Soulful Tales of Honesty


“In a bar down in Texas, in a poor part of town. Sat an old man playin’ the blues, playin’ em dirty and low down. Just tryin’ to make a livin’, but you know it can’t go far. Playin’ them ol’ blues. Playin’ them ol’ blues … on a beat up – beat up ol’ guitar.”

The hauntingly vivid song Beat up Guitar from blues diva Shemekia Copeland’s 2000 album Wicked tells the tale of an old man who is so attached to his worn guitar, that when it falls apart, so does he. All three of her albums are filled with soulful tales of heartbreak, irony and honesty such as this.

And Burnaby will get the chance to see the singer up close and personal at the Burnaby Blues Festival.

Copeland, who won the 2003 W.C. Handy awards for best album of the year and best contemporary female artist of the year, is a headliner for the July 26 show.

Those who’ve seen her live in concert swear her voice is so powerful that one can hear each word clearly from blocks away. But she hasn’t always been the musical powerhouse she is today – at least she hasn’t always known it to be true.

Copeland was born in Harlem, New York in 1979. As the daughter of famous Texas blues crooner, Johnny Clyde Copeland, she grew up in a musically stimulating environment and says it provided her with invaluable life lessons.

“It was excellent. I got to experience great things. Travelling … I took my first trip to Europe when I was nine,” she says from her home in Lake Harmony, Pa.

“I think the experience, being able to hear my fathers experience really puts you a step ahead of everybody else. You know what to expect.”

Still, even though her father always knew she would be a singer, Copeland says, she didn’t know music was her passion until well into her teens.

But, she explains around the age of 15 or 16, something changed and the desire to sing washed over her.

“It happened in a real short period of time. It was during that time my father got really ill and was sick at the time and I think that something just came over me,” she explains.

So, from then on, she turned from the embarrassed eight-year-old whose father dragged her on stage to sing at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, into a blues songstress.

Copeland’s father, who had been diagnosed with a heart condition, brought her along on tour, gently prompting her to open at his shows.

“Dad wanted me to think I was helping him out by opening his shows when he was sick, but really, he was doing it all for me,” she recalls on her online biography. “He went out of his way to get me that exposure.”

Copeland released her first album, Turn the Heat Up at aged 18, and her career soared from there. Since then, she’s released two more albums, her most recent being Talking to Strangers, which has brought her a lot of recognition in the music industry.

The 24-year-old says her music contrasts her youth in the urban, hip-hop influenced streets of Harlem, with her father’s deep southern blues roots.

“It’s definitely more New York because I use New York musicians and my roots aren’t from Texas, (my father’s) were, so I think it’s a lot different,” she says, explaining, “It’s contemporary blues, I think, for younger people, for people that can understand it. And I think it’s cool. I’m able to put all the different types of music (into) my music.”

With songs that range from a pleading and sultry saxophone to a drawling southern guitar, and then up to the up-tempo plinking of a piano, Copeland’s album is diverse.

Sweet murmurs one minute and emotional growls the next, she pours her whole being into her songs – admitting that she’s never had vocal lessons in her life, but would love the opportunity to take a few.

The artist has often been compared to diva predecessors Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Ruth Brown, but humbly admits, she’d rather be in a category of her own.

“It’s a beautiful thing anytime somebody compares you to somebody like that,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing, but I’d prefer not to be compared to anyone.”

Lately, she’s been working on her own lyrics and says that writing is therapeutic. But despite what life throws at her, she tries to maintain a positive attitude, which she hopes shows in her songs.

“I never really had any bad experiences though. I think that every experience is a good one because it’s just that. It’s an experience that you can learn from and grow from.”

In one of her songs, Copeland describes how she’s “married to the blues.”

She says, for her, singing the blues is what drives her and keeps a little bit of her father with her at all times. There’s nothing like the blues, she says, they complete her.

“Like I always say, if it weren’t for the blues, I wouldn’t weigh over 90 pounds because it’s everything to me. That’s what it is. It’s everything.”




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