They sing, dance, look unbelievable and write all their own material. They have the kind of talent white-bread teeny boppers can only dream about. And they’ve just landed a major recording deal. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the sounds of Shakaya.
Deadly Vibe heard about two girls from up Cairns way who were reported to be huge, going places, megastars in the making. Rumours were flying around that Sony Music executives had flown in from America to check them out before promptly whisking them off to LA to become the Next Big Thing.
People were saying they were going to be Australia’s answer to Destiny’s Child. Or TLC. Or 3LW. There was talk that they were already racing up the charts. That they’d taken America by storm. That….. Well, there is some truth to all of this. And yes, they are going to be huge.
Their names are Naomi Wenatong, 19, and Simone Stacey, 23, and together they are Shakaya. Their first single, “Stop Calling Me”, already has industry insiders buzzing and a national release is planned for the end of January.
Naomi and Simone are a powerhouse of energy, laughs, talent and good old-fashioned spunk. These two were, ahem, destined to be together and are so close it’s hard to tell where one finishes and the other begins! Shakaya were in Sydney recently to film their debut video and Vibe was invited along to meet them.
So how did you two hook up?
Simone: We met at an ATSIC-sponsored music course at Cairns TAFE a few years ago. The first day we met we wrote a song together.
Naomi: It’s not a song we’d ever want to repeat, but we knew from that point on we were on the same wavelength in terms of music and personality. We both come from big musical families, so I suppose it was inevitable that we’d end up in music.
That music course has a really good reputation. What did you two get out of it – apart from meeting each other, of course?
Simone: It gave us really good background training and we gained incredible knowledge from doing the course – how to read and write music, and basic skills on a range of instruments. One of the most beneficial aspects of the course was learning about the business side of the music industry.
Naomi: That was really important for us because even though you’ve got talent you need to understand how the industry works in terms of contracts, publishing rights and all those little things. There is so much talent out there, but often it just gets lost or people sign contracts they don’t quite understand. Doing the course made us realise just how much knowledge you need to make it in the industry.
You two formed a band while you were at TAFE, but it wasn’t Shakaya.
Simone: Yeah, we had a band called Forte. At TAFE they set people up with each other so they can workshop – learning how to work with musicians, trying out different sounds, that sort of stuff.
Naomi: We’d play in pubs and clubs, mostly for free. We just wanted to get out there and perform. Because we write all our own music we wanted to take it to the public and see what they thought.
Simone: And we wanted to get more experience at performing live. That’s what gives you confidence as a performer, just getting out there and doing it. But one of the problems was that most of the venues we were playing in were bars, so people weren’t really there for the music.
Naomi: We’d take it really badly because we’d put so much time and effort into writing the songs and performing them, and most of the time people would just be charged up and not really interested.
So what happened after you’d finished the course?
Naomi: Well, we talked heaps about making a living out of music, but we were feeling really disheartened. Then my dad saw an ad in the paper for a new studio that was opening up in Cairns. He said we should record some of our stuff and take it to them.
Simone: So we pulled out this crappy old four track of Naomi’s dad and sat around in her lounge room with her dad playing guitar and drum machine!
Naomi: Real basic stuff. The four track barely even worked, you know! We had to hold both the buttons down just to record, but we were really confident thinking, “Oh yeah, this is deadly!”
Simone: So we rocked up to the studio and we couldn’t believe it! It was the biggest, flashest thing you’ve ever seen and we both thought, “Oh no! We’re way out of our league here.”
Naomi: And to make it worse they had to drag this old tape recorder out of the cupboard to listen to our tape because no one uses tapes anymore. So were sitting there feeling really ashamed around these big flash record people!
Simone: But they had a listen to it and liked what they heard. Reno Nicastro, whose studio it is [and who has managed the girls’ careers from day one], got some people in to do backing vocals on one of the songs we’d written and he loved it even more. We didn’t hear from him for ages and we were getting really down, but then out of the blue he rang us and said, “So do you girls want to come in and record?” and it all just took off from there.
Wow, the magic phone call. So what happened next?
Simone: Well, we both quit our jobs and started full-time in music, writing and arranging.
Naomi: We also started a really tough regime that included training, dieting and changing our lifestyles. For me it was a big crossroads because I’d just turned 18 and I wanted to get out there and party up! But Simone and I had a big talk about it all and I realised that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I mean, I’ve got my whole life ahead of me to do that stuff. It’s about dedication.
Simone: It’s like sportspeople or doctors or anything, you’ve got to set goals and work really hard to achieve them. There are heaps of people out there with talent, so you’ve got to have that edge.
We heard some rumours that record executives from America flew in to see you guys.
Simone: No, no, no! Reno is really good friends with Richard Wilkins [Channel Nine’s entertainment reporter] and he saw us do some stuff and helped us get a showcase with Sony.
A showcase? That sounds pretty scary.
