For Shemekia Copeland, it’s about the audience, and the voice

Shemekia Copeland will perform at Memorial Hall at UNC Friday, April 21.
Shemekia Copeland will perform at Memorial Hall at UNC Friday, April 21. Submitted

Shemekia Copeland performed at the Bull Durham Blues Festival in 2007 and 2015, and after each performance audience members marveled at the power of her emotional delivery and her voice. Copeland’s voice has a wide range, from rocking blues (like “Who Stole My Radio?” from her album “The Soul Truth”) or slower ballads (like “Lord Help the Poor and Needy” from her recent album “Outskirts of Love”).

“Why it’s strong, I have no idea,” Copeland said in a phone interview from her home in Chicago. “My father had a great voice, and my mom too. I take care of myself, at least I try to,” she said. Listeners who have not heard Copeland in live performance can do so Friday, April 21 when she takes the stage at Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Born in Harlem, New York, in 1979, Copeland grew up with the blues and all of the genres it has influenced. Her father Johnny Clyde Copeland played the blues and “was always on tour when I was a kid,” she said. “My father was from Texas, so country and western, gospel, soul, blues, you name it, we listened to it,” Copeland said. “My father really loved African music also, and so do I.”

She always sang around the house from the time she was a little girl. She would sing with her father when he took out his guitar, Copeland said. When she was eight, her father took her along to his date at The Cotton Club, where she sang. When she was 16, she began touring with her father, who had been diagnosed with a degenerative heart condition, according to her website.

Copeland recorded her first album at age 18, “Turn the Heat Up.” She has since garnered numerous awards, including eight Blues Music Awards from The Blues Foundation, and Living Blues magazine’s 2010 readers’ poll for Blues Artist of the Year. Her albums include “Wicked,” “Talking to Strangers” and “The Soul Truth.” Guitarist and producer Steve Cropper, who played on innumerable Stax Records sessions, produced “The Soul Truth,” and Copeland called him “a ball of energy” who “loves what he is doing.”

On her most recent album, “Outskirts of Love,” Copeland pays tribute to her late father with a performance of his song “Devil’s Hand.” She also performs her arrangements of Solomon Burke’s “I Feel a Sin Coming On,” Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s “The Battle is Over,” and John Fogerty’s “As Long as I Can See the Light.” Copeland’s original songs take a look at homelessness (”Cardboard Box”), being down and out (“Crossbone Beach”) and the struggles of making a living in music (“Driving Out of Nashville,” a country-style tune she delivers with great humor).

“The album was about people on the outskirts, whether it be love, homelessness, social injustice,” Copeland said of her selection of songs for the recording. “That’s what the whole album was about, and all these songs fit into that.”

At Memorial, she will be performing with musicians who have been with her for many years. Guitarist Arthur Neilson has been with her about 19 years and has played on some of her recordings, Copeland said. Bass player Kevin Jenkins has been in the band about 14 years, and guitarist Ken “Willie” Scandlyn for about eight years. “We tease the drummer [Robin Gould] about being the new guy,” Copeland said of Gould’s three years with the ensemble. She works with a set list in concert, but the band members say otherwise. “I like to feel out the audience, even if I have a set list,” Copeland said.

Even in recording, she tries to capture the feeling of being with an audience. “When I record, I record live,” she said. “It still doesn’t do it justice. There’s no possible way to create that on record. I know that there’s nothing that beats live performance. You’ve lived with the songs forever; it’s like getting up in the morning and putting your socks on.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1


What: Shemekia Copeland in concert

When: Friday, April 21, 8 p.m.

Where: Memorial Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill

Admission: For tickets, visit www.carolinaperformingarts.org or call 919-843-3333