Grammy-Nominated Native Singer Blends Tradition and Modernity

A blend of traditional elements and modern tunes has made Jana Mashonee one of the most famous contemporary Native American performers. She's won eight Native American Music Awards and a Grammy nomination. Now the singer and songwriter is out with a new album: New Moon Born. Jana Mashonee speaks about her music and her foundation Jana's Kids, which helps Native American youth with scholarships.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my thoughts about the movie "Precious." But first, November is Native-American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the history and culture of the first people of the continent. So we wanted to introduce you to a young musical artist who brings past and present together in her music.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JANA MASHONEE (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible). We are all one tribe.

MARTIN: Jana Mashonee is a Lumbee Tuscarora Indian, and she joins us now from Charlotte, North Carolina. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MASHONEE: Thanks for having me, Michel. This is great.

MARTIN: How did you get into singing? You obviously have a lovely voice, but did you always see yourself as a singer?

Ms. MASHONEE: I did not. I actually started singing not until I was about 16 years old, in church. I grew up singing, you know, in the shower and, like, by myself. I was very shy. I took piano lessons when I was eight years old. So I was into music, but as far as my voice, I didn't discover it until I started really singing in church and then my high school choir. My high school choir teacher just kind of thought that I had some talent and said, you know, you need to do something with that.

At that time, I was thinking about becoming a doctor, and so I went to Davison College, which is right outside of Charlotte, and did the whole pre-med thing, but then I got a record deal. So I'm like, okay, well, let me try this first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh yeah, no big deal, medical school, record deal.

Ms. MASHONEE: Let's see: medical school or record deal. Let me think about this. I can always go back to school, so�

MARTIN: But you really didn't know that you had a voice until high school? That's - these days, that's like being a grandma. What happened?

Ms. MASHONEE: Growing up, I was always a little bit different, and I wanted to fit in with everyone else. So I really didn't kind of focus on myself. I was more about wanting to be like someone else. Being Native American and different, you know, there's not many Native Americans, you know, growing up in Baltimore, and then in Charlotte, I'm like one of very few. So it's one of those things where I was, like, okay, well, this sounds nice. And I just kept developing it, and I did the karaoke thing, too, so�

MARTIN: Karaoke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASHONEE: You know, you got to do that.

MARTIN: I guess we all have to go through that, right?

Ms. MASHONEE: Yes, we have to go through the pain.

MARTIN: Were you aware, though, of your heritage growing up? Was it a big part of your life?

Ms. MASHONEE: It was. It was - you know, it was just kind of what I was, and I didn't think about it. I mean, I knew, okay, well, I'm Native, and not many people know about my culture, and you know, kids would say, oh, well, do you live in a tepee? You know, what is - you know, weird, crazy things like that. But again, growing up, you wanted to be something else. And I had to get through that in order to, you know, accept, okay, well, I am Native, and this is who I am, and I should be proud of it. And so that's why I did my "American Indian Story Album." I wanted to do kind of a tribute to my heritage, just to honor who I was.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people have appreciated about the album is the way you combine traditional elements, but you make it sound fresh and contemporary. And I'm interested in how you arrived at that sound.

Ms. MASHONEE: My music always kind of merged the traditional and the contemporary aspects of my music because, you know, a lot of Native Americans today, they live off the reservation, and we call ourselves urban Indians. And it's just a term that - I didn't coin it. I mean, I heard it, and then I just started calling myself that. But more than 60 percent of Native Americans in this country live off the reservation. So it represents a lot of us who, you know, we know our culture, and we have it and we go to the powwows and we perform - you know, we're in the ceremonies. We do all that - all those things with our people, but we also live - you know, day to day, we do things like everybody else, get our dry-cleaning and go to the grocery store.

MARTIN: And just for the record, you don't live in a tepee.

Ms. MASHONEE: And I don't live in a tepee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASHONEE: First of all�

MARTIN: In Baltimore, that would be funny.

Ms. MASHONEE: We didn't have buffalo in, you know, in North Carolina. To get the (unintelligible), it would be a little bit difficult. But, no. So that's my goal, always, in my music is to have a little bit of those flavors. And it is hard, because I don't want it to sound too much of either one. I mean, I definitely, with my music, I'm writing just because I want to write, too. I'm not focusing so much on, OK, well, here's my heritage, but I always want to have a little of it, always.

