Blues singer Shemekia Copeland

The two-time Grammy nominee shares her backstory and demonstrates why she’s being called “the new Queen of the Blues,” performing a track from her CD, “33 1/3.”

When you follow in the musical footsteps of your legendary father (the late blues guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland), you know you've stepped out of his shadow when you're declared the new "Queen of the Blues" by none other than the daughter of the great Koko Taylor. That's the backstory of Shemekia Copeland, who's a force to be reckoned with in the blues genre. Since singing at the famed Cotton Club at age 8, she's opened for the Rolling Stones, headlined festivals around the world and won two Grammy nods. Copeland landed a record deal at age 19 and has shared the stage with the greats. She's even performed at the White House. Her latest CD is the Grammy-nominated "33 1/3."

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Shemekia Copeland comes by her blues credentials honestly. Her father was the late, great guitarist Johnny Copeland. Along with her father, her blues inspirations were Bessie Smith, Coco Taylor, Alberta Hunter, and Ruth Brown, with whom she had the honor of recording back in 2000.

Her latest CD is called “33 1/3,” and before we close this program tonight she’ll be performing a song called “Somebody Else’s Jesus.” Shemekia, good to have you on this program.

Shemekia Copeland: Oh, it’s so great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Tavis: It’s good to see you.

Copeland: Yeah.

Tavis: Before we get too deep into this, and you’re going to perform this a little bit later, as I said a moment ago, but I love the lyrics on this track, “Somebody Else’s Jesus.”

Copeland: Thank you.

Tavis: You think of certain blues singers, certainly women – and not even true for women. Men are guilty of this as well, in the reverse. But you think of women blues singers and you think of stuff like that no-good man did me wrong, and he’s leaving me.

Copeland: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: I love that kind of stuff. It’s funny, it’s entertaining, and there’s a storyline in it. But your stuff -

Copeland: I’m tired of talking about love, man. Forget that. (Laughter) No more love for me.

Tavis: You got some social commentary in this stuff.

Copeland: Yeah, I want to talk about politics and religion and domestic violence, and things that are going on in the world, which is what makes the music contemporary, because it’s relevant to the times now. That’s what I want to talk about, and I’m having a ball doing it, too.

Tavis: How do you do that, though, without being preachy, without proselytizing, number one, and number two, how do you do that and make it sound good?

Copeland: Very clever songwriting.

Tavis: Yeah.

Copeland: Yeah. I am so blessed that I work with really, really great songwriters that get the point across, bending it without breaking it. Because I don’t want to be preachy because I’m not, but I definitely want to make my point.

Working with the songwriters that I work with, John Hahn and Oliver Wood, we’re able to do that. Then I go back to some of my father’s music, which is amazing that some of it was written 40, 50 years ago and it’s still relevant to the times now. It’s amazing. So he left me with a lot of music that I can refer back to.

Tavis: Your father and the other influences I mentioned a moment ago that impacted your life and your song stylings, why was it, why is it important for you to take that particular tact?

You could be singing lyrics that are saying something totally different. Why is it important for you to use the music in that way?

Copeland: Because – oh, God. What I put out into the universe is so important for me. I want, after I’m long gone and done with this world, I want people to be able to look at my music and know what was going on in the 2000s and say, “Wow, she really talked about what was happening, what was going on in the times.”

It’s a history lesson as well as good music is what I’m trying to put out there for people, and it’s just always been important to me, because for me, I love this music so much, I love blues music so much, and I see the potential of it and I know how great it is.

I want it out there for the rest of the world, and I know that in order to do that, I have to do something different. I have to evolve and grow so that this music can evolve and grow. Which is why I do things like I had been singing for 15 years, and then I said, okay, I’m going to go get voice lessons.

Tavis: Yeah.

Copeland: So I can learn to sing, now that I’ve been making records. (Laughter)

Tavis: Now you’ve been making records.

Copeland: I’m going to go – (laughter) I’m going to go get some voice lessons so I can learn to sing, because I want to constantly evolve and grow too, so that the music can. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Tavis: How much, assuming that you have had some, and I could be wrong, how much push-back do you get for being that straightforward in your lyrical content, or is it welcomed?

