How did your first solo record deal with Warner Bros in 1984 come about?
In ’83 I did two tours with Lionel Richie and Prince would come out to see the show and because I was singing and playing and doing a little bit of everything with Lionel, Prince – who I had first met in ’78 – said at one point during that tour: “Don’t you want to do your own record?” I said: “I know, maybe – but I like playing with other artists; I don’t have to be in the front and in the live shows I’m featured. It’s really cool to do it this way.” He said; “if you want to do a record, let me know.” I said: “oh, it’s that easy?” He said: “Yeah.” So through him I signed to Warner Bros but I was basically signed to Prince’s production company, which was signed to Warner Bros.
Had you been offered record deals before that?
Yeah, there were deals that I was offered but I decided not to take them. They weren’t right for me at the time.
What was it like recording ‘The Glamorous Life’ because that was many people’s introduction to you, wasn’t it?
Uh-huh. It was a lot of fun recording that song and that record. Again, at that time, I was doing so much playing that I wasn’t nervous being in the studio – it was something that was not new to me. A lot of people you hear about, they say “oh I’ve done my first record; I’ve never been in a studio before,” but I’d been doing that since I was fifteen and I was in my mid-twenties by the time that I did ‘The Glamorous Life’ so I was a veteran by then. It was a lot of fun and I was very excited about it. The cool thing about it was that it was not like we totally presented to the record company: “hey, we’re going to have this young girl who’s going to play timbales and it’s a percussion instrument” – because a lot of people did not know what that instrument was or even what it looked like, though Latin people knew what it was; it was seen as one of the main instruments in Latin music. The record company had no one to really look at to say “hey, well who does she look like? Or what other artist is like that so we can kind of look at what you’re talking about?” There were no other artists like that so we knew that we had something. So, playing and doing this record, playing in the studio, I knew for sure it was going to be very percussive and tell a story and be glamorous.
‘The Belle of St Mark’ was a Top 20 hit for you in the UK in 1985 and it was how many people first became acquainted with you there. Did you ever go over there to promote it?
Yes, I did. I went to Europe prior to doing the ‘Purple Rain’ tour (with Prince). I purposely went to Europe first like I did just now (she was in the UK last week prior to this interview). I went to Europe first to promote my record because I love Europe and I love how you guys, the European fans and market, tell you what they like and what they don’t like. They support your music if they like it and it’s not based on whether you have a hit song or a TV show or long hair or short hair or what colour you are: it’s basically just about music, so I went there purposely to Europe (in 1985) to promote the record there first and stayed there for a long time – a month or two or whatever – and did every single television show that I could do. I did all print ads and whatever I could do in magazines and I just stayed there. I played any place that anyone asked me to play and we worked our butts off. I’m not kidding you, it was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Even almost to this day it was very, very challenging to do what we did. Because I did so much there, it created such a buzz for the States when we got back. It’s interesting because I know that the ‘Belle of St Mark’ was a hit in the UK and I think the record company pushed it over there but we wanted ‘The Glamorous Life’ to be the first single. But when we were doing it in Europe people loved ‘The Belle of St Mark’ so that we kind of pushed that as the single for the European market. So there were two different singles. Then I started touring the States for my record and then we got together to do the tour for Prince so all of this came way before the ‘Purple Rain’ tour.
What was the experience of opening for Prince on the ‘Purple Rain’ tour like?
Oh, it was a lot of fun. It was just like being with a lot of family and friends. We didn’t know how successful it was gonna be; we just wanted to go and play and had no idea that it was going to last a year. They just kept adding dates every time we went to another city – if we did two or three dates it became a week, so we just stayed out as long as we could. We had a fantastic time.
Later on, you played drums for Prince in the late ’80s on the ‘Sign Of The Times’ and ‘Lovesexy’ tours. How did that come about?
