Before Tampa concert, Shemekia Copeland talks finishing dad's work, not performing for Trump and more

Copeland brings a powerful new LP, 'America's Child,' to Ybor City on Nov. 11.

Share on Nextdoor

Shemekia Copeland, who plays The Attic at Rock Brothers Brewing in Ybor City, Florida on November 11, 2018. - Shemekia Copeland © Mike White / Alligator Records
Shemekia Copeland © Mike White / Alligator Records
Shemekia Copeland, who plays The Attic at Rock Brothers Brewing in Ybor City, Florida on November 11, 2018.

Shemekia Copeland’s new album, America’s Child, features a lot of the no-holds-barred attitude that so much of the 39-year-old blues singer’s 30-year discography possesses, but something about the 12-track effort feels especially poignant.

Copeland told CL that she always wishes she could ask her father —the late, great Texas blues great Johnny Copeland, who died in his 50s — about things like the rapidly changing music industry and the state of the world, but she also said that much of her purpose in music is to complete a lot of Dad's unfinished business.

"I've never said that before, but I truly believe that his work wasn't quite finished," Copeland said before a quick run through Germany. "It was like he left me here to finish it."

We spoke with her about the thought of performing for Trump, traveling and more. Read our full Q&A — and get info on her show at The Attic at Rock Brothers Brewing — below.

Shemekia Copeland w/Brian Leneschmidt. Sun., Nov. 11, 7 p.m. $35-55. The Attic at Rock Brothers Brewing, 1510 E. 8th Ave., Ybor City. ticketfly.com.


Packing up for Germany, I'm assuming.

Yeah, packing myself up, and packing up my little boy. We're all headed over to Europe.

Yeah, I was gonna ask you about [your son] Johnny Lee, but is he coming with you on the four-month tour that's running through the states after Europe?

Well, I am in and out. I don't stay out for all that time straight. He definitely comes with me sometimes.

Awesome, so he loves the road. It's just like you and dad.

Yeah.

He's gonna be 2 years old on Christmas Eve, I think, which is kind of cool since he's changed your worldview and is your traveling partner now.

Yeah, he's a good little traveler.

I want to ask you about this amazing record that you have out. You have a transgender sugar daddy in one of your songs, and your music never really tiptoed around the difficult stuff. There are testimonies to the precarious existences of people living in urban poverty, rejections of oppressive narratives of middle-class status, wealth and femininity and colorful condemnations of domestic violence — was there ever any backlash from within the blues community, like, "Hey you really wanna do that to yourself?"

I've always kind of been a rebel, you know what I mean?

Yeah.

I've just kind of done what I felt like doing at the time. What I felt was the right thing. For me, I feel like all of my records, especially lately, starting with Never Going Back To Memphis, actually, that's when I started becoming more socially aware of things and putting them on the records. This one, definitely; I'm making much more direct statements than I have in the past.

Yeah, it's obviously gonna win you some fans, and some won't agree with what you're saying, but it's what needs to be said right now. You mention Johnny traveling with you. You always kind of wondered how dad got up in front of all those people, traveled all the time, made no money, but now it’s your favorite part — before he died, something came over you and told you to put your big girl panties on...

Haha. That's exactly what I said.

This was your calling. Do you remember what it was exactly outside of God coming and smacking you on the head? What gave you that feeling?

Well, my father died. I had this feeling before that, but I think the feelings just got stronger as time went on. So when I say I got my calling, I was probably about 16, but when he died, I was 18. Then it really hit me, like, "This is what you need to do." Because his work wasn't finished yet. I've never said that before, but I truly believe that his work wasn't quite finished. It was like he left me here to finish it.

That's interesting, especially because you have John Hahn, who you've been working with since you were 8 years old. Is that something you talk about with him, or is it something that is largely unsaid when you're writing songs?

I think it's kind of unsaid, you know.

I don't ever picture you quitting, you have so much power in there, but I know you've talked about it being nice to learn a singing method because, obviously, your voice takes a beating when you play. Do you think being able to say that you completed dad's work, did a little for yourself, would be a measuring stick for you at the end of your career?

No, I don't think I would ever say that. I don't think anybody's work is done until they leave this earth.

Right on. It's interesting to hear you say that about your dad, and I wasn't planning on asking you this, but someone close to me had her dad die when he was 56, and they were very close, spent a lot of time together, so there are parallels with your relationship with your dad. How long were you sad? I assume that the sadness never changes, but when does getting out of that sadness, that missing someone like that, happen? Does it go away?

