I’ve been a fan of this powerful blues and R&B singer ever since she began her recording career on Alligator Records in 1998 at the age of 18. The daughter of the late bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland and mother of 4-year-old Johnny Lee, Shemekia has released nine albums — seven on Alligator and two on Telarc Records — including her latest, “America’s Child” (released in 2018 on Alligator), for which she’s now touring. The album broadens the singer’s genre range by embracing elements of Americana giving Copeland an even deeper well from which to draw. I reached her on her cellphone in her hometown, Chicago.

Q: Well, I’m calling you today because you’re coming back to Maine for a concert at the Waterville Opera House. Now, you’ve played there before, correct?

Copeland: Yes and I’m looking forward to it — we love Maine so much.

Q: I think, as the old saying goes, the feeling is definitely mutual, Shemekia. In fact, the first time we talked, you were coming up to the North Atlantic Blues Festival and you wowed the crowd there as well. I would like to talk about “America’s Child,” which boldly addresses some of the problems this country’s facing today, like immigration, racism and intolerance that— when coupled with your powerful delivery— becomes a force to be reckoned with, for sure. It’s an important statement that’s needed to be voiced right now.

Copeland: Aw, thanks so much — that means a lot. And for me it’s a very important record. You know there’s nothing like having a baby to give you some inspiration. I mean, you have a special way that you want to see the world; I feel like a beauty queen by saying “All I want is world peace, world peace, world peace!”— and that’s what they all used to say. But I mean, you would think that normal behavior would be just to be kind to one another and accept each other’s differences. That should just be basic. That’s why I love the song “Americans,” because we are completely made up of misfits, you know; that’s who we are. I love Freddie Mercury. He said, “We’re a bunch of misfits that don’t belong together making music for a bunch of people who are misfits!”  You know what I mean? (Laughter)

Q: Yeah.

Copeland: And that’s what America is. We’re all a bunch of misfits, but now everybody is so comfortable with being hateful and not celebrating each other’s differences. It’s just so sad because it’s those differences that made this country in the first place.  And we don’t have a person that can lead us, on either side, back to that.

Q: Yeah, unfortunately we are so polarized now that I don’t know how we fix it.

Copeland: No, I know.

Q: Well, at least you’re holding up a mirror for us, and I think that that’s something that’s going to help.

Copeland: Yeah, and it makes me feel good, but you know, people are strange. I probably lost some fans by saying some of these things, but I know I’ve also made some, too.

Q: How did you go about picking the material for this album? Was it a hard task?

Copeland: No, because I’m so fortunate in that I have amazing writers and people who I’ve been working with for over 20 years, and these (songs) are tailor-made for me, and it’s a wonderful thing.

Q: Who are some of those folks, just out of curiosity?

Copeland: Like John Hahn. People have always asked about our relationship. Well, he’s a father figure to me, and he’s been there for me since before my father died. I’ve known him since I was 8 years old, and we talk every day about everything — politics, religion, race — so he knows me better than most people. I have all these ideas, things that I say to him, and he very brilliantly takes them and puts them into song. It’s amazing. And then there’s Mary Gauthier, who we have the honor of having on this record. That woman is going to go down in history as one of the great songwriters, because she is … she wrote “Americans” and “Smoked Ham and Peaches” with John Hahn for this record.

Q: Now, when you come back to the Opera House, you’ll be touring in support of this record, correct?

Copeland: Yeah.

Q: Will the 12 songs on that album make up a good chunk of what you perform?

Copeland: Oh, yeah. We’ve been doing quite a bit of the record, so I’m looking forward to performing it up there.

Q: And it’s great timing on your part. You can really crank up the heat there in Waterville and help to warm the place up in this bitter cold stretch we’re in up here.

Copeland: (Laughter) Yeah!

Q: Seeing you’ve been up there before, what’s it like to get that kind of response from the folks watching you?

Copeland: You know, it’s always amazing to me, people’s reaction to songs and things. When you make a new record, you look so forward to seeing that, and I’ve been getting all kinds of different reactions to this record, and I love it.

Q: Well, you take a song and you make it your own. It matters not who wrote it; it’s your presentation. Whether it’s “Would You Take My Blood?” or “Great Rain,” by John Prine, or “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” by Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies, they end up being your songs. Oh, and to end the album with that traditional tune “Go to Sleep You Little Baby” was perfect, especially after leading off with “Ain’t Got Time for Hate.” This is a powerful statement you’ve made here.

Copeland: Thank you, thank you. I started with my baby and I finished with my baby!

Q: That you did — that you did. Is there anything, Shemekia, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article about your Waterville Opera House show?

Copeland: Well, first of all I’d like to say is “Thank you” to Maine for being so supportive and amazing to me throughout the whole 20-some-odd years I’ve been coming up there. (Laughter) You know, it really warms my heart that I get that there. It’s not a big state, but I have more people in Maine that come see me than just about anywhere. It makes me very happy, so I’d like to say “Thank you” to the people of Maine and that I’ll come up there in a blizzard. I’ll come up there in anything. It doesn’t matter. I’m coming and I’m just really looking forward to performing this music there.

 

Lucky Clark has spent a half-century writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

 


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