Shawnee Dez pictured from the waist up, wearing overalls with her arms folded over her stomach and her head turned to the right
Shawnee Dez Credit: Tim Nagle

Thom Yorke’s soundtrack for Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria is as stark, haunting, and unpredictable as the film itself. On the track “Has Ended,” reverberant drums and bass meld with a meditative tanpura drone and Yorke’s compressed voice, which drifts into the music layered two or three times over. His words are barely distinguishable, as if sung from a great distance through a damp, cavernous hall. Chicago R&B artist Shawnee Dez cites this song—and the rest of Yorke’s soundtrack—as one of the first inspirations for her debut album, Moody Umbra, self-released on April 14. 

Dez, 27, says she didn’t intend to replicate the songs’ specific sound, but she felt drawn in by the thorough interconnection between Yorke’s voice and the instrumentation. “I love how the vocals are also being melted into the music,” she explains. “That’s still something that I’m trying to get better at—especially not being a fluent instrumentalist, I think that my voice has been my producer, musician, and instrumentalist power. I’m very intentional about making my voice a part of the music.” 

Dez can recall the first moment she pictured a future for herself as a singer and performer. She was six or seven years old, singing along to the song “Understanding” by R&B girl group Xscape and crying as she tried again and again to hit a shooting high note near the end. She cemented that idea in her heart during the year she spent as a freshman at the College of Staten Island—she spent most of her weekends at a neighboring college attended by her best friend, organizing a student-run open mike where she often performed. 

After bouncing between schools, Dez landed back in Chicago at Columbia College, and in 2015 she started performing her own music around the city. She released her first single in 2016, and she’s put out a handful more since then. 

Across Moody Umbra, Dez showcases the musical skill of her collaborators while stretching her voice across the totality of its range, from hushed and fluttering to powerful and soaring. Produced by Dez alongside drummer Eddie Burns, the album captures the complicated churning of self-examination, unearthing darkness and fear while still finding moments of playfulness. Opening cut “Awakening” is toiling and frenetic, but “Rinky” taps into a dreamy, summery nostalgia, and “Muah” sweeps in with breezy romance. 

Dez tells me she approached the production process by imagining the album as a house, with each song a different room. “How do I create this home that feels like we’re all under the same roof, but we’re experiencing different rooms at different times?”  

Shawnee Dez created Moody Umbra with drummer and producer Eddie Burns of the Burns Twins.

Dazzling confidence oozes from Dez’s music (and the accompanying videos, photos, and artwork), but her path to the stage wasn’t always clear. She grew up on the southeast side of Chicago and attended an all-girls Catholic high school before moving to the southwest suburbs and transferring to Homewood-Flossmoor High her senior year. While she always felt a desire to be part of the culture making that buzzed around her, she was quite literally miles away from many of the opportunities she wanted to pursue. Just to be included, she had to muster up her motivation and self-reliance. 

During Dez’s senior year, that meant taking a Metra train after school from Homewood-Flossmoor to downtown Chicago, transferring to the Brown Line, and then riding up to Lincoln Square to participate in an After School Matters film-photography program. She usually didn’t get back home until 9 PM. But in her eyes, it was worth it. 

“That was me expanding my world, saying, ‘I’m going to experience all that there is to offer in this city, and I know that my little corner is not the edge of my world,’” she says. “‘It’s not even the tip of the iceberg of the world that I could know.’”

Once Dez began performing around Chicago, she needed time before she really felt enmeshed in the collective care of a creative community. “I think Chicago people are very territorial, and I think it’s a direct response to how segregated our city is,” she says. “And so people are comfortable with people that are from their neighborhood, from their high school. And I think for sure it seeps over into our creative culture.” 

a large crowd of people arranged in rows, seated and standing, so that they can all face the camera; boom microphone stands, clamp-on lights, and bookshelves are visible around the edges of the frame
Shawnee Dez (bottom center) at a private listening party for Moody Umbra Credit: Jacob King

Dez also struggled to find collaborators she felt at ease with. No one seemed to care about her work or even respect her as a person. “[I kept] running into issues where people aren’t really listening to you, and they’re hearing you just to get to whatever else they wanna say,” she says. 

When she met Burns, she was excited to find a musical chemistry she’d never felt before. They began working together four or five years ago, and in January 2020, they traveled to Colorado with a group of musicians to begin work on Moody Umbra. The plan was to finish the album in a few months and release it that fall, but the arrival of the pandemic wrecked that schedule. Dez took a job at the Reader in October 2021 (she works as a marketing project strategist), but she couldn’t get her album plan back on the rails till this past year.

Dez’s determination to defy any barrier to realize the dream of her career has carried her all the way to this moment. From the beginning, she’s been her own creative director, promotor, booking agent, and biggest cheerleader. With her debut album, she’s not only created a concrete monument to her years of work in Chicago’s DIY community—she’s also reached the spotlight she’s been yearning for her entire life. 

Shawnee Dez, Qari, Trinity Star Ultra
Thu 5/18, 8 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, $20, 18+

“There was a moment when I was hyping myself up,” Dez recalls. “I was talking to myself in my room the day before the record came out. Just really giving myself energy, saying, ‘Shawnee, you’ve been doing this forever. You’ve been working on this project since you were in third grade. Your whole life, literally up until now, whether it be through creating something or just existing, you’ve been working toward this moment without even knowing it.’”

Despite having endured years of obstacles and uncertainty, Dez isn’t worried about what comes next. To have seen this project to fruition is enough of a dream all by itself. “It’s put me in a place of acceptance where whatever I do create in the future, I just have to show up to it with grace and not be hung up on the big or small successes that it may bring,” Dez says. “I’m happy that I answered my call to do it, and I’m proud of myself for seeing something from A to fucking Z.”