by Jake Uitti
There are many ways front people try to connect with their audience. For some, it could be a sunny song about tequila and the beach. For others, maybe a short skirt lures listeners. But for Shaina Shepherd, lead singer of the Seattle-based band BEARAXE, the connection is rooted in stories of resilience.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve had to work really hard. And the stories are in the music,” the 27-year-old Columbia City resident says of her songs. “There are always factors, whether internal or external, which try to keep you down. And I’m meeting that with a ‘Hell no!’”
Shepherd’s “Hell no!” comes out in BEARAXE’s sound, transporting listeners to an AC/DC or Alabama Shakes recording session or evoking for them a Heart or Sharon Jones show. There are multiple tonal layers to Shepherd’s work, including myriad vocal styles.
“Working with Shaina is different than any singer I’ve ever made music with,” BEARAXE guitarist Matt Williams says. “She can do a deep jazzy thing and immediately turn it into Chris Cornell screams. It’s like having five different singers in your band at once and they’re all great.”
While BEARAXE, which formed one Tuesday night over a bottle of whisky shared in a warehouse in Tukwila, Washington, is decidedly rock ‘n’ roll, Shepherd’s musical journey did not start with that genre. She grew up listening to gospel and soul at her mother’s feet. She played in the high school marching band, and, like her mother, she also studied classical music in college.
But following a vocal cord injury at age 22, Shepherd was forced to give up operatic training. This change didn’t stop her, though, and in college the young singer turned instead to contemporary music.
“I started dating somebody who was a rock ‘n’ roller. And then I got obsessed with records and 45s and audiophiles and how they saw the world,” she says. “It started with Joan Jett’s ‘Cherry Bomb’ and it was all downhill from there.”
With these new-found records, Shepherd crafted the vocal image she projects today, and it’s the road-dog lifestyle led by the musicians who made that raucous music that pushes her imagination further.
“There was a real tribal nature to what they were doing,” Shepherd says. “Their tone and screams mixed with wrath. For me, it tells the story of the weatherment of life. And it really rattles my bones whenever I hear it.”
But at the core of Shepherd’s range is a love and appreciation for self and family—and that is growing by the day, she says.
“I’m very Black and very proud of this,” explains Shepherd, who was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent summers during her adolescence on the East Coast. “But I’m also new to being very proud of it. There have been so many people in my life who have taught me the responsibility of being a Black woman, about embracing the culture and understanding where we come from. And I want to honor them.”
Shepherd’s lyrics tell personal stories, and she shares them with the hope that they will empower others to do the same, even if those stories are received as sordid or risqué.
“I continue to want to find a way to reach out to girls of color who are not embraced by their communities and show these girls the tools and tell them they can build something beautiful. Music is the answer for a lot of people, including me,” Shepherd says.
BEARAXE released their debut EP, Last Call, in January. Like their singer, the record’s music has a variety of sounds: listeners can head-bang to tracks like “Brown Liquor,” or enjoy a bit of sentimentality with nostalgic tunes like “Undertow.”
And while Shepherd, who works a day job raising money for the Seattle Symphony, says she appreciates the grind of being in a new band in the Emerald City, she is also ready to stand out.
“What BEARAXE is doing is taking our own stories of anger and rejection and turning them into music. It’s all about power: the power to change. You will not get us down,” she says.
BEARAXE’s next gig is slated for July 28th at Capitol Hill’s Vermillion Art Gallery.