Sheila E. portraits by Nate Ryan/MPR
The iconic drummer, songwriter, and performer Sheila E. visited the studio recently to talk with Tom Weber and Andrea Swensson about her new album, Iconic: Message 4 America, which features interpretations of songs by the Beatles, Sly and the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder, her long professional and personal relationship with Prince, and how performing has both caused her pain and helped her to heal.
Tom Weber: I think we should just start talking about the album, because it is such an interesting and cool idea. What were you going for here? What was the aim?
Sheila E.: The aim was to bring awareness, first of all; to get people’s attention, with this record, [using] songs that I grew up listening to in the 60’s and 70’s that were relevant then and are still relevant with what’s happening in our country right now. I thought they spoke to me then, but really speak to me now. Some of the songs, I ended up changing a little bit of the lyric content — saying with peace, with love and bringing people together that we can change things, and we have the right to change things for the better not the worse. With love, we can unite people. With hate we are divided, and there is much division happening. It’s just horrible.
It was interesting because in my archives, I had put a folder together that had said “Politically Correct,” which was an album I wanted to do a year and a half ago. And I said, you know what? I’m going to put a dance record out first so that I have time to write, because lyrically you want to say something. I knew it wasn’t going to come easy because I wanted to be smart about what I wanted to say and get people’s attention and things that I want to talk about. But that ended up not happening, and so the easiest way for me to put something out at the beginning of the year, because we recorded this in May, was to go back and listen to songs that I thought were relevant and still bring the message forth.
Weber: That was an interesting thing I found in some of the other interviews you’ve done, is to say this is an album of covers because I want to get it out now, I don’t have time to write a completely new original album.
Right, because at the same time, we’d been touring, and it’s hard to do a record on tour as well. The hours — we called it the 350 tour because our lobby call was at 3:50 am to get the first flight out everyday to get to the next plane, and we don’t get to our rooms until midnight or 1:00. How many days can you do that in a row? And I have to go to the studio and finish the record. So it was a little bit challenging to do that. If I had the choice, I would have loved to have written something. But at the same time, choosing the songs — and it’s funny, as you say, covers. I love these songs. I don’t feel like I’ve covered them. I feel like I’ve brought a message lyrically. Someone had said, “How do you like covering them?” I didn’t cover them, I am relaying the message. And I don’t mean it like that…
Weber: There is a completely different vibe. You hear songs like, “Come Together,” “What the World Needs Now is Love,” “Everyday People” — I mean it’s a completely different vibe when you hear it on this album.
I mean I can’t do those songs and cover them and try and change how brilliant those songs are anyway. My take on them is really just bringing the message forth in a somewhat funky kind of way.
Andrea Swensson: Oh it gets very funky. Sheila, I got a chance to see you the last time you played at Orchestra Hall, and you walk out of a show of yours feeling so good. You infuse everything with this really positive energy and I feel that in the album, too. It is such a divided time, as you said, and there is a lot of anger in the air. How do you focus back on the positive and bring that to the forefront?
Well again, through music, we bring people together. At our concerts, if you are coming to see a Sheila E. show you know we are going to bring good music, taking you out of the moment of what’s been happening, but then also remind you again that together we can do something. I love what I do, and what you guys give us, there really are no words to really explain how incredible it is. The feeling of that much love? I mean how could I not give it back? I feel like I can never give back enough of what I’ve gotten. Man, you know for our families – and I say families, fans — but families to come together to walk in that room with us and have a great time and go through the experience with us. You feel what I feel. If there’s a moment where I’m crying, I know you’re crying too. There’s a moment you’re laughing, I’m laughing with you or I’m making you laugh. Through music we can do that. That is part of our conversation and taking you on a journey and experiencing that with us.
Weber: You do the “Funky National Anthem” as part of this album, and there’s this very elaborate video as well that has imagery of civil rights protests in the ’60s, Black Lives Matter — but I have to rewind and think you would have recorded this “Funky National Anthem” before all of this stuff that’s going on recently with the NFL and the protests. There is one image of Colin Kaepernick in the video, but help me understand the timeline.
