Amanda Carr sits down with singer, Sherée Dunwell.
First, Sheree, congratulations on winning the 2015 Community Auditions talent competition. Having been a judge a few times, I can attest to the level of talent that performs and what an honor it is to have been chosen as the winner. What made you decide to go on the show?
Thank you, Amanda! I first became aware of the show about five years ago. I submitted an audition video but was not selected for that season. I put it out of my mind until a few years later when I happened to see another episode on TV. I thought I’d give it another shot and now I am so glad I did!
How has winning the competition affected you?
Winning the show has really helped me to feel more confident in my performing. In an industry like this, it can be so easy to get caught up with what you are lacking. Having the opportunity to compete and eventually win the grand prize has really helped me to be more accepting of what I have as a singer.
Much of our journey as an artist parallels our personal journey into ourselves. You present yourself with such ease and confidence as a singer, but you’ve said you have not always felt this in your musical endeavors. Can you speak a bit about some of your earlier experiences in college when you were studying opera?
Yes, I started studying opera at Carnegie Mellon in 2003. Coming from Lynn, Massachusetts where the music program was lacking, I was quite behind the rest of my class. I was fortunate as a teen to have earned a scholarship to study voice with the Handel & Haydn Society preparatory program at the New England Conservatory, but it still was not enough to prepare me for the rigors of pursuing a music degree in a conservatory-style program. When I arrived at CMU, I felt like I was treading water trying to stay afloat. It seemed I could never quite do enough to reach the level of my peers.
While my classmates studied advanced theory, I was trying to get a grasp on what a basic scale was. I lost my confidence very quickly and was never quite able to recover, despite pulling through and eventually exceling academically. I was a smart student. I was constantly encouraged to become a musicologist, but I was told that I did not have a future in performance. Truthfully, it tore me apart. I began to see myself as untalented and began to question my place in music.
Confidence is such a huge part of performing music. Can you talk a little bit about how confidence, or lack of confidence can affect our ability to fulfill our potential?
In my case, it was the reason I nearly gave up singing altogether. In college, I never felt I was good enough and it was the biggest obstacle to my personal success. Throughout my time at Carnegie Mellon, I always thought I was at the bottom of the pack talent-wise. I didn’t get the solos. I wasn’t cast in leading roles. I was a good student – a determined student – who did well academically. But when it came to the less concrete areas of performance, I was always treated like I was mediocre. And so, I began to believe just that. I auditioned for grad schools in 2007. I submitted my pre-screening CDs to several schools and got call backs to audition in person. In retrospect, the fact that I got called back to schools like Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music, I wish I could have seen that as a success. Instead, I showed up to each of my auditions and let my nerves overtake me. I ended up getting rejected by every single program and inevitably moved home to Boston where I took a desk job and gave up singing.
How does confidence intersect with our ability to ‘enjoy’ what we’re doing? Do you find that you have been able to flourish via the conduit of ‘enjoyment’? When did the transition from ‘high pressure performance’ to ‘enjoyment’ happen? What changes did that attitude and perception precipitate in your career?
I think that confidence and enjoyment go hand in hand. When I was down on myself, I was down on my performing. There was so much pressure to meet expectations. Constantly feeling like I was not meeting them completely sucked the joy out of music for me. Eventually, it was when I was offered an audition for a band who was looking for a new singer that I finally let go of my preconceived notions of what I should be singing and really just gave in to the excitement of something new. Here I was: a 22-year-old opera singer auditioning for a Latin/Funk & Soul cover band singing “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys. And I was HIRED. And I was told that I was good. I found myself chuckling when the audition was done. 1.) because I never realized how much I would enjoy something other than opera and 2.) because it was quite a new feeling to be told that I had talent.
You opened yourself up to a variety of different musical genres after a long focus on classical and opera, did you have to give yourself ‘permission’ to be open to new genres. What were some of your preconceptions about ‘pop’ and rock before you started to sing in that style?
When I was pursuing opera, I always thought (and I need to preface this by saying I was absolutely wrong) that pop singing was beneath me. The classical world is very exclusive and elite and to many who go in that direction, there is no other art form that measures up. Not everyone feels that way, but in the years I spent at Carnegie Mellon, there was no deviation from the plan for anyone. For me, it was opera or bust. So when I first began to sing in these different genres, I had to accept it as a departure from everything I had known, but it didn’t really take me very long to realize that it was the music outlet I had been missing all along.
The term “career’ takes on many different explanations and meanings just as ‘success’ is defined differently for everyone. How would you define your own success and what are some of your current goals?
I define success as fulfillment through joy and ease. I don’t put a monetary value on success and I don’t attribute it to titles or labels. For me, I feel I’ve succeeded when I feel that what I am doing, even with its challenges, is just an easy fit in my life and brings an equal sense of joy to me and to those around me, too.
As far as my own goals, I can’t say that I have an absolute desire to be famous. What I would love in life is to be able to sing, make a comfortable living, and love each and every moment I spend with music.
As we exercise our art and our craft, we weave it into our lives and, most often, it becomes a dimension of who we are in varying degrees. You have found a way to fit singing into your other work in real estate. If having the choice, would you dedicate more time to your music and less to other interests, or do you feel that your music is best served as a integral part of your other facets?
To be perfectly honest, I do wish I could dedicate more time to music. As it stands right now, I work full time in real estate redevelopment. I perform in a wedding band on most weekends and also teach voice. I truly love every facet of my professional career. If I could find a miraculous extra hour in each day, I would spend it on my own music. Ultimately, my goal in 2016 is to do a little life restructuring so that I can do just that.
How would your define your current style? Who has most influenced you as a vocalist & performer?
There are a lot of people who influence me as a singer. I would say the artists who’ve most molded my current style are: Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Nina Simone. My style is a blend of funk, soul, jazz and a little folk.
Have you recorded any of your music? Where can people see and hear you? What projects do you have on the docket and what can your future fans look forward to?
I have not yet recorded any of my music, but it’s in the works. I am finally dedicating some much needed time on my personal musical growth. Right now I am mostly performing live with my band, The Free Downloads. But I am in the process of launching a new website and hope to have some material recorded this spring. I might even revisit my roots and try my hand at some theater auditions!