It took some coaxing before Shea Rose was ready to let her “little warrior’’ come out for the world to see.
Anyone who saw the Braintree-born singer’s bold performance at the Boston Music Awards in November, where she picked up the trophy for R&B/soul/urban contemporary artist of the year, probably wouldn’t have guessed as much. That night she lit up the room with a striking combination of raw energy and polished musicianship, leading her band as they fearlessly bounded through the myriad of hip-hop, rock, and funk influences that colored her 2011 mix tape “Little Warrior.’’ It was a memorable moment of arrival for a promising young talent whose path to success - despite passing through the Berklee College of Music - has been anything but predestined.
“When I came to Berklee I didn’t know anything about music,’’ said Rose, who performs at the Middle East Downstairs on Saturday, sitting inside a mostly empty Berklee Rehearsal Center on a cold Monday evening. As an admittedly shy high school student, Rose never played an instrument and didn’t begin singing until joining the chorus of the school’s production of “Hello, Dolly!’’ her senior year. Even her motivation to explore music more seriously came from the desire to avoid a 9-to-5 existence rather than any fervent desire to be a star. “Growing up I just listened to Top 40 or whatever was on the radio. I wasn’t interested in music like that.’’
Her talent for creative writing eventually led to translating her poems into songs, but early efforts at singing with a band of Berklee-based musicians left her frustrated by the gap between their technical skills and her more instinctual approach, and she decided to enroll in 2007, the final year in which applications did not require an accompanying audition. Entering into an elite music school as a virtual novice, she found the adjustment period trying.
“I thought I was going to die my first semester because everybody else had so much knowledge,’’ said Rose, who discovered artists like Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley while teaching herself guitar. “I’m not a natural singer in the sense of a Michael Jackson or someone like that. I had to really find my voice. People like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, who have such distinct voices - it’s not about lungs or about belting or the prettiest embellishment. It’s about the story that you are telling and really owning your voice. That’s when Berklee became a better place for me.’’
The voice that emerged from Berklee experience can be heard on “Little Warrior,’’ a hip-hop-inflected collection of songs that capture Rose’s developing dynamic sound on tracks like the brash “I’m the S***’’ (co-written with her brother) and the thrashing guitars of “Power (Rockstars and Posers).’’ On the funky stomp of “Jungle Fever,’’ she even shows an aggressive sexual edge (“Mr. DHL, fine as hell, I wonder if he’s packing more than the mail,’’ she quips). Yet her musical persona strikes a significant contrast from her otherwise quiet demeanor; beneath the warrior, a more sensitive soul exists.
“I have a hard time socializing with people,’’ Rose admitted. “I come from a very humble family background; my mom grew up in the South and I have a lot of her perspective on the world. So I think in order to in my mind deal with a lot of the poverty and pain in the world is through music, and if I didn’t have that outlet, I wouldn’t function very well in society. It’s hard for me, and I realize that more and more every day. So it’s my way to not become a hermit and lock myself in a room, but a way to actually talk to people and communicate where otherwise I would have a really hard time doing that.’’
My Angel Wears an Afro, Rose’s social outreach project, is part of her way of engaging with people outside of music through volunteer initiatives within underserved communities. Saturday’s concert, a fund-raiser for the Human Rights Coalition, an LGBT civil rights organization, falls in line with those efforts. More shows, including her first headlining gig in Boston at Cafe 939 next month, and more challenges beckon, but despite blossoming late, Shea Rose is now on the fast track to success.
“The ‘little warrior’ name came from a drummer I had met online. We had never met in person but it fit because I’m very petite and you really have to be a warrior in the music business. It’s a bitch. You have to have an understanding of yourself and of other people. It’s a chess game and you have to have all your tools to survive.’’
2011 Boston Music Awards best hip-hop artist winner Slaine confirmed he will appear on a star-studded remix of fellow award winner Moufy’s (best new artist) hit single “Boston Lights’’ alongside local heavyweights Smoke Bulga and Edo G. Moufy premiered the track, with costars in tow, during his performance at the Middle East Downstairs on Tuesday, but it is not yet available as a single. . . . Black EL & Durkin prepared for the release of their forthcoming EP, “The Collage,’’ in February by debuting the video for the single “Under the Influence.’’ The new project is their first since 2010’s “Color Commentary.’’ . . . Roxbury MC Boycott Blues, little heard since his excellent 2010 debut, “Irony,’’ also marked his return with the sophomore album, “Discipline,’’ released Tuesday on Thin Ice Records. . . . Stu Cat will be one of the local artists opening for current rap phenom A$AP Rocky at the Middle East Downstairs on Jan. 30. . . . J the S marks the release of his long-awaited album “The Last Days’’ with a show at the Middle East Upstairs on Feb. 9 alongside Retrospek, Famous Nobodies and others. (See Noisy Neighbors below for a review of J the S’s album.)