In the end, music is music, and I want people to appreciate it because they love the music, not because I'm a certain color or anything else. So - but it is difficult to try to get those sounds and be able to meld it, but I love writing, so it's hard to tell.

MARTIN: Well, this year, for example, you won for Best Song at the 11th Annual Native American Music Awards for your cover of a 1964 song, "A Change is Gonna Come."

Ms. MASHONEE: Yes.

MARTIN: And you were working with the Canadian guitarist Derek Miller on it. Let me just play a little bit of it so people can hear what we're talking about it. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "A Change is Gonna Come")

Ms. MASHONEE: (Singing) It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die because I don't know what's up there beyond the sky. It's been a long, a long time coming. But I know a change is gonna come. Oh, yes, it will.

MARTIN: That's a tough song to cover, but, you know�

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: �because just everybody knows it. What made you want to take that on?

Ms. MASHONEE: Well, I�

MARTIN: Obviously, people appreciated it. So�

Ms. MASHONEE: You know, I love Sam Cooke, and I love soul music. Plus, obviously, the whole idea, change, and politically, you know, what went on in our country last year, and I just got inspired to do that song. I had just been out of the studio. I had been in the studio for a year and a half, almost a year and a half doing "New Moon Born." I was finished with it. I was exhausted.

I was like, OK, I'm done. I don't want to sing anymore. And then, the election with Obama and the whole, like, everyone just got alive and everyone was just excited about - it's the first time I've seen the country kind of come together, and I knew that I was performing at the American Indian Inaugural Ball, so I kind of grabbed Derek and I said we have to do this song. Please come down. I want to do a music video. He's, like, OK. He just stopped everything. It was like after Christmas. We did it in two days, and I don't know. I just felt it was important to do, and I put it on the album. And it's the only song that I didn't write. I wish I'd written that song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASHONEE: But I just felt inspired and�

MARTIN: Well, you weren't born yet. So�

Ms. MASHONEE: I know. It's one of those things where, oh, no one can sing it like he can, but, you know, I wanted to do my own.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Jana Mashonee. We're talking about her new album "New Moon Born" and her work with Native American youth and whatever else is on her mind.

Well, let's talk about the rest of the album, though.

Ms. MASHONEE: OK.

MARTIN: Your latest album "New Moon Born," as we mentioned, except for that song, you wrote every other piece on it.

Ms. MASHONEE: Yes.

MARTIN: It has a different feel, I think, than your two previous albums, which�

Ms. MASHONEE: It does.

MARTIN: �it feels more pop.

Ms. MASHONEE: Yes.

MARTIN: It has less of the, I would say, the traditional instruments and traditional sounds to it. Is this�

Ms. MASHONEE: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell me about it. Why - are you consciously moving in different direction?

Ms. MASHONEE: I guess for me, writing songs is just about writings songs. And as far as this album, it's definitely more of a mainstream album. So I kind of felt like it was kind of one of these introspective records that I wanted to just write about me, and I'm sure a lot artists do that. We're totally selfish that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASHONEE: But at the same time, I felt that the things I was writing about also related to what a lot of people through, and I'll continue making records that are in honor of my culture and, you know, I will always have - but I always like to something different. That's why this next record is going to be soul covers.

MARTIN: There's a name for it? Jana does soul.

Ms. MASHONEE: I do have a name for it.

MARTIN: Can I get - is it a secret?

Ms. MASHONEE: Sure. It's called "Take Me Back."

MARTIN: Oh. OK.

Ms. MASHONEE: And it's just about obviously what it says, take me back to that time. And "Take Me Back" is also a title of one of my songs that I wrote on "New Moon Born," but I felt that it was apropos for an old kind of covers album. And so I thought "Take Me Back" is kind of cool.

MARTIN: Careful now, you're talking about my era, so let's not talk about old.

Ms. MASHONEE: Oh, stop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASHONEE: You sound like you're, like, 20.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. Right. Yeah. Sure. So do you have a favorite song on "New Moon Born?"

Ms. MASHONEE: That changes everyday, Michel, because in my different moods, as a female, you know, I get in and I have my little moods. Sometimes I'm very melancholy and I want to hear something dark. And - because there's some shade to the album. There's definitely some light and some dark. Some days, I want to hear "Carousal," which is an upbeat, you know, kind of a Tina Turner-esq, crazy song that's just - you want to dance to. And then some days, there's a song called "Lost in Lies," which is very - it's a more moody song. So it's hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASHONEE: It's like they're my babies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I was going to say, those are your babies. And speaking of your babies�

Ms. MASHONEE: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: You were saying you're a typical selfish artist. But you're not completely self absorbed. You, as a very young artist, I would have to say, established the Jana Kid's Foundation�

Ms. MASHONEE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: �which you've had up and running, really - almost since the beginning of your career. What gave you the idea?

