Shontelle: the Beatweek interview – Impossible, law school, No Gravity
If things had gone a little differently, Shontelle might perhaps have been Beatweek’s attorney instead of our cover girl. The songwriter had almost finished law school when the music industry discovered she could sing too – and now that her hit song “Impossible” has spent most of 2010 near the top of the charts, her new album is set to drop next month. The Barbados native tells us all about where she came from and where she’s headed…
Shontelle Layne’s new album is less than a month away from release, and yet she’s been in the studio working on it as recently as the day before we speak – something of a surprise, seeing as how the not-yet-finished album entitled No Gravity has already generated the biggest hit single of her career. The artist who had until this year been best known for her early hit “T-Shirt“ is now even more closely associated with the ballad “Impossible.” The song’s overwhelming success over the past several months makes it seem like an obvious choice for a single in hindsight, but that decision wasn’t so clear at the time.
“To tell you the truth,” Shontelle says as her pet dog Bubbles enters the room, “Impossible for us was a big gamble because when we released it everything on the radio was just up tempo four on the floor stuff, a lot of dance type stuff. And we were like, there’s a high possibility that this song will get swallowed up by all that. And so we were just hoping that the opposite would happen where it just stood out as a very strong song with a real message.”
As it turns out, the gamble has paid off, as the song still sits among the top twenty pop songs in iTunes nearly half a year after its release. But that hasn’t stopped the overachiever in her from continuing to try to improve No Gravity right up until the point where “you have to, today, submit a tracklisting.” The late sessions with producer Rodney Jerkins, whom she says she “always wanted to work with,” ultimately generate what is about to become the album’s next single, Perfect Nightmare. The song threatens to be a ballad for its first minute, but ultimately explodes into a dance-friendly number. Shontelle has had another radio-friendly ballad ready to go for awhile entitled Say Hello To Goodbye, but she wasn’t about to allow it to directly follow Impossible to radio.
“I want people to really be able to see the other sides of me, and so that especially if they go buy my album they won’t be shocked. The album, as it turns out, is “actually a pretty well balanced album” as she phrases it. “There’s a song called Kiss You Up, which is a mid tempo that I did with Tony Kanal from No Doubt and Jimmy Harry. I just wanted to make an album that I can touch as many people as I could, and so I wanted to appeal to different musical tastes on one album but find a way to still kind of make it cohesive and make it blend and not be this weird mix of just randomness. So definitely, there are ballads, but there’s also a good mix of mid tempo and up tempo stuff.”
As to the title of the record, No Gravity,
“It was just this mantra that I wanted to adapt to my life and the entire project because I felt like okay, this is, it’s now or never. I was just thinking to myself, I really have to, there has to be no boundaries, no limits. I just want to keep climbing higher and higher with nothing holding me down. That’s not to say that I’m not still a grounded person. But just feeling a sense that there’s nothing that could hold you back from anything that you want to accomplish. It’s this feeling of floating, this feeling of wanting to keep going higher and higher, and you really can go as high as you want to, because there is no gravity. There’s no force that’s holding you back.”
That sense of striking while the iron is hot is what led Shontelle to jump on the chance to pursue her original plan of being a professional musician when the opportunity presented itself, even though at the time she was less than one semester away from having her law degree.
“It was so tough,” she says of the decision to bail on law school. “It was a tough decision to make, because I’ve always sort of been an academic girl, so to speak. My family has a history of doing well in school, and so I grew up not really under pressure but wanting to be as successful as people in my family were too in school. And so I just remember having this decision to make. I mean I was only two courses short of finishing. Two courses, not even a full semester, and I was just like, are you crazy? You’ve studied all these years to get this far, and then you’re just going to drop it and do something that you don’t even know is going to work? But then I just knew that the reason I was studying law in the first place was a backup plan. It wasn’t my Plan A anyway.”
If Shontelle couldn’t have made it as a musician, she says she would have been an entertainment lawyer instead, as a way of at least being able to participate in the music industry in some way. But even without the degree, her years of studying the law have helped her in a career in which contracts, royalties, and legalities are a way of life.
“Studying law means that you understand legal terms and legal language,” she says of not just being a professional musician but also dealing with legalities in everyday life. “Sometimes things are written out a very complicated way, legally, but it’s so simple what it actually means. And so it does help to be able to read contracts and actually understand what it’s saying, so that especially if you have a lawyer, and what you know you’re reading, if what they tell you doesn’t match that.”
But don’t let the legal-speak fool you into believing that Shontelle Layne is all business. A recent string of concerts at amusement parks left her unable to resist partaking in the side benefits of performing at such venues.
“I’m a big kid. I’ve got to have some cotton candy and a funnel cake, and I’ve got to do the roller coasters,” she says with a laugh.
And when I point out that the newfound presence of singers from Barbados on the U.S. pop charts over the past few years has motivated many Americans to finally stop and learn where Barbados is on a map, she points that “we’ve been making people drunk for years” with the rum that was invented in her homeland.
Of course any mention of “pop stars from Barbados” is going to bring fellow singer Rihanna into the conversation, and that’s not a bad thing.
“She’s very supportive,” Shontelle says of Rihanna. “It’s such a good thing to have two artists from a small place like Barbados doing so well on the mainstream charts.”
There was once instance years ago, now comical in hindsight, in which a young Shontelle was on duty in cadets in Barbados when she encountered an even younger Rihanna:
“I was the drill sergeant on duty and she was late with a group of cadets to the parade square. So being on duty, I had to do what I had to do because there are officers watching me. And if I allow cadets to show up late and not punish them, then I’m going to get punished. So I did what I had to do.” But, she adds, “We laugh at that kind of stuff all the time now.”
No Gravity is now officially set to drop on September 21st, but even that doesn’t absolutely mean she’s done working on it. “I never stop recording,” Shontelle says of her eternal willingness to jump back in the studio any time the right material or the right collaborators come along. That’s no surprise, coming from someone who even in law school would “run into the bathroom with a tape recorder” if the idea for a song popped into her head during class. Even though the door is still open, at this point it seems unlikely that Shontelle will need to go back and finish that law degree any time soon. Or at she puts it,
“Why settle for Plan B when you have a shot at Plan A?”
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