Exactly. I couldn’t have planned it any better. [laughter] No, it just happened. I mean it’s crazy. We were doing a Facebook Live video — it was either at the early beginning of this year or the end of last year. We were doing Facebook Live, doing a soundcheck and the band was playing some stuff, trying to get our ears together, and that kind of funky groove was playing and I just started singing the national anthem. So if anyone goes back to that live Facebook feed, that’s when it happened. I just started singing the national anthem out of nowhere, and then we ended up doing that. Later on we were like, you know what, if we are going to do this new record, let’s put this on the record. It’s a good idea and we should start with it. And then all of a sudden everything — I think, though, Kaepernick had done this early on.
Weber: He did, but the president hasn’t gotten as involved as he has —
Weber: [laughs] Well I was wondering about that, because you’ve done this funky version of the national anthem and it’s got this great beat underneath and I doubt — I hope I don’t offend you Sheila, but I doubt President Trump listens to you very much or is looking at your YouTube page, but if he ever found this video do you think he would come after you for “desecrating the national anthem” or something like that?
I’m sure he would. Yeah, I hope he does watch and listen to it. I think that would be great for him to check it out and look at what America is supposed to look like, and what we are fighting for and what we are saying. Pay attention to what we’re saying, you know? We want justice. We want respect. As we were talking about earlier today, we are better than this. We are. Everyday it’s something ridiculous, where he continues to divide this country and a lot of people are angry and that’s not what our country is all about. It’s land of the free — and yes we can talk about what we believe in and what we do and don’t agree [about], but right now a lot of people are agreeing to come together and fix the things that are wrong, because there’s a lot that’s wrong.
Swensson: And you follow up the national anthem with “Come Together,” with Ringo Starr on the track. You’ve chosen such amazing songs and it made me wonder, especially with Sly & the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder, I know these are artists that Prince really loved, too. Did you guys spend a lot of time listening to records together, listening to music?
Yeah, we did. When I first met him, I don’t know in ’77 or something like that, I was playing with George Duke. When I introduced him to my family, the Latin jazz music, he hadn’t really heard of Latin jazz music like that, so he was very excited to listen to the bands. He loved the music that was coming from the Bay Area, so I took him around and introduced him to the music. That’s why he liked being there. Santana, Sly Stone and now our family. And so we would talk about music growing up, who we loved and who had influenced us. We liked a lot of the same people, and there were people he didn’t know that I shared and vice versa. I shared a lot of Brazilian artists with him, I love Brazilian music; and some gospel music, Latin jazz musicians. And he would share people, although I had no idea who they were.
Weber: Did he know your dad? Your dad was a very well known percussionist in his own right, Pete. Did he know of your dad before he met him?
He knew of him, because at the time my dad was playing with Santana, so they were in the same studio. So he knew of him, but the Latin jazz part, I don’t think he knew a lot about that. When we flew back to Oakland I said, “You have to come see the family play. We’re all going to play.” And he showed up, he was just like a little kid in a candy store: “This is insane! You guys are so lucky to be able to play together. How do you know all these crazy breaks in the music?” And at the time, my dad had like five horn players, bass drum, guitar… We had a blast.
Swensson: There seem to be a lot of connections between the Bay Area scene and the Minneapolis Sound that Prince created. He was consuming that Bay Area music, and with you and Larry Graham coming to Minnesota — what is it about those two scenes that melded together in such a great way?
I mean most of my musicians come from the Bay area, so there’s something in the water that is happening in the Bay. There’s a lot of great music and artists and bands that have come from the Bay. Me bringing the Bay Area, he was like, “I love everyone that’s in your band. I love that kind of thing.” And we’d end up using the same people. We brought a lot of people here. This is our second home. It’s home, it really is home for us, and it’s great to be here today as well. Flying in yesterday and looking at the colors — we don’t get that in California at all.
Weber: You don’t get seasons in California.
No, the only season is salt and pepper. [laughs] That’s about it, but it’s beautiful to be here. A lot of people from the Bay Area, born and raised, we didn’t know anything much about Minneapolis, and you know a lot of us didn’t know anything about how cold it was here. [laughs] And the things you have to deal with was something really new to us, but first coming here for us really early on in the ’80s, there were some of the dirt roads that are not dirt roads anymore and it was a little bit different then. But I love it here. It’s beautiful out and I’m so happy to be here and be like “I’m home.”
