Hunkered down in her Greenwich studio with producer Stephan Galfas last week, Jana Mashonee grooved to a rough cut of her upcoming single -- a sprawling, rhythmically adventurous hip-hop duet with rising Chicago emcee, Illi.
As the song drew to a finish, a soaring vocal part fading into a looping sample of Mashonee singing, "I love you, I love you, I love you," the artist beamed.
"I'm so excited about this one," said the Greenwich singer/songwriter, who plans to release the single on iTunes this summer. "It's different from anything I've ever done."
The song, which Galfas described as "a more sophisticated approach" to the female singer/male rapper paradigm, is the latest addition to Mashonee's daring output -- a track that shows off her creative prowess as much as her powerhouse pipes.
It is also a testament to an artist who refuses to stay shackled to any one genre, or, for that matter, the demands of a major record label. When Mashonee signed to Curb Records in 1999, producers tried to mold her into a Latin pop star in the vein of Jennifer Lopez. The problem: Mashonee is Native American. The other problem: Mashonee had little creative input in her material.
So, she quit the label, paving the way for a hard-fought, self-made journey -- one that has taken her to different stylistic realms, from soul and R&B to electronic and Native American music, to performances across the world, including the inaugural ball of former President George W. Bush, and to the 2007 Grammy Awards, where she was nominated for Best Native American Album for her LP, "American Indian Story."
Staying with Curb might have hastened her success, but staying true to her roots and her creative vision was the only way fitting for the fiercely independent artist.
"Maybe I could've had a really big record, who knows," Mashonee, who signed to Curb Records when she was 18, said. "It's taken longer to reach that success, but at least I have a conscience. I have control over my music."
Telling by the mementos displayed in her Greenwich studio, Mashonee's do-it-yourself path has led the way to many achievements. In the downstairs living room, there are eight Native American Music Award statuettes, a framed 2007 Grammy nomination certificate and a photo of Mashonee with Laura Bush during her performance at the First Lady's Luncheon in 2007.
In the upstairs studio, Mashonee and Galfas lay down the genre-bending tracks that have made the 29-year-old diva one of the most celebrated Native American singers in the country. Over the course of four studio albums, Mashonee has covered a lot of musical territory -- from classic soul songs her parents used to play, to traditional Native American music she adopted later in her career, to sumptuous R&B ballads that echo Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston (two of her heroes). "New Moon Rising," her 2009 LP, is a sonic smorgasbord.
As for her inclusion of Native American influences, Mashonee went through a learning curve: she didn't grow up on a reservation, nor did she embrace her heritage in her youth.
"On one level, it was cool to be different," said Mashonee, who grew up in Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C., before moving to Greenwich eight years ago. "Other times, I didn't want people to know I was Native."
That began to change during her adolescence, when a series of "personal identity crises" drove the artist to explore her ancestry (she is part Lumbee and Tuscaror). The experience at Curb Records catalyzed her self-awakening even further.
"Maybe it was that defining moment where it forced me to think, "Well, if they're trying to put me into this box, I need to define who I am," Mashonee said. "I wanted to have a voice in my music, but it wasn't happening. I wasn't ready to sell myself out."
It wasn't long after that she met Galfas, who discovered Mashonee through his onetime business partner, Curb Records founder Mike Curb. As soon as Galfas arrived at Mashonee's performance at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton in 2002, he "heard this amazing voice."
"There is passion and truth in her in voice," said Galfas, who has produced records for Cher, Meat Loaf and KC and the Sunshine Band. "She's got a way of touching people on an emotional level."
Mashonee and Galfas started making music together three months later, releasing the singer's debut LP, "Flash of a Firefly," in 2005. Four years later, the duo joined forces with Greenwich businessman David Boyle to launch Miss Molly Records, an independent label that releases all of Mashonee's music. Her latest single, a cover of the soul tune "Stay With Me Baby," dropped earlier this year.
If recording music and running a label wasn't enough, Mashonee has made forays into other media. She's written "American Indian Story," a fictional book based on her album of the same name, starred in "Raptor Ranch," an upcoming independent thriller about a small Texas town that gets overrun by dinosaurs and spearheaded Jana's Kids, a Native American youth scholarship program.
Judging by her multi-media aspirations, Mashonee's way to fame bears some resemblance to other crossover artists, such as J-Lo's, for example. Mashonee makes no secret that she "wants to get bigger and bigger ... to expose more people to my music and to perform all over the world." But as her star continues to rise, Mashonee can say that she did it on her own terms.
"You have to be persistent and tenacious. You have to work all the time," she said of being an independent musician. "It would be great to be the next Beyonce or J-Lo, but I'm going to do it my own way."
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