Without love, it ain’t much: Sheila E. on a divided America, Prince and the party coming to Interstellar Saturday

Sheila E plays Interstellar Rodeo Saturday night. supplied

To say Sheila E. is a legend is an understatement — as a teenage drummer she toured with Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie and this cat you may have heard of by the name of Prince, who also wrote her most famous solo song, The Glamorous Life — sharing a personal creative intimacy only the two of them will ever truly know.

Born into the glimmering Escovedo family, Sheila E.’s father Pete drummed for Carlos Santana and Tito Puente (her godfather), she picking up the sticks in this creative distillery at age three as her uncles Coke, Mario, Javier and (most familiar to Edmonton festival audiences) Alejandro all swirled around her in their various musical efforts.

Yet the names of all these boys get in the way of what an icon of fashion, hard work, resilience and plain old kickass drumming Sheila E. is, not to mention all that straightforward cool.

I did a double take and swore with a big grin when I first saw her name on Interstellar Rodeo’s embargoed list, a raunchier “no effing way,” and she headlines, 9 p.m. Saturday under the Heritage Amphitheatre at Hawrelak Park.

Her recent work is fiercely political, shoulders up against the horrific idiocy going down south of the border — let’s especially consider from a Latin point of view.

We start talking about her recently released Funky National Anthem and cover of Prince’s America, a reminder of the desperate need for all those bold sentences about freedom and liberty baked into the American identity to not be a hypocritical crock of shizzle.

Q: It feels like the lyrics to America, especially “keep the children free,” are right out of today’s headlines, ugh …

A: Oh my God, yes. (My album) Iconic was based on the election and I was definitely dismayed and offended by the things that were being said and that political chaos was just ridiculous. And the fastest way I could think of to put something out stating how I felt, as these songs were definitely relevant to the times. Even more so now than two years ago.

Q: How did you feel watching those four congresswomen — The Squad — stand up for what they believed in — is America going to make it through this craziness?

A: I’m always hopeful, even though I don’t always feel that way. It’s like, try to be happy every day even though I don’t feel that way, you know? All we have is hope. Praying that we can get through this — it’s a disgrace to our country. It’s shameful, embarrassing. To see how many people in our country are divided, and by the word hate. That word has become the norm. It’s just: why?

Q: We’re praying for you. I don’t think that’s most Americans.

A: We just played Halifax and I got very emotional. Asking the people there, in Nova Scotia, ‘Can you pray for us?’ I got so overwhelmed by saying that, really meaning that, I started crying. I had to pull myself together and the crowd started clapping, like, it’s OK. I tried to get out of it, wiping my tears away and said, ‘We decided when we got here, it took us 18 hours to get here, we decided at sound check that we were all going to get dual citizenship and move to Canada.’ The crowd went crazy because I said, ‘This might be our new home.’

Q: The film Krush Groove is a cult classic, do you have any funny memories you can talk about from that shoot?

A: (Laughs, groans.) I watched it a year and a half ago and I cringed — ahhh! What was I thinking? Why did I do it that way? I was new to the scene, trying to act, my first film. But the music is amazing. You realize all the people in it (Run-D.M.C., The Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow, Debbie Harry, Beastie Boys), we’re all friends — but everyone’s career, what they’ve done. No one knew it was going to be this awesome cult hip-hop film, there’s not another like it. People thought hip-hop was going to go away, and it’s bigger than any other music, period.

Q: I don’t want to dwell here, but can you describe Prince in a couple adjectives, the real him as you knew him?

A: Funny. One of my favourite guitar players in the world. And an incredible songwriter.

Q: My friend Tash, who’s also an awesome drummer, in a band up here called the Secretaries, asks if it freaks you out that so many people in the world think you’re the coolest person ever?

A: (Laughs.) Awww, tell her thank you and I’m gonna give her a hug if I meet her.

Q: I watched that BBC vid of you and Stewart Copeland and in it you said, ‘The discipline is when not to play,’ talking about the space in between patterns.

A: I always try to explain when I’m talking to kids about music, that this entire stage is covered in gear: drums, congas, timbales, hand toys, cajones, djembe. A lot of them have never touched a percussion instrument, let alone know what timbales are, and sharing all that, you know, the reason why I still have a career, I’m still in the game, is you have to understand it, and that’s to be part of a team. It’s not about being heard.

There are so many incredible drummers that I will not hire because they play too much, they overplay. Just keep playing the same beat for more than four bars or eight bars! There’s so many people that want to change up — they want to be heard, it’s about them. And you’re not going to get hired that way. The best thing to do is to be disciplined. And you know a lot of people don’t know how to do that. Less is more, always. The space that is there that is not being played is the most important part of the song because it allows the song to breathe. A lot of people think you’re supposed to play in all those spaces, to cover it up, and all of a sudden it just sounds like noise.

It’s like having a conversation, there’s a give and a take. You listen, and then you speak. If there’s conversation there something magical will happen. If we’re talking on top of each other, no one’s going to hear what one another is saying, and that applied to music as well.

Q: Was there any connection between your uncle Alejandro Escovedo playing Interstellar a couple times and you deciding to play?

A: It just happened. This is really funny, one time we were going to record some music with the family, out in Thousand Oaks or Calabasas. We go to the studio, we’re setting up, and the second engineer comes in and he says, ‘Hey, do you guys know your uncle’s here?’ I’m like, ‘What? You gotta be kidding!’ So we knocked on the door and he had no idea either and we just cracked up laughing and hung out in each others’ sessions.

Q: What can we expect at Interstellar — how big’s the band?

A: There’s 10 of us: two singers, two horn players, bass, drums, guitar … and me.

Q: Sounds like we should we bring our dancing shoes.

A: Uh, fo’ real. Let your hair down. Be comfortable. High energy. You’re gonna laugh, songs you know you’ll be able to sing. A lot of interaction with the audience and we expect everyone to PARTICIPATE and get down.

Q: Is Lynn Mabry (Parliament, the Brides of Funkenstein, Talking Heads touring band) coming?

A: She is, she’s singing, absolutely. You should interview her!

Q: You still play in high heels?

A: Not in the last almost two years. So we’ve been on the no shoes, all us girls for the last year or so — no shoes onstage.

Q: Thanks for doing this, it’s a real honour. And I’ll bring my friend Tash, see if she can get that hug.

A: That’d be awesome! You take care, see you there!