Shemekia Copeland, Interview, Rock and Blues Muse

Photo: Mike White

By Kevin Porter

When Shemekia Copeland opens her mouth, you listen. The successor to Koko Taylor as the “Queen of the Blues,” as recognized by the Chicago Blues Festival, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois, Copeland’s music encompasses a steamy mix of blues, soul, and more recently, country. A powerhouse vocalist, her songs often address the social issues of the day, be they homelessness, sexual harassment, domestic violence and poverty. She has been nominated for three Grammys and won the Living Blues Readers’ Award for Best Female Artist of the Year in 2016 and 2017, as well as two Blues Music Awards in 2016 for Best Blues Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year, among others.

Copeland’s soon-to-be-released album, America’s Child, will likely win even more awards for her—it’s a tour de force with her usual passionate singing and meaningful songs that include guest artists such as John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Steve Cropper, J.D. Wilkes and others. It’s her first album since the birth of her son, and not surprisingly, being a new mother has affected her world view and the music she creates. She launches a four-month U.S. tour in early August in support of the record. A Shemekia Copeland concert is not to be missed, not only for her unparalleled singing but also because her band absolutely burns. She kindly talked to us by phone as she packed for a trip to Switzerland to perform at the Lenk Festival.

KP: Tell me about your new album, America’s Child. What were your goals in making it, what were you thinking going into it and how do you think it turned out?

SC: I’m very excited about the record. Going in for every record, I like to be current about issues and the things that are happening now. For me in my life, I have a lot going on–having a child and the type of world that I brought my child into, and the things that he will have to endure. Sometimes I feel like things will be worse for him than they were for me, because I feel like, in some ways, things are getting worse instead of getting better. That’s what the record is about—a lot of that.

KP: You have mentioned that having a son has affected your thinking or philosophy in making the record.

SC: Yes, definitely. Nothing like having a child to completely change you. You don’t think it will, especially when you are as old as I am – I’m almost 40 years old. But it really does change you. It really does.

KP: I keep telling my two daughters that they are going to have to clean up the mess that we made for them.

SC: (laughs) So you know exactly what I mean! And you’re afraid of what you left them. To me, things were simpler at one point. You go to school, and then you get out of school, get a job, move out of your parents’ house and start your own life. Kids cannot do that now. So many educated people that can’t get a job if they tried. Everything has changed for young people. I feel like for my little guy, it’s going to be even crazier. The record has a whole lot about that in it.

KP: That’s one thing I’ve always loved about your music is that you are not afraid to tackle the issues of the day. Your music not only moves you but also makes you think at the same time.

SC: Thank you. It’s funny. I say from the stage that I know these songs and these topics won’t make me popular among some people, but it makes me feel good that I can do what I love and still say things that are important. God knows I’m not trying to be a preacher, but I like to tell the truth.

KP: With the new record, you tackled some different styles of music than I’ve heard in previous records. I heard some Americana, and I even heard some country. Am I getting that right? Your records have always had a bit of a stew of soul and blues and rock, but this one seems to be a bigger stew.

SC: It is definitely a bigger stew. I was just fortunate enough to work with Will Kimbrough. He is talented in so many different musical styles, and it’s easy for him to transition into this, that or the other so it’s easy to mix it up. And then working with Rhiannon Giddens and having banjo on a blues record. I love that! Taj Mahal did things like that, and I always admired him for it. For me, to have banjo on a blues record and have John Prine and Emmylou Harris on a record, it really was a joy for me. These people came and sang this music and it wasn’t about the genre, it was about the love of music and making good music with good people.

KP: You just rattled off some of my musical heroes. How did you get these people to sing on your record?

SC: It was very organic. There was a show at the Civic Opera House in Chicago called Chicago Voices, and it was all different artists from Chicago representing different genres of music. I was there to represent blues, and John Prine was there to represent folk music. We also had classical and jazz and opera and blues and folk – it was just a big ol’ melting pot of music. John and I sang a song together, “Paradise,” his popular song among the thousands of songs he wrote. He told me he liked my shoes, and that’s pretty much how it started. His wife, Fiona, she’s a lovely woman. She works for this organization, which is right up my alley, called Thistle Farms. This group takes care of battered women and women who have been through hell, hell that we could never even imagine. She asked me to do a benefit for the foundation after she heard my music, because I’ve done songs about domestic violence – date rape and things like that. So, I’m making a record and ask him to sing on it. It just worked out perfectly.

KP: You mentioned Will Kimbrough. What was it like working with him? How did that happen?

SC: I met Will through Oliver Wood, who produced my three albums before this one. I absolutely love Oliver. He’s another one of those amazingly talented people that I was lucky enough to work with. He also wrote a song on this record called “Such a Pretty Flame.” When we were recording the last record (Outskirts of Love), Oliver called in Will to play some guitar on the record and that’s how we started our relationship. Of course, we fell in love with Will because he’s such a great guy.

KP: He can play just about anything.

SC: Exactly, he can. He did great guitar work on the last record, and there you go, another organic relationship started from there.

KP: You’ve worked with Oliver and John Hahn for a long time. I understand they bring songs to you, and you have a sort of veto power on whether to do the song or not.

