Shemekia Copeland

Shemekia Copeland
BBS Interview

By Rachel Lee
April 2010

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The Regattabar is among my favorite rooms to see a show for many reasons: good food, great acoustics and it is intimate enough to see performers up close even from the back seats. It’s even better when you get to see a singer like Shemekia Copeland, whom some are now calling “The Queen of the Blues.”

The petite powerhouse took the stage in front of a packed audience and looked absolutely radiant in a shimmery silver top and black skirt. Starting out with “Sounds like the Devil” and “Dirty Water” from her latest release Never Going Back, she sang every song with complete self assurance and a vivid range of emotion. The pace of the songs which varied between R&B, blues, funk, jazz and gospel was also extremely well executed.

In between songs she seemed anything but blue, announcing her recent marriage and telling jokes. She mused about her time as a Sirius radio host before launching into “Who Stole My Radio.” Paying tribute to her Dad, the late Johnny Copeland, she sang a couple of his songs including the recession themed “Circumstances.”

The backup band was appropriately understated and never overshadowed her vocals. I also found it completely refreshing that she did the Joni Mitchell song, “Black Crow,” with its slightly askew melody.

Last but not least, for the “I Will Survive”-identifying females in the audience were the songs “Salt In My Wounds” and “When a Woman’s Had Enough.”

After the show, Shemekia graciously and warmly posed for photos and signed autographs. Later I had a chance to ask her some questions.

Rachel Lee: Where is home for you now?

Shemekia Copeland: Chicago.

RL: Your Dad was blues guitarist Johnny Copeland. Did you learn to sing from him or from your mother or both?

SC: I got music from both my parents. My mom never sang, but to me she has a beautiful voice. And of course being in the house with my Dad who was amazing--always playing guitar around the house and, you know, he’s just so musical but I would say from both parents. They both loved music.

RL:Did you ever think about playing guitar? Did he (Johnny Copeland) ever try to teach you anything on guitar?

SC: No, and you know it’s weird 'cause when I was younger I asked him to teach me to play guitar and he said: “I play guitar cause I can’t sing as good as you.”

RL: But he was an amazing singer…

SC: He said: “I’m a male and I need to play guitar but you just need to sing.” And he told me that years ago.

RL: Which singers influenced you the most as you were growing up? Koko Taylor?

SC: Koko Taylor. Definitely Koko is one of my absolute favorites and I miss her so, every single day.

RL: How close were you to Koko?

SC: I was really close, she was a great friend of mine.

RL: That’s so amazing that you got to know her.

SC: Yeah I adored her... and of course Ruth Brown, and a lot of male singers like O.V. Wright, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke. A lot of male singers.

RL: What was it like to open for the Rolling Stones? You were in your twenties at the time, right?

SC: It was cool. I mean, we walked into the Aragon Ballroom when we were opening for them and they were sound checking. I mean, to walk in on a Rolling Stones sound check--Mick’s up there doing his thing--it was so freaking cool.

RL: Were you nervous?

SC: I was so nervous but it was an amazing experience. Really, really cool.

RL: Did they have any words of encouragement for you?

SC: Well, no, because everything just moved so fast I don’t even remember much about that night. It was like a blur.

RL: On your recording The Soul Truth you got to work with Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere, among others. What was that like for you?

SC: It was fantastic obviously because Cropper, he knows music, and the man has created some of the most popular songs that are known to us today, and he‘s such a sweet, nice guy. He was at my wedding!

RL: Well, now that you mention it, can you tell us your husband’s name?

SC: Yeah, Orlando Wright (musician for Buddy Guy) and he’s really sweet and I just love him.

RL: Now when you work with a producer like Dr. John or Steve Cropper do you have a sound or a style in your head you want your recording to sound like?

SC: You hire a producer and any time I have songs I bring in songs I want to do. But a producer’s job is to find songs and create a sound for you.

RL: So at that time, you were going for the Stax, Muscle Shoals thing?

SC: Definitely the soul thing.

RL: You recorded the Joni Mitchell song “Black Crow” (from Joni Mitchell’s Hejira) on your current recording Never Going Back. What other new things are you doing or hope to do? It’s a slightly jazzy song. Do you want to go in a jazzier direction?

SC: No, no, no.

RL: That was just a one off thing?

SC: Yeah, I just felt like doing that song and I thought it was cool but I don’t have any intention of making a jazz record. I love blues and I want to do blues but I just think that there is a whole lot of different layers to blues and people just simplify it so that they think it’s only supposed to be this…

RL: Chicago Blues?

SC: That.

RL: On Never Going Back you do a song written by your Dad called “Circumstances.” Was that in response to the economic downturn we’ve been experiencing?

SC: Yes, absolutely. Everybody’s feeling it right now, you know, and it’s not our fault that the economy in the world is screwed up.

RL: This was written 30 or 40 years ago?

SC: No, “Circumstances” is not that old.

RL: The song “Never Going Back to Memphis” has been nominated for a blues award. What is the story behind the song?

SC: (laughs) Everybody is always asking me that. It’s a story, let me try to explain. I think the song is just about moving forward in general and for me that’s what the song is about, not stepping back.

RL: Will you go to Memphis to accept the award if you win?

SC: (laughs) I’m not going. John will be there though, he wrote the song. (John Hahn co-wrote the song with Oliver Hain) Oh, I’ll be back to Memphis though, I’ve been there since.

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