San Diego native Whitney Shay was walking through cold, windy St. Petersburg, Russia, while on tour when she realized just how lucky she was.
“I count my blessings every day,” Shay says. “I get to make people happy for a living. I don’t know what kind of karma I have.”
Described as a “flame-haired stick of dynamite in a sparkling dress,” Shay is fortunate to have toured the world with her amalgamation of rock, blues and R&B—recently with her 2020 album, “Stand Up!” She’ll celebrate its release with The 44s and The Anthony Cullins Trio on Thursday, March 26, at Belly Up.
“I make high-energy, soulful rhythm and blues that makes people dance and feel something deep inside,” she says.
During her first 10 years in music, Shay has seen four wins at the San Diego Music Awards, a nomination at last year’s Blues Music Awards, and the tag of “future blues icon” bestowed by Blues Matters! magazine.
Last year, she signed to the German label Ruf, which has helped her explore the world. For “Stand Up!,” she tracked at Austin’s Wire Recording Studio with producer Kaz Kazanoff.
“One of my favorite memories was recording the duet ‘Far Apart (Still Close)’ with Guy Forsyth,” the singer remembers. “Within an hour we were singing together and cracking each other up. Laura Chavez’s brilliant guitar solos really shone, and the interplay between her and Derek O’Brien on ‘Equal Ground’ we jokingly referred to as ‘Godzilla versus Mothra,’ because they are both such monster guitarists. Then there’s Red Young, who’s such an artist on organ, and when we would let him rip—like he did on the end of ‘Stand Up!’—he added the perfect amount of soul to every track.”
She penned the album with her writing partner, Adam J. Eros, whom she met while performing at the Gaslamp Speakeasy. He worked across the street at The Shout House.
“I used to see him all the time from that,” she recalls. “I met him years ago. Over the years, we’ve done lots of collaborations, concerts and I sang a song on his album. For my last album, we started writing together. It was so successful, we thought we would do this record together as well.
“He’s an amazing composer. He went to University of San Diego with a full ride and earned a master’s from Berklee (College of Music) in composition. He also wrote a country album. To have somebody not necessarily in the genre, and well versed in other styles, was nice.”
Shay’s background is similar. She grew up in San Diego listening to ’90s country music with her mother. Shay spent her formative years in theater and even studied it at San Diego State University.
She got into jazz, blues and soul in the last 10 years.
“I feel so at home in these genres,” she says. “I’ve always liked strong, female voices like Christina Aguilera growing up. Now I listen to the artists she probably listened to—Etta James, Nina Simone, Bonnie Raitt, Billie Holiday. I’m at home in the roots music genre.”
“Stand Up!” has had stellar reviews and airplay from around the world. This marks her first primarily original album so, to her, this collection is like her baby.
“To have it be so well received is incredible,” she says. “It’s scary to be that vulnerable when it’s something so creative. Having this album means I have my own sound finally. It’s cool to know who you are.”
Shay will share that message at Belly Up.
“My show in San Diego will be a night of high-energy R&B with two openers—The 44s, this great roots/blues band from LA, and The Anthony Cullins Trio, who is awesome. My set will feature a horn section and organ and a lot of special guests. I’ll play my whole new album and a couple songs from my last album. It’ll be a night of empowering, exuberant, exciting music.”