In a music scene where we demand more of our artists than ever before, it’s not easy to find a balance between work and fun. Not easy, but not impossible—at least, not for this Canadian cutie.
Shawn enters the room in track pants and a tank top. Smiles all around. But also a bit of panic. Start the clock now.
The balance of a perfect photo shoot is a precarious one. You want everyone involved to have fun, so there is a lot of good conversation, tasty food and blasting music. A positive experience always produces better results for a creative process like this. But you’re also usually given only a short amount of time to get a lot of work done, so I’m constantly creating checklists, scrutinizing shots and checking the time on my phone. After all, the magazine is a business, and we’ve got a job to do. And so, we search for a happy compromise on the complicated seesaw.
But balance is something that Shawn Desman knows well. He walks on set and greets everyone personally: down-to-earth, friendly and completely calm. He knows we’re on a time budget and it will be go-go-go from here on out—and this is only one stop for him today, as he’ll be heading to a video shoot right after. And I bet a busy day like this is the norm for Shawn. Yet, if he feels the pressure, he doesn’t show it. “I know when to say ‘when,’” he tells me later, during our interview. “The key is to just keep making music that people like. It’s simple, but it’s not that simple.”
This not-so-simple journey currently has his fans listening to singles “Nobody Does it Like You” and “Dum Da Dum” while they rise on the charts, making waves before the new album, Alive (his fourth English one to date), is released on February 5, 2013. On that same day, Shawn will also be releasing a movie, featuring songs from the album—something that hasn’t been done in Canada before. “It’s a very inspirational story,” he says. “It’s about a girl coming from a small town, moving to the big city—no friends, no family—and she wants to become a dancer.”
Though Shawn couldn’t reveal many more details about the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if the premise is inspired by his own rise to fame. The talented singer/dancer grew up listening to Michael Jackson and has early memories of being moved by the music. “My parents have videos of me being two, three years old, and all I’m doing is [watching TV and] mimicking Michael Jackson,” he says. “All I wanted to do all day was dance and sing to Michael Jackson.”
Then, at age nine, he jumped at the chance to perform in a school talent show, singing “My Favourite Girl” by New Kids on the Block. “I was the new kid in the school, and I remember going out for recess [after that show]. I’d walk out the door, and all the girls were waiting there for me,” he says. “They’d be like, ‘Shawn, that was so good!’”
That was it for him. He was hooked. “I was a serious 9-year-old. I sat my parents down. ‘You know mom, dad, I think wanna be a singer.’”
His parents were supportive from the beginning, enrolling him in singing and dancing classes to help him hone his skills. Before long, he had a career in the Portuguese community in Canada. “I had recorded five Portuguese albums previous to any of these four English albums. I’ve been doing this a very long time,” he says.
The year 2000 brought Shawn’s first record deal for an English album. In 2002, he released Shawn Desman, with the singles “Get Ready,” “Shook” and “Spread My Wings.” The album was certified Gold by the Canadian Recording Industry and was followed up shortly with Back For More, which earned him a Juno Award for Best R&B/Soul Recording of the Year in 2006. Then in 2010, Shawn was back with Fresh, giving us hits like “Shiver,” “Night Like This” and “Electric,” and winning him an MMVA for Video of the Year in 2011.
With each album, Shawn was striving to reinvent himself, taking on that precarious balancing act of maintaining a signature sound, while evolving as a musician and trying to stay a step ahead of the crowd. “It’s always about adjusting to what’s happening, but also not straying too far from what your fans are used to,” he says. “Music changes: when I first came out, it was all about Backstreet and ’N Sync. And then right before my album, everything flipped and it was all about hip hop; it was all about 50 Cent and Ja Rule. I had songs like ‘Ready’ and ‘Shook,’ which were kind of themed a little more to the urban side. And then when everything was more urban, it changed again, and everything started getting more upbeat and more pop. And people were making dance music, so that’s where I went with ‘Electric’ and ‘Shiver.’ And now it’s still dance, but I feel like music is changing again.”