Well, when I first met Prince in ’78 he had seen me play and had been following my career playing with George Duke and Billy Cobham and my dad. He’d seen me on television and heard me on records but then he saw me play on this one show with George called Don Kershner’s Rock Concert And Midnight Special and that was kind of like our Dick Clark show back in the day. So he saw me play drums there and then during times of us being friends we’d jam and play. I played drums and at the time of my third record I was pretty tired of being a solo artist. It was just so hectic and I was pretty exhausted. I had been out at the time opening with my band on the Lionel Ritchie tour, which was great because it was a whole new market for my band but at that time I just said “I think that something is missing from my life; I’ve moved away from playing and I’m singing more and I feel a little empty, like I’m not playing as much.” That was because I crossed over to a pop artist from an R&B artist because there was more singing. I felt I was playing less even though I was still playing but it wasn’t fulfilling musically for me so I said “I just want to go back to playing and I’m gonna go play for other artists again.” And, of course, at that time, the management company were saying: “you’ve got to be kidding; you can’t just drop your career.” I said: “well, I don’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right to me, I just want to go play.” I was talking to Prince about it at the time as well and so he said “mmm” and I saw a light bulb go on inside his head. “Well, you can come play for me,” he said. I said “I want to play for Patti LaBelle and all the other people. I want to go hang out again with everybody.” He said: “well, I might be starting a new band,” and I said “okay.”
But in the 1990s, we didn’t hear from you much. What were you up to?
For one thing I had a collapsed lung and also had to take off almost a year because at the same time my back went out as well. I was partially paralysed for about a week or two. I couldn’t really walk and it was from playing drums in high heels. I had been playing a gigantic drum set that was twisting my body because it was so big and so I took off a year and had a great time taking a year off. Then I just kind of revamped and started playing with my dad and started playing with different people. Then I decided to go back and play and form a band called E Train. Then we started touring the States and Europe. We had a great time. It was a five piece band playing jazz fusion with a little bit of funk and pop. It was a mixture of everything and we had a great time doing that.
In 2009 you starred in a US TV reality show called Gone Country and morphed into a country singer for while….
(Laughs). Well, I love many different types of music; a lot of genres of music have made me who I am. The reason that I did the show was because I love country music and the prize was whoever won got a chance to write with two Nashville songwriters and I thought what a great opportunity. I told myself: “I’ve got to win this show” because I’ve always wanted to write with a Nashville/country songwriter and that was the reason for me doing it. I ended up winning and did a country song based on what we wrote about but it was pretty interesting because how you could put timbales to a country song and make it work? It was pretty awesome. But at the same time I was so amazed by the writers and their way of writing and I actually went back the following year and wrote with several other writers and once I went back there are actually two songs from that experience that are on this record (‘Icon’) because I talked about my life. They get it and they tell stories so that was part of what’s on this record as well; it came from that experience of telling my story to them.
And you said that ‘Icon’ was inspired by your autobiography. Is it finished? Is it coming out soon?
It is. It’s finished. I get home on Monday and I actually shoot the cover on Tuesday. And it comes out next year.
And is that called ‘Icon’ as well?
No, and it’s interesting because I thought that it should have been (laughs)…once I did the record. It was going to be called From Pain To Purpose but now it’s going to be called By The Beat Of My Drum or From The Beat Of My Drum.
It will be a fascinating read I’m sure. Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions musical or otherwise?
There are a lot of things. I have my foundation, Elevate Hope Foundation, where the biggest thing we’re doing is that we’re putting music back in the schools. We started with just helping foster care but now since music is being taken out of the schools period, we’re on a mission to put music back into schools. So we’re focusing right now just on the Bay Area. In Oakland we’ve actually started a program in a public school; they started just this semester, so we’re excited about that. We’re offering more classes so we’re always asking for help and donations to be able to help the schools and mentor these kids. We want to help them and give them a chance because we know what music has done for us. Our goal and desire really is to see all the schools have music again. All of the other ambitions I have are kind of superficial but you know I want to do a movie and things like that and there are other artists I probably want to play and perform with. I have a bucket list, I really do, of things that I want to do because it’s been great because I’m able to check them off. They’re happening and coming to fruition faster than I expected. It’s a great blessing for me so I’ll always be able to continue to check them off and add some more.
What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
Well, I always say wherever I am at that specific time the highlight is now – last night (when she played a gig with her dad, Pete Escovedo, in Rehobeth in Wisconsin) is a highlight. We played an incredible show. It was one that I’ll never forget with my band and my dad. Every time I do something, whether it be big or small, it’s a highlight for me because I really appreciate everything and every opportunity and the gift that I have. That was not always the case for me, especially when I was young – you’re playing and you don’t realise how grateful you should be and you take things for granted. You don’t really appreciate everything until later on in life so now I’m very appreciative and grateful for what I have.
SHEILA E’S NEW ALBUM ‘ICON’ IS RELEASED VIA MOOSICUS RECORDS ON NOVEMBER 11TH.
CATCH SHEILA E & HER BAND LIVE @ LONDON’S UNDER THE BRIDGE ON SATURDAY NOVEMBER 23RD