Ms. MASHONEE: Well, I was doing a lot of shows on reservations across the country, just kind of getting my feet wet for performing and then also just visiting and performing for my people. And so a lot of kids were coming and they were, I guess, inspired or inquired about, well, how did you get started? And so they started kind of asking me questions during my performance, because I talked to them in between songs and things.

And so it kind of turned into this whole thing where I was speaking a lot. I'm like, well, it seems like the kids really want to hear what I had to say. And so I started kind of addressing issues from each community, because some communities have issues with teen pregnancies, others with drugs, both, or, you know, with suicide. I mean, there's a lot of issues on reservations that need to be addressed, and so I felt it was important to talk about that.

And so I kind of started the program Jana's Kids. It's a motivational program. I speak to kids and perform. And the money that I get from the communities that pay me to come out there I put back in my Jana's Kids fund, and I was able to give out my first scholarship - because I give out scholarships - in 2006. So I give out athletic, academic and artistic scholarships to Native youth and Aboriginal youth in Canada.

MARTIN: Wow.

Ms. MASHONEE: So it's, you know, it's a little bit that I can give back, and I've given out five scholarships since 2006. And I just continue to raise money. So, you know, the money that I get from performances, I'll give some of it back to put in the fund, and then I also accept donations. And so it's, you know, it's something�

MARTIN: That's a lot of responsibility.

Ms. MASHONEE: Well, I mean, it's, you know, I think it's important for -because kids say, well, I don't have the money. I have to go get a job and, you know, I can't afford school. And school's expensive, but, you know, if you to tell them, well, if you work hard in school you can get scholarships and there's - let them know, well - you know, because it's not like I can give - I can't afford four-year scholarships yet, but, you know, I can at least guide them to well, here's other funds that you can look at or here's other opportunities.

And so at least I can be that conduit so they can not say, oh, you know, make excuses. I think education is really important. And I could've quit college to pursue my music career, but I felt it was important to get my degree. And so it's important to me. I think it's�

MARTIN: Oh. Well, congratulations.

Ms. MASHONEE: Thank you.

MARTIN: That's great. So what's next for you? We're going to do soul covers, and you got your foundation.

Ms. MASHONEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you've got a Christmas album, which I hope we'll be telling people about as we get closer to the Christmas season. So what else is on your plate? What else do you want to do?

Ms. MASHONEE: Well, I just finished my first movie, and I've been working on this on and off for three years, and it's my first delving into acting. And, you know, these days, you kind of have to do it all as an artist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASHONEE: You can't just have a nice voice and just be, you know, people are going to love it. So you kind of have to you have to do it all. And it was fun. It's kind of like this campy horror movie, and I just finished it in Russia. And so hopefully�

MARTIN: In Russia? Oh.

Ms. MASHONEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, will we be seeing it in the U.S.?

Ms. MASHONEE: Yes. Absolutely. No, it's going to be released definitely in the U.S. by probably spring of next year. So it's got CGI's. I mean, it's a crazy, funny movie about (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Can we know the name?

Ms. MASHONEE: Yeah. It's called "Raptor Ranch."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Say it again? Rap to Ranch.

Ms. MASHONEE: Raptor, like raptor, like a Velociraptor. Yeah, it's like (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Oh, raptor. "Raptor Ranch." OK.

Ms. MASHONEE: It's like - yeah. It's a funny movie.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll look for it.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything you've done so far.

Ms. MASHONEE: Thank you. I'm really exited.

MARTIN: What song should we go out on now that we've forced you to choose?

Ms. MASHONEE: I think�

MARTIN: We've forced you to pick among your babies.

Ms. MASHONEE: Ithink it'd be nice for this baby, because she gets exited. Her name is "Carousel," and it's a fun, upbeat song, I think. It's good to have that. We need some upbeat, positive.

MARTIN: That's great. Jana Mashonee is a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter and eight-time Native American Music Awards winner. Her latest album is "New Moon Born," and she was kind enough to join us from member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Jana, thank you so much for talking to us.

Ms. MASHONEE: Thank you, Michel.

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