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Shemekia Copeland speaks out on new 'Done Come Too Far' album

Victoria Smith
Shemekia Copeland
Blues singer Shemekia Copeland.

Shemekia Copeland possesses one of the most recognizable voices in modern blues. In an interview with KNKX All Blues host John Kessler she talks about using that voice to speak out on social issues.

Copeland was about 16 years old when she felt called to be a singer.

“It was just like a lightning bolt struck me,” she said. “It was like, oh my God, this is what I'm gonna do for the rest of my life. My dad already knew, my mother did too, God rest both their souls. They both knew, but not me.”

Just two years later in 1998, her first release “Turn the Heat Up” started a career that has arced steadily upward, with four Grammy nominations and seven Blues Music Awards, including the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award in 2021. In July 2022, she won Blues Artist of the Year in the annual Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll.

Copeland’s father, Johnny Clyde Copeland, was himself an award-winning blues guitarist and singer, active in the 1950s through the 1990s. He first brought her onstage with him when she was eight years old at New York’s Cotton Club, and as a teenager Copeland went on tour with him.

“I really cherished that time because, you know, his health was failing and he asked me to go out and help him,” she recalled.

“But, really, he was helping me, because I learned a lot being out there with him. He was very present in my life, even though he toured and traveled a lot, but it was those later years that I got a chance to really hang out with him.”

Through her father, the younger Copeland got to know music legends Koko Taylor, Ruth Brown, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and many others. That familiarity undoubtedly helped her successfully navigate the music industry and develop her own identity as a singer — most recently as an outspoken voice on cultural issues.

Her latest release Done Come Too Far is the third in a trilogy of albums that include 2018’s America’s Child, and 2020’s Uncivil War. Copeland said that starting a family was a large part of her musical motivation.

“Everything changed for me after I had my little guy, I immediately wanted to somehow make the world a better place,” she explained. “And we did the album ‘America's Child.’ But even when we were doing that album, I just felt like it wasn't finished.”

“I noticed when I started making these records that people immediately start calling it political, but they're not really, they're just about what's happening, you know?” she continued. “And some of those issues are uncomfortable.”

In the same way that Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers brought a hopeful tone to their protest songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” and “I’ll Take You There,” so does Copeland on her songs “Walk Until I Ride” from Uncivil War and “Too Far to Be Gone” from the new album.

Shemekia Copeland - Too Far To Be Gone (Single)

The key, she said, is being herself.

“My dad always preached originality,” Copeland said. “Whatever you do, don't be like anybody else. And Dr. John reminded me again.”

Mac Rebennack, best known as Dr. John the Nite Tripper, produced Copeland’s album Talking to Strangers in 2002.

“Dr. John said to me, ‘Do not conform to the music business, make the music business conform to you,” Copeland remembered.

“I can't try to please the masses, because the masses, you know, like McDonald's,” Copeland said. “Not that there's anything wrong with McDonald's, but you know what I mean? I'm trying to serve up something else.”

Shemekia Copeland performs atDimitriou’s Jazz Alley on Oct. 25 and 26. Her new album Done Come Too Far will be featured this weekend on All Blues, including the songs “Too Far to Be Gone” and “Gullah Geechee.”

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.