Hot child in the city grows up

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(Editor’s note: A version of this story originally appeared in Blues Revue magazine.)

Since Shemekia Copeland first gained fame in the blues world and more than 10 years ago, the 31-year-old singer has gained wisdom that comes from experience.

After touring the world and recording five albums, Copeland has left her teenage angst behind. She works hard, but she knows when it’s time to take a vacation and enjoys herself more on the road when she travels overseas to exotic locales. And she no longer carries the burden that she can single-handedly make the blues as big as country music.

Oh, and she knows how to fire an M16.

Last year, Copeland released Never Going Back, her debut on Telarc, after recording her first four discs for Alligator and her first new album in four years. The album also represents a shift in Copeland’s approach as she widens her vocal style and sings a collection of songs that transcends traditional blues structures for what Copeland calls “a funkier, cooler, hipper sound.”

Copeland and her manager recruited Atlanta guitarist and singer Oliver Wood to produce the album. Wood, a guitarist and singer who had never produced other artists, is best known for the two albums he has released with his brother, Chris Wood (the bass player for jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood) as the Wood Brothers. Both Wood brothers play on the album, which also features guest appearances from keyboardist John Medeski and guitarist Marc Ribot.

“I was always working with guys who were definitely funky, hip and cool, like (Steve) Cropper and Dr. John, of course,” Copeland said during an interview from her Chicago home. “But this is a whole different thing. I think it was a younger approach to the music.”

That approach included not only experimenting with the sound of Copeland’s music but also the material, Wood said.

“We wanted to stay away from typical blues themes, love gone wrong kind of stuff. We wanted to see what else we could do,” Wood said, “some socially conscious things, more personal empowering things, things that aren’t your typical blues lyrics that maybe go a little bit deeper.”

Wood paired Copeland’s vocals to sparse arrangements that sometimes favored mid-tempo tunes and quieter settings than the straight ahead hard-driving blues in the tradition of Koko Taylor for which Copeland is best known. Never Going Back still has plenty of full-throttle material, such as the opening track, “Sounds Like the Devil,” but it also shows the softer side of Copeland.

“One thing I noticed about her from her previous records is that she never sings in a very vulnerable way,” said Wood, from a Wood Brothers tour stop in Aspen, Colo. “She always has this tough blues singer thing going, which she’s awesome at. But I wanted to hear something a little softer, more vulnerable occasionally because I’m sure there’s that sign of her, too.”

That side of Copeland comes across on “Broken World,” a song with a social conscious theme written by Wood and Hahn, and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.”

“I just knew she’d be great at it. She’s really a natural singer no matter what the style is,” Wood said. “‘Black Crow’ has a strange melody that is well beyond a normal blues song. That one really stretched her.”

Copeland agrees.

“I’m a very aggressive singer in general. I’ve always approached things in the Otis Redding type of way,” Copeland said. “He had me really just so laid back making this record, almost a whispering singing. It was a total challenge.”

Copeland was ready for a change. Although she’s made a considerable name for herself over the past decade, she’s been frustrated that the style of music she loves doesn’t enjoy a wider audience. Although she’s willing and able to grow as a singer and try on new styles, she won’t compromise her vision, a song that Never Going Back’s “Born a Penny” addresses.

“I was going through a serious bad time for a while because I was listening to new music coming out and going, ‘Man, I can’t believe this is popular and (blues) is not popular,'” she said. “I was trying to figure out what the consumer wanted to hear as far as music goes and trying to figure out what can I do that people want to hear.”

Copeland talked to her “god papa,” Dr. John, who produced her 2002 album Talking to Strangers, for guidance. “He said, ‘Don’t try to conform to the music business. Let the music business conform to you.’ It was just that moment in my life where my eyes opened up, and I said you know what, ‘I’m just going to do what I want to do, which is what I’ve already been doing. I’m not going to worry about what people want to hear. I have to do what makes me happy, and hopefully people will get on the train.”

That’s a major change in attitude for the daughter of the late bluesman Johnny Copeland, who mentored his teenage daughter and took her on the road with him. By age 16, she was opening shows as the guitarist’s health deteriorated due to heart disease. Her debut album, Turn the Heat Up, was released barely a year after his death.

At 19, Copeland carried the weight of being an ambassador for the blues, a job she took seriously, perhaps too seriously.

