Shawn Desman is back with a new sound after stepping away from music nearly a decade ago

In an emotional interview with Q’s Tom Power, Toronto singer-songwriter Shawn Desman reflected on his success in the 2000s and 2010s, the setbacks that left him feeling like a failure, and how Drake helped inspire his comeback.

‘If I'm coming back, I got to make sure whatever I'm doing is a slam dunk,’ Desman said in a Q interview

Toronto singer-songwriter Shawn Desman sat down with Q’s Tom Power to discuss his early career success, the setbacks that left him feeling like a failure, and how Drake helped inspire his comeback. (Ryan Faist)

Click the play button above to listen to Shawn Desman's full conversation with Tom Power.

Shawn Desman was a staple of Canada's R&B scene in the 2000s and 2010s, but the world hasn't heard much from him since the release of his last full-length studio album, Alive, in 2013. That's about to change.

In an emotional interview with Q's Tom Power, the Toronto singer-songwriter spoke candidly about the setbacks in his career that left him feeling like a failure, and why he believes the universe is finally on his side again.

"There's going to be a lot of crying, Tom. I'm warning you. I'm sorry," he said after hearing his new single, Maniac, played during the interview. "I haven't heard Maniac over the air like that or anything yet.… That's pretty damn special."

From the 'Portuguese Justin Bieber' to hit artist to family man

After discovering his passion for performing at his school's talent show, Desman's parents encouraged him to pursue a career in music. From age nine to 16, he made four Portuguese albums under his legal name, Shawn Fernandes, joking to Power that he was the "Portuguese Justin Bieber before there was Justin Bieber."

"[I] came to a point where I was 16 and I was like, 'I'm hitting this ceiling.' I'm like, 'This is not going to take me anywhere further than where I am right now. I want to sing in English,'" he said. "So I started recording and writing, myself, in my bedroom. I was 16 years old, sending in demo tapes to record labels."

At 18, Desman was signed to BMG Music Canada and started recording his self-titled debut album, which was released in 2002. His first two singles, Get Ready and Shook, blew up and established him as a breakthrough artist to watch.

"[There's] one moment that I remember very vividly as to when I was like, 'Holy, I think, like, I'm making it,'" he said. "So I get called into BMG for a meeting … and they present me with my platinum plaque for the album. And just like I did at the beginning of this interview, I lose it.… And I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm doing what I love to do and I'm successful doing it.'"

But Desman faced his first setback in 2005, after the release of his second album, Back for More: BMG thought he was done and dropped him from the label. Undeterred and optimistic about his future, he was signed to Universal Music Canada not long after.

"It's funny because I get dropped, then [in] 2010, I release Shiver, Night Like This and Electric. [Those singles] end up being my biggest records of my career so far," he said. "So it was like my second coming, really and truly, because I knew I wasn't done. I was still so young at that point."

[I thought], 'Oh my God, this is it for me. I'm done. I'm a failure.'- Shawn Desman

But in 2015, Universal Music told him that it too would be dropping Desman from the label to move in a different direction. This time, it was devastating for the singer-songwriter.

"I was in L.A. making my record — like, in the middle of making my record," he recalled. "[I thought], 'Oh my God, this is it for me. I'm done. I'm a failure.'"

Around the same time, Desman's wife became ill, so he made the difficult decision to step away from his music career to focus on his family.

"My daughter was born in 2014, and I was like, 'I'm just going to be a dad; I'm going to be a husband; and this is what I'm going to do,'" he said. "Staying home, lunches, taking kids to dance, soccer practice, all that stuff."

Staging his comeback and the night Drake changed his life

Just before the pandemic hit, Desman was coming to terms with the possibility that his music career was truly over. That's when he received a call from his best friend, Canadian country music singer Tebey, who suggested they collaborate on a project, which they called RadioClub, to help get him back into making music.

"People were always like, 'No, you're not [done],'" said Desman. "And I'm like, 'Do you guys know how much pressure there is if I come back?' Because if I'm coming back, I got to make sure whatever I'm doing is a slam dunk. It can't be a so-so. Because like I said, artists are in the worst business for mental health because now, man, people chew you up and spit you out. They love you when you're hot and they don't when you're not."

With RadioClub, Desman released a dance remix of Rick Astley's song Never Gonna Give You Up, which he said has been a huge success with 25 million streams.

"I was like, 'Oh, I'm having a lot of fun doing this,'" he said. "Tebey knew exactly what he was doing. He was just getting the bug back into my body."

In July, Desman got the opportunity of a lifetime when he performed at Drake's All Canadian North Stars concert at OVO Fest, featuring a dozen Canadian hip-hop and R&B artists who paved the way for those who came after.

After announcing the show on Instagram, Desman got a call from Jamie Appleby, the owner of Wax Records, who told him this was his big chance.

"He's like, 'You know, we've been talking for a lot of years. If you were ever going to make a comeback, this is it. This is a big deal. Drake asked you to do the show. This is a big deal,'" recalled Desman.

Desman said with the pressure on, he diligently rehearsed for the show with the understanding that his return to music would be based on the success of this one performance.

"I did a medley. So I did a 12-minute non-stop hit after hit after hit," he said. "Where other artists were stopping in between songs, talking a whole bunch, I was like, 'No, no, no, I'm just gonna hit 'em, hit 'em, hit 'em, hit 'em, hit 'em.'"

Desman said he couldn't hear how the audience was responding because he was performing with in-ear monitors, but he could see Drake watching him from the balcony, "losing his mind."

I said I was coming to terms with not putting out music, but deep inside, I was saying to myself, 'I'm not done. What happened cannot be the end of Shawn Desman.'- Shawn Desman

After the show, Drake approached him in the hallway outside of the green room.

"He goes, 'Do you understand what you just did up there? The people love you. Your music still lives on to this day. What are you doing?' And I said, 'Drake, man, just life happens. Stuff happens. And I kind of lost the love for this,'" said Desman. "He's like, 'Squash all that. Shawn Desman — I'm telling you — Shawn Desman needs to make music again.' And Tom, he changed my life that night.…

"I needed that. I needed that sense of validation because deep inside, Tom, I know I said I was coming to terms with not putting out music, but deep inside, I was saying to myself, 'I'm not done. What happened cannot be the end of Shawn Desman.'"

Desman said Drake lit a fire in him and from that point on, with a renewed sense of purpose, the creative juices kept flowing. After the show, his wife offered him some more encouragement.

"She's like, 'I know it hasn't been easy and the universe has not been on your side. I feel the universe is on your side, babe. You have to do this,'" said Desman. "And this is my wife who's been ill, who three weeks ago had emergency surgery. She said that to me. And I was like, 'OK, I'm going to do it.' And here we are."

As he embarks on this new chapter in his career, Desman said he's both excited and challenged by the prospect of what he's going to sound like in 2022. 

"It's good to be back," he told Power. "I am the happiest I've been in a long time."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Amelia Eqbal.


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