, and it recently won Album of the Year at the Folk Music Ontario conference.
For more on Shakura S’Aida and Hold On To Love, go to shakurasaida.com.