Shemikia Copeland

Shemikia Copeland

By Bill Copeland
June 2009

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Shemekia Copeland traveled a long road these last ten years since she released her debut album at age 19. Today, the 29 year old blues chanteuse is on the road promoting her fifth album Never Going Back. She plays the South Shore Music Circus this Sunday, June 28, opening for Susan Tedeschi.

An innovator like her father, the late legendary Johnny Clyde Copeland, Copelandís most important goal when she recorded Never Going Back was to take a giant step beyond what she had accomplished on her previous album.

“To evolve and grow as an artist and to let this music evolve and grow so that it can get bigger and be more popular. Just trying new things,” she said.

On Never Going Back she really stretched the blues into other musical territories. Gospel lingers in the influences more, R&B dominates a few songs, and she covers artists as diverse as Percy Mayfield and Joni Mitchell.

“To me, itĎs all blues. All of those genres are very close,” she said. “Blues and country and jazz and even gospel, in so many ways, theyĎre all very close and definitely R&B. So sometimes I like to take songs and blues them up a little bit. I like to try new things. I donĎt think blues has to be in a box. I donĎt think that just because you sing blues you have to say, ĎOK, this is what IĎm going to do: shuffle and slow blues, and thatĎs it. We shouldnĎt have to limit ourselves as artists that way. We should be able to do a whole lotta different things with the music. ThatĎs the whole point about it evolving and growing.”

Copeland had a great time working with Oliver Wood, producer and guitarist on all her new tracks. Wood stands out from previous producers sheís worked with.

“He was by far my youngest producer. He has a fresh outlook on music and the music scene now. Like me, I have old ears. I still listen to records that have been around way longer than I have. I just love the old stuff. I needed to find somebody who had younger ears than me, and he did. I want to work with him again,” she said.

Copeland, like her producer, understands the times she is living in, from a songwriterĎs point of view. She co-wrote her new discís first track “Sounds Like the Devil,” with her manager John Hahn about all the hypocrisy she sees in the public arena.

“That song has a lot of meanings. With all the stuff thatís going on right now in the world, you have people that are out here talking about how much they love God and love the Lord but then they do the complete opposite,” Copeland said. “You have politicians that do the same thing. The song is basically about people lying. That sounds like the devil to me. Itís about religious leaders. Itís about politicians. The song is about a lot of things.”

For this record Copeland has recorded the song “Circumstance,” written by her father, the late legendary Johnny Clyde Copeland. She felt her fatherís old song was very relevant to todayís socio-economic situation.

“I have tons of my fatherís songs that I want to record. I had another one in mind. But then I listened to that and I thought, ĎYou know what? That is the song to record for this album, with everything thatís going on in the world.í I mean people are losing their jobs. Theyíre losing their homes. A lot of people are losing their lives being so stressed out. They canít afford to feed their families. Itís just a really rough time. That hit me hard. You are not in control of your life. Circumstances are,” she said.

When asked if she felt a lot of pressure to get her fatherís song right, she answered warmly, fondly, knowingly: “No, my father was very original. He had his own sound. He was definitely his own artist. When I choose one of his songs, I try to do something different with it. I donít even try to do it they way he did it. He wouldnít like that. If he was alive, heíd be cussing me out. I just take his songs and do what I can do with them.”

When asked if it is difficult to follow in her fatherís legendary footsteps, she answered, “I wouldnít even try and follow in his footsteps. He wore a size 10 and 11. Iím seven-and-a-half.”

Copeland also said she has never felt any pressure because sheís the daughter of a legendary blues figure. “No,” she said warmly. “Iím grateful for it. If my father wasnít who he was, Iíd be another black chick that didnít know anything about blues music. I grew up in Harlem in the hip-hop era. Those kids knew nothing about blues. Because of who my father was, I knew blues. Iím so grateful for it. While they were listening to rap and R&B, I was listening to Koko Taylor records.”

Copeland is very unhappy that many black youths do not know that a lot of American roots music belongs to their grandparentsí generation

“It makes me sad. It also makes me want to continue doing what I do. At some point, maybe theyíll open their eyes and their ears about it, and theyíll realize that itís theirs,” she said.

Curiously, Copeland recorded a Joni Mitchell song, “Black Crow,” for this disc. Of course, Copelandís rendition is blues. She identified with the multiple modes of travel Mitchell writes about in that song. Copeland recited the verse that inspired her: “I took a ferry to the highway/Then I drove to a pontoon plane/I took a plane to a taxi/And a taxi to a train/I've been traveling so long/ How'm I ever going to know my home/When I see it again/I'm like a black crow flying/In a blue, blue sky.”

“I heard the lyrics for that song and I feel like she wrote it for me,” Copeland explained. “I couldnít believe it. I thought, ĎOh my God. This is my life in a nutshell.í I was like ĎHoly shit. This is my life.í I could tell you some stories about things that my band and I have had to do to make it to gigs,” she said with a giggle. “And just not being able to get home. I fell in love with that song, and Iíve always loved Joni Mitchell. Never ever thought of doing one of her songs until I heard “Black Crow.” For me, itís all about the song and the lyrics.”

