Davidson grad can sing, can write, can outrun dinosaurs

Jana Mashonee speaks proudly of getting her first record contract while attending Davidson College, of being nominated for a Grammy Award in 2007, of starting a foundation that helps Native American and Aboriginal kids find their way to college.

If you want to see her blush, though, say these three words: “The Dinosaur Experiment.”

The straight-to-video film – which debuted at Redbox locations last month and landed in Walmart stores Tuesday – stars Mashonee, 34, as a waitress and aspiring singer who spends the first half being harassed by creepy humans and the second half being chased by bloodthirsty dinosaurs.

Aside from dabbling in community theater while attending Providence High School in Charlotte, she had never acted before, much less carried a movie. On top of that, the $3.5 million production endured multiple work stoppages and ultimately took almost five years to finish.

In the end, “The Dinosaur Experiment” can best be described as ... we’ll let Mashonee explain this one.

“Oh my gosh,” she says, bursting into laughter and briefly burying her face in her hands when the topic is brought up.

“Yes, it’s a goofy movie, I knew it was going to be goofy, I knew it wasn’t going to be any Oscar-winning thing. ... I’ve looked online and there are horrible reviews; I expected that. But I wanted to get a chance at a lead role, to see if I could handle this, or if I even liked acting.”

And here’s why: Mashonee has had her foot in the music business since being discovered while doing song-and-dance shows at Carowinds theme park in the late ’90s. Nearly 10 years and three CDs later, she pursued acting in the hopes that film might help her music reach new audiences.

She got a bit more than she bargained for with this one. The film halted production twice, replaced directors midway through (an American one with a Russian one), changed locations (from northeast Texas to St. Petersburg, Russia) and sat on a shelf for a long while.

But Mashonee is used to navigating challenging, unfamiliar waters.

A deal with Curb Records

As a student at Davidson, she parlayed her warm, sensual pop sound into a record deal with Nashville’s Curb Records, with which she released several singles – all covers, or songs written by others.

But she says the two parted ways because “they actually wanted to market me as Hispanic, and I’m not Hispanic. They said, ‘You can be like Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.’ I said, ‘But ... I’m not.’

“Being Native American is really important for me,” says Mashonee, who comes from a family with ties to the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

She went on in 2006 to release “American Indian Story,” a concept album centered on the experiences of a young Native American girl. After it was nominated for the Best Native American Music Album Grammy, Wampum Books approached her about turning it into a novel; she’d never written one, so she deferred to a ghostwriter.

“When the first draft came in,” Mashonee says, “I read it and told them, ‘This is not what it’s about.’ It was nothing against this person, I just realized I had to tell them: ‘This is my story, I need to put in the effort – let me give it a shot.’ ”

She and her producer/songwriting partner Stephan Galfas took over, and the book was finished in 2009.

For years, she has lived mainly in Charlotte while frequently shuttling up to Greenwich, Conn., where Galfas is based and where she has an office and a recording studio.

“In general nowadays, there are two levels: The artists not making any money, and the superstars. Jana’s in the middle,” Galfas says. “She does OK. She’s not rich, but she’s not on the poverty line, and she’s able to contribute a lot of her money to her foundation. It’s not easy.”

Still, the girl who got her start singing Mariah Carey and Celine Dion songs at a karaoke machine in uptown’s old Adam’s Mark Hotel is now a full-time entertainer.

A turn at gospel music

Mashonee recently finished recording a fifth album (due out in the next few months), but also has a sixth in the can – a gospel CD she recorded a few years ago and has been waiting for the right time to release. She’s also weighing multiple TV and movie offers that have come in since “The Dinosaur Experiment.”

“It’s been quite a journey, and a lot of hard work,” Mashonee says. “But that’s why I forayed into each of those opportunities.

“Especially today, as an artist, it’s not just about having a music career, you have to have a movie career, you have to have all these different things. Because in order to have people hear your music, you have to get yourself out there ... even if it’s by doing a ridiculous movie.”