Copeland: I think it’s welcome by most, and we don’t listen to the other folks. Forget that. (Laughter) We don’t have time for that.

Tavis: Spoken like a true blues singer.

Copeland: It’s welcome by most, and the other ones we ain’t going to worry about, because we’re trying to do something special here, so.

Tavis: How much of your success – your daddy knew you were gifted, and there’s a great picture, we may have it, I don’t know. I know there’s a great story of you being on stage with your dad when you were just. I think at the Apollo, maybe.

Copeland: It was at The Cotton Club.

Tavis: At The Cotton – I said the Apollo.

Copeland: Yeah, the Cotton – yeah.

Tavis: Right city, wrong venue. (Laughter)

Copeland: Exactly.

Tavis: Yeah, there’s a great picture of you and your dad at The Cotton Club. So you were on stage at an early age, but how much of your success did your dad get a chance to see before he passed?

Copeland: Unfortunately, not that much of it. He got to hear, like, the first four songs of my album, my first album.

Tavis: So you were signed.

Copeland: I was signed. He got to hear that. He got to see me perform, because I did some gigs with him the last couple years. But unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to see how well I did afterwards.

But he got to see it, and he already knew. He knew from a baby what I was going to be doing, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think you had much choice, did you?

Copeland: Yeah, I didn’t have a choice. (Laughter) I really didn’t. I thought for a brief moment, I thought maybe I’ll go into psychology or something like that, and I was like okay, that’s not going to work. This is what I was born to do.

Tavis: As I think about it, though, you are a psychologist.

Copeland: I say that sometimes.

Tavis: You think of the lyrical content -

Copeland: Yeah, I say that sometimes. I’m like – and then I get so many, I’m so grateful. I get so many people that come up to me and say, “Shemekia, you helped me with my divorce,” and you helped me with this and you helped me out of that. I’m like okay, this music is mattering. It’s helping people.

Tavis: On this new project, “33 1/3,” tell me how you went about – I know the title, as I mentioned a moment ago. So you – this is how old you were when you were, when you did the record.

Copeland: I was, yeah, yeah. It was I was 33 1/3; now I’m 34 and a little bit more. (Laughter) So it was a little bit my age, and then also the resolution of LPs, 33 1/3.

Tavis: Right, sure.

Copeland: So it was just a clever idea that John had, to call it that.

Tavis: Yeah. See, I’ve got to confess, though, when I first saw this, the first track that I was aware of was the one you’re doing tonight, “Somebody Else’s Jesus,” and I saw the number 33. I was like, okay – because they crucified Jesus -

Copeland: Oh, that’s right, when he was 33, that’s true.

Tavis: So I didn’t know what -

Copeland: I didn’t even think about that. Officer

Tavis: I didn’t know where this was going. I said, “But was Jesus 33 1/3 when he got crucified?” I didn’t know what the “1/3″ part had to do with it.

Copeland: Yeah.

Tavis: But I’m glad I figured out it’s your age and the LP.

Copeland: Exactly.

Tavis: It makes perfect sense.

Copeland: Then we put it out on recycled vinyl, which was also real cool too. So it was my first – I loved vinyl so much as a kid. I used to go and buy vinyl, and so it was my actual first vinyl album.

So I was very excited, and they did it on recycled vinyl, which was very cool. A new, hip way of doing it, yeah.

Tavis: You really are an old soul in a young body. (Laughter) That -

Copeland: Well, thank you for saying I have a young body, first of all. (Laughter) But yeah.

Tavis: But I love that old soul, though. There’s some depth to that.

Copeland: Yeah, I feel like I’ve been here before most all the time. This is not my first rodeo, I always say. I like to think I do life pretty well, because I just, I feel good about it.

I feel good about my purpose and why I’m here and what I’m supposed to be doing.

Tavis: How have you found the journey at your age and as a woman?

Copeland: I really try desperately not to complain, because there’s so many women who came before me that went through a lot of crap so that I could go through less crap. (Laughter) That’s a woman in this business.

They went through a lot of crap so that I could go through less crap. So obviously it’s the same in any business. If you’re a woman in any business, you’re a woman in a business.