Another song on the new album, “Born a Penny,” is her most autobiographical. Copeland said she relates to the song because modern U.S. society had made her feel inadequate when she was growing up.

“Growing up in America makes it hard for you to be happy with yourself,” she began. “You look at magazine covers and you see all these airbrushed, fake boobs, real skinny women with everything perfect on it. Thatís what you look at and you think, ĎIs this what Iím supposed to be? Is this what Iím supposed to look like?í And you get confused as all hell.”

“It started in my late 20s, when I became really, really confidant in who I am, and I stopped worrying about all that bullshit. But it takes you a real long while to get to that. I think it would be a whole lot easier in America if it wasnít so much about losing this pound or having perfect teeth or everything being perfect, perfect, perfect. Thatís pretty much what the song is about. Like damn, finally Iím happy with who I am, and I donít give a shit about the rest of it. If I had a wish, boy, Iíd go into schools when girls are in elementary and try to brainwash them into not wanting to be that way.”

“I look at my niece who is absolutely gorgeous---who does not have any fat on her body at all--- and all she can talk about is, ĎOh my God, Iíve got to go on a diet.í What the hell is going on in the world when a 12-year-old girl or even an adult woman has to feel that way about themselves? That get a tiny little bit of fat and they have to get lypo. Itís just ridiculous.”

“Thatís what growing up in an area like this does to us. I just think itís so bad. We have to build the confidence of people. Not just women, either, men too. I was watching this thing the other night. This guy was already as fit as a fiddle. I mean lean and working out, but he did not like his chest. So, he wanted to put chest implants in his chest to make his chest look bigger. Another guy wanted bigger calf muscles so they put in fake calves in his legs. Iím thinking this guy is already perfect. Already lean. Already in shape. He just wasnít happy with himself,” she said.

Copeland still hasnĎt entirely escaped this mind trap, since being a performer forces her to focus on her appearance.

“I look at how much I even spend for products for my face and makeup. But I buy makeup because I have to prepare for stage. Thatís why I love that song so much. I sang it last night. Tonight, Iím doing a show performing with the United States Air Force Band, and Iím so honored that they asked me to do it. Iím in Washington D. C. right now doing that. Iím singing with a big orchestra, which is a huge honor for me,” she said.

A previous huge honor for Copeland was opening for The Rolling Stones. This happened to her shortly after becoming a huge fan of their albums.

“It was just a couple of years before that I really got into that and I bought all the records, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street and all of those records. I had become a huge fan of theirs. I didnít start out listening to rock and roll. I started out listening to blues, soul, and gospel. So when I finally bought all those records, I fell in love with them. And when I got the opportunity to open for them I was like, ĎOh my God, The Rolling Stones. I canít believe it.í,”

Copeland has been known to walk out into her audience without a microphone to sing the chorus from her tune “Ghetto Child” while her band waits silently for her to return to the stage. Copeland has no trouble belting it out so everyone in a large room can hear her. When asked how she developed such lungpower she modestly sighed and answered: “Oh geez, I donít know. God is good. I just go out there and sing the song.”

Unlike her southern forebears in the blues, Copeland grew up in New York City. She knows that her sound is influenced as much by all the music that played all around her as sheís influenced by her favorite blues records.

“Iím very urban. I didnít grow up in the south. So a lot of my subject matter is very different from what other peopleís would be. You donít limit yourself to what you want to talk about. One of the main things that growing up in New York and growing up in Harlem prepared me is for traveling and being on the road. I wasnít afraid to go anywhere when I first got started. And I was very cautious and street smart. It just makes you very aware. You watch everything. I watch everything thatís going on around me,” she said.

Copeland released her first CD Turn The Heat Up in 1999, when she was only 19 years old. There was a lot of pressure on her at the time, but it wasnít about making an album.

“I had lost my father, and I was going through a lot of changes at that time. For me, it was about life stuff. Like right now, things always happen in your life that you have to deal with. Shoot, three weeks ago, my Mom had triple bypass surgery and about two weeks ago my mother in law---my fiancťís mother----had to have surgery as well for an intestinal problem. Not yesterday morning, but the morning before that, my fiancťís sister died of cancer. So, youíre always going through some things. Recently, itís been kind of rough. I lost a great friend Koko Taylor, and she passed. So itís like, Wow. I got a left hook, the right hook, the upper cuff, and then somebody jumped on me and stepped on me too,” Copeland said.

Copeland had worked with Taylor a lot.

“She was a friend of mine. I absolutely adore her. I miss her. It was very painful. I was grateful that I got home and made it to the funeral,” she said.

Although Copeland wants to remain innovative in her approach to recording a blues sound, she doesnít spend all her time thinking about it. She doesnít know at this time what she plans to do for her next album.

“I really donít have any idea what Iím going to do. Youíll see. Iím going to take my time. There was four years between my fourth album and my fifth album. As long as it takes me the figure out what I want to do. Iím just going to take that time.” she said.

Copeland plays the opening slot for Tedeschi at the South Shore Music Circus on Sunday, June 28th. Stage time is 7:30 p.m. For tickets call 781-383-1400.

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