Shelly Bhushan: Singing R&B With Passion
Artist: Shelly Bhushan
Title: The Shelly Show
Singer-songwriter Shelly Bhushan is the type of girl who dreamed about being an international artist, appreciated by the world for her singing and loved for her kindness, generous smiles and beauty. She put all her hopes into her dream and, right before the giant brass gates leading her into the life that she imaged for herself opened, someone punched her in the stomach and knocked her back down the ladder she spent her youth climbing.
As a woman, she has picked herself up, gained control of the reins on her life, and began the climb back up the ladder to being an artist who is valued on an international scale. She released an EP as a solo artist in 2005 entitled The Shelly Show, and she is presently working on her first full length album, which she has titled Picking Daisies, due out in the summer of 2007. But plans can change, and if there is one lesson Shelly has learned, it has been to be flexible when life throws you a curve.
“Sure, I thought it would be easier,” she shrugs, “but I wasn’t completely naïve about it. I knew it would be hard, but of course I had that fairy-tale dream that someone would find me and whisk me off to never-never land. But the longer I do this, the more I’m okay with the process. The face of the music industry is changing, and I feel like I’m able to navigate it better than I thought I’d be able to.”
Growing up in Dallas, Texas, Shelly enjoyed listening to music, like most kids. “My early musical influences were Karen Carpenter, Michael Jackson, Hall and Oates, Prince, Dolly Parton, everything on the radio. I LOVED Top 40 radio and listened to it religiously, but overall, my influences range from Aretha to Earth, Wind and Fire, anything and everything I can listen to. I especially gravitate to older R&B.”
It would be R&B/soul where her voice felt most comfortable, with shades of folk, alternative country-pop, and acoustic-rock complimenting her register. Practicing singing has become an integral part of her daily routine. “I rely on classic voice exercises,” she said. “I’m definitely not as limber as I used to be, even though I sing a lot. I need to do more exercises - scales, the whole bit.
“I definitely love singing harmony with people. I love doing back up work for peoples’ albums. It’s fun and challenging. I’m so used to holding the melody all the time. It’s a great exercise for my brain. As far as techniques, I make sure that I breath from my diaphragm. I don’t sing things that hurt. I wear heels sometimes, as it helps me focus and not be lazy. I try to sing when I’m warmed up. I also pop a Mucinex a day as that keeps the chords lubricated, and mostly, I listen. In order to sing, you have to listen to everything and everyone around you.”
Shelly especially learned to listen when she was younger. The applause she received when she sang in front of live audiences at her neighbor’s house gave her great joy as a child, and showed her that she had value as a singer.
“I have a lot of fond memories,” she recalls, “but I think some of my best childhood memories are of when I was young and used to hang out with my next door neighbor Betty. She was older, kind of a surrogate grandmother to me, and I’d paint and sing and dance and play dress up at her house. It was a place for me to escape and be wild. She exposed me to so much art and let me express myself. She used to have company over and she’d call me over to sing for them. It was crazy.
“Some would say that I’ve been singing in front of an audience since I was a baby. My dad always reminds me of when I used to stand in front of our house and sing for the neighbors, assuring them that I was a star. HA!” she bursts out.
“My first very scary duet,” she continues, “was when I was in 2nd grade. I had to sing ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ with this girl named Tabitha Bonin. I was petrified, but excited,” she said. “She was a good singer and taking singing lessons. I had to be good. I didn’t know what it was then, but I think I experienced ‘The Rush,’ and since then I have been addicted to it. I LOVED music from the get-go, but never really considered it as a career option.
“I’m a first generation American,” she continues. “My dad is from India and my mom is from Mexico. They, especially my mom, are very practical people. I don’t think that children from immigrant families ever grow up thinking they are going to be artists or anything like that. It’s about being stable and pursuing a stable profession, like a doctor or a lawyer.”
