She’s been dubbed “a ball-of-fire vocalist with a voice that’s part Memphis, part Chicago and all woman,” she’s sung for the President of the United States, and Billy Gibbons recently said she was the “reigning Queen of the Blues.” With her new album Outskirts of Love winning her critical acclaim and loads of new fans, Down at the Crossroads was delighted to catch up with her…
DATC: Shemekia, thanks for talking to us. First of all, congratulations on the new album (Outskirts of Love), we think it’s terrific! Have you been pleased at the reception it’s had?
Shemekia: Absolutely !! I couldn’t be happier. It’s gotten the best reaction of any CD I’ve ever done.
DATC: You cover a lot of ground in the songs, from violence against women to homelessness to poverty to politics. This goes against the grain of the majority of songs you hear these days, whether blues or otherwise; most are about love gone wrong or about something fairly trivial. So why has it been important to you to address these topics in your music?
Shemekia: Aside from being important issues on their own, I think it’s very important that the blues evolves. That it grows. To do that it has to stay relevant and address contemporary issues. I try to do that.
DATC: Does it concern you that some people might say, “Look I just want to be entertained; if I want to think about issues, I’ll watch the news on TV?” Or do you find your audience is more sophisticated than that!?
Shemekia: I always try to entertain and never lecture. It all depends on how an issue is presented. I’m just following in the blues tradition of telling stories. Some of my stories happen to be about topics that give women the blues…today. And yes, thankfully my audience is sophisticated enough to not only get it but thank me for talking about things that really do concern them.
DATC: There’s some gospel and faith in the record as well. You cover ZZ Top’s Jesus Just Left Chicago with its “You might not see him in person but he’ll see you just the same” and “You don’t have to worry ’cause takin’ care of business is his name.” And there are faith themes in Long As I Can See the Light and Lord Help the Poor and Needy. So is faith an element in your life and art and if so, where did that come from?
Shemekia: Definitely. My Grandma Jesse was a big church goer and I used to go with her. I’m not overly religious but I do believe in the power of redemption. And that in a world of troubles, Jesus offers hope, help and solace.
DATC: The blues and the music business generally can be pretty androcentric and at times misogynist. How have you found making your way to a successful career, as a woman?
Shemekia: I have benefited greatly from strong women who have gone before me…the Koko Taylors…the Ruth Browns…who paved the way for women today. Most people treat me well. I have no complaints .
DATC: You’ve been a professional singer for, what, maybe 15 years? How would you summarize how you have developed as a song-writer and as an artist over that time?
Shemekia: When you start out singing in your teens, it can be difficult to sing what you really feel in your heart. You’re so young that you may not even know yourself.
Now I feel like I’ve found my voice. I’ve grown and have had a chance to develop my own options and point of view . I’ve traveled.
I’ve played everywhere from India to Iraq to Brazil, every state in the Union…even played the White House for President Obama. It’s helped me see the world and its people in my own way. I’m just lucky that I get to express it. But it takes time for any person to really formulate who they are and what they want to say.
DATC: Finally, Shemekia, you’ve achieved a lot of success – Grammy nominations, headlining at major festivals, opening for the Rolling Stones, performing at the White House, and being dubbed the new “Queen of the Blues.” What is important to you, as an artist, going forward, what more do you aspire to?
Shemekia: I’d like to change people’s lives in a positive way. To give a voice to some people who don’t have one. And to help people have a good time at the same time.
Thanks for asking, Gary. Good talking with you.