Growing up in Harlem in the late '80s and early '90s, Shemekia Copeland heard hip-hop up and down the block. Her friends were digging Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J. But the latest sounds in urban music didn't really move the future blues belter.
"I remember wanting to go inside and play my Koko Taylor records," says Copeland. "I feel like I was born in the wrong time."
One listen to any of her four solid albums on Alligator Records, and you wonder whether the artist has lived here before. Copeland wails tales of pain and redemption with a knowingness that belies her 27 years. Her music, sizzling with a gutbucket soulful feeling, echoes the take-no-mess, womanist blues of vintage Etta James and Aretha Franklin.
Copeland will bring her mature, sassy sound to Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Wednesday night.
On the singer's latest album, The Soul Truth, she pushes her music in a smoother, Memphis-soul direction.
"I never wanna do the same record twice," says Copeland, who last week was performing in New York City. "I'm always looking for a way the music can sound different."
Released last year, The Soul Truth isn't remarkably different from its predecessor: 2002's excellent, Dr. John-produced Talking to Strangers. Both are old-fashioned soul albums, resonating with punchy horns and volcanic vocals.
Overseen by Memphis-soul great Steve Cropper, The Soul Truth doesn't trump Talking to Strangers. But Copeland's approach, especially on the slower cuts, is a bit more refined. Working with John and Cropper, two towering figures in classic Southern soul, was an enriching experience, the singer says.
"If you're gonna do a soul record, who else do you go to but Dr. John or Steve Cropper?" Copeland asks with a throaty chuckle. "I'm a ridiculously huge fan of Otis Redding, and I know Steve had worked closely with him, writing songs. Working with Steve and John was like being spoon-fed the soul experience."
Since the release of her 1998 debut, the near-classic Turn the Heat Up, Copeland has been something of a critics' darling - even if she's still largely unknown to the mainstream. It doesn't hurt that she is the daughter of the late Texas guitar great Johnny Copeland, with whom she toured shortly before his death in 1997.
"To me, you couldn't be in this business without a good head on your shoulders, and my parents raised me well," says the singer, who comes across as friendly and thoughtful over the phone. "With my father, he was so free. He was into lots of different music. He'd be up in the house writing something that sounded like country or like rock or whatever. I loved the creative process. But I was so young. I wish I could've learned more."
Copeland may not play guitar, but she absorbed her father's phrasing. Johnny Copeland's elastic, forceful way with a song can be heard in his daughter's delivery. She all but attacks songs such as "Breakin' Out" and "Who Stole My Radio?" on The Soul Truth.
With an expansive, emotionally charged range, Copeland sounds at home in varied musical contexts, especially country and R&B.; But the artist's eschewal of urban, hip-hopped textures may keep her in a certain niche. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"Sometimes I feel alone out there, doing this music at my age," Copeland says with a sigh. "People will always try to pigeonhole you. But when you label yourself and put yourself in a mental box, that's a sad, dangerous thing. I don't do that."
Spoken like a wise woman who knows the blues.
See Shemekia Copeland at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis. Tickets are $29.50. For more information, call 410-268-4545 or visit ramsheadtavern.com.