“Who is Shemekia?”
by P. G. Sturges
Who is Shemekia?
Shemekia Copeland, Outskirts of Love, Alligator Records.
Suffice to say this is a beautiful recording of fine musicians interpreting strong songs. Sophisticated yet rough, Stones-y, satisfying. Plenty of surprising musical details to reward your third and fourth hearings of this album. And your fifth and sixth. Nominated for a Grammy, Best Blues Album 2015.
But what takes this effort into the sublime is the work of Ms. Copeland. Music is a curious thing, different from other arts. A painting can be studied in its entirety, at once, there it is, stretched before your eyes. Sculpture is similar. Walk around it, that’s all there is. But music, to the listener, is a balancing act. A comparison. What comes first with what comes later, the relationship of the various ingredients, what is repeated, what is suggested, what we crave to hear again – but don’t. These things, and much more, or much less, are what constitute a memorable song.
But Ms. Copeland is not in the memorable song business, though her efforts are, indeed, memorable. A memorable song creates a benign curiosity. Nice song. Who did that? Hmm. Cool.
But every once in a while, once in a great while, at the confluence of hard, hard, hard work and natural talent, a VOICE emerges. When we listen to these VOICES, we are transported into the direct PRESENCE of these people. We are not listening to a nice song sung well, we are listening to the testimony of a truthful witness in the game of life. Aretha, Mavis, Ol’ Blue Eyes, Willie, Nina. And yes, Shemekia.
When I listen to Shemekia, I am in the presences of a living, breathing person. A person I wish I knew better. A person I wish could know me. When you hear a VOICE, it summons personality and possibility, anticipation and regret, longing and leaving. Who is this person? Singing to me so personally. How did he or she become who they became? Where in this world, at this very moment, are they? As time cuts away the both of us.
On Outskirts of Love, produced with obvious joy and confidence by Oliver Wood and John Hahn, Shemekia will tell you stories. Tears and laughter, fire and rain. And when the last cut fades away as you’re driving down the road, you know what you’ll do? You’ll play it again.
And you’ll wonder. Who is Shemekia?