Foreword, Interview, and Photos by Anjelica Hammond Rees
Edited by Max Bornstein
I met the women of The Damzel, Jennah Bissessur and Shyla Margaret Machanda, at different times. The first time I heard of Jennah was at my high school variety show, which was put on every Christmas. My best friend and I played a solo song, and Jennah, along with her two friends did as well. As the show grew closer, we were all brought together to practice. This included performing in front of the other people who had small solo songs. The first time I heard her voice, I was hooked. Jennah has a special tone, approach and indescribable style that I had not heard before. Every note felt soulful and thought out, but effortless. While we never really spoke, I had great appreciation for her talent. After she graduated, being a year older than me, I never thought I’d see her again. Two years later, however, we were reunited at Seneca College for the Independent Music Production (IMP) program. It was there that I was introduced to Shyla. While I was extremely intimidated by everyone I came in contact with in my class, all for different reasons, for Shyla, it was her ability to bare her soul in every word she wrote. Every song she shared drew me closer to understanding her as not only a songwriter, but as a person. It was in that program that they got together, and became The Damzel.
Since IMP has ended, I have had the pleasure to not only listen to their music, but also perform with them once or twice. They just recently released their first EP last month, and their voices together bring out many different emotions and experiences. When thinking about who I wanted to talk to, or who I thought an Inspirational Songstress was, these two were high on my list. Surely anyone who can bare their soul the way these two can, is a prime example of confidence.
On an overcast day in Toronto’s Kensington Market, at a little place called the Film Café, I sat down to ask them these questions.
Inspirational Songstress: How would you describe your music?
Shyla: I would describe it as somebody singing out my diary - it’s all of the thoughts going on inside my head. Usually with our music what we write is what you hear. We don’t do anything at all, any post editing, it kinda just comes out that way. I feel like it’s really raw and a good representation of what’s in our hearts.
IS: How would you define confidence & what does it mean to you?
Jennah: First being unconfident, to me it’s like being stuck in a tunnel and hearing voices telling you that you can’t do anything right. Whether they are real things that have been said to you or voices that are representations of what you think people will tell you...it prevents you from taking a step forward or back…from trying...so confidence is having the strength to push them away and walking to your own rhythm
Shyla: To try! That’s the thing. Everybody can define confidence differently based on their own values or set of beliefs, but honestly, confidence is mostly what other people perceive because you don’t have to be confident to look confident. There are so many times when people say to me, “Oh, you didn’t seem nervous at all!” Inside it’s like, I was literally dying. It’s almost like you have to play a part. Confidence is: if you believe you are confident, then you are. You just have to try.
IS: Do you feel more confident on stage or off?
J: Onstage, because I’m usually thinking of a lot of things. I’m always thinking about the chords, what foot I’m leaning on, the lyrics, story, imagery, harmonies, tone, expression, dynamics of our voices...the only time I am not confident on stage is if I drop thinking about one of these things.
S: I would say offstage. Just because in life, now that I‘m 29, I feel like I have a good handle on stuff. There’s not many things anymore that kind of shake my confidence or my perception of myself as much as it used to. So, offstage I feel like I have a better sense of myself and knowing who I am. Onstage, it’s not that I don’t have confidence onstage, but I think every time you go up there, it’s an unknown. It’s a different environment, you just kind of go in there blind and who knows what’s going to happen?
J: I feel like that’s how it is with conversation. Like, I’m terrified of talking.
IS: Is stage banter like a, “Ummm, no!”?
J: No, no, completely no.
S: We try though.
J: We’ve gotten better at it.
IS: It’s an awkward thing to do! You’re going up there in front of all these people and it’s a one sided conversation. It’s not like people are gonna say, “Yeah!” and if they do, it’s looked down on. Like, “Why are you talking? It’s not your performance.”
S: It’s almost like being on a first date every time you get up there. You think, “I hope they like me!” You don’t really know if they do or not. Then you think, “Oh well, I tried my best.”