SC: Well, it’s more than that. These songs are tailor-made for me. I’ve known John Hahn since I was 8 years old. We discuss everything – political, and personal and everything. He’s my go-to guy for these things and that’s how these things start for me.

KP: So, a conversation with him turns into lyrics and then music.

SC: Exactly.

KP: You’ve spoken in the past about how your singing has changed since you gotten older that you can move the audience with your voice in the subtleties and how you sing. Can you tell me more about that?

SC: That evolved by working with Oliver. With my blues background, I belted and sang hard, and that’s just what you do in blues. Working with Oliver, I learned that you can actually move the audience without that. It’s actually been a healthy thing for me in working with my instrument because my voice is all that I have. It made me want to take voice lessons and really learn how to sing. And I’m still a work in progress.

KP: You worked with someone else who I really admire on the new record—Mary Gauthier. I absolutely loved her last record, Rifle and Rosary Beads.

SC: Yeah, it is a brilliant record. I absolutely adore her. She’s really the biggest advocate for me so far. She has been so unbelievably helpful to us with this record. Just writing with John, and wanting to be a part of this record, it just means so much to us. We love her so much.

KP: She wrote two songs: “Smoked Ham and Peaches” and “Americans”?

SC: Yes. She and John got together and those are the songs that they wrote.

KP: She just makes it look so easy.

SC: I know, people say things like I’m a songwriter and they say it so nonchalantly, so casually you know. “I’m a songwriter.” Here’s the thing – there’s a difference between songwriters and people who write songs. You know what I mean by that?

KP: Tell me more about that.

SC: Technically, I’m a songwriter because I’ve written songs with John and with Dr. John, and I got songwriting credits. But that doesn’t make me a songwriter no more than cooking dinner for my family makes me a chef. People don’t know there’s a difference. There’s an art to this stuff. Just because you put pen to paper doesn’t make you John Hiatt. That’s a special talent. Mary is a songwriter, and a great one.

KP: I know we can go on and on about this next question. I wanted to get a sense about your father. I really loved him when he was playing and I know he had a big part in launching your music career. You started singing with him at age 8 and recorded your first album at 19. Can you tell me a little more about how he got you started?

SC: I had music in my house from day one. It reminds me of my little guy, who also loves music because he was hearing it in my belly. I was doing gigs up to six days before he was born. Music has been such a huge part of his life and I notice how much he loves it. The music, the instruments, all of it—he absolutely loves it and that’s what happened to me. I was around it constantly. There wasn’t no time that my father wasn’t sitting around the house strumming a guitar, writing songs and making music and that’s how it got started. I fell in love with the music. My father started to bring me out on the road with him, and I would sing songs with him, and bam, before you know it, you’re into it.

KP: I remember reading that he played a lot of different record types in the house.

SC: Oh yeah! He had a very eclectic taste in music. My father loved MUSIC. It wasn’t just about the blues. My father was from Texas, so you know, people would think, why are you doing country music? I was just at a gig the other night and this lady said, “I saw you with your dad when you were 15 years old and you were singing ‘I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” (Hank Williams). Country was a big influence in my house.

KP: What does your little guy like to listen to? What does he groove to?

SC: It’s funny. He knows his mamma, that’s for sure. But he likes all kinds of music. I love his reaction to classical music. He absolutely loves classical music (laughs). He reacts just as much to it as he does to rock and roll, or blues. It’s pretty interesting to me.

KP: That’s great. He’s going to be an educated music fan.

SC: Yeah, I feel like I’m doing something right with this little one. He loves music. Loves it.

KP: I only have a couple more questions because I know you are racing around, getting ready to leave.

SC: I’m packing while I’m talking to you, Honey. (laughs)

KP: I’ve always admired the song “Ghetto Child.” I think it’s a real highlight of your show and I know your dad wrote it. Tell me about that song and what it means to you.

SC: It’s actually depressing to me now. The fact that it’s a 60-year-old song and completely relevant today. It makes me sad to say that we are still fighting the same fight. It’s unbelievable, but it’s a great song that my daddy wrote about kids that were growing up in the 3rdWard in Texas. I grew up in Harlem and I don’t even have to tell you what was going on in Harlem in the 80’s and 90’s. I thought this song is perfect back then and now here it is 20- some years since I recorded it the first time. It’s still relevant. It’s unbelievable. It’s a great song.

KP: I saw your show in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earlier this year. I don’t know if you do this at all your shows, but you were walking through the crowd when you were singing “Ghetto Child.” Is that a staple of your shows?

SC: I try to do that often when given the opportunity.

KP: Just to get the crowd into it?

SC: Just to be closer to the crowd.

KP: You’re going on a pretty big tour. What can people expect from a Shemekia Copeland concert?

SC: My guys and I have been together for a really long time and we love each other and we love doing what we do, and I think people can kind of feel that. It will be a big melting pot of 20 years of Shemekia Copeland. We try to do something from each record.

KP: Congratulations on the new album—it’s terrific. Good luck on the tour. I can’t wait to see you again when you come out my way.

SC: Thanks so much. Talk to you soon.

For more information on Shemekia Copeland and America’s Child: