New stories

Shemekia's Blues

A conversation with blues artist Shemekia Copeland about how the recession and politics inspire her music, being a woman in a male-dominated field and turning 30.


Call the blues passé if you like, but there's no denying that it is a fitting soundtrack for today's scary economy. America is singing the blues about foreclosure and job loss, a broken health care system and dwindling retirement funds.  Blues superstar Shemekia Copeland rolls all that anxiety into her latest disc, Never Going Back (Telarc). Here she skips the usual war between the sexes and delves into socio-political issues ranging from economic disparities, body image and religious hypocrisy; call it post-millennium blues.

The new disc marks a turning point for the 29-year-old daughter of Texas blues legend, Johnny Copeland. She recruits guitarist Oliver Wood (one half of the Wood Brothers) as producer, who, in turn, slightly updates her sound by corralling such distinguished musicians as his bass-playing brother Chris Wood (of the famed jazz trio, Medeski, Martin & Wood), guitarist Marc Ribot and keyboardist Kofi Burbridge of the Derek Trucks Band

The Root caught up with Copeland, while she was literally on the road, going to her next gig. Over our telephone conversation, she talked about the inspirations behind certain songs, her experiences being a young female blues singer in a male-dominated genre and why she feels no reason to crossover to mainstream R&B.

The Root: Let's talk about some of the material from the new record. It begins with the spiteful "Sounds Like the Devil" on which you sing: "Hard as I'm slaving/There ain't no saving/I'm never going to see a dime/I ain't got health care/Lord, it ain't fair/I can't even afford to die" before launching into the chorus: "They all say that we're family/But it sounds like the devil to me." Was this song directed at the George Bush administration?

Copeland: No, I think it's just about politicians in general. Name me one that hasn't lied to us at some point.  The songs is about the promises, secrets, lies and the other crap that we have to listen to and deal with from politicians on a day-to-day basis. We never get the truth. At least not in this country, I don't think. When I go to Europe, I watch a lot of BBC and get better news about America than I get at home.

The Root: So do you consider yourself a news junkie?

Copeland: I have been latelyat least for the past couple of years.

The Root: My favorite song on the disc is "Born a Penny." I love the opening verse: "You whispered me the secrets to success/But words mean nothing/Money even less/In the end, who can judge if you win or if you fail/My body may be weary/But my soul ain't for sale/I was born a penny/Ain't gonna be no dime." What was the inspiration for that?

Copeland: That song is about me accepting me for whom and what I am. And I'm proud of it. I think a lot of people have so many insecurities growing up in today's society. Magazines tell you that you should look this or that way, or that you have to do this or that to look perfect. The magazines sort of want people to live by their rules. And I won't do that. I'm happy with how I'm doing things right now.

Copeland: It took me a while. I'm just getting to that point and I'm turning 30 in April. So self-acceptance does take time, especially if you're a woman. I think it takes longer if you're a woman because I think this country accepts men, exactly the way they are. Men can be short; they don't have to be that good-looking; they can be fat-it doesn't really matter so much. You can always see a fat, old and ugly guy with a tall, beautiful blond. [Laughs] But it's just not that way for women. So I think it just takes a longer time for women to accept themselves just the way they are.