PICTURED: Shylah Ray Sunshine by Mariana Schulze.
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
“Well rounded” is one way to describe the voice of Shylah Ray Sunshine. Deep, full and resonant, it hints at the many roads and musical genres the Ojai-based singer/songwriter has traveled through. It has the impact and energy of rock and roll, a facility with rhyme and rhythm perfectly at home in hip-hop, an otherworldly quality that blends beautifully with spiritual and new age music and an earthy sensuality that’s perfect for blues and soul.
“I try to expose myself to as much as possible,” Sunshine says. And while she’s been happy to lend her talents to all of these musical expressions, it’s the journey toward the sound that reflects her own soul that has brought her the greatest success and satisfaction.
“There was music in my ancestry”
Canadian-born Sunshine grew up in a small town north of Toronto. Her family was not particularly musical, but they were talented.
“My mother and grandmother sang beautifully,” she contends.
For Sunshine, however, music was both a solace and a passion.
“I had a dysfunctional relationship with my mother,” she admits. “I used music as a type of therapy. I dissociated from anything going on in my life that was troubling.”
Musicians that influenced her include Bob Marley, Lauryn Hill (“Lauryn Hill changed my life”), Alanis Morrissette, Etta Davis, Christina Aguilera (“a tiny person with this huge voice”) and Erykah Badu — mostly women with “strong, feminine voices.”
“I could feel the depth and power of my voice,” Sunshine says — and she sought out others with the same.
While she is of Algonquin descent, she says that she didn’t grow up with a connection to her culture. “In the past . . . I didn’t really value or honor my lineage then as much as I do now.”
She found her way back through a group of friends that would participate in sweat lodge ceremonies and other practices.
“When I was exposed to those things through them, I could see there was music in my ancestry.”
She was on her own to explore this part of herself, though. She did research online and found recordings of songs, which she used to teach herself.
Sunshine came to the United States in 2005, originally just traveling through. By 2006, at the age of 20, she had moved to Los Angeles, where she met and married a touring musician, and became pregnant with her first child — a daughter, now 14. (She now has an 8-year-old as well.)
Getting pregnant at 20 “shifted the course of everything,” Sunshine says. She was still committed to music and songwriting, but had to balance that with her desire to be a hands-on parent. It went against the grain: Sunshine notes that most women musicians had their children after they were established in their careers.
Rather than touring, she moved to Topanga Canyon and took up pursuits she could do while caring for a young child, teaching herself piano at 23 and then “songwriting followed.”
“That was the most interesting part of my journey by far,” says Sunshine.
In 2011, she moved to Ojai, where she continued writing and playing music. Her soul-searching lyrics and gospel-like voice found easy purchase in devotional and world music circles, and her 2012 EP, Earth Medicine Music, yielded the critically acclaimed single, “Existence,” which was used in a variety of advertisements, documentaries and podcasts — and earned her a Hollywood Music in Media Award nomination for Best Song with Message/Social Impact.
Sunshine wasn’t aiming for the commercial market, but it has proven to be one opportunity to make money with her music.
“I could support myself writing songs for TV and commercials,” she explains. “It was definitely a factor.”
She also wowed live audiences at venues such as the Agape Spiritual Center in Culver City, the Temple of Intention in Mt. Shasta, California and Santa Barbara’s Lucidity Festival (where she was set to perform again this year on Nov. 6 before the event was canceled).
“I have a lot of flavor to bring”
Being part of the devotional music scene was one avenue for artistic expression, but Sunshine says that it wasn’t the full picture of herself as a singer or songwriter.
“I used to put myself in a position where I felt like I had an obligation to write music that was uplifting,” she explains. “Devotional music is very God-centered . . . I was very wrapped up in that scene when I first got to LA. Eventually, I needed to break this mold a little bit . . . It wasn’t really honoring my whole truth.”
That truth was multifaceted, with soul, R&B and hip-hop mixed in with the new age and gospel stylings for which she originally became known.
“I have a lot of flavor to bring,” she says.
“My music has really shifted,” Sunshine continues. While her previous work was designed (in some ways) to make other people happy, her music today is closer to her own heart. “This is more for me.”
Soul Voice Singing™
While finding her own authentic voice, Sunshine discovered a gift for teaching. Now a sought-after vocal coach, she tries to help singers of all experience levels using a personalized program that she calls Soul Voice Singing.
Described on her website as a way “to help empower those who strive for learning how to speak and sing more effortlessly,” Soul Voice Singing reflects in some ways Sunshine’s own journey.
“What I’ve noticed over the years . . . the more experiences I’ve had . . . I’ve dropped into my voice.”
Moreover, she feels that she is continuously “dropping into the essence of soul in my voice. I want people to access that soul in their voice.”
While it’s true that Sunshine has a very soulful voice, here “soul” means something different.
“It’s more about emotion and feeling. It’s more about the relationship that people have with their voice.”
Finding her rhythm
Through the years, she’s found that authentic musical expression is an ever-evolving experience: “What comes up for me a lot is my relationship to my music. There’s still a part of myself that’s finding what works for me.”
Sunshine has enjoyed playing in Ventura County, including a 2015-17 residency at Ojai’s Deer Lodge, but she’s had to look farther afield to play the music that best reflects her interests and talents.
“There’s not a lot of R&B singing in this area,” Sunshine says, noting that she had to go to LA to find better opportunities. “I could feel my level of professionalism upgrading.”
As her talent grew, she also sought venues that could afford to pay her what she was worth, especially considering that she preferred playing with a full band.
“I’m not a solo singer/songwriter. It’s not just me and my keyboard up there.”
Currently, she’s keeping busy with vocal coaching (through Zoom), a number of collaborative projects and, as always, caring for her two daughters.
She’s also working on a new album, and hopes to release a single later this year or early in 2021.
“I’m really happy with how it sounds and feels,” says Sunshine. “It’s very fresh feeling.”
She would like to get more into the commercial and soundtrack circuit again, and has high hopes for these new songs. “These are radio quality and film quality songs. These would fit really well in films.”
Her path as a professional musician hasn’t followed the usual course. It took some time for her to find her voice, and her commitment to being a full-time parent put things such as touring on hold. And she’s recognizing the cyclical nature of her creative output: Some months she’s highly productive, while others she has more distractions.
“But,” emphasizes Sunshine, “[Music] is something that I desire all the time. I’d love to be touring and traveling . . . I’m learning how to accept that I have my own pattern. This is something I’m constantly in dialogue with myself about.”
Keeping those lines of communication open will only lead to greater journeys and better things. Because, after all, music is in her soul.
For more on Shylah Ray Sunshine’s music, videos and Soul Voice Singing, visit her online at www.shylahraysunshine.com.