I think everybody grieves differently. For me it's been over 20 years, and I always miss my father. I always wish I could have conversations with him, and I always would love to know what he would think or say about something. Like right now, in this political era, I would love to know what his opinions would be. I would love to know what his opinions would be about the music business and how it's changed so much over the years. No record stores, you know, things of that nature.

I think what happens is that you always have your time for grieving and mourning, and it doesn't really go away — it just gets a little less hard, you know what I mean? The pain eases slowly over the years.

Yeah. It's always weird to lose a parent when they are that young. You think a lot about the life that they didn't get to live, and that makes sense to hear you say that you are finishing work for your dad. Obviously I didn't know your dad, but I think he'd be proud of a record like America's Child because it's powerful. You said you'd want to ask him about politics, and I want to ask you just because the album is about how Americans, and really people on Earth, can move past politicians, the press, all that — and come together and strive to do better.

I’m not sure if this is a question you want to answer, but you played for the Obamas. B.B. King did it for every president starting with Gerald Ford — would you play the White House if Trump invited you?

No. I don't know anybody who would. They haven't had anybody come perform there, you know?

Well, my opinion is that he wouldn't even know who to ask. Going back to John Hahn. Will hit it off with John. Will is one of those dudes who can seemingly do everything, and I know he really helped you get your ideas down, but does having someone with so much knowledge in the booth ever make it hard to get a song done?

No, never. It's pretty funny. I am blessed to have songs tailor made for me, my life and my situation at the time. I think that the one thing you learn as an artist — whether you're a singer or a writer or a musician, whatever — is that less is more. Overthinking things never, ever helps.

You mention less is more, but you have a lot of people on this record. Will Kimbrough, John Prine, Mary Gauthier; you went Taj Mahal by bringing in Rhiannon Giddens in — that’s big time, and you really connected with a lot of those Nashville people for this your fourth album in that town. Prine and Fiona live in the Tampa Bay sometimes — will you invite them out to the show?

Oh my god. They do? I thought they lived in Nashville.

I think they have three houses. So, I am a Prine fan, too, and I nerded out when I read about him talking about your shoes. They have a house in the area, he talked about it in a New York Times piece. He also came out to a Kristofferson show here, randomly, one time.

Well if he's in town I'll always invite him, that's for sure.

Does Chicago Voices get a finder's fee for getting all of you guys onstage at the Civic Opera house? I think that was a turning point in the road that led up to this album.

It was. You know, I have no idea. Haha. They should.


I'm glad it happened. I wanted to ask about an older song real quick. I think “Ghetto Child” is kind of depressing for you now considering that it’s still relevant, reminiscent of Harlem in the '80s and '90s.

It was my first social injustice song.

And it's still relevant today.

Yeah, it's still relevant. Isn't that something? And the song was written 60 years ago.

Yeah, it's so hard to get out of the current moment, but it seems like we've completely rewound the tape. Not even a rewind. We skipped it and completely reset in so many ways. Would you ever abandon that song in the live setting for your own mental health?

No, I would never. That will always be a part of the set.

Just a couple more questions here. You're headed to Germany, and fans there obviously love the blues, but do you think the lyricism of an album like America’s Child will resonate over there?

Definitely. It always has. I think people get it, you know? And if they don't get it fully, they get most of it?

Well, I didn't want to take too much of your time, and I know you wrote “Smoked Ham and Peaches” with Mary — or was it John...

John.

There's this line in there about really about wanting something real. You mentioned how less is better earlier, but you also mention that people really want authenticity at the end of the day. When did you figure out how, or get the strength, to be the best version of yourself onstage? You had some trouble at first, but it couldn't have been before dad died — you found that part of yourself before that, right?

No, no. I think that, for me, the stage was uncomfortable for a really long time. It wasn't until I started to get into my late 20s and early 30s that I just decided that I was going to accept myself for who I was and what I was, and not be so self-conscious about everything. It's not just about what you're saying or talking about. It's your self-image and how you look, and how the world views you and sees you. It's all kinds of things, so when I decided that I didn't care about that anymore, that I was gonna accept what God gave me and that I was gonna be who I was, true and accepting of myself — that's when everything changed for me.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
Scroll to read more Show Previews articles

Newsletters

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.