Swensson: You mentioned dirt roads, and it reminded me that Paisley Park just hit a milestone, 30 years of being in operation — and I believe you were one of the very first artists to use those studios when it was still being built on those dirt roads. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that time as the building was coming together. What do you remember?
Actually before the building was there, while we were on tour, Prince and I would come here and look at the land and it was just all dirt and every time we came they would put the pegs in there with rope and “This is going to be maybe Studio A, and this is going to be B, and here’s the kitchen.” And so we’d step over and be like, “Oh we’re in the kitchen.” You know there were no walls. There was no foundation. Nothing. It was just dirt and in our heels we would step into the dirt and it was like, “This is going to be amazing.” It was just wonderful.
Weber: Both of you in heels?
Both of us in heels, holding hands, “Ok, be careful,” you know. And every time we came back. We were there at the beginning stages. But us together, walking the dirt of Paisley and watching this place become what it has become was incredible. Again, at the very beginning Prince and I – and I was one of the very first to us the studio, because that’s all we did was record and jam and play, and yeah it was a lot of fun.
Weber: For people who hear the brief description that you collaborated a lot, that you left the band after a while and that you were briefly engaged to Prince, there might be this impression or misunderstanding of what your relationship was until his death. It seems important to get across how close you remained even past the height of whatever that relationship was.
I guess it was ’77 or ’78. There were a couple of times I left, I came back, left and came back you know. And thinking alright, I gotta do something else. I wanna do something else and then you know maybe six months would go by or a year and it was like I only saw you last week. Time would just fly. And I’d come back and we’d start playing and recording. To me it just never stopped. We were always on the phone, if we were meeting in L.A. or meeting somewhere else, or New York. I mean even if we stopped for a year it just seemed like a week. It’s a lifetime of memories, good and bad, but that’s what life’s about. It was an incredible ride. It really was.
Weber: How do you think Prince’s legacy is right now? It it being honored well? You know you have the museum now, Paisley Park is open to the public, you have new music that will hopefully be coming out. What are your thoughts in general about how his legacy is being met or honored?
Well the museum came about later on when we were recording. I don’t remember what record it was. Later on he said, “You know what? I want this to be a museum.” He had so many artifacts, and his awards and things he had, and they were just in boxes. They weren’t displayed, so it was nice to see them out. It was home from the beginning, working in and out through the studio the soundstage, and recording Sign o’ the Times and our rehearsals and everything that we’ve done in that building — photoshoots and you know, parties and I mean everything. I think the legacy, the museum is something that he had always wanted, and I’m glad that it is a museum. I just thought at the very beginning of the museum it was too soon.
For me, it was to soon and I didn’t think all the things were in place the way they should have been. There were too many of his things that were just laying out and people weren’t marking as to well, this is item number whatever. You know, cataloging. Anyone could have just walked out with stuff, and I believe they probably have because it was too easy. It’s just sitting there. But at the same time, it was eerie to be in the building and it being left just exactly how he left it. I was there hours after he passed and it was the hardest thing to walk into the building and smell him as soon as I hit that door and him not be there. That was devastating to me. But to walk in that building, it is home for me. My stuff is still in there. I’ve got all kind of stuff in there and to walk in the building and knowing it is still my home, but other people get to share it now. I think the legacy is his music. I’m not one to speak on whether they’re doing it right or wrong because they’re doing whatever they’re doing. I’m not in control of that, I have no say so, but if I were doing it, it’d be different. A little bit different. It would be.
Swensson: I just remembered a few months ago that you were alongside Prince performing at First Avenue in 2007, which ended up being the last time he would play the Main Room. Do you have any memories of that night? I know it was a very late night.
[laughter] Come on really?
Weber: Of course, that goes without saying.
It was early, that was the beginning. Was that the time we played all three shows in one day?
Yeah, we had a blast. That’s all I can say. It was a blur and a blast. We had a lot of fun, you know? First Avenue is a place we had always played. Even at the beginning, just testing out songs. What was going to work, what wasn’t going to work. The fans here loved him, so at the very beginning we would play there to see if this song was going to work. And I think we played at the Macy’s, somewhere in Macy’s and then …
Swensson: Target Center. And then the city had to shut it down.
That’s what he did. Shut it down. Absolutely.
Weber: It’s so bittersweet, mostly sad to think about the fact that he’s gone. Did you have any sense that there was anything wrong in the weeks leading up to it? I mean we know what killed him now and was there a problem?
