WHEN it comes to writing hit songs, the skills of Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Shontelle Layne are unmatched.
So, it’s no surprise she has written hits for international superstars like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Sean Paul and Beenie Man.
In fact, it was her work as a co-writer on Rihanna’s 2011 single Man Down which gained Layne the title of Grammy-nominated artiste.
The song’s parent album, LOUD, was nominated for Album of the Year at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards in 2012.
But Layne, known simply to her fans as Shontelle, doesn’t only write hit songs, she sings them too.
In 2008, Layne’s solo debut single T-Shirt climbed to the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 music charts in the US. Two years later, she would take her single Impossible to the chart’s top 20 and, at the same time, score a top-ten hit in the UK.
Though Layne’s music career has taken flight globally, in the genres of pop and R&B, her roots are firmly planted in Caribbean culture.
Born and raised in Barbados, she isn’t hesitant to let people that she got her start in soca music. A co-writer on Alison Hinds' Roll it Gal, Layne credits the song as a stepping stone to her breakout success.
Now, she’s reconnecting with her soca roots with the recent release of a soca-infused song called Tomorrow.
But, in a recent interview with Newsday via Skype from Barbados, Layne explained she never left the soca scene, and said you may have even “chipped down” the road to one of her songs for Carnival. She is one of the co-writers on Montano 2019’s single Toco Loco and 2020 single Slow Wine which features British DJ/singer Afro B.
“One of the producers that I was working with during my time here in Barbados, pulled up the track (for Tomorrow) and I didn’t even know if it was to call it soca or Afrobeat.
“I just ran out the room and said, 'hit record.' I didn’t know what it was came over me, but it was literally a freestyle.”
The song’s emotionally-charged lyrics were inspired by current global events like the covid19 pandemic, the global Black Lives Matter protests and the farmers' protest in India.
With Layne feeling a sense of emotional relief while creating the song, she wants people to feel the same while listening to it.
“I just felt like I wanted to give everybody something…not only even hope but like drive and motivation. It (the song) really feels like a battle cry, something to energise and get you up.”
And while Layne was confident in creating the song, she admits there were some jitters before its release especially given it was a freestyle.
“Everyone was like…Shontelle, you’re a R&B artiste and pop artiste. Are you sure you want to put this out?
“I was like…have you listened to my first album? My first album shows you that I am one of those artistes that doesn’t go in any one direction it’s just wherever it comes from.”
She explained that freestyling the song’s lyrics was unintentional and that when artistes are creating content which is emotionally charged, the ideas can almost flow naturally hence her decision to freestyle the song’s lyrics.
For people who may think the song is a departure from her more popular work, or unique in terms of her musical capabilities, Layne wants them to see it as a homecoming to the soca genre which she still pays homage to.
“The very first song of significance that I ever wrote was Roll it Gal with Alison Hinds.
“After that, the song became so popular and then I ended up getting singed by Universal Records.
“I’ve never stopped working on soca music. While I wasn’t necessarily making the music myself, I was still working on it. Soca is just in my vein and in my blood.”
When Layne released her new song, she expected fans in the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America to respond positively given their familiarity with soca and Afrocentric beats. But she was surprised by the reaction of fans in the US and across Europe.
“When we started seeing the segments of my fan base that were actually responding, I was like…wait, what? Y’all actually know (about soca)? I would be having conversations explaining to people that this is soca and this is the music where I’m from.
“So many people also know that song Roll (by Hinds) and other soca songs, but they don’t realise that it’s soca they are listening to and they already like soca.”
Layne’s vision for soca, like many others in the soca industry, is to see the artform becoming mainstream to a wider international audience.
Working with Montano over the past several years, Layne also supports his vision to push soca worldwide.
“Working on Monk (Montano’s) team, that’s something that you’re going to be connected to very strongly because that’s something Machel is really passionate about.”
She also shared how the two connected.
“We both wanted to work together for a while after the official remix of Roll. But I’d say I got the ball rolling one day when I sent him (Montano) a DM on Instagram after he posted about working on new music. I said something in the DM like…the real question is when we working? To which he responded, 'Yes Shonny, I’ve been waiting. Look out for Che (my manger) we gonna set it up.'”
Layne said she received Montano’s music tracks to work with on the same day she sent him the message.
Being at home in Barbados, since the start of the pandemic last year, Layne has been working on a wide range of new music and hasn’t ruled out releasing a full-length soca project.
“I am strongly considering doing like a soca/Afrobeat project or like a project that just brings more of the style of music from our culture.”
On the topic of Caribbean culture, Layne also sympathises with those who are currently suffering from the carnival blues with the cancellation of carnival festivities around the world due to covid19.
Apart from Carnival, she misses visiting TT.
“My first trip was probably when I was in school and it was probably for a field trip. Obviously, Port of Spain is the main city, and everybody goes there to party. But I love countrysides. So, to be honest, my favourite spot that I ever went to in Trinidad was Toco. I miss you TT and I love you. I’m sorry that everybody is on lockdown and can’t visit.”
In 2018, Layne spent two weeks in Toco for a writing retreat with a team of songwriters working on new music with Montano. By the end of the trip, Layne admits she didn’t want to leave.
So, what can you expect from her in the future? With a number of singles in the works, Layne said fans can expect at least one song to be released a month for the foreseeable future. As a songwriter, she’s keeping busy and teased that new music for a variety of artistes are in the works.
Last year, she also appeared in a film called Joseph which also features Hinds. The film was awarded for Best Diaspora Narrative Feature at the 2020 African Movie Academy Award. It is available for streaming on Vimeo.
Despite her illustrious career, Layne isn’t blinded by the lights and keeps herself grounded.
“I’m just a child of the world, that’s who Shontelle is. I like to be active; I like to swim; I love nature and I love writing songs that touch people.
“I’m just a girl that grew up in Barbados that got lucky and get to work with all these amazing artistes from all over the world.”
For Layne’s new music subscribe to her YouTube channel Shontelle Layne, follow her Instagram @shonny246 or her Facebook page Shontelle.