Shelly admits, “In my early years my parents were neutral on the singing thing. Like I said, grades and practicality first. However, now my dad is my biggest cheerleader. He’s always encouraging me and supporting me to do what I love. My mom, too.
“When I was young I was convinced that I was going to be a physicist or geologist, but I grew and slowly understood that singing and music was the only thing that I loved more than life itself. It became part of me, kind of like another descriptor (for) ‘Who is Shelly? Oh, you know that girl, she has brown hair, brown eyes, and she sings.’ It’s just a part of me.
“The real decision to pursue music came at a time when I was evaluating my life and really making a decision about what was important to me, and there was only one thing - singing and that was in 1999.”
“No one in my family has any musical talent, although I do believe that if my younger brother Hari wanted to sing he’d, be awesome. I remember when he and I were living in Austin, we’d drive back to Dallas to visit my folks and I’d turn up the radio and we’d sing along together and I could hear our voices intertwining in that way that only siblings can. I’d get choked up and he’d roll his eyes at me for being such a chick.”
Other than the duets with her brother, Shelly’s only other musical training came from her school teachers. “When I was little, I took some piano lessons for a little while. I never got good; in fact, I wasn’t good at all. As for vocal lessons, I never had a voice teacher, but I did grow up in the Texas public school system which, [surprisingly], values the fine arts. I had spectacular choir teachers,” she praises, “which is how I fostered my singing in the early part of my life. These teachers taught me so much, invested extra time in me and introduced me to music that I would have never been introduced to, in addition to really believing in my talent. At that point in my life I knew I loved to sing, but I didn’t really think I was outstanding or anything. I never thought of my talent as anything more than that, until people showed me what I was capable of.”
Shelly betted on her capabilities by entering talent competitions in school. “My earliest musical experiences were actually a lot of different than they are now. I did a lot of singing in school and a lot of competing - a lot of choral competitions. It was like Diva vs. Diva. It was crazy, but it taught me a lot about competition, which is relevant to my current experiences. And learning about rejection, which is totally important in this industry.”
After high school, Shelly continued singing in front of live audiences, joining music groups while attending college. She recalls, “I remember when I started fronting my first band [of] being really uncomfortable with my body and feeling like I couldn’t be free, and finally just saying, ‘f*&% it, I’m going to dance around and just feel my way through this song.’ It helped make me become a better performer.
“It’s easy to be insecure on stage because everyone is staring at you and judging you, but I got passed it because I felt like I could just sing and no one would care what I looked like, and that would be all that mattered. However, as we all know, it’s not always the case.”
Performing in Texas was starting to make Shelly feel stifled. She knew she needed a change and narrowed her options to moving to New York or Los Angeles. Her decision was made when a New York City band called Live Honey wanted her. “When I was in Dallas, I started searching the Village Voice and found a classified ad for a singer. I called them up. They sent me an audition tape. I sang on the tape. They asked me to audition for them. I did and shortly thereafter, they accepted me into their band and I moved up here.
“I’m not a West Coast girl,” she notes, “and I had been to New York a couple of times, so I decided that I was going to do it. I sold everything I owned. I lived on my friend’s floor for a while in Brooklyn, and then found a rent controlled studio on 98th Street and Broadway. I was so psyched.”
Shelly reminisces about her time with Live Honey. “The experience was hard and scary. I remember walking into our first rehearsal thinking, ‘What did I do?’ We were definitely a funny group. We were very different people and had very different opinions on how we should move the band forward, but I tried to do my part to make things work despite being really young and insecure. At that time, I believed that even though things didn’t feel right, that it would be okay in the end.
“We played everywhere - The Wetlands, Mercury Lounge, Arlene’s Grocery, Bowery Ballroom. We toured, we were getting attention, label attention, and then one day the songwriter and leader of the band walked into our Tuesday rehearsal and said he couldn’t do it anymore. We all just looked at each other. The bassist Glenn unplugged his bass and we walked out hand in hand, and then I broke down. It was a dark place for me,” she sighs.
