Sheila E. reflects on her career: 'I was always my own person'

theGRIO Q&A - Vocalist and percussionist, Sheila E. made it abundantly clear on her 'Unsung' episode that having a music career isn't always a 'Glamorous Life'...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Vocalist and percussionist Sheila E. made it abundantly clear on her Unsung episode that having a music career isn’t always a “Glamorous Life.” Sheila Escovedo (later shortened to Sheila E.) shot to fame in the 1980s as a solo artist closely associated with Prince. She eventually became the drummer and musical director for the Purple One’s New Power Generation.

Many might not know that Prince did not “discover” Sheila E. Though she didn’t have an album out yet, she was already a professional musician touring with her father, famed Latin jazz percussionist Peter Escovedo, when she met Prince in 1978.

TheGrio had the opportunity to speak with Sheila E. and find out what her life was like during those headlining days, and what she’s been up to since then, besides serving up the drums under Pharrell’s direction at the 84th Annual Academy Awards.

You come from a musical family and you started performing at a very young age, have you ever had a “regular job”?

Sheila E.: Not really. I helped a friend one time when I was a teenager. It was Christmas time and I helped hem clothes and fold and stuff like that. That was the only time I was even close to having a regular job.

Did you ever want to be anything other than a musician?

Actually, the original plan wasn’t music. I was running track and I wanted to be an Olympic athlete, but once I really got into music, I knew that’s what I was going to do with my life. I had to leave track behind.

You were a professional musician before you met Prince , but I imagine touring with Prince was a different experience than touring with your dad and the rest of your family.

My dad and his band had a big record deal. We toured all over the world. There were 18 people in the band. I played with Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie, Tito Puente, and lots of other people. To play with Prince wasn’t any different. We always had a good time working together though, especially on my first album.

What was that experience like?

It was great! I recorded that entire album in two weeks. I’ve never even come close to recording an album in such a short amount of time since then. I knew “Glamorous Life” would be a hit, but I went on tour for two months right after I finished the album. When I got back from Europe, “Glamorous Life” was a hit in the U.S.

Did you ever feel like you needed to go the extra mile to prove yourself as female solo artist, since you were so closely associated with your father and Prince?

No, never. I was always my own person. I always felt comfortable and confident in my own creativity.

You had a health scare a few years back that threatened your career. What happened?

My lung collapsed and I had back issues. The doctors said my lung was 80 percent collapsed. I didn’t even know what that meant, or if I was going to live. I really wasn’t thinking about music. I was thinking about staying alive. I was paralyzed for two weeks. I was on medication for months and I had to stop performing for a year.

How did you manage to pick up the pieces?

I had already given my heart to the Lord by then, but that experience definitely strengthened my beliefs. It changed my heart. You know, sometimes people think that I left the building, like I left the music industry or something, just because I’m not on stage as much as I used to be, but I’m here and I’ve been here the whole time, posted up in the corner. There are other ways to be in the music industry besides performing. You can write, produce, direct.

What advice would you have for young women today trying to make their mark in the music industry?

Learn the business. A lot of us learned the hard way. Take it upon yourself to take a business class. But the biggest thing you can do is write your own songs. That’s where there is money and longevity, but there’s nothing wrong with being an artist who doesn’t write songs, but just stay on top of things. Know what you are good at. Some people should just write songs and not perform, and vice versa. You also need a team of people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth. If you don’t sound good, you need someone you trust in your circle to be able to tell you that.

You’ve worked with so many people throughout your career. Who would you like to collaborate with that you haven’t worked with yet?

Well, one person I wish I had worked with is Sammy Davis Jr. He was an amazing entertainer — very talented. As for living people, I’d love to work with Garth Brooks. He thinks outside of the box. He’s not afraid to try new things. He released music under a pseudonym a while ago and it was good. I think we’d work well together.

Besides your possible ventures into country music, what else does the future hold for you?

I’m working on my memoir and some movies. I want to do acting. I’m thinking about a reality show about my family, too. My parents have been married for 56 years. Such a blessing. Our family is really close. We tour together and we bump heads a lot like any other family, but it’s fun. We’ve been doing conference calls once a week just to catch up. I don’t watch the reality shows that are on television now. I mostly watch the History Channel.