IS: Where does your strength come from to share your art?
J: I think if I’m happy with the song as a whole, record it on my phone, play it back. Still really like it and then show someone like Shyla. If she likes it then I’m like, “Okay, so it’s good, (Laughs).” So, then I can play it live and I become comfortable with it.
S: : I think “Crossroads” is a good example of that. It’s the first song we wrote together, and I was going through such a difficult time and it was so raw. If I tell people what the song is actually about specifically, which I think only Jennah knows, maybe one or two other people, it’s so plain to see what it’s about if you read the lyrics. If you don’t know what it’s about, it could be applied to anything.
J: I find it easier to share songs that are not written with “I”. Songs that are more about people are easier because then it feels less personal. If it is a true story, but I make it in a different person’s perspective, then it makes it easier.
IS: It’s like disconnecting yourself from the project. It’s like, “Oh, this is no longer about me. It’s about a person that’s going through a similar situation.”
S: You turn it into a story. It stops being so personal that you feel that you can’t share it. I think for me, if I believe in it, I know that whenever I write a song I have this feeling about it. I think when I get that feeling, I know this is solid, I believe in this song as a good expression of what I’m trying to convey then it doesn’t even matter if I show anyone or they like it. There are still songs that I have and I love the song, but I know it’s just missing one thing and I haven’t figured it out yet. I still love the song but I’m not going to share it yet, because there’s just something...
J: It’s not ready.
J: Also, there are a lot of half songs I‘ve written but don’t like. But when I compare my old songs to the new half songs, I see that there’s a lot of growth - that also pushes me to finish it and share it.
IS: What is your first memory of feeling musically confident?
S: You know what? It came really late ‘cause I feel like I am, was a late bloomer. I grew up thinking I couldn’t sing, probably into my early twenties, feeling like I wasn’t good enough and I still feel like that. I would say to myself, “My range is small,” or I’d try to sing along to other songs and couldn‘t. If I ever did a cover my self-esteem would just drop because I didn’t know how to change keys yet, or I didn’t know that I could use a capo to sing in my range. I think not knowing my voice and not knowing myself contributed to the lack of confidence. I started teaching myself how to play guitar when I was 21, and that was only so I could write my own music. As soon as I started writing my own songs, then I finally started growing more confident, that I was actually good at it. I liked it and when I was sharing it, people seemed to like it and it melted away the insecurities of “Oh, I can’t sing” or “Oh, I can’t play.” My stories or my poems started to turn into songs and it grew naturally from that. I started writing songs at 21, maybe started sharing them, at 25 or 26. Now I’m 29, and now I feel confident in it so I think it’s a real myth that people say, “You have to discover talent when you’re young.” For me what really pushes me are my beliefs. In the Bible, Jesus didn’t start what he was supposed to do until he was 30 years old. So that’s my bench mark, he‘s my benchmark - so when I’m 30, I’m just starting what I’m supposed to be doing. None of this crap about when you’re 15 you have to be discovered, that’s garbage, who invented that? Nobody says you have to be what you’re supposed to be when you’re 19 years old. You have to find what your criteria for what success is and what your marker is. I have someone that I’m looking to for who I’m supposed to be and that’s my marker for success. Nobody else can tell me that I’m failing or I’m growing besides that.
J: : It was in elementary school when I started singing in talent shows. I had a group of friends in French immersion who used to tease me about it, not in a bad way. It was like the funny tease! It made me feel good! Like, they even knew every word! Even the originals I wrote when I was 11. They used to sing it to me! They knew me as the singer of the group and it made me think, “Oh, okay, I guess maybe I can do this! Let me learn about it. Maybe I am a singer? I am a singer! How can I get to be a better singer?” The more they said, “Oh, Jennah sings and she’s artistic.” the more I thought, “Okay, let me explore this thing.”
IS: Why did you pick this location? What about it is special to you?
