She can’t be put in a box. She’s the black Rickie Lee Jones. Other times, maybe she’s the female Lenny Kravitz. She’s an African American woman who rocks. She’s a singer-songwriter who can plug a hole in a soulful folk tune with a bit of rap. She’s a guitarist, which means in this day and age she stands out. So, respect the lady, the artist -- Shea Rose is a musician. “I’m a storyteller,” she says.
Like any good one, she’s on a journey. Born in Boston, Shea’s grandfather played jazz organ at the famous Hi-Hat, the South End’s first jazz club. With her loungy-retro sound of “Devilish” (which calls out for use in a soundtrack), we’re taken back to a time when Miles Davis or Sammy Davis, Jr. were setting the standard for cool in Boston and nationwide.
But at age twelve, Shea’s parents moved the family out to the burbs. “Being the only black kids at Braintree High School was extremely awkward, but it influenced my music. If I had stayed in Boston, I would have never been listening to Bon Jovi or Guns N’ Roses.” That’s clear in the pounding intro to Shea’s “Free Love.” The whole song is a refreshing synthesis of rock, funk and R&B, not unlike Nikka Costa.
She put her BA in English & Communications to work during an internship for MTV. While in New York, she responded to an ad in the Village Voice and was offered lead singer for a girl group, Mercy. Thankfully, she decided to instead return to Boston, and work on her musical chops. First fronting for “a gang of old hippie white guys”, The Ripchordz, she later moved onto a two-year gig with Luv Jones. “That’s when I learned how to capture an audience,” Shea says.
After two years, she lost the feeling to perform, and moved to Jamaica with her boyfriend from the band, Nathan Sabanayagam. Her evolution continued with a heavy course in reggae in its homeland, and learning how to play guitar. Shea the storyteller revealed herself in a more folk-acoustic fashion, such as “Light Fades” & “Lovin’ You.”
Returning again to Boston, she answered an ad on Craigslist, and was chosen as one of six writer-musicians to tour the country on a bus for MSN Music. While using her skills as a reporter, she wrote online articles for bands and concerts. Those close quarters with her busmates, representing different genres of American music, exposed to her even greater range of traditions -- and how the music industry works.
After three months, the tour was over and Shea realized how little experience she really had with music. Getting serious, she took Berklee College of Music up on a $10,000 World Tour Scholarship they had offered three years before. “I never realized how vast and theoretical music really is,” she says of her education. Plus, she took advantage of a grant to study for a semester at the Nakas Conservatory in Greece. While there, she quickly got exposure as an R&B performer, and was performing in clubs in Athens. “I came back from Europe with such a fire,” she says.
Now Shea’s in the studio, working on a new EP, "The Discovery of Honey", and getting a band together. Meanwhile, she’s still working on her guitar-playing. And polishing her songwriting craft is also paying off -- the refrain of her brooding “Liar’s Lament” has riffs echoing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, then pulls in some rap that forcefully expresses the anger of the woman scorned, with the same raw feeling of Kate Nash’s “Dickhead”.
All this time, she’s working hard at more and more shows. Shea Rose is the go-to when a Boston area band’s lead singer calls in sick. She has her own concert in Franklin Park at the end of August. Then, through September 2008, Shea will be hosting Matt Murphy’s “Berklee Girls Rock”.
With a powerful voice and electric presence, Shea Rose could do just fine as a simple performer in contemporary American music. But there’s a depth and breadth to this artist -- ever-expanding -- that takes any audience further. The best musicians are on a journey, and every new listener is glad to join Shea Rose on hers.
Photos by G.F. Productions