So you go through those things, but I’ve been really blessed that I have a great foundation of people around me that help me to get through it without a bunch of drama and issues, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of people around you, so your daddy obviously is a legend, and you are married to a guy who’s an artist as well.

Copeland: Yes.

Tavis: Who I’ve seen play a few times.

Copeland: Yes. I saw you saw – I saw you seeing them play. (Laughter) I was saying, “You don’t want to sit behind Mr. Smiley at a concert,” because you were enjoying yourself so much, I was – you stood up about six times during the show.

Tavis: Who was it – I was seeing Buddy Guy, though.

Copeland: You were looking, you were watching Buddy Guy, and you were -

Tavis: What do you expect me to do?

Copeland: I was sitting behind you. (Laughter) I was sitting behind you and I was watching the show, and I said, “Thank God I’ve seen Buddy a few times,” because I couldn’t keep my eyes off of you watching him. You were having a ball. (Laughter)

Tavis: Well, as you know – Shemekia’s husband plays bass in – for how many years now?

Copeland: Sixteen years with Buddy.

Tavis: Sixteen years he’s been playing bass for Buddy Guy.

Copeland: Yeah.

Tavis: Well first of all, Buddy’s band is tight, as you well – your husband’s in it, so you know this. But the entire band is tight, and Buddy, of course, is a legend in his own right.

Copeland: Yes.

Tavis: It’s hard to sit down when you see Buddy Guy. But I’m like that about music, period, though. If it’s Beethoven or Brahms, I’ll stay in my seat until the end. (Laughter) I’ll behave myself. Anything else, though, I am such a music lover.

I grew up in the Pentecostal church, so I got it honest, like you did. When the music just gets into me, I can’t – so I do apologize for people sitting behind me.

Copeland: I know this now. I know this now. But it made me so happy that you were there watching blues, first of all, and enjoying it so much. I was just like, it took me a whole – I’ve always loved you, and I’ve always watched your show and everything.

I’ve watched everything you’ve done so far. But to see you there in that club watching the show was just like, I was so – I was just really happy.

Tavis: It has become an – I see Buddy, he was just here not too long ago in L.A., and I was traveling, so I missed him here. But I’ll catch him in January, as you know.

Copeland: You are the January show, yeah.

Tavis: It’s an annual – for those who have never, don’t know this and never seen Buddy, Buddy, of course, iconic blues artist, and every January at his club in Chicago -

Copeland: Yeah, he does 16 nights.

Tavis: – he does 16 nights. So he does residency at his own spot.

Copeland: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So the entire month of January, if you want to see Buddy Guy -

Copeland: Yeah, he’s there.

Tavis: – you can see him in his own element. Every January, when it’s 250 below in Chicago, I go and hang out for a weekend and catch four or five shows, just hanging out with Buddy.

As you know also, I go for two reasons. I go one, for the music, but I also go because Mr. Guy is kind enough every January to make me that homemade gumbo -

Copeland: Oh, Lord.

Tavis: – that he makes.

Copeland: Every -

Tavis: This Negro puts more meat in his gumbo than (laughter) – all different kinds.

Copeland: Every time. Every time we get together – I was doing an interview not too long ago and the interviewer saw me and Buddy talking, and he asked me what we were talking about.

I said we were talking about cooking greens. Because that’s all we talk about, is food. (Laughter) Any time we’re in the room together, it’s like, “How you make your greens. What you do with your greens?” So we always talk about food.

Tavis: Buddy’s on one of these tracks.

Copeland: Yes.

Tavis: He is.

Copeland: He is on a song, “I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo,” and he sounds fabulous on it, really fabulous.

Tavis: Yeah. So how do you critique your husband’s work, and how does he critique your work, or do y’all stay out of that lane.

Copeland: We don’t even talk about it. We never see each other, so when we see -

Tavis: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait – you never see each other?

Copeland: When we see each other we’re so happy to see each other, we don’t even (laughter) – we don’t be doing no whole lot of talking.

Tavis: Oh, I understand. (Laughter) Enough said. Enough said. That sounds like a blues song.

Copeland: Yeah, exactly.

Tavis: Yeah, there may be a song coming out of that.

Copeland: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So how do you manage that? Because you’re on the road a lot, and he’s on the road a lot, so how do y’all make this work?