S: Kensington Market is obviously iconic to Toronto, and there’s so much history here. I also work close by so I’m here often. It’s pretty much my neighbourhood during the day (because I live in Ajax), so now I’m not always in the Toronto area. I grew up in Scarborough and I went to university down the street, so this feels like home, it’s a place I feel familiar with but still always discovering new things. Like, I’ve never eaten food at this restaurant we’re in and I walk by it everyday. There‘s such a large variety of people here. It’s got a cool vibe, something’s always happening, sometimes it’s sketchy. You never know what you’re going to get.
IS: Anything to add (Jennah)?
J: The churros are really good, (Laughs).
IS: What’s your biggest battle in keeping the confidence and the battle to keep it growing?
J: I think my problem is...well, all the people I know are great people. They’re not going to be rude to me or anything, not intentionally, but I create conversations in my head and whether or not these people will say these things or not, you know, I just create the conversations. So then I start to think, “Well, everybody hates me.” Especially when I’m tired, when I don’t have enough sleep, everybody hates me. That stops me from being confident. What does help is sleeping more, talking to myself, and singing songs about it.
IS: Like saying, “You got this!”
J: Yeah, the whole thing about the voices in the tunnel. I’ll be like, “Jennah, shut up.” I’ll be in my room like, I cried already, can you stop? Then I get really calm, like I could see clearly, all those arguments, they’re not real, they’re just in my head.
S: I think for so long, especially as a woman, you’re battling this notion that you have to feel the same way all the time. You gotta be steady. Yes, there’s a difference with men and women, we are different creatures and the differences are good. We’re not any less than the other but we have to allow the fluctuation in our feelings and our view of ourselves, how we’re internalizing things. Every week we’re changing but that’s part of our power and our strength, because we are created different. I think we have to give ourselves permission to not always feel okay or feel on top of our game. Knowing that you can ride it like a wave - just because today might seem like a low point doesn’t’t mean that that low point is negative. That could actually be a positive. Being in a space where you have to battle with these voices or self-doubt, or low confidence, that’s what makes you stronger. So, it’s almost like exercising, you’re working out that muscle, that confidence muscle. It hurts when you build muscle, you gotta tear it apart but it builds itself back together. You gotta work through that, you’re getting stronger at it. It’s seeing those negatives or those low points as just training or strengthening. It’s being okay with not being okay all the time; you don’t have to perform at the same level every day, you’re not supposed to.
IS: When you’re performing, what makes you feel most powerful?
S: I feel like there are different spots in different songs that I build up to it, and when I hit that spot I love singing that part. That’s the peak of the song and that’s where the message or the strength is. Then there’s also, if I’m having a really good hair day, (Laughs). No lie, if my hair’s blowing in the wind, yeah, I dig that too.
J: I think what makes me feel powerful when I sing is just knowing what I wrote about, and taking everything that I’ve learned, and trying to put as much out as I can. It makes me feel powerful.
IS: Who is your female inspiration? Musician or not.
J: Jessica Kobeissi, she’s a photographer on Youtube. She is an inspiration because she’s a badass, she will say what’s on her mind, she will inspire people with her videos whether it’s for photography or not. She’s talking about photography, but it also applies to everyday life and it’s kinda like, standing your ground and not letting anybody tell you how you should think. Being creative without any filters. She tells you that it’s okay to be you, and that it’s your art so express it the way you want.
S: This is actually really hard because I can’t think of anyone. I know that there are women role models but even my influences are mostly all male artist or male bands. Maybe that’s because there are so many of them? I don’t know. I feel like, to be honest, in general when I see women who are not getting any recognition. The mom with three kids who’s just trying to be a good mom. She’s at the last rung of the latter, she puts herself last. The woman just working hard in life - doing the daily grind - supporting others, her parents or supporting herself. These are all people who get no recognition but they’re doing good work. They’re necessary, those are the people that inspire me because they might never get recognition. What they’re doing matters and it counts.
IS: What has been your biggest personal confidence set back?
