Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Shemekia Copeland, at age 36, is arguably the top female blues singer in the world today and the release of her latest album, Outskirts of Love, should be a major event.
At the age of 16, Copeland began to accompany her father on tour and eventually opened shows for her dad. Two years later, she made her critically acclaimed recording debut for Alligator with Turn the Heat Up. Three more Alligator albums followed as Copeland recorded with famous name producers such as Dr. John and Steve Cropper. Along the way she garnered eight Blues Music Awards,several Grammy nominations and a number of Living Blues Awards including that publication’s ultimate honor as 2010 Blues Artist Of The Year. Her 2012 album, 33 1/3, on the Telarc label, was nominated for a Grammy.
The list of legends with whom she has performed is a virtual Who’s Who of rock and blues: the late B.B. King, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Carlos Santana. Copeland has opened for the Rolling Stones and played the White House. Pretty heady stuff for a singer only a little over halfway through her thirties.
We had a chance to sit down with the award-winning blues singer before her recent concert at Chicago's historic Old Town School Of Folk Music, touching on a variety of topics including her new album Outskirts Of Love and Copeland's return to her original label, Chicago's homegrown Alligator Records.
Q: After two albums on the Telarc label, your latest album is on Alligator Records where you started out. How does it feel to be back, Shemekia?
A: It feels great. Love those guys. Alligator is a great label and they work so hard. I was glad that I left but I'm happy to be back. I'm stronger now. I know more of who I am.
Q: The record business has changed quite a bit, even since you got started. Are you back with Alligator for multiple albums or on a project to project basis?
A: Yes, I think album to album but that is just the way things are done now. It's not like you sign and have this huge record deal. Now you don't know what's gonna happen. Bruce Iglauer (Alligator Records owner/founder) and I had these conversations and I told him that we always made a record every two years. I didn't realize it at the time, I was so young. When you are making records that often, it doesn't leave time for life to happen. You make a record and then you're on tour. You make another and you don't get to grow and figure out anything because you are constantly busy. So, in between my last Alligator album and my first record on Telarc, it was over four years and it was wonderful. I really needed that time. Now I know I need time to make records. I like to be able to have something to say. What I'm putting out in the universe is very important to me. So now I don't think it's a problem when I say, No, I'm not ready, I don't have anything to say yet.
Q: You've stated previously that you really want to express yourself on issues of today. Listening to your last couple of albums including the new one, Outskirts Of Love, it sounds like you are really doing that. Your songwriters are really hitting contemporary issues such as homelessness, poverty and date rape.
A: Those songs are tailor made to me period.
Q: Do you ever help out with the songwriting process?
A: People ask me all the time about writing and I do write but I'm not a songwriter.
Unfortunately, too many people fancy themselves songwriters when they are just somebody who wrote a song. There's a big difference. There's an art behind it. You wouldn't want just anybody to get up there and sing when they really don't know how. There's an art to these things and if somebody writes a better song than I would, it's my obligation to do it and not mine. I truly believe that.
Q: You've tried writing songs before.
A: I've written songs on other records but just lately I've felt I don't need to be Shemekia Copeland, singer, songwriter, dancer, poet! It's not important to me to have all those things over my name. I don't need to be the master of everything. People thinking that they can write and record have helped with the death of this business. It used to be about an entire record. People would listen from beginning to end. At some point it became: I just need one hit song on this record and the rest can just be crap! I don't even care! So then people think, I can just download one song 'cause the rest of the record sucks. And it shouldn't be that way.
Q: On Outskirts Of Love, you dealt with some issues ripped from today's headlines. There's “Crossbone Beach” with date rape and the allegations against Bill Cosby. And also “Cardboard Box”, about the homeless.
A: I'm glad the Pope was here and decided to have lunch with the homeless instead of the Senate. Because we just pass over these people like they don't exist. It's like they're not even there. We go about our lives but I'm sure these people have very interesting stories. The next thing I want to do is going to be about older people. I love older people. I find myself initiating conversations and wanting to talk because they're filled with all this information. There's these amazing people with amazing lives but yet they get passed over too. And not treated well. So that's another record.
Q: John Prine, a man who is pretty important to this place, Old Town School Of Folk Music, wrote some great songs about aging, “Angel From Montgomery”. Bonnie Raitt sang that. And also, “Hello In There”.
