“Nothing has been better than ageing, because I think when you grow up in a business and you start out so young, it’s difficult to evolve,” says Shemekia Copeland. The daughter of the Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, Shemekia followed her father’s footsteps into the blues and started touring with him while still in her teens. She released her debut album, Turn The Heat Up, in 1998 when she was just 18. Now she’s just released her eighth album, Outskirts Of Love, and at 36 she sounds stronger, more heartfelt and more confident than ever. “For me, ageing has been one of the best things to ever happen to me, ageing and growing and just experiencing everyday life. You look at the world differently as a teenager than you do when you’re an adult,” she says.
“As far as being a woman, as I’ve aged, building my confidence has been a wonderful thing. I don’t think I even realised I was insecure when I was young. I think most people who met me would have said, ‘Oh she’s a pretty confident girl.’ But I think all girls have insecurities. The older I’ve got, the more accepting I’ve been of myself. Being married and travelling this world, going to Iraq and Kuwait, there have been so many things that have changed me. When you’re 18 you think you know everything, you don’t think you’re ever going to be changed and then you just continue to change, continue to grow, and you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s happening here?’”
That personal growth has a musical counterpart reflected in her new album’s stylistic range, roving over a landscape that includes R&B, gospel and even a stopover in country music. “It’s funny, I think I’ve always been clear that I’m a second-generation blues artist and I’m so proud to be called a blues singer – I always have been – but I think that blues music is evolving and it’s growing every day,” says Copeland. “I want to be a part of that, I want to be a part of the change that helps people to see that this music is great and it’s also growing like every other genre. I would like a young girl 30 years from now to listen to Bessie Smith and go, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ and then to listen to Koko Taylor and go, ‘Whoa, look what she did!’ And then listen to Shemekia Copeland and say, ‘Whoa, she did something completely different!’”
In the song Drivin’ Out Of Nashville, Copeland declares that ’Country music ain’t nothing but the blues with a twang’, while the lyrics address the plight of women in country music, struggling to be taken seriously and to avoid exploitation. “It was a little country and anti-country all at the same time,” says Copeland. “I’ve always loved country music but this song is a little mixture of all the crazy things that happen to women in the music business, and also talking about how country music and blues and gospel and jazz and all these different types of music are all so close together. We’re all related. We’re all cousins. So you really can’t discriminate against any genre because we’re all very similar.” The song gives a shout-out to country legends Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams and Charley Pride, one of the few African American stars to make it big in the world of rhinestone cowboys. “I like old country music and I don’t necessarily like all the new poppy-sounding stuff,” says Copeland. “But because of the new poppy-sounding stuff, maybe kids listening to country will go back to listening to Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and the stuff that I like. That’s the way I look at things.” While Drivin’ Out Of Nashville provides a tantalising dalliance with country, one of the strongest influences on the album has to be gospel music, particularly prevalent on the title track, The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On), I Feel A Sin Coming On and* Lord, Help The Poor And Needy*.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that her voice sounds right at home invoking the Holy Ghost, Copeland didn’t grow up belting it out in church. In fact, she only found her calling when she embraced the blues. “I never sang in church but I grew up listening to gospel music all my life and going to church, especially with my grandmother,” she says. “When I went to visit her, I would go to church with her all the time, but when I was young, I was so shy I never ever sang in church. I’ve always loved gospel music and I think that is probably always going to come out in what I do. And once again, we’re all cousins, all very close, so it’s easy to get into it.” Copeland’s stirring rendition of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s song The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On) demonstrates that their protest song has lost none of its power since they originally recorded it in 1973. If anything, in the wake of the high-profile shootings of African Americans in the US by the police, the song feels more immediate than ever. “I wanted to tackle that song because I couldn’t believe how relevant it is to this day,” says Copeland. “I love songs like that. I do a song of my father’s called Ghetto Child and it’s a wonderful song for that same reason, but it was relevant then and it’s still relevant now. I love that, and that’s what I love about The Battle Is Over.”
For Copeland, the song resonates with her experience of growing up in Harlem, a borough beset by violence and poverty. “Now Harlem is completely changed but during the time I grew up there, I lost a lot of my friends,” she says. “I went to more funerals than I can count, kids were getting killed left and right. That was more than 20 years ago. I always had that in my mind, in my head, and I always think about all those kids that are gone. So yeah, I think about that and I see that it’s continuing to happen. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Although she isn’t afraid to tackle serious, weighty topics, Copeland is always out to inspire her listeners. “To me, all music is uplifting and it’s all a way to help,” she says. “As I got older, I realised I can use my voice to be helpful to people and that’s so important to me now. On my last record I did a song about domestic violence and religious hypocrites and crazy politicians. On this record I’m doing a song about date rape, the homeless, so I’m really wanting to keep up with the issues, and that’s what I was talking about: evolving, ageing, growing, wanting to sing what’s on my mind. All those things are so important to me, but you can use your voice in a positive way to help people.”
Yet just as the blues can be a vehicle for protest, it can be seductive and sensual, as it is in Copeland’s sultry rendition of Solomon Burke’s I Feel A Sin Coming On. “I’m a big fan of Solomon Burke – I loved the man,” she says. “First time I saw him was in New York, I was 16 years old and I fell in love with him and I thought that he should marry me! I have a whole list of these guys that I asked to marry me and they all said no, from Solomon Burke to BB King, Levon Helm… the list goes on.”
