I recently had the opportunity to interview Bay Area music royalty Sheila E. Hailing from Oakland, Sheila has been making music for over forty years. She’s worked with everyone from Prince, to Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, and many, many others. Sheila E has recently published her memoir, “The Beat of My Own Drum” and is reaching out to the Bay with the charities Elevate Hope and Elevate Oakland with her business partner and long time friend, Lynn Mabry. The Elevate Hope Foundation (ELF) helps reach out to schools to bolster their existing music and art programs with new instruments, art supplies, and computers in hopes to reach out to all children and teach them to express themselves creatively. They also reach out to foster care programs to make sure that disadvantaged children get same opportunities.
WYV: I recently read that your first experience on stage was at 5. You started early!
Sheila E: Yeah, my father pulled me up onto the stage when I was five years old. I grew up around music. It was everywhere in my house – whole bands in my living room. Pops used to practice to LPs and would host jam sessions. There were musical instruments wherever you looked. Three of my uncles were in punk bands, my dad was a jazz musician.
WYV: Did you have access to musical instruments in school?
Sheila E: Yeah, when I was ten, my dad said that I should learn to play violin. I was like “VIOLIN?” but it turns out that I loved it. It opened up my eyes to so much music and so much more of life. I played for five years and received quite a few scholarships. My fingers worked incredibly fast, so it took a while for teachers to figure out that I did not know how to read music – I could just hear a piece and recreate it. I had a real hunger to learn as many instruments as I could. In between tours, I would take classes at Laney College in order to learn new instruments. (side note: Sheila E just recently learned to play bass, so that just goes to show that the learning process never stops!)
WYV: When did you first go on tour?
Sheila E: My first tour was at 15. My dad’s percussion player was out and I filled in. I then went on tour with Clive Davis and Azteca.
WYV: Have you experienced sexism within the music industry?
Sheila E: All of the time. I still experience it to this day. It’s unusual to see a woman playing percussion and even more unusual to see one playing a full drum kit. My pops taught me that you had to walk in fully prepared, knowing your music so that you could perform it with confidence. There were so many musicians that just did not know their part and that would get them in trouble. Instead of taking responsibility, they would take their anger out on me because I knew my stuff. Men would try to offer me record deals, jets – you name it – in exchange for me sleeping with them. They thought they could buy me.
WYV: What was it like to work as a solo artist rather than as part of a large group?
Sheila E: Not everyone wants to or has the ability to perform as a solo artist. I’ve always been a leader. I try to be a team player, but I always get called to the front with people asking my opinion (on how a piece of music should go). It takes a tremendous amount of hard work, but it has been a wonderful career. I am known for playing a ton of different genres of music, so that’s what people come to hear me play.
WYV: What are some of your favorite acts that you have performed with?
Sheila E: That’s an unfair question, because I play so many different genres of music. I can’t pick anyone because of that – well, one person. My favorite of all-time would be performing with my Pops. There is nothing like it.
WYV: Can you tell me a bit about what it is like to perform as part of The Escovedo Family
Sheila E: You get to see exactly how we are with each other – there is no filter, it’s just us. We play around on stage and switch instruments. There is a ton of improvisation, which really keeps you on your toes. It keeps you sharp and it really is a lot of fun.
WYV: You recently wrote a book. How did you fit it in with touring?
Sheila E: My sister-in-law and I worked on it together for a year. We would talk about it for days at a time and then on Skype, Facebook, wherever we could to make it happen.
WYV: What advice do you have for women who are aspiring musicians or just trying to break into a creative career?
Sheila E: Be true and be honest. As women, we wear our hearts on our sleeves often and get (emotionally) beat up for that but when we try to be tough, we’re called out of our names. You’ve got to allow yourself to make some mistakes. If you really want something, whatever it may be, you have to be true, be honest, and work hard.
WYV: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us this afternoon, Sheila! We look forward to checking out your book and learning a bit more about yourself and your process!
Featured Photo: Image Credit Koury Angelo