by ADAM TRACEY
It only 14 years old, Amanda Shaw has achieved more than most adults twice her age. She has studied violin under a world-renowned Russian violinist. She has released three albums. She has performed for thousands of cheering and welcoming fans. And now she has won a “Best of the Beat” Award, given by New Orleans-based OffBeat Magazine, for “Best Cajun Album of 2004.” But through it all, this young girl from St. Tammany Parish has kept a mature sense of humility and appreciation for a life that is, as Amanda herself describes it, truly fortunate.
Amanda’s story began about 10 years ago, when she was only 4 years old, while she was watching an orchestra perform on television one day. “It all started because I was watching TV,” the bubbly youngster says. “See, this is what TV does for you. It’s a good thing. It was educational [TV] because they showed an orchestra playing, and they showed the violin, and I thought, that’s for me.” And it began almost as simply as that. Neither of her parents was musically inclined, and they had no idea how to go about helping Amanda pursue her newfound interest. But, having heard about the excellent strings program at nearby Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, the Shaws brought young Amanda there immediately.
At the time, SLU was host to a Russian violinist named Dr. Yakov Voldman. When the master violinist – who once received one of four Stradivarius violins in the Soviet Union’s possession, an honor reserved for only the country’s best performers – heard of Amanda’s passion and progress at SLU’s ambitious Community Music School, he insisted on becoming her teacher. He immediately took charge of her musical training and has been guiding her ever since.
After four years of tutelage with Voldman and after having performed as a soloist with an adult orchestra a year earlier, 8-year-old Amanda appeared on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” Even though Amanda was mainly a classical performer, the producers of the show thought that something more regional might entertain the audience a little more. She agreed to perform Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” for the national audience, and so began her entrance into the Cajun music community.
Though Amanda doesn’t have any Cajun ancestry (“She just loves and understands Cajun music. She says that the music is ‘happy music,’ ” says her mother, Renee) she eventually learned the nuances of the fiddle by sitting in on gigs with Cajun musicians. By 10 years old, Amanda had formed the band she still plays with today, Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys. They released their first CD, Little Black Dog, in 2001.
After two years of regular performances at all of the major Louisiana music festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, French Quarter Festival and Festival International de Louisiane, Amanda lived out a fan’s dream when she performed onstage with Cyndi Lauper as an opening act on the “Cher Farewell/VH1 Divas Tour” in 2002. Amanda explains:
I came to New Orleans, and I’d seen that Cyndi Lauper was playing at the House of Blues, and my mom said that if we had the time we’d get tickets. Well, the House of Blues wouldn’t let me in so I went to the backstage door and begged her road manager to get my CD signed. He was so cool. He said he’d let us in backstage to watch the show for 10 minutes, and if we came back he’d get us to meet her. Well, he let us stay for the entire show and afterwards I did get to meet her. I also brought my fiddle and played a song for her, and after I finished, she started crying. She asked me to play with her at “some arena” she was playing at in a few months (the New Orleans Arena). So, of course, I agreed, and I got to play “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” onstage with Cyndi Lauper!
Amanda released a second CD in 2003, a Christmas collection entitled Hurry Down the Bayou Tonight, and she followed with her latest release with the Cute Guys, 2004’s I’m Not a Bubble Gum Pop Princess. After much critical acclaim for her sense of musical style and diversity, which inspired a cover of the Ramones’ “I Wanna be Your Boyfriend” (“Girlfriend,” in this case) and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys triumphed over a few Cajun standards for the “Best of the Beat” award. The day after winning the award, she expressed pleasant surprise: “We were so fortunate because we were up against BeauSoleil [with Michael Doucet] and Steve Riley [and the Mamou Playboys], and it was like, ‘Whoaaaa!’ ”
Amanda says she is learning to play piano, guitar and bass, which she finds challenging. “I find it hard to stay within the frets,” she says good-naturedly. “Whereas with the fiddle, I – OK, I cheat, OK? Sometimes if I make a mistake on the fiddle I kind of fashionably slide into the right note and don’t have to worry about frets.”
Despite all her talent and success, Amanda is still very much a typical teenager. She is in ninth grade at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans and finds school demanding but enjoyable. She says of Mount Carmel, “Academically it’s a really great school, and it really challenges you – at least it challenges me – and the teachers are really great!” Amanda says her favorite school subject, besides music, is math. “I like algebra because it all fits in with my music. I like that there’s an actual solution; there’s a wrong answer and a right answer.”
Like many of her classmates, Amanda also has college plans in mind. However, with a levelheaded wittiness, she says that her coursework will not necessarily focus on music. “I’d love to go probably for law or business so that one day, when I’m old and crippled and they say I’m a has-been and can’t play music anymore, I can fall back on my law studies.
“I’d like to be an entertainment lawyer because I would have had the experience as a performer and I’d know what the performer needs,” she adds. Amanda also says she would most like to attend Tulane University in New Orleans. “I would love to love to love to [yep, love to] go to Tulane ’cause they’re so nice there! We [the band] play the Tulane alumni gig and the back-to-school thing for the freshmen every year, so I’ve become good friends with [Tulane’s staff]. I feel really comfortable there.”
Though school is paramount for Amanda and her parents, she still takes her music very seriously, especially her role as a Cajun musician. She has found it a challenge musically to expose younger audiences to her music without losing the Cajun influence in all the other sounds that make up her music, including roots rock, pop and country. “I think it’s important to bring that music to the younger generations and keep the Cajun influence.” Asked if keeping that influence is important to her as well, she replies, “Yeah, because there’s so many pop performers out there that are doing great, but I really want to do something very different.”
While music and school take up much of Amanda’s time, she still finds time for the community. Her favorite activity is to give free performances for schools and retirement communities. “I love going to schools and stuff and seeing different kids, especially if they play music. I also like going to retirement communities. I like to bring instruments and let them play with me.”
This past year, Amanda made her first foray into acting as a main character in the Disney Channel original movie “Stuck in the Suburbs,” a fun-filled teenage adventure that follows a group of friends on an unusual quest. The movie premiered in January.
Family still seems to come first for her. She speaks often of her younger brother. “My brother’s really smart. He’s 9 and he read the fifth [Harry Potter] book, which is like a thousand pages, in a week. And he didn’t read it for hours on end or anything. He would read it for a little bit and then go play video games or watch TV, and a week later he was finished!” Amanda’s family often travels with her to shows and festivals. They were there to lend support at her acceptance of the “Best of the Beat” award.
In the end, however, Amanda Shaw is more than just an average teenager. She has a talent for music and showmanship that’s catching ears and turning heads all over Louisiana and beyond. She is even looking forward to the challenge of perhaps becoming a role model. “I would be so honored … Hopefully, I would do the best that I can.” And apparently, she is keeping herself humbly grounded after such a whirlwind year. The word “fortunate” is a recurring part of her vocabulary, especially when referring to her current and past successes and achievements. Maybe we will all be fortunate enough to follow Amanda Shaw forward to even more successes and achievements in the future, whatever that may hold. •