Shemekia Copeland: The Joy Of Singing Blues Copeland knows the blues, but maintains that singing it doesn't have to be sad. Some of the songs on her new album, Never Going Back, touch on hardship and loss. But she focuses on empowerment instead of wallowing in defeat.

Shemekia Copeland: The Joy Of Singing Blues

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Singer Shemekia Copeland really knows the blues.


M: (Singing) Love is tumbling, dreams are crumbling, we all looking for place to hide. People are hurting, politicians certain they got God on their side.

HANSEN: With a voice like that, you can understand why Shemekia Copeland has won numerous awards and a Grammy nomination. She has a new CD called "Never Going Back," which is out on Tuesday.


M: (Singing) She's got a sink full of dishes, and clothes on the line, she's got a sweet little baby and a husband she can't find.

HANSEN: She joins us in our Washington studios. What a pleasure to meet you.

M: Thank you for having me in.

HANSEN: We just heard "Rise Up." What can you tell us about that song?

M: You know, it's just one of those good old, Shemekia Copeland, inspirational, women songs. Because, you know, women and times have changed for us. And we're no longer on the back burner. We're on the front. And I just want women to feel really good and confident in themselves, in who they are.

HANSEN: Yeah, this is about a woman who's in a bad relationship - or was in one.

M: That's right.


M: Get out of it. Get out of it and move on.


M: (Singing) Come hell or high water, she's gonna start a brand new life. So, sit back and watch that girl. Rise up. Rise up. She's gonna find something better. Rise up. Rise up. She gonna get herself together.

HANSEN: Do you think the blues can make sad people happy?

M: Oh gosh, absolutely. You know, I think blues gets a bad rap for its name, unfortunately. Because blues is just like country in that it's just telling stories. Sometimes they're sad stories, sometimes they're happy stories, you know. But yet, I have songs on previous records called "I'm a Wild Woman and You're a Lucky Man." There's nothing sad about that, you know.


HANSEN: Absolutely not.

M: So...

HANSEN: But does being called a blues singer, you think, limit you, put you in a box?

M: Well, I think maybe so, for some people who aren't open-minded. I think people who are musical and just like music, they know there's only one difference between music. And there's only two different styles, and that's good and bad.


M: B.B. King said that.

HANSEN: Yeah. I thought you were going to say fast and slow, but...


M: That's a good one, too.

HANSEN: Yeah. You do an interesting cover on this new CD. It's a Joni Mitchell song, "Black Crow."


M: (Singing) There's a crow flying, black and ragged, tree to tree, he's black as the highway that's leading me.

HANSEN: What made you want to cover it?

M: One verse in that song made me feel like she wrote that song for me.


HANSEN: What was it?

M: But it was, took a ferry to the highway, and I drove to a pontoon plane, took a plane to a taxi, and a taxi to a train.


M: (Singing) I've been traveling so long. How am I ever going to know my home when I see it again?

M: I'm like a black crow flying in the blue sky. And I was, like, whoa. It just knocked me off my feet because I have all these crazy road stories, and it just reminded me of my travels and what I do. It's exactly how I feel most of the time.

HANSEN: You take this song, then you slow it down.


M: (Singing) There's a crow flying, black and ragged from tree to tree. He's black as the highway that's leading me. Now it's diving down to pick up on something shiny.

HANSEN: Is that a way to make it your own? Was it your idea?

M: Absolutely. You know, it's all about the arrangement. I can't do Joni the way Joni does Joni. So, I had to do Joni the way Shemekia does Joni.


HANSEN: That's the best way.

M: Yeah.

HANSEN: Yeah. You released your first recording when you were 19 years old. Ten years on, you're on your fifth recording. How do you think your own voice has developed, and how you've developed as an artist over the years?

M: Oh, you know, for me I think I've developed so much as a person in these past 10 years. You know, you think you know everything when you're 19 and then you realize, at 22, you didn't.


M: And then it just keeps going. At 25, I was like, whoa. You know, I didn't realize I was going evolve into the woman that I am now. And since then, I've had voice lessons and - because I really want to study in voice so that I can sing opera. Now, I have no idea how I'm going use that in blues but...


M: I want to know how to do it.


M: You know, I want to how those ladies do that.

HANSEN: You do a fantastic song on this CD, "Never Going Back to Memphis." There's this retro-sounding guitar.


HANSEN: You've described it as something that came to a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. This is a little murder mystery going on here.

M: It's absolutely like that. And that's what I'm talking about, the storytelling part of it. You want to draw people in. You know, people immediately start listening, going, what in the world happened with this? And then, you make people kind of afraid to ever go to Memphis.


M: Which is cool. It's just a great, great song.


M: (Singing) Walk across the room in the neon lights, dark pair of shades blocking out the night. Smoke rings blowing, (unintelligible) there wasn't a thing that man couldn't tell you.

HANSEN: Oliver Wood is your producer on this, and he's the brother of Chris Wood - Medeski, Martin and Wood. And on the press release, he said he wanted to bring you beyond your blues comfort zone, and coax this genre into a new generation. I mean, what was your comfort zone, and how did you get beyond that?

M: Well, he helped me to attack the song, but in a different way entirely - in a more laid-back way, which I wasn't used to. So, he wanted me to work less hard. I didn't really know how to do that.

HANSEN: You've been on National Public Radio before, so a lot of people know - and probably some people don't - that your dad was the late legendary blues guitarist Johnny Clyde Copeland. I always wonder about parental influences, if it's something that you embraced or something, initially, that you wanted to rebel against.

M: And that's the way singing was for me. It was just something that I knew how to do. I didn't realize it was a gift. It was just something that I just did around the house with my daddy.

HANSEN: "Circumstances" is your dad's song.

M: Yeah.


M: (Singing) I went to work this morning, y'all, I had lost my job. I guess they think I'm gonna go home and sit down and starve. Circumstances can't control my life.

M: My dad was a great songwriter. He wrote that song probably two decades ago, but it was so relevant to the times. You know, you got all of these people, some very highly educated people in this world right now, that can't find jobs because of circumstances, because of the way the world is right now. So, it was one of the many Johnny Copeland songs that I've recorded, and this one was perfect for this record.

HANSEN: Shemekia Copeland joined us in our Washington studios. Her new CD, called "Never Going Back," on Telarc Records, is out on Tuesday. And she's currently on tour. Thank you so much for coming in.

MS: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.


M: (Singing) I went to work this morning, y'all, I had lost my job.

HANSEN: You can hear full songs by Shemekia Copeland at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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