A: Yes, I love that song.
Q: Five years ago, when you last spoke to Chicago Blues Guide, you were asked about the state of the blues which seemed to be a little down at the time. Now in 2015, B.B. King just passed; but Buddy Guy is still out there going strong. We have a fair number of blues clubs here in Chicago. You travel around the country and the world, Shemekia. How's the blues doing these days?
A: I think it's fine. There's always this new stuff that comes out. It always happens, it's recycled and then people go back to the original stuff, to the root of it and that's why I think it's always going to be ok. I try not to worry about it.
Q: You are out on the road a lot and your husband, Orlando Wright plays bass with Buddy Guy's band which is pretty active too. How do you keep it together with your marriage?
A: When I met my husband, he was doing what he does and I was doing this. It just came with the relationship. It's not like we met and I was at home and never went anywhere. It's always been the nature of our relationship and it's never been a problem.
Q: Do you want to have children?
A: I don't know what's going to happen but I do know this. I'm 36 and I have to make a decision soon.
Q: Queen Latifah played Bessie Smith recently in a film and Jennifer Hudson crossed over in Dreamgirls awhile back. Do you have any aspirations to act?
A: No, I've never done that. I'm not sure. I enjoy doing what I do. If there's an opportunity that comes up where I could try to do something like that, I might.
Q: A few years ago you were officially declared the New Queen Of The Blues which must be very gratifying but at the same time, aren't there expectations and sometimes things people don't think you should do?
A: It doesn't matter, I don't pay attention to it. Because I know that Koko Taylor would be happy about what I'm doing. Trying to be original and do my own thing. And not try to do exactly what she was doing.
Q: Koko would branch out every now and then. The last time I saw her sing live was with Styx on a new version of “Blue Collar Man” she recorded with them.
A: Yes, she would love that. People have said you should do a whole record of Koko Taylor songs. Why? She did that and was amazing at it. So, one Koko Taylor song every now and then, sure but I'm trying to be Shemekia Copeland. That's enough of a job in and of itself!
Q: You keep the legacy of your dad, bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland alive. Just about every album, you do another of his songs. This time it was “Devil's Hand”. Is that one of your favorites?
A:They are all my favorites. I liked that one for this record. I try to pick the right one for the record. It gets harder all the time. But this was the one I wanted.
Q: Your father got more acclaim near the end of his career with better distribution for his records. He'd paid his dues for a long time. Of course you were touring with him when you were quite young since he recognized your talent
A: I was fortunate. He said Baby, come out and help me out. I wasn't helping him with anything. He was helping me. And I'm still paying my dues.
Q: What's next for you? Any goals that you want to accomplish?
A: There are so many things that I haven't accomplished. But right now I live in the present. Because the future, you just have no clue what's going to happen. So many cool things have happened to me, like being at the White House. I have a pretty good schedule coming up and I'll be on the road a lot, doing gigs. That's what my next eighteen months is going to look like.
Q: Were you on the road all summer?
A: No, I started in September. The record (Outskirts of Love) came out on September 11th.
Q: How is it doing so far with sales and on the charts?
A: I guess it's doing ok, there's so many things I don't pay attention to. That's one of them. I usually don't read articles. My father gave me the best advice. Never read the press. If you read it and it's positive, you become cocky and arrogant. If it's bad, you get bitter and angry. You don't want to be any of that. But I did read your review because John my manager said, you gotta read it. So I did and thank you!
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say today?
A: I think everybody kind of knows from my records what angers me. But
there's nothing really better for me than aging, living and just
checking out the world that I live in. As a kid you look at the world so
differently then you do as an adult. It's amazing. I never paid any
Q: Well, you hit all these issues: economics, homelessness and sexual abuse in your new album. You're pretty pleased with it, aren't you?
A: I'm very happy with it.
Q: It's a varied record musically and thematically, also with some great classic covers and notable guests such as Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Robert Randolph and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
A: Thank you.
Q: We are glad your home is right here in Chicago.
A: I like Chicago. One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was moving here. It's a great city to be part of. And the folks here are so supportive of all music, sports and the arts.
If they get behind something, they're behind it and they stick to it. You just can't ask for anything better.