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 lately—at 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.
The Root: Another favorite song is "Big Brand New Religion" with snarky lyrics: Throw out that safety net right out the window/It's surely something that you'll never need again/Once you pull the trigger on that big brand new religion." Exactly what is the song about?
Copeland: It's about people who will run to church and hope to get saved. Now, I'm very spiritual, and I pray all the time. But I think that too many people worship their preachers and pastors more so than whom they're supposed to be worshipping. That's what that song is about—stop worshipping the guy with the suit on. Just worship God.
The Root: What was it like working with producer Oliver Wood?
Copeland: It was awesome. He's by far the youngest guy I've ever worked with. He just had a fresh approach to the music. I'm just used to singing-full-throated singing. He said sometimes, "I don't want you to sing; I want you to kinda talk." He really showed me that I could be just as powerful without being [sonically] powerful. He talked about how to use the lyrics of a song.
The Root: What's your reaction when people call you the New Queen of the Blues?
Copeland: Well, it's really an honor for people to say that. I usually say, "Thank you." But I also remind people that we have a queen, and Koko Taylor is it. And even if she wasn't here, I'm not sure if I could take that title away from her. She will always be the Queen of the Blues.
The Root: There's been a lot of talk about women in hip-hop, especially the lack thereof except for the video vixen. What's the scene like in contemporary blues for young women?
Copeland: There aren't a lot of young women in blues, especially not black. But I'm hoping that it gets better. We need to get this music out to some new ears. I know that once they hear the blues; they would love it. The problem is getting them to hear it.
The Root: So what does your audience look like when you tour? Do you see many black people in the audience?
Copeland: Honey, that all depends on where you go. In all honesty, there are not too many places where we are. If I go to Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia, I'm going to have some black folks in the audience. But If I go to Maine, it's just not going to be as many of us there. But in reality, the crowd is definitely more white.
The Root: What have been some of your toughest battles in the blues world as a black young female artist?
Copeland: I try not to complain because I know that there has been a lot of roads paved for me, so that I don't have to go through what other's went through like Etta James, Koko Taylor and Ruth Brown. I just want to make that clear. They've paved a lot of ways so things could be a lot easier for me.
But as a woman, I run into the same little things. It's all about respect. Some people don't respect you as much because you're not a man. They think that they can get away with certain things.
The Root: Have you ever considered crossing over to mainstream R&B or hip-hop?
Copeland: No. There are too many of us doing that already. I don't think that we need anymore. More of us don't know about blues, and it's something that belongs to us. Instead of trying to put our hands in everything else, we oftentimes don't hold on to what belongs to us. Blues is something that belongs to us—blues and jazz. I wish that more black kids realized that.
John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.