Speaking of Levon Helm, there was a man who could lift your spirits with even the saddest of songs. While Copeland has never recorded anything from Helm’s catalogue, she says she’d jump at the chance, “because I loved his voice, I loved The Band”. She was actually something of a latecomer to Helm’s career though. When she was working with Dr John on her 2002 album Talking To Strangers, he invited her to a screening of The Last Waltz to celebrate the re-release of the album of The Band’s famous farewell concert.
“They were doing a big premiere in New York. Dr John took me to that so I was his date. I got to meet Robbie Robertson. Of course Levon wasn’t there but I got to meet the other guys who were still alive and that was so cool, but I got to work with Levon quite a bit because before he passed, he was doing the Ramble up in Woodstock where he lived. That was so much fun and I got a chance to work with him on that a few times. I just loved listening to him sing, loved his voice, loved watching him play drums. He was just a great artist.”
On top of the Ramble At The Ryman shows, Copeland and Helm played together on Lightning In A Bottle, director Antoine Fuqua’s concert film celebrating the blues. “Levon was the drummer on a lot of that stuff,” says Copeland. “He wasn’t well at that time and watching him just be so brilliant while going through what he was going through was amazing to me and so encouraging, because I think the music actually kept him alive longer.”
While Outskirts Of Love has protest songs and the defiance of Crossbone Beach, the song about date rape, the album remains defiantly optimistic and upbeat. It was cut in Nashville with Oliver Wood, of The Wood Brothers, handling both production and guitar, alongside The Wood Brothers’ Jano Rix on drums, percussion and keys. Lex Price, who has played with kd lang, Caitlin Rose and Taylor Swift, covered the low end on bass. On the subject of Wood, Copeland is effusive in her praise. “I love working with him, he’s unbelievably talented and knows what I’m trying to do and that I’m trying to be different,” she says.
Then there’s the importance of maintaining a positive vibe during the recording process. “I think it has got to be good energy all round,” says Copeland. “The producers, the musicians, the atmosphere, you just have to have good energy wherever you are. Nashville has a lot of great studios, a lot of beautiful studios, so we ended up recording in a nice studio, but gosh, I wish you could have seen the last place we recorded in. It was a hot mess, but we had so much fun and we made good music, so I think it’s about the people you have around you, the energy. You could go to the best studio in the world but if you don’t have that, you’re pretty much screwed. We have a good process – we don’t try to do it all at once. We split it up a little, which helps. I record live pretty much with the band. I think its preparation. We can’t afford to spend a lot of time creating in the studio, so when we go in, we know what we’re doing and we do it.”
That confidence and clarity of vision come back to the issue of growing and maturing as an artist and Copeland is not a singer to leave that process to chance. “About 10 years ago I decided I wanted to learn how to sing after having done this for years,” she says. “I don’t just want the music to evolve and grow – so do I. So I ended up getting voice lessons. My voice has changed a lot. I don’t sing the way I used to because mostly what I wanted to work on was preservation, so when I’m an old lady I can continue doing this without harming myself in any sort of way. And I’ll continue to study so I can continue to learn.”
Outskirts Of Love is out now on Alligator Records. More at www.shemekiacopeland.com
A Legacy In The Blues - Shemekia on following in her father’s footsteps.
Outskirts Of Love sees Shemekia Copeland interpret one of her father’s songs, transforming the blues shuffle of Devil’s Hand into an Afrobeat-inspired groove. “I love what we did with it and I know for a fact my father would love what we did with it,” she says. “My father had travelled to Africa and recorded there, worked with a lot of different musicians there and loved the music. We did what he would have done to it had he lived.”
The vocalist savours the chance to explore her father’s legacy. “He left me with such great music to do with what I want and there is no greater gift than that,” she says. Copeland started her career singing on stage with her father and says he knew she was going to be a singer long before she ever did. “My mom always told me about how they were bringing me home from the hospital, she was holding me and he said, ‘Oh, she’s going to be a blues singer!’”
Alongside inspiration and a catalogue of wonderful music, Johnny Copeland shared his secrets to surviving the music business. “He gave me a lot of great advice,” she says. “He said, ‘Never read the press because if it’s good you become cocky and arrogant and if it’s bad you become bitter and angry,’ and I can’t tell you the artists that I run into that have some of those issues going on. I’m just grateful I get to do what I do. I’m grateful because I know I could not be here able to do it tomorrow. I never felt entitled to anything. I think too many young people now coming up are just so, ‘I deserve this,’ and ‘I’m supposed to have that,’ with that attitude, and I’ve never had it.” It boils down to being mindful of your blessings. “You have to be. I’m very spiritual and I believe in God and I know I’m blessed. I don’t even know another way to put it,” says Copeland. “I know I’m blessed to be doing what I’m doing, to have this outlet that I have. I know I’ve helped people and to me that means more than anything. When a young girl comes up to me and says, ‘Your song saved my life,’ then I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to do on this earth.”