When Chicago blues singer Shemekia Copeland began performing "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo" in concert, she was startled by the response.
The song, which unflinchingly addresses violence against women, inspired more than just applause. After concerts, says Copeland, people queued up to speak to her, to share stories, to find comfort.
"I cannot tell you how many women have come to me about this song," says Copeland of a tune that appears on "33 1/3," her Grammy-nominated album of 2012.
"Not just women who've gone through terrible situations, but doctors, emergency room doctors, psychiatrists. All female, who have come to me about this song.
"They said, 'I need this song to help my patients' or 'to help me.' It makes me feel good, like I should be doing more things like that."
In truth, Copeland already has done plenty with "33 1/3," its tracks bristling with social and political commentary, as listeners will discover when Copeland launches her new year of performances with shows Friday and Saturday evenings at Evanston SPACE.
None of the "33 1/3" music, however, is more searing than "Ain't Gonna Be Your Tattoo." Though Copeland didn't write the piece – it was penned by John Hahn, her manager, and guitarist Oliver Wood – the message resonates with events Copeland says she has witnessed through friends, which perhaps helps explain the ferocity of her delivery.
"I speak to John (Hahn) a few times a day, and we had been talking about doing a song like this for a long time – a domestic violence song," says Copeland. "He hears stories about my friends, things I'm going through with them. He came up with the idea to write a song about it, cleverly – you can't come right out with it. He managed to do that from our conversations."
The power of Copeland's reading of that song and others says a great deal about her evolution as a blues artist. For the teenager who emerged in the late 1990s as something of a blues prodigy has matured into a singular voice, an artist whose work embraces traditional musical values but also take on contemporary issues and increasingly eclectic musical influences.
If at age 19 Copeland was just starting to find her way with her debut album, the aptly named "Turn the Heat Up!," by now she clearly has come into her own. For though her voice from the outset achieved gale-force power, her sound has deepened and her message has sharpened.
"It's just saying what I think," says Copeland, 34. "I think I am at that age where I can say what I want to say. … You feel like you're not out of line, because you've lived enough life that you have a right. You see what I'm saying?
"When you're 19, you know, it's different. And it's not just that song."
Indeed, in Copeland's recent repertoire she takes on life at the bottom of the economic heap in "Lemon Pie," religious phonies in "Somebody Else's Jesus" and other potent fare. In effect, Copeland has developed into a kind of contemporary, social-commentary blues artist, her sometimes plush, sometimes raspy vocals intensifying her message.
"It's very interesting how she's gone from being pretty much a straight-ahead blues and R&B singer to bringing these elements of Americana songwriting and song structures," says Bruce Iglauer, whose Chicago-based Alligator Records produced her first several recordings ("33 1/3" is on Telarc).
"She's bringing in other types of roots music that's related to blues and R&B. It's music that is more singer-songwriter centered. Even though Shemekia doesn't write a lot of her material, she sings from that perspective.
"The stories she tells are real-life stories. It's a more lyrics-centered genre of music than most blues is. She's really able to plumb the depths of the lyrics."
Yet Iglauer, who has been following Copeland's work since she was a teenager, insists that vocally, at least, the singer was well equipped even in her youth.
"When I saw her (performing) on her own, she was 17 … and she was playing with members of her father's band," remembers Iglauer, referring to the Texas blues guitarist Johnny "Clyde" Copeland, who died in 1997 at age 60. "I was watching a fully mature artist who was able to deliver songs with great depth and emotional dynamics. She was able to move the audience.
"She was totally confident with herself and her talent, in a very non-egotistical way. There was no sense that she was full of herself. It was just the opposite. She was so comfortable in her own skin. ... All her singing was in tune. I was seeing a grown up in the body of a teenager. … I also saw her with her father in the last years of his life, and there was such affection between them. He was so proud of her."
The blues, in other words, is genetically imprinted on Shemekia Copeland's voice and psyche, which illuminates why she was a standout early on.
Born in New York in 1979, Copeland sang cameos in her father's shows when she was all of eight years old and inexorably became smitten with the blues. "Turn the Heat Up!" drew quick critical applause, and the albums that followed proved noteworthy in various ways: "Wicked" (2000) won three W.C. Handy Awards and earned Copeland her first Grammy nomination; "Talking to Strangers" (2002) was produced by Dr. John (with whom Copeland recently recorded a duet for a forthcoming album of his); "The Soul Truth" saw Copeland explicitly pushing outside of blues conventions (2005); and "Never Going Back" (2009) included appearances by notables such as John Medeski and Marc Ribot.
Not that the Copeland's journey has been particularly easy. Because of how deeply she clings to certain blues traditions, she hasn't broken through to pop-star status of performers who work in more commercial, musically fashionable genres. Yet because she ventures outside time-worn blues formats, she sometimes finds herself criticized in some quarters. In effect, she's placed herself in a delicate spot simply by dint of the musical choices she has made.
"I did not pick a popular genre of music," says Copeland, who moved to Chicago more than a decade ago. "I love blues, so I try to stick to it. I try to bend it but not break it. I just try to throw in elements of things I love in the process. … I do music that probably is not what traditional blues people think is blues.
"It's hard to describe what other people think or feel. But I feel … that it's all blues."
But is America really listening to the blues these days?
"If you're popular, it's heard," says Copeland. "If you're a guitar player, yeah, it's heard. But the rest of us are still out here just trying to show that we have an existence."
Yet if Copeland (and like-minded colleagues) works on the margins of American cultural consciousness, that does not diminish the power of her work. Quite the contrary, she clearly continues to find new ideas to express with a uniquely effective instrument. Stylistically, she sings on her own terms, and once you hear her, you do not forget her.
"I don't think it's in her to sell out or to want to sell out," says Iglauer. "I used to present songs to her (to consider recording), and she wasn't afraid to say 'no' to a song. She has to feel it. She has to feel the lyric."
So Copeland presses forward, building a following concert by concert, minus the big marketing push lavished on performers working in more commercial genres. Which she accepts.
"I want things the way they have been for me – slow and steady," she says. "Just a slow and steady ride. And that's what's been happening.
"With every step I take, it's a solid step. There's no coming down from it."
Not with a voice like that, and so many pressing things to say.
Shemekia Copeland performs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; $22-$42; 847-492-8860 or evanstonspace.com.