Copeland: I think that he was doing what he does when I met him, and I was doing what I do when I met him, and we just do it. It’s just natural, it’s normal, it’s what we’ve always done.

So we just do it. It gets hard and we miss each other, but I think that we’re used to it at this point. It’s been 11 years that we’ve been doing this, so it works.

Tavis: We talked earlier, Shemekia, about the social commentary in your music. To your personal life now there are a lot of artists who draw on their own lives for their lyrical inspiration. Is that something you suspect that we might see more from you, now that you’re 34 and some change?

Copeland: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: Or is that a lane that’s just not comfortable for you?

Copeland: No, I think the older I get the more comfortable I am about talking about how I feel, because I think when I started, I was so young. I was like 17, 18 years old, and there’s certain things you don’t want to hear coming from a child. I know that now, because I am an adult. So when I see -

Tavis: Although Michael Jackson pulled it off.

Copeland: Yeah, he did. (Laughter) That’s true.

Tavis: But he’s a rare example.

Copeland: That’s true.

Tavis: Michael pulled that off.

Copeland: Yeah. But now I see 17-year-olds and I’m just like, “Oh, God, they 17. They don’t know nothing.” That’s how I feel because I’m 34 now. But, so I feel more comfortable as I age talking about what I feel and how I think, and I feel that people will take it seriously coming from me at this age as well, versus when you’re younger. So I say yes to that.

Tavis: How do you process looking out in the audience most nights – and I’m going out on a limb here because I just know what the blues audience looks like in this country -

Copeland: Yes.

Tavis: You know where I’m going with this.

Copeland: I know where you’re going.

Tavis: How do you process looking out in the audience most nights and seeing an overwhelmingly white audience, which suggests, I think, a number of things to me. I’m not sure what it suggests to you.

I think of the young prodigy that Buddy takes on the road with him sometimes, the little young white -

Copeland: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: The little – I can’t think of his name right now. There’s a young little white kid that Buddy discovered, and Buddy lets this kid – he opened for him here in L.A. not long ago.

Copeland: Okay.

Tavis: So he takes this kid around with him from time to time and lets the kid open for him, and he’s going to be a great player. He’s a really good, he’s a good player now.

Copeland: Yeah, Quinn Sullivan.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s who it is, Quinn – thank you, Quinn Sullivan. He’s a wonderful – you should google this guy if you haven’t -

Copeland: Yeah. I know, I was on stage with him. I know him.

Tavis: Yeah. For those who haven’t, there’s a young kid named Quinn Sullivan – hi, Quinn – I know his dad will appreciate this. But if you google this guy, this kid named Quinn Sullivan, he’s an amazing kid that Buddy discovered. Plays amazingly well.

So Buddy takes this guy around, this young kid around with him from time to time, and he’s a white kid. I’ve had so many conversations with Buddy over the years.

I said, “Buddy,” I said, “Can’t you find -” I love Quinn, but where are the little Black boys who -

Copeland: Yeah. They’re out there.

Tavis: Yeah.

Copeland: Oh, yeah, they’re out there. There’s tons of young, younger Black kids playing.

Tavis: Yeah. But your audience every night ain’t made up overwhelmingly of us.

Copeland: It’s true, and I always say it depends on where you go. If you go to D.C., there’s going to be more Black people.

Tavis: Chocolate city.

Copeland: Yeah. So, but yeah, you’re right, it is. I’m grateful to see anybody come out to hear this music, but that is what I am doing with my music. I think that I am trying to have commentary in my music that makes people of all kinds want to come out and hear.

We’ll see what happens. The problem is that the people that come out to the shows, they already know about blues. They already know. They’re coming because they have knowledge of the music and the artists.

The problem is is that we don’t have a whole lot of outlets for our music, so if you’re not Buddy Guy, then you’re not on TV and you’re not on the radio as much, and you’re not doing a whole lot of just being out there in the presence of people. Everybody knows young people, that’s what they do – they watch TV. So -

Tavis: TV, social media.

Copeland: TV, social media, exactly. So we’ve just got to get out there more, and I always say to people now when I’m doing festivals and things, I say bring your children, bring your grandchildren, bring everybody. Bring everybody out to the show.