“For so long, I had this whole idea about what I was supposed to do and my purpose. I thought my purpose was to change this genre completely, that in 10 years blues was going to be as big as country because I was singing it, and I was going to make this change. I was going to do that for this genre,” Copeland said.

These days, Copeland considers that a “childish, unrealistic goal” and has a better handle on her role and responsibility.

“Now I feel very much successful because the only thing I can control is myself and what I do, and I’ve been doing blues and have such a great respect for the music, and I absolutely love it and adore it. And I am doing my part, but I can only do so much,” she said.

Copeland remains passionate about the future of blues – and that it needs to change with the times.

“My main goal is to see this music grow and evolve. It just needs to evolve into something else. You have people out here who are afraid to allow blues to do that,” she said.

That means blues artists need to take more chances and stop relying on imitating the classic artists who have long defined the genre. That doesn’t mean Copeland doesn’t carry their music in her heart.

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“Just because I’m not singing Koko Taylor cover does not mean I’m not paying tribute to Koko Taylor. And just because a guy doesn’t play exactly like Muddy Waters doesn’t mean he’s not paying tribute to Muddy Waters,” she says. “You have guys out there, and that’s all they want to here, and it’s horrible for the music, and it’s horrible for people coming up like myself who really wants to make that change.

“How many times do you want to hear Mustang Sally? We got to try to change this music so it can grow and so it can become bigger.”

Copeland is encouraged by the growth of country music. She may not necessarily be a big fan of new country acts, but she appreciates how they have enabled the genre to grow and find younger listeners.

“I love Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. But their names will never die because these kids are out there doing country music. You’re always going to have those one or two kids who are going to go back and say, ‘Well, were did she get this song from? Let me go find the artists who did it first.’ That’s what we need to happen. That’s what I’ve been preaching forever.”

For the past year, Copeland has been taking voice lessons and has been enjoying learning what she can do with her voice, so much so that she’s nurturing an interest in opera and would love to sing opera someday.

“I’m not an opera buff at all. What I enjoy is the women who fill their entire bodies with air and sing the way they do. I’m more interested the art of it versus the actual opera. I just think it’s incredible.”

To Copeland, it’s all the blues, all about telling stories. And it’s all about seeing performers in their element: live.

Copeland had the rare experience of having to define the blues to some young music fans – troops in Iraq and Kuwait – who asked her what it was. She told them they had to check out her show to find out. Copeland toured military bases as part of the Bluzapalooza tour last fall. (Check out “Baghdad Daddies” on YouTube for a short tour documentary.)

“I’ve always known that you have a lot of kids who probably don’t know a lot about blues and they don’t know one blues artist, but at least they know what it is. But to confront some people who didn’t know what blues was at all was a little bit rough for me,” said Copeland, who played to audiences of 100 to 150 during the tour and stayed in less than stellar accommodations.

But the tour was a life-changing experience for her. And the crowds loved the music.

“It was like 10 percent about music and 90 about getting out and talking to those guys and just being there, hanging out,” she said.

Part of hanging out was learning how to fire a weapon, at first thought a simulator and then with the real deal, an M16.

“I don’t ever have to shoot another one again. I’m not into the whole gun thing,” she said. “But I loved the experience of it. I felt like if insurgents attacked the base, I could grab a gun and know how to defend myself with it. I wouldn’t have to stand behind a soldier to protect me. I was ready for combat, baby.”

In late 2009, Copeland married her long-time boyfriend, Orlando Wright, who plays bass in Buddy Guy’s band. They chose December because it was the only month both of them expected to have enough time off to do it right, Copeland said.

Even after more than five years of healthy romance, don’t expect any mushy love songs coming from Copeland.

“That’s not me,” she said. “Although I’d like to come up with the modern day “At Last” because that hasn’t been done ever.”

If you go:
What: Shemekia Copeland at the Greeley Blues Jam (Other headliners include the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Sonny Landreth. Click here for the Saturday lineup. The Friday lineup is in downtown Greeley features local bands.)
When: Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday (Copeland’s set is scheduled for 3:25 to 4:25)
Where: Island Grove Arena, Greeley
Tickets: Tickets are available at the Union Colony Center Box Office in person or by phone at (970) 356-5000. Individual tickets are $25 through 6/11 and $30 at the gate. Limited preferred seating $50. Click here for more information.

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