Not that I knew of, but again, the problem was he was in pain a lot and I know how much pain he probably was in because I’m in pain everyday, almost.
Weber: You are?
Oh yeah. My hands — I just went to the chiropractor yesterday to get adjusted. My neck, my hands, my finger wasn’t working right, my elbow was out. I mean if you do what we do, we’re like athletes. So if you can imagine, I mean I have on heels now, but walking and playing and hours and days and weeks and months and years in heels is not the best thing. So oh, let’s imagine, let’s just jump off a three story sound system on stage everyday. Let’s just jump off of that with heels on. It looks incredible, it’s amazing, you know it messed up his hip. So I know he was in pain because I’m in pain so I know. But if you don’t work on keeping yourself together you know he didn’t like to go to doctors. I was like, “You gotta go get adjusted.” And he was like, “I don’t need to get adjusted.” “Yes you do need to get adjusted.”
When my back went out, same thing happened. It was playing with him in heels. My calf muscle was shortened from playing in heels for so long that my back went out. I was here in Minneapolis, I was at my friend’s house walking across the hallway to the restroom and my back, my legs gave out and I was partially paralyzed for two weeks. So we called in doctors, it took four months for me to walk straight, they wanted me to have an operation and all this stuff, so I know what that is. No one ever talked about it because we don’t want you guys to know we’re in pain, we don’t want you to know we have a cold, I have a sore throat. At the beginning of the Purple Rain Tour I lost my voice. They had to come bring doctors, give me a cortisone shot. No one wants to talk about that. You guys don’t need to know. You don’t need to know that we hurt everyday. It’s part of what the gig is. So for him to be in pain, he did what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to go to the doctor and that was his call.
Weber: When you had the partial paralysis, I think this was also when “Sex Cymbal” was out and I think you had a lung collapse at some point?
Exactly, my body shut down.
Weber: Well, I mean, first of all how do you come back from that and secondly, if your lung collapses and you’re paralyzed for two weeks, and it takes months to come back to walking, there has to be this reflection on, well, if I want to be a performer than I have to do something different.
That changed my whole life. That was it. That was in ’90, ’91. I stayed here in Minneapolis, I got a house on the lake and I mentally shut down, which for me was huge because I’m not a person that would shut down mentally. I would always say, “I can jump out of a plane without a parachute and land on my two feet.” You know, and be super woman. That mentally shut me down. I didn’t know how to deal with that. I was afraid. I thought I was going to die and my career was going to be done because they’re telling me that I can’t play and I refuse to accept that. No, I’m going to play and I’m going to walk.
So I stayed here in Minneapolis for a year, I didn’t promote the record. So the album “Sex Cymbal” just went away and I stayed here and I just had to reflect and look at and think about you know what, I am not in control any more and I thought that I was. So this was the time of reflection and spirituality came in and giving my heart to God and saying, “You know what, God? If you could just get me out of this, cause I don’t know what to do. I’m mentally shut down, I’m afraid. I’ve never been afraid of anything.” I sat here in Minneapolis on a lake every single day and this was my healing, was to be here for an entire year and just reflect and think, what do you really want to do? You have to change your life, you have to take care of yourself. I didn’t know I was doing that much harm, because again, I loved what I do. I want to look good, I want to play good, I want to make the fans happy whatever that might take. Prince was in the same place, where he would do anything for his fans and there’s a sacrifice at some point, so you have to adjust life and you have to accept, look, there’s only so much we can do. We can’t always say yes and we do have to take those moments and say, “You know what? I need to shut down for a minute.” And it’s OK. It’s OK. We can’t do everything. I always felt that I needed to help save the life of every child that had been abused. That was my job. I have to save every child. Well I can’t, but I don’t want to accept that. OK, well accept one child at a time. So it’s those moments I sat here all year and said, “OK what am I gonna do with my life? I’ve gotta take care of me first.” And that changed my life.
Swensson: You have been such an inspiration and a role model for so many other women artists. Prince was such a big champion of women artists as well. This has been a pretty intense time to be a woman. This past year, specifically these past few weeks there’s been a lot of talk of women coming forward with their experiences. I’m just wondering if you have any words of wisdom, or something you would tell a younger person getting involved in the entertainment industry now?
