Portrait of Shawnee Dez by Jacob King, taken at her listening party
Portrait of Shawnee Dez by Jacob King, taken at her listening party

Two days before Shawnee Dez released their debut album MOODY UMBRA, the alternative R&B musician invited more than thirty of their closest friends, collaborators, and supporters to an album listening party. The crowd was jam-packed together—either seated on the floor or in rows of fold-up chairs—and bathed in blood-orange light inspired by the 2018 Italian horror film Suspiria, one of Dez’s biggest influences for the album. Video recording was discouraged in efforts to stay present.

Just before Dez pressed play on the project, which they’ve been working on for over three years, they addressed their longtime community.

“I’m a very emotional girl,” Dez, twenty-seven, said. “Just recently, I’ve started to really embrace my emotional and intuitive gifts. I don’t think of it as a burden anymore. I don’t care if people think that I’m too moody, I feel like everyone can take space if they need space. But this is the way that I operate in the world, this is the way I see the world. So really, what this project is, is a world that’s living inside of me.”

Then the thirty-minute album played, and euphonious sounds of sweetly layered harmonies and sub-bass emerged, deliciously feeding our ear canals. Stirring head nods and soulful snaps set the tone of the room as Dez sat cross-legged on the floor swaying, twirling their hair, and dancing in place. When the last track ended, they received a standing ovation.

If you were to Google Shawnee Dez, a 2017 YouTube video of the South Side native and multi-hyphenate musical artist might pop up. Published by the global music community Sofar Sounds, the video shows Dez performing the original song “Slipped Up,” and currently sits at a cool, 260,000-something views. 

The comments range from “wows” and “OMGs” to the more declarative sentiments that all artists hope to evoke: “Girl. You have an incredible talent. The World needs this.”

In the six years since that video was uploaded, Dez has rolled out singles like “Wait”, “Let It Be”, and “White Skies.” 

If you’ve had the pleasure of listening to Dez or seeing them perform at Sleeping Village, Garfield Park Conservatory, or the Chicago Reader’s 50th UnGala Celebration, you’ve experienced how alternative R&B dreamscape blends vocals, production, and live band instrumentation in a way that stimulates all senses, cutting through you while leaving you both satiated and yearning for more. Now, Dez’s body of work has culminated in their debut album—which they co-produced—MOODY UMBRA, released April 14.

“Performing is my thing, like bringing people in and seeing people,” the South Shore resident told me over lunch at Plein Air Cafe in Hyde Park. “I think I was literally put here to connect with people. And then performing is just an extension of that … But whenever I used to get nervous, I would imagine everybody as a baby. Like, all of y’all used to shit on y’all selves.”

Dez grew up on the South Side, bumping CDs of 90s R&B girl groups like Xscape and SWV that bootleggers sold in her parents’ hair salon on Stony Island. She would sing along to the songs on a Walkman in her childhood bedroom. Shortly after auditioning for choir in the first grade, Dez remembered, they got serious about what it would take to be successful in music. 

“I literally remember bawling on my pink room floor and just being like, ‘If you don’t learn how to hit this note, you’re never gonna make it.’ In second grade? Why am I being so tough on myself?” Dez said.

As Dez reflected on her upbringing (Dez is a Cancer, while both her parents are Virgos), she recalled being in environments that were encouraging, but intense at times. “When I was younger, [my dad] was like, ‘You’re going to sing today at the shop. Be ready.’ Very intense in that way.”

Though Dez’s parents helped foster her growing passion for music and her poise toward the craft, her core memories around music during childhood were also balanced with calm, peaceful vignettes—from driving around in Hyde Park to skating at the roller rink on 87th, which would later serve as sonic influences on MOODY UMBRA (Dez wrote and co-produced every song on the album).

“We’d listen to music, talk, or just fall asleep; I think it was kind of therapeutic,” Dez said of how her father would take her and her siblings for drives around Hyde Park. “He always had instrumentals of Jay-Z and OutKast. He would make me rap. Like, ‘OK, go.’ He would make me freestyle. I’m very thankful that both my parents are entrepreneurs and have that very expansive way of thinking, and really encouraged my sisters and I to be artistic.”

Fast forward two decades later, and Dez’s MOODY UMBRA feels grounded in whatever moment or emotion each track be it wistful, pensive, nostalgic, or serene. 