So, with his new album, Alive, Shawn has evolved even more. “I wanted to go a little organic, meaning I wanted more live instruments,” he says. “As an artist you have to grow. So every album I try to take it a step further to where I want to be musically.”
The album is also a reflection of where he is in life now. “There have been some changes with some of the people that I’ve worked with, and since that time, I just feel like a brand new person. I feel refreshed, and I feel renewed, and I feel alive,” he says. “There were so many things happening that I wasn’t a fan of, and I wasn’t particularly happy about. So I finally made the choice to change.”
A part of that incredible alive feeling Shawn is experiencing has to do with his continued involvement with Free The Children’s We Day, the organization’s annual kick-off event meant to inspire the thousands of kids in attendance—now in eight cities across Canada—to make changes to their local, national and global communities. He has performed at We Day events all over the country, helping to spread the word about the power of one person to make a difference. “It’s one thing being on stage, performing and hearing people scream. That’s fulfilling,” he says. “But at some point I wanted it to mean something more. When I was approached by Free The Children to be a part of We Day, I did my research on Craig and Marc [Kielburger], who are the two founders, and I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I want be involved in this! This is amazing. This is somebody who, at 12 years old, wanted to change the world.’”
As Shawn performed at each We Day, he watched 20,000 young people dancing in unison to “A Night Like This” and was beyond moved. “You just feel like you can do anything,” he says.
But having such an intense level of ambition without the proper balance that tells you when to relax and take some time for friends, family and yourself can lead to serious burnout, whether you’re recording the next greatest album or studying to pass your upcoming exam. “I think that the biggest part is making time for everything. There’s a specific time to work, and when it’s time where you just need a break, you’ve got to take that time,” he says. “That’s when I think people kind of lose their way a little bit. They get so caught up in what people think about them and what they’re supposed to be doing and what they’re supposed to look like.”
Shawn works with our stylists to decide on the right outfit, then steps on set and busts out the dance moves while the photographer clicks away, capturing the magic. One more look and then we’re wrapped. Stop the clock. We’ve got time to spare.
Shawn quickly changes back into comfy clothes and sits down to chat with me, smiling with a look that is both energetic and calm. “Look at me: I’m in jogging pants and a tank top right now. I could care less. This is who I am,” he says, when we talk about his busy schedule and the potential danger of losing yourself in it all. “It’s definitely finding a balance between work and ‘my time.’ But for me, I’m still having the time of my life.”
Since this is our travel issue, we thought we’d get the scoop on Shawn’s journeys across the globe.
Best vacation: Jamaica. So amazing! Everything, from the food to the people to the place I stayed, was awesome.
Worst vacation: It wasn’t the worst because it wasn’t bad, but I went to the Bahamas, and I stayed at Paradise Island, and it was just too short. There was just so much that I didn’t get to do, so I was kind of bummed. I was shooting something there so it was like I didn’t even get a chance to enjoy it.
Dream vacation: Bora Bora. I always see these pictures of these huts on the water, and I so want to do that.
Must have item for the plane: You really wanna know? Let me tell you, I’m a bad flyer. So my doctor gives me some special stuff so that it calms me down a little bit on the plane. So that’s one. Also I bring headphones and laptop—definitely gotta have that stuff.
A souvenir you would never want to take home: A sunburn.
Weirdest food item you’ve eaten on vacation: I was in Portugal, and I had bear. It was pretty good.
Top items on your bucket list: I really want to travel to Africa to Kenya with Free the Children. They want me to go every year to see what they do over there, to help out and get a sense of the environment. I’m just so terrified of flying, and it’s like a 16-hour flight. But I have to do it.
I’d love to travel to Australia. I haven’t done that yet. And Bora Bora. I think that’s it. I’m not one of those people who needs to jump out of a plane and do any of that stuff. I’m good with my feet on the ground. I’m a traveller at heart that hates to fly. Figure that out.