Naomi: Oh man, it’s full on. You go into their offices and you’ve basically got five minutes to perform and win them over!
Simone: It’s the most nerve-racking experience in the world because you know this is your one shot at it – you have to make an impression straight away. We came down to Sydney and did a showcase for Dennis, the head of Sony, and another associate. This one was a bit different in that we got to do a half-hour showcase. Then they both walked out of the room!
Naomi: We’re both standing there, shaking all over with everything going through our heads – could have done, should have done, what we did right, what we did wrong.
Simone: And five minutes later they came back in and said, “How would you like to do a single with us?” And I suppose it didn’t really hit us until we were doing the film clip today.
That’s a pretty incredible story! And you really did go to America too, didn’t you?
Simone: Yeah, that was the most amazing experience. It really opened our eyes to the reality of just what was happening for us. And it helped us overcome our shame thing.
How tough was that?
Naomi: Oh, we both had a real problem with that shame thing. I mean we’ve all got a bit of that inside of us, but you’ve got to get past it or it’ll bring you down. We’re always reminding each other, “Don’t say that!” Simone’s mother tells her, “Don’t say that or it will be a burden on you. Get it off your back or you’ll never get anywhere.”
Simone: And it’s really sad because so many of our young people let that shame thing overcome them and it stops them from moving forward. We really need to get rid of it – take that first step forward and be proud of who we are and what we can do.
Naomi: Going to America you have to get over it really quickly, because there is so much talent and no one’s got time for you if you’re there with your head hanging down and you’re all shamed up. We’ve learned how to walk into a room with our head held high, full of courage, because what’s the worst that’s going to happen? If you don’t have the courage, the thing that’s going to happen is that you won’t get anywhere!
So what did you do in America?
Simone: We started out in Orlando, Florida at this camp – it’s where people like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys trained.
Naomi: It’s a boot camp for popstars! For us to be there was such a privilege because normally you have to be signed with [legendary producer] Lou Pearlman to be able to get in and they train you in everything.
Simone : It starts really early in the morning and you go through voice training, choreography, styling…
Naomi: …media training, posture, how to work in front of a camera, using the stage in a live performance. For us it really was the best experience. Going there made us really believe in what we were doing and it made us aim higher.
And then you hit Hollywood.
Simone: Yeah, the guys who wrote “Torn” for Natalie Imbruglia [Endaswap and Phil Thornalley] wrote a song especially for us, so we thought we should check it out. And it also meant we could say we’d recorded in LA!
Naomi: So we rocked up to their studio and it’s right where the Hollywood sign is and we’re both like, “Oh my God!” We were so stoked that they’d written something for us. It was really interesting singing something that someone else had written.
Because you two write all your own stuff, don’t you.
Simone: Oh we wouldn’t have it any other way. And when we’re singing it means it’s coming straight from our hearts.
Tell us about your first single, “Stop calling Me”. It’s about being stalked by someone – you weren’t stalked, were you?
Simone: No!!!! It’s not really about being stalked in that bad way. It’s more about how you can be out and a brother comes up and tries to hit on you and then he’s trying you all night and you don’t want to be disrespectful or anything…
Naomi: …but they just don’t get the hint! It’s happened to everyone. When you start talking to other people, men and women, you realise that everyone’s been through it.
Simone: But we also sing about relationships and love, and we’ve written one song about girls and fighting.
Naomi: It’s a real problem – women running each other down – and we’ve had plenty of it. The lyrics are really personal and we called it “Nagimar”, which sort of means “What are you looking at?” It’s really about trying to say to women, “Let’s just stop it. There’s no use fighting – let’s encourage each other instead.”
Simone: We should stand together and support each other because there’s enough people out there ready to run you down.
The type of music you are making is really R’n’B. Why do you think it has it taken so long for Black Australia to do it?
Simone: It comes back to that shame thing, plus we don’t see enough of our own people doing it on a national level. I mean, there are heaps of Murris out there doing it but we need to create our own style. It’s just that the pathway hasn’t been there.
Naomi: But we’re hoping to break some of that down and create more pathways so people can go, “Oh, she’s a girl from our own community and look what she’s done.” We want to make people really proud of us.
Simone: And it’ll also make record companies realise we’ve got talent right here. It’s a long process but we’ll get there.
What is it that keeps you so motivated?
Simone: We just get this stirring inside of us going back to when were in the States. There was this one night…
Naomi: …we were on the balcony of our hotel looking out over LA and we just sort of said to each other, “We’re just some Murri girls from Cairns and look how far we’ve come!”
Simone: Our families have been a real driving force for us, but we also knew that it just felt right. From that moment on we just knew we could do this.
And we know they’re going to do it, too. But right now, what they have to do is get back in front of that camera and brace themselves for the future. Because one thing is for sure, these girls have everything it takes to make it big – talent, drive,determination, the support of their family and communities, and real deadly music!