Take “Rinky,” a coasting-down-Lake-Shore-Drive-type of bop with a live bass guitar bumping, accompanied by a few lines of lyrics, both flirtatious and romantic (“Can we go for a ride, baby? / Ride the sun till the night baby”) and yearning (“We know it ain’t over”).

On “Dismantle,” an upbeat, bad bitch anthem with Pivot Gang rapper MFnMelo (the only feature on the album), synthesizer-based production breaks up the heaviness of the album: “Back up, you been taking up space / Get the fuck out my face / You ain’t tryna see me in a rage / But you can catch me on stage.”

If we take away those interludes, Dez is the first to say themselves that MOODY UMBRA is heavy, and unapologetically so. 

“Umbra is the center of a shadow,” Dez said, explaining how when they heard the witchy soundtrack to the 2018 Suspiria (scored by Thom Yorke of Radiohead), they “had to make an album.”

“In terms of the energy [of the album], shadow work is at the center,” Dez explained. “I think it’s really important that we make space for our shadow self to come out and play, and be curious about it so that it can’t be used as a weapon against us, but rather a tool to continue our growth.”

The order of the tracklist demonstrates a person’s journey through shadow work, which can be defined as the process through which someone intentionally works with their unconscious mind to uncover the parts of themselves that they repress or reject. The album also makes space for the moods, trials, tribulations, and feelings that can arise from conducting shadow work (hence, the album’s name). In fact, one of the album’s later tracks, “Never See”, drowns the listener in melancholy, as Dez comes to the realization that even in doing shadow work and circumnavigating the circle of life, one may never see their potential: “I may never see a day where I get to show ya / I may never see a day where I get to be.” Yet we strive to go on. 

“Why did I let myself get away from my sort of inherent nature?” Dez pondered during our conversation. “I feel like it’s not really welcomed. There’s not really a space to talk about your desires and change your mind and be curious. Especially, I am so indecisive. I change my mind all the fucking time, and people really get upset with me. Like, ‘Oh, you’re flakey.’ No, I just live very intuitive [in] what I want and I am standing on that … I’m standing on what I need for myself.”

But being a Black woman in music, both in general and the Chicago music scene, can be a double-edged sword.

“As a woman in music, and a Black woman, too, it was always really hard to find collaborators that were both seasoned and also not mansplain-y, bro-y vibes,” Dez said. “I was hitting that wall all the time.”

As Dez’s career has progressed—especially with the creation and and release of this album—she has been thankful but disappointed in men in the Chicago music community.

“I’ve cried so much about this project,” Dez said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have any support. I’m not signed, I don’t have any clout, people are not on my heels to collaborate with me or send resources my way.’ I was like, ‘Fuck, what do I have to do for people to see me and see my passion and want to help me achieve a goal?’ Because I feel like Chicago does that really well for the men.”

Dez added that as a Black woman in music, male collaborators have crossed boundaries, wanting to take platonic, professional relationships to the next level instead of focusing on the art.

Like her vision and experience of her album, Dez’s journey has led her to collaborators one rarely sees her perform without, including Eddie Burns, Sam Hudgens, Reno Cruz, Josh Jessen, Kurt Shelby, Kenneth Leftridge, and Malik Lemon, to name a few.

“In that circle [of collaborators] it’s like how relationships progress. ‘OK, let’s have a kid,’” Dez joked of the creative process of making, mixing, and mastering the album, “That’s what this project is.”

With MOODY UMBRA officially out in the world, Dez is sharing the deepest shadows of themselves, while giving us a cloudy dream of a sound. But as an audience, we’re wide awake.

“Obviously, I can’t control how people or where people listen to it, but when you sit down to watch a movie, you sit down to watch the movie,” Dez said. “That’s how I want people to listen to it. I would like for them to just sit down and listen to it.”

In terms of what takeaways Dez’s moody, nostalgic, and soulful music leaves us with, they offer that we tap into our younger selves in hopes of propelling us forward with newfound love, knowledge, and appreciation.

“I think about being younger and my days with my like CD player walking around, going laying in your room and being bored and doing nothing while you listen to music was really fucking cool. You really get to escape into a different world. Yeah, you’re a kid, you don’t have a lot of leeway to do what you want, but when you put your headphones on? Everything turns into something else around you.”

Fans can catch Dez performing MOODY UMBRA at Lincoln Hall on May 18. Tickets can be bought here.

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Gretchen Sterba is a freelance journalist based in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. She’s written for the Chicago Reader, HuffPost, BUST Magazine, and more. She last wrote for the Weekly about the viability of voting by mail.

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