At just 19-years-old, musician/photographer/producer/business-owner/creator-in-general Joshwa, better known as Shwa, has already managed to teach himself nearly every art form that he’s dipped his toes in. Clearly there are many. Shwa is determined to pave his own path towards mastering everything; however, by no means selfishly. The ultimate goal isn’t fame or cash (although that’d be nice), it’s to encourage future creatives to start from scratch just as he did as a sophomore at Fishers High School.
In the midst of his busy schedule of managing and producing at StoneTree Studios and snapping photos under the moniker of IAmShwa, Joshwa dedicated thirty minutes to chat with little old me about his upbringing in music, reaching his ultimate goals and aspirations, and Tree House – the soon-to-be art program for kids in Fishers.
Get ready to be inspired.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
WHERE THE CREATIVITY STARTED.
So, you recently graduated from Fishers High School. What are you doing now? Are you in college?
No, I’m not in school anymore. I graduated in the spring of 2016 and now I work at a recording studio that I started when I was a sophomore. I do that during the week. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday I work at a non-profit coffee shop. [If you’re like me and wondered how a coffee shop could be non-profit, check it out for yourself.] I’m just making music, photos, and coffee.
I had no idea you made music, too! Which did you get into first: photography or music?
Music. It’s kind of embarrassing but I got into music because of the Naked Brothers Band! [Laughs.]
In elementary school, me and my best friend watched that show and figured if those little kids could do it, we could do it too. We pretended we were in bands until like 6th grade and then we said, “let’s actually be in a band!” So, we picked up instruments we didn’t know how to play and just taught ourselves. Our band was called Nothing is Sound, and that lasted until 2016. We called ourselves alternative metal. Breaking Benjamin, 3 Days Grace type of stuff if you’ve heard of them.
Technically that band still exists, but with the studio and everything we’re trying to do for other musicians, we don’t have a lot of time to practice and do shows.
Is your current music in the same genre space?
No, not at all! When I was in high school I made a symphonic album using all of these orchestral instruments like the keyboard and violin parts. I like to do stuff like that. At the studio, I produce a lot of hip-hop. I do all sorts of different genres it just depends really.
You had to have so much musical knowledge from the beginning to do what you did. It’s not easy at all to just pick up instruments and teach yourself how to create these sounds…
I don’t like to give myself a big head and think that I’m super talented and amazing or anything…
Nah, you should toot your own horn! Do it!
[Laughs.] It definitely takes a certain type of person to be able to do music and to cross into so many different genres. But, it’s mostly that I just love so many different styles of music.
Did you parents encourage you to create music as a kid or was it something that you just decided to explore on your own?
My mom’s side is really based in music, especially piano and gospel music. My mom sang a lot and took piano lessons for years so she’s an amazing pianist. My grandmother was in college as a 70-year-old lady learning classical piano. So, she’s been doing piano for ages.
My dad played the guitar and he actually bought me my first bass guitar. So, I chose to learn to play the bass because I already had one. From a very, very, very young age I always wanted to be in a band. I feel really blessed that I’ve never had the “what am I gonna do after high school” struggle because before I even started high school I knew I wanted to be in a band. Music has always been the plan.
Music has always been the plan.
My parents didn’t really teach me, necessarily, but I was always around music. They definitely helped inspire me.
Super cool. What other instruments did you learn to play?
In that band specifically I played bass and sometimes drums. I also play the guitar, ukelele, piano, and a bunch of other stuff.
So the creativity started in music. When did photography come about?
I started learning photography completely by accident because I needed another elective in high school. I figured I could take photography and then I could go to shows, take pictures of bands, and just make like 5 bucks or something, you know? But then I ended up falling in love with it. I actually started my photography business with my best friend – the same one that I was in the band with. We were like “since we’re in a band and we record ourselves we can record other people and take pictures for them.”
PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY + THE STATE OF THE INDIANAPOLIS CREATIVE COMMUNITY.
I love your photos. It seems like you collaborate a lot with artists and musicians – is that mostly where you gather your inspiration? Is there any type of photo that you prefer over others?
I call myself a portrait photographer, for sure. I’ll shoot anything. I’ve shot a couple of weddings – which I hate doing! [Laughs.] They’re nightmares.
I started by doing pictures at shows but I don’t think that’s my strength. I think my strength is in capturing people and their emotions. I’d say my inspiration comes from other artists’ work, the music of said artist if it’s a musical artist, or just life in general.
I did a shoot with a pool recently and that was inspired by Lauren Sanderson – a female pop artist. She’s from Fort Wayne and really cool. Her recent EP is called Spaces and on the album cover there’s pictures of her floating in a pool.