I love it when I see families come out to my shows, and everybody comes, because that’s how you introduce the younger generation to the music. So I’m starting to have young people come out to the shows.

Tavis: It seems to me – I’m just a bystander, an appreciator of the music – but it seems to me like the blues festival circuit is pretty energized these days, or am I misreading that?

Copeland: It happens. I think that there – I think that sometimes there’s just, like, periods where there’s, like, some excitement. Somebody comes out and everybody’s, like, super-excited, and that’s happened throughout the years.

But for me, I’m always excited about this music, and there’s, fortunately sometimes there’s people that come out that give it another boost. All the work that Buddy’s doing, and that gives it a good boost.

There’s Gary Clark Jr., he came out, gave it a real big boost. So you have artists like Trombone Shorty.

Tavis: Oh, I love him. I love Trombone, yeah.

Copeland: So if these – when these guys come out it just makes people more excited about the music, and it’s cool.

Tavis: What do you expect that the imprint on this music will be of your generation, since we’re talking about Shemekia Copeland and Gary Clark Jr. and Trombone Shorty? There are some others out there.

What’s your sense, what do you hope the imprint of your generation will be on this music we call blues?

Copeland: Well, I hope that we all continue to do it; stay focused, and always remember the people who came before us. While we’re still all trying to be original and do our own thing and make new music, we want to still remember the people who came before us and the reason why we do what we do.

I think that 30 years from now we’ll all still be out there and we’ll all still be doing it. I think it’ll be – I think it has staying power because we are doing it. So I think it’ll be a good imprint.

Tavis: When you say “30 years from now,” Shemekia, you’ll still be doing this -

Copeland: Forty. Forty, 50, 50.

Tavis: Forty, 50, okay. Got it, yeah. (Laughter) I thought you were cutting yourself -

Copeland: I’m just adding, I’m adding some years to it now. (Laughter)

Tavis: I thought you – I’m like, you’re selling yourself a little short, number one. But number two – and I’ve got to get out of here and let you do this song right quick. But number two, with a voice like yours, I wonder whether or not it is possible that they’re going to pull you into another genre.

As the audience is about to see right now, when you can sing, you can sing. So you could sing blues, you could sing R&B, you could sing – you could sing anything you want to sing, because you’re just gifted that way.

Copeland: Thank you.

Tavis: So are they going to try to pull you into another genre, or are you going to stay with -

Copeland: I do not feel – I love that I am a blues singer and I’m so proud to call myself a blues singer, and I don’t think that it limits me in any kind of way.

Tavis: You’re not going to be boxed in, yeah.

Copeland: Exactly. So just because I am a blues singer, like I said, I don’t feel limited. If somebody in R&B wants me to do something, or gospel or country or whatever, call me up on the phone. (Laughter) I’m ready to do it. Come on, let’s get this party started. But so yeah, I could see myself doing all kinds of things.

Tavis: Yeah. I can see that too.

Copeland: Thank you.

Tavis: Speaking of getting the party started, let’s do that right quick. The new project from Shemekia Copeland is called “33 1/3.” She is now – can I say this? – the queen of the blues. I said it. I said it, the queen of the blues. B.B.’s the king, she’s the queen, and I don’t need to convince you of that, because when you hear her perform in just a second, you’ll see what I mean.

She’s about to perform a song from the record, called “Somebody Else’s Jesus.” Listen to the lyrics. Her guitarist is Arthur Nelson. Shemekia, good to have you on the program.

Copeland: Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: Congratulations. Enjoy “Somebody Else’s Jesus.” Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

[Begin live musical performance]

[Applause, cheering]

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Loretta

    Shemekia Copeland is awesome. She has such a beautiful voice and is very genuine. Really enjoyed her interview and performance.

  • Michael TheBOOGIEWOOGIEBOY Czubaj

    Shemekia Copeland is one of the best women blues singers there ever was and ever will be! Her message is different, but she not the kind of blues singer that talks about a man leaving her or having hard times with a man, or preaching about Jesus. She gets the message across in a way the audience will listen.

  • Shawndria Jackson

    I really enjoyed this interview. Mrs. Copland is very talented.

Last modified: December 2, 2013 at 3:39 pm