Shemekia Copeland Still Loves, And Lives, The Blues

Oct 10, 2015
Originally published on October 10, 2015 10:28 am

Shemekia Copeland has blues in her blood: She is the daughter of the late great Texas blues musician Johnny Clyde Copeland, and a lot of her early music sounded like it. Now, at 36, she's doing things a little differently. Her latest record, Outskirts of Love, carries the weight of her experiences and showcases the growing she's done since she began recording music as a teenager.

"I've lived a lot. I've seen a lot. Traveling all around Europe and the world — it really opens your eyes to things, and I wanted to talk about it," she says. "Whether it's domestic violence, whether it's date rape, whether it's politicians who are completely corrupt, I want to talk about it all."

And yet, Copeland says getting into music early had a big impact on the artist she would become. She stood on her first stage at the tender age of 8, singing a song written by her father; years later, she would go on to tour with him.

"I spent a lot of time on the road with dad and it was great," she says. "He came to me and he was like, 'I need you to come out on the road and help me open up the show and blah blah blah' — but he was full of crap. I wasn't helping him with anything; he was helping me, and getting me prepared for this life I was about to have."

On Outskirts of Love, Copeland interprets the work of artists including Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, ZZ Top, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Solomon Burke. She also covers one of her dad's tunes, "Devil's Hand."

"I certainly wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for him," she says. "I always say, I grew up in Harlem right smack-dab in the middle of the hip-hop era. So, if my father wasn't a blues artist, I wouldn't have grown up listening to blues music and gospel and country and soul, and I wouldn't have fallen in love with it. I'm grateful to him for giving me this amazing gift."

Shemekia Copeland dropped by NPR's Washington, D.C. studios to speak with host Scott Simon — and while she was there, she and guitarist Arthur Neilson performed a few songs from the new album. Hear the conversation, and the music, at the audio link.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Shemekia Copeland has a new album. She's in our studio and poised to play the title track of "Outskirts Of Love."

SHEMEKIA COPELAND: (Singing) Woman at the bus stop in a wedding gown, there's a ticket in her hand. She's headed out of town, carrying a suitcase, bound up with string, it was all that she had left since she pawned her wedding ring. When I passed by later, she had gone away, and a homeless man was holding a bouquet. Living on the outskirts of love, living on the outskirts of love. Little girl in the hallway with her dolly outside the door. That's how mama tells her to go and play some more. Mama's entertaining a special man inside. Wouldn't it be fun to go run and hide? Hallway's freezing. There's hardly any heat. It's getting darker on the street. Living on the outskirts of love, living on the outskirts of love. When you can't find the things you've been dreaming of, you're living on the outskirts, living on the outskirts, living on the outskirts of love.

SIMON: That was terrific. Thank you very much.

COPELAND: (Laughter) Thank you.

SIMON: Shemekia Copeland, her guitar player, Arthur Neilson, thank you very much for joining us, too. Title track off the new CD "Outskirts Of Love." You, of course, the daughter of the great, late Texas bluesman, Johnny Clyde Copeland. You did a lot of music in the beginning that sort of sounded like you were his daughter. You want to do something else now?

COPELAND: Yeah, I mean, you know, I grew up on record. I started making records at 18 years old, and, you know, you're really limited at 18 on what you can sing about (laughter).

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, you haven't seen a lot of life.

COPELAND: Exactly. But, you know, just aging and growing. Thirty-six years old now, I've lived a lot. I've seen a lot. Traveling all around Europe and the world, I mean, it really opens your eyes to things. And I want to talk about it, whether it's domestic violence, whether it's date rape, whether it's politicians who are completely corrupt. I want to talk about it all (laughter).

SIMON: Do I have this right? You were, was it, 8 years old when your father brought you on stage at the Cotton Club?

COPELAND: Yeah, about then. Yeah.

SIMON: Oh, my word. And what did you do on stage? Do you...

COPELAND: I did a song called "Stingy" my daddy wrote. (Singing) I got a boy, sweet as he can be. The only fault he got that I can see, he too stingy, stingy with the love for me.

SIMON: (Laughter).

COPELAND: It's completely ridiculous at 8 years.

SIMON: (Laughter) ...As an 8-year-old girl. Oh, my word.

COPELAND: I know (laughter). Exactly, I was talking about my daddy, I guess (laughter).

SIMON: Was it good to travel with your father during those years?

COPELAND: You know, I did. I spent - mostly it was the last two years - about from ages 16 to 18. I spent a lot of time on the road with dad, and it was great. I mean, he came to me, and he was like, you know, I need to come out on the road and help me, you know, open up the show and blah, blah, blah, you know, stuff like that. But he was full of crap.

SIMON: (Laughter).

COPELAND: He was helping me all along. I wasn't helping him with anything. He was helping me and getting me prepared for this life I was about to have, you know?

SIMON: Yeah. This CD has a lot of original material, but you also interpret some tunes here.

COPELAND: Yes.

SIMON: Songs that are made famous by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, ZZ Top, Creedance Clearwater, Solomon Burke - "I Feel A Sin Comin' On."

COPELAND: Yeah.

SIMON: Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL A SIN COMIN' ON")

COPELAND: (Singing) He just sits there, his eyes on me. I shake with temptation, just knowing what it could be. I ought to go home. I've been here too long, oh, yes, I have. 'Cause I, I feel a sin, I say I feel a sin right now. Amen, I feel a sin right now, I feel a sin comin' on.

SIMON: Boy, that's a very powerful song. What do you try and put into an interpretation of a classic like that?

COPELAND: I guess you just jump inside of it. In that particular song, I put myself, you know, in a bar as a lonely woman looking for a little bit of love (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

COPELAND: You know, so you just jump inside of it and try to become it, you know.

SIMON: But you feel a sin coming on?

COPELAND: You feel a sin coming on, yeah.

SIMON: Loneliness will make people do stuff.

COPELAND: That's right. It sure will.

SIMON: Yeah.

COPELAND: Yeah, it sure will.

SIMON: Do you make it a point to include one of your father's songs...

COPELAND: Every record...

SIMON: Yeah.

COPELAND: ...Every record that I've done so far. I mean, I certainly wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for him. So I always say I grew up in Harlem, right smack dab in the middle of the hip-hop era. So if my father wasn't a blues artist, I wouldn't have grown up listening to blues music and gospel and country and soul. And I wouldn't have fallen in love with it. So I'm grateful to him for giving me this amazing gift.

SIMON: Yeah. The song of your father's that you do on this album is "Devil's Hand."

COPELAND: Yes.

SIMON: What made you choose that one?

COPELAND: It just seemed perfect for this record. I have a hard time every record picking the one that I want to do 'cause there's, like, at least, you know, 40 that I want to do. But I thought this one was perfect for this record. I mean, everybody's on the outskirts of something, whether it's homelessness - love, you know, you can't find what you're dreaming of. And this song is about having the devil trying to come in and screw your life up (laughter). And that's - like, everybody's going through that.

SIMON: No need to take that personally, that's just his business, right? That's why he's here.

(LAUGHTER)

COPELAND: Right, that's his business. Exactly, and so I thought, wow, this one fits perfectly, Dad. This one fits perfectly.

SIMON: Well, I'd like you - could you play us out on it?

COPELAND: Absolutely.

SIMON: Well, let me thank you first. Shemekia Copeland along with Arthur Neilson here on guitar. Her new album is called "Outskirts Of Love." Let's listen now to "Devil's Hand."

COPELAND: (Singing) Woke up early one morning, saw the devil playing his hand. Woke up early one morning, saw the devil playing his hand. You know he wrecked my life, just like a hurricane. When you're playing with the devil... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.