“That break down basically was the catalyst to becoming a solo artist,” she acknowledges. “I realized that everything I worked so hard for from the moment I moved to New York was taken away so quickly, in a flash. I was never, ever going to have that happen to me again. I had never, in my opinion, written a legitimate song up until then. I had hoped that my singing would get me through life, and that I’d never have to write anything for myself. I was lazy,” she admits. “But I picked up my guitar, which I only knew three chords to, and started writing and I haven’t stopped. Because of this, I gained control of my life and my destiny.”
Shelly also found encouragement in New York City’s underground music hub. “I love New York City,” she said. “I’m not in the Upper West Side (studio) anymore, I’m in Long Island City (Queens) where the rent is cheap and the views (of Manhattan) are great. I consider New York City my home, although I miss killer Tex Mex and my family. New York has been good to me and she hasn’t decided to kick me out yet, so I’m happy to be here. I’ve been offered opportunities here that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else.
“I really didn’t meet people who were superstars in the biz, “ she remembers. “I basically relied on the New York City music community to help me understand what was going on and tried to become as savvy as possible. To be honest, I’ve always taken people who are ‘in the biz’ with a grain of salt. I’ve learned more from trial and error, in addition to being persistent and not giving up.
“The jobs I’ve had in order to support myself have varied from being a singing waitress, cataloguing bolts of fabric, to being an ad executive. I’ve definitely done lots to support myself. I’ve sung in wedding bands, done my share of sessions. I do what everyone else has to do to stay here and pursue dreams.”
As a solo artist, Shelly is now backed up by musicians who are in harmony with her. “It’s interesting how I met my current line up. It’s morphed so much over the years, but I met Harry Cordew, my bassist through Bern Pizzitola, who used to play guitar with us. I met John Celentano, my drummer, at a Music Networking session and I met Ben Hoffstein, my keyboardist, through John. I don’t have a steady guitarist right now. I’m still toying with the idea of whether we need one or not, but this group is tight.
“I love my band. They are smart and incredible musicians, and I’m so lucky to have them around me. They are also great friends. They often write songs with me. These guys have a huge influence on the music, which is pretty different from things in Live Honey.”
With this band, she marks, “I’ve played Songwriters Hall of Fame showcases, NEMO, MEANY, I’ve played at Coda, The Canal Room, The Cutting Room, The Living Room, Makor, Rockwood. The Bitter End, CB’s Gallery, The Parkside, Galapagos, The Waltz in Astoria (Queens), I’ve played around.”
Audiences responses have been emotional, she glows, “People have always been really great and responsive to my singing. I’ve seen people well up, and then come up to me to tell me how much they loved watching and listening to me. That’s the best feeling in the world when you feel like you actually penetrated their emotions. When you actually touched someone.
“Initially, when I started singing, I used to sing cover tunes,” she recalls. “Covers are great sometimes. They satisfy a particular need. I was also in a swing band, which did standards. I do sing with a funk band in town. We basically pick up a gig and go out and play for fun. Live Honey, though, was original music and my project [is], as well.”
In 2005, Shelly released her first solo record, an EP called The Shelly Show, she displayed her songwriting as well as her singing talents. She reflects, “I do have some recurring themes in my songs: Time, Fighting Back, Temptation. I think that the themes in my songs are really just basic themes in life. We all worry about getting old and wasting time. We sometimes feel like victims and wake up and say, ‘I’m not going to be a victim anymore,’ which is where fighting back comes from and temptation as well.”
She shares, “The songs from the EP are from a very specific time and place in my life. ‘Too Hard To Fall’ was written by me only. It was about falling in love - real love and really the only love song I have to date. It’s about what it feels like to be in love, but to be really scared of what that means.
“’Run’ was basically about the break up of Live Honey. It was written about how I felt victimized. The song does close with ‘You know what/ It’s okay/ I don’t need you anyway.’ ‘Run’ was a bitch to finish,” she reminisces, “I had the verse and choruses down and then needed a bridge. I went through 13 revisions and finally John Celentano helped me finish the song. It was a miracle.