Me and Madison, another photographer, came up with the idea to shoot in a pool and pay homage to that shoot. We just draw inspiration from different things.
The shoot with Ejaaz was literally me and Madison we walked through a Michael’s craft store and grabbed stuff off the shelves and just put it on Ejaaz and decided it looked good. I really like the way that shoot turned out.
I feel like right now I don’t particularly have a specific style that’s me I just like to branch out and shoot different things at different times that are inspired by different things.
The Ejaaz shoot was beautiful because when you meet him, his personality reminds you of a flower or something. [Laughs.] He’s just so positive and warm-hearted.
Yeah! I know, I love Ejaaz. I just recently met him maybe 2 months ago and now we’re pretty good friends. He just moved out to LA so I wanted to shoot with him before he left.
I just met him for the first time at Chreece. Did you get to go there?
Yes, I loved it! It was my first year and I can’t believe I’d never been before considering I’d been producing hip-hop for as long as it’s existed. I was blown away. I’d been doing music in the local scene for 7 or 8 years and I’d never ever seen anything like that before. Seeing it in unity like it was is awesome.
That was my first time at Chreece too. The reason that I moved to Chicago was because I wanted to experience a bigger community of artists or creative people because I didn’t think that existed in Indy when I lived there. I’ve realized that there are more artists here because it’s a bigger city, but the artists in Indy are actually a community who really want to help each other.
I love traveling and going to other cities for music and art, but I am completely in love with Indianapolis, Fishers, and the central Indiana area specifically.
I am completely in love with Indianapolis, Fishers, and the central Indiana area specifically.
I feel like I’m watching the next LA or the next Chicago be made. We’re just at the beginning of it and a lot of people don’t realize that. I have no problem with people moving to pursue their dreams and get more visibility, but imagine if all of those talented people who leave to get discovered just stayed here. The only difference between places like LA and NY and here is that there’s a much larger community of art out there than there is here. We have the same thing it’s just underground. We just need to peel back the layers and work together to do something amazing in the next couple of years. Chreece just reinforced that idea.
I totally agree. If we cultivate the culture in the Midwest, the industry people would have no choice but to come.
Exactly. Imagine if when all of the eyes are finally on Indy, they see a Chreece that’s 5 times the size of that. Or a Chreece everyday. They’re going to pay attention to us and will take Indy seriously as a creative hub. We’re in between Chicago, Tennessee, Detroit – all of these great music cities. We’re the crossroads of America, we should also be the crossroads of music and art. There’s no reason we can’t be.
We’re the crossroads of America, we should also be the crossroads of music and art. There’s no reason we can’t be.
Which is why it’s great that we have people like you in Indy doing what they do. Do you ever get discouraged?
I was lucky enough to have my parents buy my first camera after I got in that class, so getting started wasn’t too difficult. It’s keeping it going that is the hardest part. Honestly, two weeks ago I was in a bad rut photography wise – before I did the shoot with Ejaaz or any of the photos on that Twitter post – I was considering giving up photography and only focusing on the studio because I felt like I hadn’t improved. I didn’t think I was good enough.
But, that’s ongoing. It doesn’t matter what level of success you have or how many clients you have, you’ll always experience that internal struggle. But, if you love it, you can keep doing it.
But, if you love it, you can keep doing it.
MERGING BUSINESS + ART.
Let’s talk more about your main form of business – the studio. Do you have a dedicated space or is it at your house?
The studio is called StoneTree Studios, it’s currently at my best friend’s parent’s house in Fishers. We started when I was a sophomore in high school and he was a junior. It started out small in the garage, just a small modest setup with a cardboard box and a mic in the middle of the room. It was a pretty trash set-up. [Laughs.]
Over the last 4 years, we completely got rid of the big garage door on the outside of the house and built an actual wall and a door like an entrance to just the studio part of the house. We built a sound booth in there – you wouldn’t recognize it as a garage at all. My favorite thing is when people book sessions online and they don’t know that it’s in a house until they get here. They pull up and text the studio phone like, “I think I’m here…?” and we’ll come outside and they’re just iffy about it. But when they walk in they’re blown away because it looks like any recording studio you’d see. We have this big mixing board and super nice mics.
We’re looking to move soon just because it’s technically not legal to run something like that in a residency. Fishers is growing a lot and changing so there are a lot of places for lease. We’re looking to move out sometime next year and get out of Deming’s parents hair for a little bit. Bless them for letting us be here for 4 years – random people they don’t know coming in and out of their house at ungodly hours. [Laughs.]