Right. Well it’s not just the music industry. I mean this happens in jobs all over the world and businesses and it’s a hush-hush thing, and now that it is being exposed again. The same thing had happened to me many times growing up in the business when I started working with other artists – and it wasn’t the artists as much as other people working within the companies and saying to me, “Hey, I can make you a star. Here’s the key to my room. Meet me here and let’s have sex and I’ll hook you up.” I mean the the proposals I’ve had. “Hey, by the way, I can give you your own hotel in Vegas with your name on it.” I mean ridiculous things, to have sex. This happened throughout my entire career thus far.
And after awhile — well first of all, I’ve never accepted one, and I’m proud to say I’ve never accepted anything like that and I’ve always shut that person down to say, “This is not who I am and I don’t do this.” But, part of it was I had to realize when I became Sheila E, and I thought, OK there are no rules, I can do whatever I want. Well, let me see what I can get away with. So let’s see, I’m not going to wear this. Well wait, I’m not going to wear this, let me just cover up the bare essentials here, you know. And then men would approach me in a way to say, “Well you’re on stage doing this.” And I’m like “You’re right. That’s wrong and I have to change that.” I’m not saying that the women are doing that and that’s what’s going on, but before I was Sheila E., I was being approached the same way. I slapped a man’s face for touching me inappropriately in a car who was a musician, a drummer. I slapped him and said, “Don’t you ever.” So for women, and for young women, you stand up. No means no. You don’t accept, you don’t sacrifice. The problem as well is we treat women and we use women as objects to sell things, promoting things on television. I didn’t understand what that meant until I stepped back and thought “Wait a minute. This is not right.” So I dealt with the same thing.
Weber: You also mentioned a moment ago that “I want to save every child that was abused,” and that comes from your own story, which you’ve shared that you were abused growing up as well. Where has that journey brought you to today?
Well, I didn’t realize that at the beginning me being angry and upset at people, just joining gangs and wanting to harm because I was harmed. Being raped at five years old by our baby sitter. He lived upstairs in our duplex, which was my aunt’s brother and then being molested by others, and it was not a good time. But I realized that if I started talking about it – I didn’t know at the beginning, but if I started talking about it, it would help me to heal and not be ashamed of what had happened and it wasn’t my fault. And the more I talked about it, the more that baggage came off me and I felt like, man, I could start to live my life. Because you start to close up and you stand in a corner ashamed and bewildered and frightened and being told you can’t say anything. So you end up not living the life that you need to live and experiencing life and all of the good things that god has for you.
Once I started talking about it the bags started coming off. I cried about it a lot, but man it was a good cry. I was a healing cry. And realizing that every time I spoke about it I was saving someone else’s life, because every time they would come to me and say, “I’ve never told anyone,” and I would say “Now you’re telling me and I’ll take that with me and now you can start to live your life and begin your healing.” If we don’t talk about it we’re not going to change things and if we are transparent about it it not only helps me, but other people. So I’ve stood for being transparent about these types of things because it has saved someone else’s life.
Weber: This might be a little invasive, but I couldn’t help but notice you’re closing in on your 60th birthday and maybe it’s rude of me to have brought that up.
How dare you? [laughter] I’m just kidding. No it’s awesome.
Weber: Prince would have been 59, this year and you’re turning 60 and you’re still performing — reflect on turning 60. I think so many people have this image of you, this young twenty-something flying off the stage and you still are, huh?
I am. My mind says so, my body says not but no, I still feel like I’m in my 20s, I really do. I enjoy life more than I ever have and I live each day like it’s the last because nothing is ever promised and you know, turning 60, tickets actually went on sale today — December 7, I will celebrate at the Paramount Theater in Oakland with George Clinton, my family, we’re going to have a lot of people playing that night. My birthday is December 12, I will be 60 years young and I’m excited about it. It is a number, but it’s a milestone and it reminded me when we were talking about promoting the show that I started professionally at 15 and so that’s also a milestone, a lot of years performing. And I feel like every time I do so, every year this is the beginning of something new. So I look forward to many years of continuing what I get to do as long as you guys show up and allow me to come and hang out. I’m there, I’m there.
Weber: Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
Thank you for having me.
Swensson: Thank you so much. You are an icon, truly.
Thank you so much, I appreciate it.