Shawan & The Wonton: Blues beyond her years

Harnessing the power of music to mend, Shawan Rice uses her songwriting as daily healing


Listen to Shawan Rice sing the opening notes to her song “Daddy Issues,” and you’re struck by a voice that seems well past her age of 20 years – a voice full of longing, heartbreak and strength.

Holding her upside-down, slightly discolored white Fender Stratocaster guitar in the darkly lit concert space of Lancaster’s Fulton Street Arts Co-op, the lead singer of Shawan & The Wonton tells the story of her earliest childhood memory. Just 3 years old, she vividly remembers standing beside the casket of her father at his funeral, reaching out to touch him one last time.

Rice tells her story to the roomful of mostly strangers, revealing that it took her years to be able to put the lyrics down on paper and add the music. It took her even longer to come to grips with his death, blaming herself for the loss before realizing she had no control over the circumstances, ultimately using his passing to strengthen her own spirit.

Shawan & The Wonton | FLY

With eyes closed on stage and keyboardist Mike Dempsey accompanying her, Rice belts out the soulful lyrics, “You’re just buried treasure/I hope you’re doing all right” – her vocals eerily reminiscent of a young Etta James.

“It’s really difficult sometimes for me to share the pain that I’ve gone through,” Rice says after the show. “And some days I’m not feeling up to it, but I think I’m getting closer and closer to share on a daily basis and connect and relate.”

When a performer has a voice like the one Rice is able to project, it makes it that much easier to be able to connect on a personal level with an audience. Several vocalists immediately come to mind – well-know singers like Amy Winehouse (who Rice admits is her biggest influence), Alicia Keys and Billie Holiday.

Her sound also harkens to the days of the 1960s rock scene, drawing inspiration from bands like The Doors and Pink Floyd. More recent singers are with her too, like the imperfect voice mixed with the poetic lyrics of Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes.

From an early age, music was Rice’s passion. She says she watched an inordinate amount of musicals when she was younger, idolizing the vocals of Shirley Temple until she was 13. She started taking piano and singing lessons when she was 7 and was drawn to using her voice as her instrument.

“I was so interested in singing that when I would go to take my lessons, I’d forget my piano books on purpose just so I could sing,” Rice says. “Looking back on it now, I wish I would have taken advantage of the lessons.”

By her high school years, Rice had moved on to playing saxophone in marching band and jazz band. But it was a performance in the musical Grease when she was 15 that ultimately set her on her path of becoming a vocalist, singing two solos in front of more than 600 people at her school. She says it was that moment where she started to feel comfortable performing for an audience.

Today, Rice has called Harrisburg her home for more than four years, and the city has been a source of artistic inspiration for her even longer. She started performing at open mic nights at venues around the city when she was 14, and she busked on Second and Third streets for the wandering crowds on the sidewalks.

Rice has moved on to slightly larger venues since forming Shawan & The Wonton in early 2014, hosting a monthly jam session at the River City Blues Club and playing at places like The Millworks, Midtown Scholar Bookstore and the Abbey Bar.

The last year has proved to be the most fruitful artistic journey in Rice’s young life, saying she came to the realization of the importance of music for her body and mind while working as a manager at a store at the mall. She says she felt like she was manipulating people into buying things “to fill inescapable voids that were growing inside of them.”

“My soul was being eaten every day, and I was like, ‘I’m not doing anything that pacifies my soul, and I’m not doing anything that helps anybody else,’” Rice says.

She decided to quit her job and pursue a full-time do-it-yourself aesthetic towards her musical career, recording a few different EPs with friends in the Harrisburg music scene and juggling various lineups of Shawan & The Wonton.

“When I’m playing a live show and everybody seems to be cued in to the music and lost in between sound waves, I feel like that’s us in our most natural state of connecting without words.”

This past December proved to be a musical turning point for Rice when she was introduced through a mutual friend to Carlisle native Mike Dempsey – the keyboardist for local jazz and hip-hop collective Mad Men. The two shared a similar musical vision and connected immediately, playing stripped-down live shows consisting of guitar, keys and vocals.

“[Dempsey] seemed to understand the sound that I had in my head,” Rice says. “We just meshed really well. I feel really lucky to be able to make music with Mike Dempsey. It feels like we synch up on an unspoken level.”

By the end of January, Rice and Dempsey had recorded the Catchin’ Feels EP at the home of Jamar Tyler – Dempsey’s fellow Mad Men collaborator. The intention was to record one song at the session, but within four hours a total of five songs were recorded – most of them on a single take.

Rice says the songs on Catchin’ Feels revolve around the idea being constantly affected by other people’s feelings, vibrations and emotions, or as she states it, “catching feelings of yourself and others.” The lead track, “Recessive Traits,” conveys being overwhelmed with life and wanting to rid oneself of all worldly possessions and simply disappear – almost a reprogramming of one’s brain to improve life on a daily basis. “Relativity” deals with handing secrets of past relations and life with a new love.

“Trouble” is one of the EP’s standout tracks, featuring “Motown guitar stabs” from Rice and lyrics painting her self-proclaimed unsavory side in relationships. She says in future recordings, she’d like to incorporate horns like a trumpet and trombone to round out the sound of “Trouble.”

“I felt really comfortable and at ease [recording Catchin’ Feels],” Rice says. “So it wasn’t very difficult for me to be there and be able to produce the music that I wanted to hear and that I heard in my head.”

Rice’s songwriting dates back to the first guitar she got on her 13th birthday. She had been writing poetry and lyrics for years, but she says the guitar allowed her to put her words to music. She wrote her first actual song that night (to which she says she never officially gave a title) about sitting in her room, staring out the window and thinking about love.

“I was 13, and I obviously had some weird crush on somebody that I didn’t really know,” Rice laughs. “Once I got my guitar, I was so excited that I could put my lyrics to something.”

Her bursts of songwriting continue to this day, and she and Dempsey are currently working on a full-length recording they hope to have out by the fall.

Rice says her songs in the past have dealt heavily with handing problems of her own insecurities and growing to be comfortable in her own skin as a young adult. And one of her main focuses of pursuing music is being able to share her story to a roomful of strangers who feel linked in some way to her words – whether they’re about self-improvement or a lost loved-one.

“When I’m playing a live show and everybody seems to be cued in to the music and lost in between sound waves, I feel like that’s us in our most natural state of connecting without words – how animals connect just with feeling,” Rice says. “That’s what I really love about playing music.”


Check Shawan & The Wonton’s full show schedule for upcoming performances, including:
• The Parliament (116 E. King St., York) on June 5 for First Friday. 5-9 p.m. No cover. All ages. More info here.
• Susquehanna Ale House 22 (4920 Jonestown Rd, Harrisburg) on June 6. 8:30 p.m. 21+. More info here.


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Posted in Headlines, Music – Harrisburg, Music – Lancaster, Music – York, Music Features

Michael Yoder has been writing stories at numerous publications for more than a decade. His interests include impersonating Santa Claus, performing stand-up comedy and drawing circular objects. His dream is to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Michael is a former features editor for Fly; he left in 2015.

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