“’Good Time’ is about day jobs and how I hated mine. My good friend, Kim Loren, helped me with that song. I had a chorus, but no verses and we just sat there and started riffing and fleshed it out. And, finally, ‘Taken’ is a song written by me and my good friend Jen Zablocki. I had written these lyrics about this man whom I was attracted to, but he was married and I couldn’t let myself get involved. I couldn’t figure a melody for it and initially had some sort of country melody. Jen was really into the vibe and subject matter and helped me make it work. She also helped me finesse the lyrics. She’s an amazing songwriter. I learned a lot from all of these people.
“I recorded The Shelly Show at Astoria Soundworks in Queens,” Shelly said. “The recording process of that particular EP was fairly simple. At that point in time, I was going for a real purist approach. I wasn’t interested in a lot of bells and whistles as I was from the school of live performance equals record. The EP was a pretty challenging process, the mixing especially.
“The EP was an answer to my internal clock saying ‘You need a product, you need a product, make something,’ so I made it. The EP represented me at the beginning stage of Shelly Bhushan, and I believe it did represent me at that point in time. But I’m definitely more of a grown up now. I’ve gotten the bumps and bruises to prove it,” Shelly said.
The Shelly Show is an aural journal of emotions that express the stages in Shelly’s life, but with no accompanied visuals. “I didn’t make a music video for any of the songs on The Shelly Show,” she admitted. “I have been thinking about making a music video for my upcoming CD, Picking Daisies. I think videos are cool and are the new way to keep up with the Joneses. It’s a fun way to animate music and get your message out there. Videos seem like a good way to promote. It’s just the next level of promoting.
“It used to be that people made stellar press kits and that got them attention,” she said. “Now everyone has Photoshop or EPKs like Sonicbids that enable everyone to be on the same playing field visually, so now what’s the next thing? Videos. The one with the sexiest video wins?”
After growing up through competitions that encourage Diva vs. Diva tournaments, it’s hard to perceive the situation differently. But it never stopped Shelly Bhushan from competing. She has found the Internet to be very beneficial, where her assets matter and she can be judged based on them. It evens the playing the field for her.
“Of course the Internet has helped,” Shelly said. “It’s helped me get my music out there to people in places that never could have paid attention. It helps me meet new people and keep in touch with the old. It’s awesome. Some great sites are Myspace, Youtube, CD Baby, Technorati for blog searching, and online music publications.
“2007 is super exciting for me,” she notes. “I’m working on my full length album, which will be called Picking Daisies, and [is] scheduled [for] release sometime this summer. It will contain all new material. I’m so excited to be working on it. I’m producing it with James Cruz. This album is definitely going to be sleeker and bigger with bells and whistles, horns, strings, ideas, etc. My plan is to push this full length as far as I can.
“Of course, ideally I’d love to get signed,” Shelly said, “but I’m not thinking that it is the only way I’m going to get success. Success does not always equal getting signed and vice versa, so we shall see. I am, however, hoping for some great things to come.”
After making her way through the thick of the forest, Shelly has a few words of advice for aspiring artists to help them suit up for the trek. “Be honest,” she attests. “Honesty cuts like a knife. I found that some of my best lyrics came out of being brutally honest about something, and even though it made me feel a bit uncomfortable, it was real and I got to the point - to the heart of the matter.
,” Shelly adds, “Write a lot, write every day if you can and consider writing with others. Sometimes you need someone to show you how to get out of a hole. Ask for help. Some of the best bridges and ideas have come from collaborations. Be brave,” she encourages. “Being an artist is hard. If you believe that this is what you were meant to do, you can’t give up. Fight for you art.”
Shelly Bhushan’s EP The Shelly Show can be found at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bhushan
and her listening parties at www.myspace.com/shellybhushan
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