Lisa Shaw is not your average house diva; in fact, the word diva–with its connotations of limelight-hogging theatrics–doesn't apply at all to Shaw's approach, which is the very embodiment of restraint and good taste. That style has something to do with the singer's natural range (she's most comfortable in lower registers), with her retiring personality (she's Canadian, after all), and with her formative years in Toronto's sedate acid-jazz scene. She's come a long way from playing for intimate crowds in chic Hogtown hangouts to headlining bills at punter-filled superclubs, but Shaw figures the experience she earned on the home front is what sets her apart.
"I've been around all kinds of dance music, and one problem I first had with house was that all the vocals sounded similar, this gospel wailing that I couldn't really relate to," says the chanteuse, reached on the road in San Francisco. "When I first started writing with house producers, I approached it more from a singer-songwriter point of view. If you think about the disco era and groups like Sister Sledge or Chic, they were doing soul records, but it was dance music at the same time. That's what I wanted, something a little bit more in-depth from a songwriting perspective."
On early singles "Everyday" and "Let's Do It Together" (produced by Dave Warrin and Jay Denes, respectively), Shaw helped define the contemporary West Coast sound, a windswept style that tones down the Chicago school's hard-bitten realism for something at once sweeter and more serene. If Roberta Flack or Sade had been house singers, they might have sounded something like Shaw, who demonstrated her full range of talents on 2005's Cherry, her first full-length. Released on the archetypal San Fran house label Naked Music, that album was something of a curve ball, featuring just as many mid- and down-tempo songs as house anthems, thus dividing dance enthusiasts, who expected only club tracks.
"There were a lot of hands in the pot in terms of how many up-tempo songs to put on the record versus how many chill songs to include," she explains. "The biggest lesson to learn was the importance of sticking to your guns. People were saying, 'You're a house singer and you should have more up-tempo on there,' but my feeling was that it was a full-length and I wanted it to reflect my whole personality. I don't only do dance music."
In case there was any doubt, that message will be reinforced on the singer's lounge-friendly sophomore album, slated for release next year on famed producer Miguel Migs's Salted Music label. In the meantime, folks jonesing for a deep-house fix should check out Migs's current single, "Those Things", a smouldering disco throwback that features Shaw confronting a shiftless ex-lover, exhibiting the kind of poise only the righteous can manage. It's that steady confidence that makes Shaw not just another house singer, but an artist.
Lisa Shaw plays the Caprice tonight (August 23).