“Shemekia Copeland a superstar who can do no wrong, says Rolling Stone. This Queen of the Blues, previously featured in forbes.com is “in such control of her voice that she can scream injustice before she soothes with loving hope,” says Living Blues. And that is exactly what Shemekia Copeland does in her latest album, Uncivil War, to be released by Alligator Records tomorrow, October 23rd. Copeland’s previous album, America’s Child, won both the Blues Music Award for Album Of The Year and the 2020 Blues Music Award for Contemporary Blues Female Artist Of The Year.
“Uncivil War,” the eponymous song on the new album was released as a single on Juneteenth, 2020 and was also featured in forbes.com. The album is a blend of blues, R& B and Americana, taking on contemporary American problems with both understanding and a demand for change. The album was recorded in Nashville with award-winning producer/musician Will Kimbrough. Most of the songs were written by John Hahn and Kimbrough and address slavery, gun violence, and civil rights in a hopeful way. They also speak of corporate greed, lost friends and bad love. The last song on the album, ”Love Song” was written by Copeland’s father, Johnny Clyde Copeland.
“This album is Shemekia’s continuing attempt to evolve the blues, because for this music to survive and grow, it has to be relevant to this age,” says Hahn, who has written or co-written 62 of Copeland’s songs. “Right now we have a lot of issues that people are concerned with like systemic racism or environmental issues that give all of us the blues. We built on those current issues to hopefully keep the blues vital and alive today.”
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I caught up with her by phone at her home in Chicago, where she is sheltering with her three year old son and husband.
What do you think your father, Johnny Copeland, would think of this present album if he were alive to hear it?
He would be so, so excited that I’m bold enough to make a record like this and put it out. My dad was all about being original and not being like everyone else. I think he would really be proud. And it’s done in such a tasteful way. Anybody can just put out angry songs, but the way we did this it was just very, very well thought out and I’m proud of all of us.
America’s Child was about being hopeful that things will get better for your three- year-old son. What’s the theme of this album?
It’s a message of hope, a continuation of what’s happening in the world. But we finished this record at the end of last year before COVID and before all these things started to happen in our country to make it even worse. I had no idea that Uncivil War would be so perfect for right now.
When I interviewed you first in November, 2018 and asked if you were still optimistic about America, you said, “Absolutely.” Do you feel that way now, two years later?
Yes, and that’s just because I’m a praying woman. You can’t believe in God and not be hopeful. I think that things can change and think there’s a reason why this is all happening. In my mind, it’s always like God is trying to tell us something.
When we first spoke about the release of the single “Uncivil War,” you said you were trying to put the “united” back in the United States, but that was in June before the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you feel now about the future of our country?
I’m a little sad and disheartened. I feel like we’ve just gone backwards when we should be moving forward. That we’re fighting about things in this country that I feel we shouldn’t be fighting about in 2020. I’m a little bit heartbroken. Especially in my industry, we’re finding out that there are a lot of people who love the music but don’t love the people who make it. And that really makes me sad too.
What did it feel like to sing the song, “Clotilda’s On Fire”? Especially when they so recently discovered this ship in Alabama?
I was happy to bring the story to people who might not know about it. But to me, the most important part of the song is, “We’re still living with her ghost” and that’s basically saying that nobody’s ever dealt with slavery, they’ve never done anything about it. Nothing. And until they accept it, it’s going to keep rearing its ugly head.
“I’m Going to Walk Until I Ride,” one of the saddest songs on the album, is so full of hope. It’s like a spiritual to me. How do you feel when you sing that?
Well, culturally this is what we have always done as black people, walked until we ride. You give us lemons, we make lemonade. You give us the scraps from the pig, we make chitlins. That’s just how we are, we get up and we keep on going, no matter what we get dealt. And that’s how we walk through life. Keep on going.
“Dirty Saint” is a love song to Dr. John to whom you dedicate this album. What was your relationship with him?
I’ve known about Dr. John since I was a young girl because he and my father were good friends. He produced my third album so I got a chance to write with him and work with him. And then I went out on tour with him for a few months. Later on we did some recordings on his record together. I just adored him. My godfather, you know what I mean?
Yes. You also dedicate the album to John Prine, who we also lost. What was your relationship with him?
God, it was all too short, but very sweet. I met him in 2017 when we were doing “Voices of Chicago” and we just started talking and the rest is history. It was like, “Oh, I want you to do this for me. Oh, I want you to do that with me.” It was just an instant thing.
So the third hero to whom you dedicate this album is your mom. What advice did she give you?
Fortunately I had just great parents. You need a solid foundation to be in this life and definitely in the business. My mom always taught me my worth, my value. Keep your eyes open, your legs shut. And so I love my mama.
Your interpretation of The Stones “Under My Thumb” is completely different than the way they sing it and it really belongs on this album. Do you have someone or something in mind when you’re singing the words “Under my thumb?”
Oh yes. I have every woman who’s ever felt belittled or put down, they’re all on my mind. Now the tables have turned and I love that. I love table- turned songs.
The songs on this album are all so different. One minute you’re singing, “Give God The Blues” and then a rocking song like “She Don’t Wear Pink,” which is so danceable, and then “No Heart At All.” What goes through your mind from song to song? Do you have to imagine real people for every song?
Mostly I imagine myself, especially with “She Don’t Wear Pink.” You go through your whole life, people telling you what you can and cannot do or who you should or shouldn’t be, and that goes for all of us in a lot of ways. It should be okay with you for me to be who I want to be without any criticism from you. That’s why I love that song. “No Heart At All is just a blues song. You’re not cold-hearted you got no heart at all.
These songs are so well crafted, they’re beautifully sung and they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The song, “What Goes On in the Dark will Soon Come to Light” could also be about our present situation rather than just about a man. Do you think of it that way?
Oh, you definitely can. Yes, what’s done in the dark always comes to light. That’s true for every situation.
What do you want people to take away from this album?
Mostly I want people to just enjoy listening to the music and take away from it the same hope I have, that things will eventually, hopefully get better.