Blues diva Shemekia Copeland delivers nothing but the truth

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Exclusive O&AN Contest: Enter to win one of three copies of Shemekia Copeland’s “The Soul Truth” by sending an e-mail to daniel@outandaboutnewspaper.com containing your name and mailing address and the word “Soul” in the subject line. Winners will be chosen at random from all entries. Deadline for entry is Friday, April 6.

At the youthful age of 26 Shemekia Copeland has arguably one of the most recognizable voices in the blues genre with her powerhouse delivery and soulful presence that literally drips with raw talent.

Copeland—the daughter of late great Texas blues guitar legend Johnny Clyde Copeland—was encouraged by her father from an early age and started singing at the tender age of eight. A decade later, Copeland landed her first publishing deal with the celebrated Alligator Records who released her groundbreaking first outing “Turn the Heat Up” to critical acclaim, which almost instantly made the young ingénue a superstar of roots music.

Three albums and numerous awards later (including a Grammy nod for 2000’s “Wicked”), Copeland is recognized now more than ever as a legend in the making. With “The Soul Truth” her latest, and possibly most significant release to date, Copeland proves beyond a doubt that she has inherited the torch that has been carried over the years by Koko Taylor, Etta James, Aretha Franklin and other soul divas of the past 50 years. Produced by renowned Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, “The Soul Truth” proves that Copeland’s vocal skill—backed by the phenomenal fret work of Cropper himself on the album—is nearly without restriction and transcends the boundaries of most contemporary roots music. She delivers brick-house vocals and unmistakable performances that touch the heart and stir the soul and leave the audience begging for more.

Shemekia recently took a few minutes to chat with O&AN over the phone from her Chicago home.

O&AN: As a blues performer, you have doubtless spent a lot of time on the road in clubs and the like. What would you say have been the biggest changes in the business over the years since you released your first album in 1997?  

SC: Everything is changing in the business, so we really have no choice but to change with it. We’ve been touring on The Soul Truth for a while now but the tours and everything are not like they used to be. Clubs on the blues circuits are closing down everywhere so there are fewer places for blues artists to play. Sometimes we just go out for the weekend and then sometimes we’re on the road for a couple of nights at a time. A long time ago I would do the big two month long tours and be out on the road forever at a time but not any more.

O&AN: Do you find that because of who you are as the daughter of a blues legend and all of the attention that has been drawn to your talent in the past several years people treat you differently or pressure you to live up to pre-conceived ideas about you and your work?

SC: I don’t really allow myself to feel any extra pressure because of who I am. Life is pressure enough, you know what I mean? There ain’t any need in trying to add no extra pressure on myself so I don’t think about what other people expect. I just go out on that stage and do what I gotta do and try to do the best I can.

O&AN: Your unique background clearly informs and inspires your music and performance style onstage and in your albums. What other sources of inspiration do you draw from for your work?

SC: My father was inspirational. My mother was inspirational. Y’know? My Aunt Phyllis. I’ve got a great boyfriend and I wanna be just like him when I grow up. All of these great people in my life inspire me to do better. They deserve a lot of the credit for my success because I couldn’t do it without them. Mainly, though I draw my inspiration from God. I gotta put him first before anybody or anything.

O&AN: There are a number of blues performers who talk about how being onstage is a spiritual experience for them. Do you feel that way about the work that you do?

SC: It is an extremely spiritual thing for me to perform and be able to entertain and stir emotions in people. The older I get the more spiritual I think what I do is becoming. There is just something about being up on that stage with all eyes on you. I saw Koko the other night in Joliet, Illinois. She had been off for the past four months unable to work. She was opening for Buddy Guy that night and it was a really great show. When she got done she was thanking the audience and she was so happy that she glowed. She’s 78 years old and was so incredibly happy to be up there on the stage singing for people who loved her and then she started crying. And when she started crying I started crying and so did everyone else. It was incredible because that’s just how wonderful it is to be up there doing what I love. It makes me so happy I could cry.

O&AN: You work in an environment that is predominantly male in an industry that rewards males better than it does females. How do you feel that fact affects you as an artist and a performer?

SC: I know that as a woman I’m a minority within my own genre, but I really try not to let that bother me so much and it’s hard as hell, you know what I mean? Men get paid more and get treated better. That’s in any business, not just this one so you just have to roll with the punches. I’m just grateful because people like Koko Taylor and Ruth Brown paved the way so that it’s not as bad for me now as it was for them when they first came through. Because I’m walking in their footsteps I definitely do not have to go through a lot of the stuff they did.

O&AN: If I may say so, I imagine your tenure with Alligator Records has helped a lot as well. I’ve always gotten the impression that they always treat their artists well.

SC: I’ve been with Alligator Records for a long time now and they have a great team of people who work really hard to do right by me. I have a great love and respect for all of the people that I work with because it just cannot be done without these people in the background doing their part no mater how small a part it may seem. Even down to the lady whose job it is to take care of my Web site, Beverly Howle. She does such a great job for me and I really appreciate her. I am extremely hands –on with every aspect of the process. Everybody has got my number and they can call me for anything. I’m pretty involved in everything but I’m actually going to work on how not to be so much. It’s a difficult thing to let go and allow someone to be in control but it’s something I feel I need to do for myself.

O&AN: What was it like working alongside such a great talent as Steve Cropper in the studio while you were recording The Soul Truth?

SC: This guy is so filled with energy and wisdom and knowledge it was amazing for me to find myself in the same room with him. I think even more importantly than doing the music that some of the wisdom he would share and the stories that he would tell were just incredible. It was a great thing. I feel like I formed long lasting friendships in the making of The Sole Truth. Now I got an Uncle Cropper too, y’know what I mean? These were not just producers, these are men that love me and care about me and are really concerned about me and my career. That makes it a whole different kind of thing than just making a record. We made long lasting memories.

O&AN: What is the next step for you? What are your goals for the future?

SC: I got all kinds of dreams and goals and aspirations for the future. But you know what? I don’t even think about that so much any more. I think the older I get that my mind process is changing and I have started to really just be grateful that I’m working and supporting myself by doing something that I love. I’m just praying that I will be able to continue to do that. At this point that seems to be enough for me. When I first started out I had it all planned out. By this time I was gonna have this and that. By that time I wanna be able to do this and so on. Now I’ve just started to realize all of that isn’t what it’s all about.

O&AN: Do you think that’s a hard lesson for people in the industry to learn as they are starting out in building a career?

SC: It’s a hard lesson for some people to learn but it really wasn’t so much for me. Some people have to have this huge crash before they learn to let go and just be grateful for what they have, but I think that when I create all of these high goals and such in my mind that when I don’t achieve them exactly as I planned I often feel a little like I failed. I have people always telling me how successful I am and I try not to let that affect me and just be grateful because I know so many people every day who just hate their jobs and the only reason they are there is so they can support themselves but that’s not the only reason that I get up on that stage. I get up on that stage because I love what I do.

Shemekia Copeland will be performing at the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar in Printer’s Alley Downtown on Wednesday, April 4, at 8:00 p.m.