There is a hopeful light in the beats of the Afrofuturistic girl group The Shindellas. Their 2021 debut recording, “Hits That Stick Like Grits,” resonated with young and old alike, with songs like “Fear Has No Place” and “Win My Heart.” They appeared at the new National Museum of African American Music in Nashville and on December 19, the trio made their Grand Ole Opry debut on a bill that included former Bob Dylan sideman Charlie McCoy and Opry member John Conlee. The Shindellas appear with October London at the Vic Theatre in Chicago on February 25.
The Shindellas—Tamara Chauniece, Stacy Johnson and Kasi Jones—are based in Nashville. But Johnson’s roots in Chicago are a cornerstone of the group. The women created the name “Shindo” to define the chills delivered from a burst of inspiration. Their October 2023 rhythm-and-blues release is called “Shindo,”and it spawned the lead dance single “Last Night Was Good for My Soul.”
Chauniece is a gospel-trained singer from Texas and Jones brings jazz-rock idioms from Seattle, but Johnson was born in Evanston. Her parents are Jamaican immigrants who met at Sullivan High School. Her father Gary is from Kingston. Her mother Yasmine is from Mandeville. Gary served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army and Yasmine worked a factory job making reflectors in Chicago. Johnson has four sisters.
When Johnson was fourteen, she discovered the Black-owned Joy Art Music at 2425 Main Street in Evanston. The production company was owned and operated by composer-musician Morris “Butch” Stewart and his wife Brenda. They met when they were background singers for Ramsey Lewis. Morris died in 2017 at sixty-four after a battle with cancer.
Joy Art closed in 2010.
“It was a family that was so creative,” the thirty-six-year-old Johnson says in an early January conversation from her home in Franklin, Tennessee, south of Nashville. “They played instruments and sang beautifully. I had never seen music in a way where it was a business, yet so fun. They also did plays and community festivals. They were really involved in bringing the community together in Evanston and the North Side of Chicago.
“They saved my life. I had been through a lot and didn’t know how to express myself. They taught me how to express myself in a creative way. And made sure I was able to take care of myself. I was independent at a very young age.”
Johnson connected with Joy Art through a songwriting workshop she was taking at Evanston Township High School. The Stewarts recorded her at their Evanston studio. “I came back every day,” she says. “They could not get rid of me. To the point they gave me a job. I was singing jingles and doing voiceover work at age fifteen. One of my first clients was McDonald’s. They cut me a check for $350 for the studio session and I said, ‘This is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.’ I’m loving it (McDonald’s pun somewhat intended). There was a Starbucks across the street. That was one of my first jobs. I would go from Starbucks to Joy Art.”
Brenda taught Johnson set design and performance. “She became my God Mom,” she says. “She taught me key vocal lessons I use today. Morris was my ‘Papa Bear.’ He taught me how to play guitar and write music. He was the lifeline for everybody. He would challenge me to learn different things, ‘Sing along with this jazz line and make sure you can get all of these notes.’ I stayed with them until I had the courage to go off on my own.” By the time Johnson was eighteen she moved to Atlanta to begin her songwriting career.
Songwriter Julie Frost encouraged Johnson to find her light. Frost, who won a 2011 Golden Globe as co-songwriter for Madonna’s “Masterpiece,” hired Johnson as an instructor for Happy Child Music, a children’s music class in Winnetka. Frost, who also has written for the Black Eyed Peas and Selena Gomez, told Johnson to leave her nest and take the next step to Atlanta.
Leslie Stewart, the oldest son of Brenda and Butch, co-wrote the steppers anthem “Dance 2 Dis” which received Chicago radio airplay under the name of The Richkiddz & Stacy. “Stacy is like a sister to us,” Leslie says in an email from his home in Atlanta. “We shared great times honing our crafts together at Joy Art. We’re so proud of her. Stacy’s always had big dreams to create and share her God-given talents and now she’s doing just that.”
The Shindellas are a creation of Nashville-based songwriters-producers Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly. Kelly co-wrote hits like Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” while Harmony was producer for Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette” and Ne-Yo’s “One in a Million.”
“Chuck and Claude felt boxed in by the industry so they created their own space and own label,” Weirdo Workshop,” Johnson says. In 2015 Harmony and Kelly also established the touring rock-R&B and jazz duo Louis York. York’s 2019 debut “American Griots–The Album” was a nod to the traveling griot storytellers and poets of West Africa. Johnson had already toured with Harmony as a background vocalist and did demos for the workshop. Louis York produced “Shindo.”
“They thought of the idea of The Shindellas and brought it to me first,” she says. “Chuck already felt like Joy Art. How he used my voice in his songs felt like Morris Stewart. So I was open to the idea. I loved the idea of singing in a girl group and being a part of something bigger than myself. Singing songs about self-love and self-respect. We sang some demos and started our search for the other two women. We did lots of auditions. It took two years.”
The Shindellas eschew the idea of a lead singer and blend the voices in unity. Check out their six-minute video for the gospel-soul ballad “Fear Has No Place” that segues between the front steps of a plantation mansion and the truths of a peaceful river. “That came together in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic,” Johnson says. “We wrote and recorded parts of it. COVID happened and we separated and quarantined. There was so much unknown. it was scary. We started singing it for ourselves as a mantra to get through: fear has no place in our heart. You can’t harden your heart. There was a lot of political stuff going on. In the middle of recording that song there was a threat that a group of aggressive people were coming to Franklin. People were using weapons to guard their stores. I sang my part in tears because I really was getting a hardened heart. Police brutality. A tornado that struck Nashville. People I know were out of a home. The song was our healing.”
Their voices coalesce into calls for empowerment and inspiration. Johnson says, “What I didn’t think about when the other women were picked was their grace, spirit and values that made us click. At the time, women were pinned against each other a lot in entertainment. Reality TV showed us competing a lot. We wanted to show women coming together and what it looked like when we stand up with each other and when we empower each other. We sing songs about that.
“It is beautiful.”
But what’s also beautiful is how The Shindellas shaped their own sound. Comparisons to dream girls like the Supremes, the Chicago soul trio The Opals (Curtis Mayfield-Carl Davis) and even the country-tinged Pointer Sisters are inevitable, but The Shindellas are completely in the now. “We’re pulling from all our influences,” Johnson says. “Me with the reggae, and when I explored outside of what my family taught me, I soaked up everything. Kasi, her rock and theater and grunge from Seattle, and Tam’s gospel and R&B, that all is blended into our music now.”
And producer Harmony honors those distinct elements with an adroit touch. “He is creative with what types of sound he uses to make you feel like you’re in a familiar place but is also new and different,” she explains. “Claude is a genius at working with our voices and that part is always futuristic. We need to create our own platforms. We made history performing at the CMTs [Country Music Television music awards] with Lady A. The only thing that makes it feel nostalgic with our vocals is the harmonies. When we sing together it is like a fourth voice and I love that.”
The Shindellas appear with October London at the Vic Theatre, 3145 North Sheffield on February 25, (773)472-0449.
Dave Hoekstra is a Chicago author, radio host and documentarian. His latest book “The Camper Book (A Celebration of a Moveable American Dream) is available on Chicago Review Press. He co-produced the documentary “The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement,” nominated for a 2001 Chicago/Midwest Emmy Award. Dave was a 2013 recipient of the Studs Terkel Community Media Award. His work can be found at davehoekstra.com.