S: Probably when I did something myself, that really messed my life up. I had nobody else to blame but myself. It was like, “I can’t trust myself with all these things I thought I knew or I thought I was.” That one thing blew it all up. A lot of maybe my strength and confidence and lack of it comes from such an internal place of knowing myself. Being really steady, having a steady foundation of what I believe and who I am. So, I think when an internal issue or like, a choice that I made, making a mistake or failing hardcore or when you are literally in a hole. Then the thought “I did this to myself“, I think that’s probably what shook me the most. Then again, climbing out of that, you grow.
J: Things that would always push me back would be if I had a bad mark on something at school, or someone asks me a question, no matter what it is and I just don’t know the answer. Then feeling sad that I don’t know about it. I think I used to be more wild and silly, trying to be the part of an adult. Sometimes you get stuck in between, I’m not a kid, I’m not an adult. Trying to be somebody.
S: That’s when you know you’re an adult! (Laughs)
IS: What do you think is the most important thing to remember as a female musician?
S: To remember that you’re unique. I think a lot of girls spend so much time comparing themselves. It’s never a positive comparison, it’s usually negative where you don’t measure up or where you’re lacking. There is nobody who has the unique traits, or set of skills, or interest and passions, or genetic makeup like you! You are the only you , so your voice and your stories are special and it’s necessary especially in a world where so many people and groups are pitted against each other. Especially in Toronto where there’s so much multiculturalism. My background’s so varied, other people’s backgrounds are so varied, but I’m growing up a Canadian. There’s nobody that has a story like mine with experiences like me, even if you’ve got the same background, our experiences are so different. Don‘t be afraid that you don’t have anything to share, everybody has something to share.
J: I think I’d tell them that your voice is important, your opinion matters, whatever you’ve got to say, it means something. So, share what you wanna share, and don’t be afraid of what people are going to think.
IS: If you could go back to a time where you felt taken back by whatever obstacle, what would you tell yourself knowing what you know now?
S: I’d tell myself to stop wasting so much time worrying and just go for it, because the older I get the more I realize “cool” is an illusion. It’s not a real thing, so stop worrying if you’re cool or not. Also that people’s opinions of you, you can give it a lot of weight or it can not matter at all. It’s up to you; you’re the one who decides that.
IS: Jennah just did preach hands.
J: (Laughs). Yas!
S: Just realizing that I have nothing to be afraid of, and I wish I had known that 10 years ago. I would have gone for so many more opportunities, but at the same time when you’re ready, you’re ready. When you’re supposed to be going for certain things you’ll go for them.
J: I’d tell myself to stop trying to please everybody because first, I don’t know what they want, I can only know what I want. I can’t read their mind.
IS: Do you have a message you hope to send to people who see you live or listen to your recordings?
J: I hope they can relate. I think that we try to paint images and stories they can see themselves in. Even if they haven’t physically been in the same exact situation, they still feel the overall message.
S: Yeah, that’s exactly it. They’re not alone in whatever they’ve gone through. Even in our EP release party (held last month), I just wanted people to feel loved in a sense. Sharing a bit of your own heart and risking being vulnerable with somebody allows them space to do the same thing. So, it’s like, don’t be afraid to show us who you are ‘cause here’s a bit of who we are.
IS: What’s your advice for other women, young or old, who struggle with confidence?
J: If you struggle with confidence, talk to yourself. People say when you talk to yourself, you’re kinda crazy, but I don’t think so. I think it’s healthy. When you talk to yourself or you write to yourself, sing to yourself, record yourself and then listen to yourself talking, you discover who you are by just exploring your own mind.
S: I think it comes down to what I found for myself. It’s about whether you love yourself or not. You can fake confidence really easily, but if you don’t genuinely like who you are or love yourself, or believe you have any value, it’s a facade that can crack easily. Confidence can be shot by a word or a look or a situation. If you really value yourself and you know you’re of worth, and that’s not based on anyone’s opinion but your own, that kind of confidence can’t be shaken as easily. Just take it one day at a time, but try to get to know yourself and try to accept who you are.