Shemekia Copeland Interview: The Blues is Roots

Shemekia Copeland comes from the blues, via her own catalog, but also genetically, as the daughter of bluesman Johnny Copeland. And while she has expanded her sound into more roots-oriented music, she’ll never turn her back on her original vocation.

“It’s funny,” she says. “I sit on panels and stuff all the time. And you go around the room and you have to introduce yourself. And everybody’s like, you know, ‘I’m so and so.’ I play piano and saxophone. I can make a three tier cake. I produced a record. I did a souffle the other night.’ They have to give their entire resume. And I just simply say, ‘I’m Shemekia Copeland and I’m a blues singer.'”

That love and respect for the blues is what’s allowed her to explore other instruments, sounds, and collaborators from outside of the blues world, while still maintaining a strong connection to her blues origins. America’s Child, her 2018 album, featured guests like Emmylou Harris, John Prine, and Rhiannon Giddens, all fantastic artists, none of whom is known for their harmonica work. Uncivil War, her latest album, also has some surprises, including alt-country singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Isbell, bluegrass/country legend Jerry Douglas, and rocker Duane Eddy.

Where the blues has a necessary tradition of obscuring pointed lyrics to avoid retribution, Copeland is happy to directly challenge social and political institutions. Which led her to cover The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” a song she’s wanted to rework for at least a decade. While many, including Copeland, love the Stones’ music, their sexist messages are problematic. Copeland switches the song’s genders, making it a story of female empowerment, paying tribute to a beloved band while also correcting them.

If it sounds like all of these influences are pulling Copeland away from the blues, just listen to her vocals, which instantly ground her sound in pure blues goodness. And she’s not afraid to own that foundation, seeing it as a strength. “It’s so funny because I’m a proud blues singer and I’ve always been proud to call myself that,” she says. “I’ve never felt like it limited me in any type of way, by being that or calling myself that. I feel like people think that you’re limited if you call yourself this, that, or the other. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think about [Aerosmith’s] Steven Tyler. He’s a rock and roll singer, but he was classically trained. So he could probably sing opera as good as the next person,” she laughs.

Like everyone, Copeland is waiting for the world to return to a semblance of normal so she can tour her album. In the meantime, she’s keeping busy with her SiriusXM radio show on BB King’s Bluesville’s channel. She’s taking care of her son, the two spending a fun summer at home rather than out touring together. She’s also caring for her mother, who took ill during the summer. All while preparing to move to California. “You have to be grateful for everything and that’s me,” she says. “Trying to be grateful for whatever, even though I would love to be performing.”

Uncivil War feels like a continuation of America’s Child. Is this where you want your sound to be?

Oh absolutely! I just love the marriage of all the different genres. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple records, just marrying all these different styles. We’ve got banjos and fiddles [laughs] and it’s instrumentation that’s not used in blues music normally. And so I love that.

What would you say is the difference between blues and Americana?

There is no difference. I think it all fits together. I really do. Blues belongs in there. It’s roots music. And that’s how you would describe Americana.

Growing up in the northeast, did that make it hard to connect to more of that Southern rootsy sound?

It’s easy to connect to it when your mom’s from Carolina and your daddy’s from Texas. But I think it was a good thing for me that I was born in New York City because it just gave it more of an urban feel. Or should I say more of an urban attitude? Because I certainly have that [laughs].

Do you think women of color are making inroads into Americana?

Well, I think it’s starting to happen. I mean, gosh, you’ve got Rhiannon Giddens. She’s been in there for a while. But we need more. Definitely need more women of color in there.

Why do you think that’s been a hard nut to crack?

I don’t know exactly. I mean, why aren’t there a whole lot of famous black country singers? [laughs] You know what I mean? A lot of it is politics, I’m sure.

Does it feel good to know that people look up to you for the way you’ve been able to break into that genre?

I think it’s awesome. I do it because I love music so much. I think that’s what I love so much about Nashville. Nobody cares about genre. They just want to play great music, to play on great songs and make music together. That’s what it should be about.

Call me old fashioned, but I want to go back to the days where you go to a record store and nothing was separated as far as genre was concerned. It was just ‘where’s the so and so record?’, and all the radio stations just played music and they didn’t care. It wasn’t your rock station or your pop station or your this station or your that station. They just played music because it sounded cool.

You didn’t have any songs on the album. Is there a reason?

Well, I’m not that good of a writer. There are so many people that can write a song, but there’s not a whole lot of songwriters. I work with great songwriters. And if somebody else writes a better song than me, for God’s sakes, I’m going to sing that one [laughs]. I wish more people did that, you know? Because then there would be so many fewer crappy records out here.

Why do you think were artists don’t do that?

I’m perfectly fine singing great songs that were tailor-made to fit me. I’m okay with that. There are some people that are better fit to put things together in ways that come across in a way that people will actually want to listen to it. I’m a black woman in America right now [laughs]. And I have to admit, I’m very careful about the way in which I want to say things and put things out there.

Does that make it hard for you to write songs? Because you feel like you need to filter it in a certain way?

Absolutely. I mean, it’s the same reason why Kamala can’t go to a debate and go crazy, you know [laughs]? You have to be smart about the way you’re saying things. And I’ve always tried to do that.

Do you want to ever think about getting to a place where you can just let it out?