It’s crazy because the way it looks in pictures, it didn’t look like that until this year. We shut down at the end of December for like 3 weeks and that’s when we built the wall and repainted the studio and got a whole bunch of new equipment. We did a Go Fund Me and really tried to make the studio look nice. We became a real business legally last year so it was time to take bigger steps and really become a business. We wanted it to look really nice.
Whenever I come to Indy, I’d love to check this out in person.
Yes! We have open house events where we invite all types of creatives to come out. We call them StoneTree Socials. It’s like an ice cream social where we invite rappers, guitar players, photographers, designers, painters – anyone who creates stuff – to come and hang out. We have live music, a bonfire, s’mores, and an open mic. I think we might do a drum circle this time. It gets pretty crazy! We do them every last Friday of the month.
I’m going to make it to one of those!
How hard was it to start the recording studio from the ground up and how many different resources did it take?
It definitely took a lot and it continues to take a lot. It’s difficult as a producer/studio co-owner because to make money I have to charge artists to record. But, for an artist who’s trying to make that his life, he doesn’t have any money – he’s working at a dead-end job as well and he’s gotta pay me to make the song to hopefully make money. So, the producers broke and relying on the artist who’s also broke. It’s just a hard situation because we need each other to survive. Starting a studio is the most difficult task, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s my passion.
Well, it helps that you have a strong support system in your parents and the other co-owner. You didn’t take the easy, traditional route – you were encouraged to follow that passion.
Yes, it’s great. That’s a mindset that me as an individual and us as a studio is dedicated to engrain in people’s minds: there’s more than one way to be successful. There’s more than one definition of success. Going to college and getting a degree doesn’t mean anything if you’re not happy and not doing what you love.
ENCOURAGING YOUNG CREATIVES WITH TREEHOUSE.
We’ve actually got a lot of plans to spread that mindset. We’re trying to get this arts club for the youth opened in Fishers called the TreeHouse. Kind of like the YMCA but for art and music. Parents tell their high school kids to stay in school and to study this or that, but we want to provide a place for them to come and feel like they can make a career in creativity. Art can be a lucrative field. Being a musician is like being an entrepreneur. You’re a business and a brand. You can be successful doing that and be creative and be happy. That’s definitely important to me and something that I try to get across to people.
You’re a business and a brand. You can be successful doing that and be creative and be happy.
You keep mentioning the shifting definition of success. At the moment, what would success be to you?
There’s a couple of answers to that. The easy answer is achieving all of my goals. But I’m a big thinker and I have a lot of goals so I wouldn’t say that that’s success. I think the right answer is success is when I’m content and satisfied.
Do you think you’ll ever be satisfied with all of your projects?
That’s an interesting question. I think so… but in my mind, I’m also very determined to get there. All of the goals that I have will be achieved. I have doubts and I’ve considered quitting, but at the end of the day I’m never going to stop creating. I wholeheartedly believe in them so it’s not in my DNA to give up. I think I’ll reach the point of being satisfied because I believe I will.
I have doubts and I’ve considered quitting, but at the end of the day I’m never going to stop creating.
I love to read interviews from really successful musicians, like Diddy or Timbaland. If you listened to them early on in their careers, they defined success one particular way. But once they got there they had already defined new goals and new aspirations. That’s probably human nature, right?
Yes, we have an endless greed as humans. We’ll always want more of what it is: whether more money or more success or more followers. But, if you turn that into a drive for something good like the TreeHouse art center, it’s not greedy. Maybe once I open one here I’ll want to open 10 more across the nation. If you put it towards something good, it doesn’t matter that you’re not satisfied because it can benefit so many people.
End of interview.
If you need assistance gathering takeaways from my conversation with Shwa, here’s the Cliffs Notes:
- Any idea is possible if backed by enough passion and hard work. Yes, that’s the most cliche takeaway I could think up, but StoneTree Studios is a living, breathing consequence of two friends who thought of an idea and ran with it.
- There is always a market for brilliant ideas. Whether you live in New York City or Nowhere, Montana, there is always an opportunity to make something better. Shwa recognized the creative gap in Fishers, Indiana and decided to cultivate his own talents to inspire others to do the same.
- You don’t have to be established in “adult-hood” to bring your ideas and visions to life. Shwa is only 19! And when he started StoneTree Studios, he was sophomore in high school! Start now – if you wait until you’re older or “wiser” you’ll only grow further from the moment that inspired the ideas in the first place. You also don’t need to start with a fountain of gold and endless resources to perfect your craft and make “it” happen – Shwa and his buddy started with the good ol’ guidance of the Naked Brothers Band.
Contact Shwa to book your next photo shoot or recording session. share this interview with anyone who’s in need of some creative inspiration.