No, because I am letting it out. I’m just doing it in a way, that’s a better way. I am letting it out; it’s just that I’m doing it in a way that’s better suited for me. Through people who are better writers than me, and I’m okay with that [laughs].

Was “Under my Thumb” one of those outlets for you?

Oh my God, I love that. You know, it’s funny. I don’t like that as a man song at all. But isn’t it great as a woman song?

I think it’s like one of the best things I’ve heard this year because it was so subversive.

Yeah, coming from a woman, you can take it better. It’s like, I wouldn’t want to hear a man sing “Respect.” I know that’s sexist, right?

Where did you get the idea to cover it?

I’ve been thinking about doing that song forever. I’m a Stones fan. I love the Stones. And I’ve been thinking about that song. And it’s funny because I listened to that song for years. And I was like, ‘No, unh-unh, no, No! [laughs]’. But then I sing it and it seems just that much better. You know what? Not a better version because gosh, no one wants to say they’re better than the Stones. I mean just as a woman singing about a man that way, versus the opposite.

I’m surprised that you don’t enjoy the songwriting process more. You have such a strong perspective

Well, I do write. What I’m just saying is there are other people that write better. I write all the time. I just know, like I said, there’s a difference between people who write songs and people who are songwriters. Because to me, songwriters can put it out there in a way that is poetic. Like Bob Dylan could and Joni Mitchell. John Prine. Even Sam Cooke and people like that. It’s just they have a way of doing what they do. And I haven’t mastered that. I’m way more literal. My writing is the way I speak. And that’s not always a good thing. And the difference between me and others is I know that [laughs].

Do you have a favorite moment on the record?

There’s so many favorite moments on this record. You got “Clotilda’s on Fire,” which is such a story that should be out there for people. They abolish slavery in 1807. And sixty years later they were still bringing bodies across illegally, and they never got in trouble for it. And my ancestors came over on those ships. I don’t know which one, but I know I’m 87% African, so I had to get in some kind of way, right? And, to me, the number one moment of that song is “We’re still living with her ghosts.” Because there’s no reason why here in America a black person should have to hold up a sign that says, ‘I’m human. My life matters.’ That’s crazy, right? So that song just sticks with me.

And then you know, culturally, we’ve always had to go through things. And that’s where “Walk Until I Ride” comes in. It’s like, ‘I’m just gonna keep on going and I’m gonna walk with my head held high. And you can’t take my freedom. You can’t take my pride. I’m just gonna walk until I ride.’

And then “Uncivil War,” like, how long do we have to go through this crap? I mean, really, in America, in 2020? I’ve got a three and a half year old kid. I don’t want him to have to keep going through this stuff. Gosh, I don’t even want him to know what happened in 2020. And to know what’s going on right now. It’s bad. You’re scared, even talk to your kids. It’s just a terrible time. And I’m really upset because normally I’d be able to tour these songs. And I’d be able to go out on the road and talk about the songs and let people know how I’m feeling and what’s going on. And I can’t do that. So that’s being taken away from me. So it’s very, very, very tough.

And what do you like about working with America’s Child/Uncivil War producer/guitarist Will Kimbrough?

Oh, my God. So I’m just fortunate. I’m fortunate because [songwriter/manager] John Hahn, Will Kimbrough, and myself, we are really like the dream team. This is what I’ve been working towards for the past 20 years, is this right here. What we’re doing right now. And John, I’ve been talking to every day on the phone since I’m eight years old. He just gets me. And then Will, same thing. I mean, the second that we met, we just clicked. It was like, this is it. And I just feel like we make magic together. I just hope everybody else feels the same way. It doesn’t matter how I feel [laughs], hopefully everybody else feels the same way.

Do you really talk to John every day?

Every single day. Yup. He called me since I’ve been talking to you [laughs].

So can I ask, not specifically what you talk about, but what kind of stuff you talk about?

Oh, my God, everything. I mean, politics, religion, social injustice. Other personal things just going on with me, you know? And here, for goodness sakes, the whole conversation is politics. That’s what everybody’s talking about right now. That’s why I love that song “Money Makes You Ugly.” Because, that song came about from a direct conversation about how pissed off I am. I feel like, if you’re born privileged, it’s a blessing. It’s a wonderful thing, right? But if you are born privileged, know and understand that you are privileged, and that you’re afforded opportunities that other people don’t have.

Like me, even though I grew up right smack dab in the middle of the ghetto, during a time where crack was just taking over. I still grew up in a household with both of my parents, that were not, you know, crackheads, unlike some of the kids that I grew up with. I had hot food every day, a roof over my head, I never had to worry about eating. Well, the kids that I grew up with, they did. They had to worry about it. So even with that, even though I didn’t have a lot, I still knew I was privileged, where you have some people that are born, not even with a silver spoon in their mouth, with a gold spoon in their mouth. And they have absolutely no connection to how other people have to live, and how other people have to go, what other people have to go through not knowing where their next meal is going to come from, and things like that.

So I get really frustrated with those types of people who are completely out of touch with what normal people have to go through. That’s how “Money Makes You Ugly” came about. I was very angry at something that one of Trump’s kids said, ‘Well, if you want more money, all you got to do and work harder.’ Meanwhile, you know, I know a bunch of people that work, you know, 60, 70 hour weeks, and they still can’t make ends meet. So what are you talking about? So this is how some of these things come about.

Steven Ovadia

Steven Ovadia interviews blues artists about their songwriting process for Working Mojo.

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