Language of the spirit
For Citizen Cope, music has an energy and an origin all its own.
By Naila Francis
Citizen Cope has been known for a certain laconic propensity. His music may be a soulfully organic pastiche, scattershot influences, from country and folk to reggae and funk, blended with the ease of the imaginatively fecund who thrive beyond the boundaries of their craft.
But getting him to talk about his ever-shifting musical landscape — where world-weary introspection can give way to punchy narratives, and rustic-tinged reveries brush up against gritty urban portraits with driving beats — can be something of a challenge.
And that’s not because Cope — as he goes by — has little to say about it. Rather, music and the act of creating it remain such a mystical process, even after three albums, that one gets the sense the singer-songwriter, keyboardist, guitarist and producer treads with reverential reserve when it comes to his art.
“Writing songs and performing is a very spiritual, meditative kind of thing,” says Cope, born Clarence Greenwood in Memphis, Tenn. “You know, it’s turned into some kind of celebrity thing, but music is definitely coming from a higher power and it’s foolish to think you’re completely responsible for all that stuff, even though you work at it and you play and you do all the shows and you learn your craft.”
Even as a young teen, he approached music with that greater degree of awareness. Cope, whose itinerant past brought him to Washington, D.C., Mississippi and several other locations before he moved to Brooklyn, where he still lives, was a musical sponge, soaking up whatever was around him, from his older sister’s Top 40 records to rap and hip-hop artists like KRS-One to jazz guitarist Chuck Brown, whose hallmark go-go style of funk music has had a lasting impact on his own sound.
“My father’s side of the family lives in Texas and I always went down to Texas during the months of June and July and part of August and we listened to everything from Otis Redding to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and the radio stuff of the time, like Chicago,” says Cope, who performs Saturday at the Electric Factory and New Year’s Eve at the Fillmore at the TLA, both in Philadelphia. “I don’t think the cities (where I lived) really influenced anything. I think you get turned on by other music lovers.”
A self-taught musician, he picked up the guitar around age 13, intrigued by its possibilities after listening to some other friends play piano and guitar. Soon after, he got a drum machine, immersing himself in the production side of music.
“It was more fun to just sit in my house and work on stuff, with the keyboard and drum machine, learning that aspect of music and recording, than being at a club or doing anything social,” he says.
While he would eventually drift more toward hip-hop, joining the avant-garde Basehead in Washington, doing some DJ work and producing singles, incorporating heavy sampling in his music, it was his return to guitar and a focus on songwriting that ultimately proved more satisfying. Even when Cope first picked up the guitar, he had always been more interested in writing his own songs than playing the music of others.
“When I started being inspired to write my own stuff, I always had the lyrics, but I wanted to do the melodies,” he says. “It was just like everything was one step at a time and I didn’t even know that that’s what I wanted to do for a living. I just enjoyed the expression of it. There’s something really natural to it. I didn’t feel like I was searching for anything. There was a point where I was writing with the guitar and I felt goose bumps on some of the songs.”
Cope, who admits to not being much of an academic in school, always had an affinity for writing — an appreciation of which he attributes to his mom.
“When I was a kid, I think I wanted to watch a Monday night football game, the Redskins or something, and my mother was, like, ‘Well, if you want to watch it, you’ve got to memorize a poem.’ She did that kind of thing on a couple occasions,” he says.
Two in particular stuck with him: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Counterpane.”
“That was about this kid who was sick and he had a big imagination, which was interesting because I always had a big imagination, especially as a kid,” says Cope. “I had a hard time when I was a kid really understanding what I was reading. But I could write. I started writing some poetry down. I had an understanding for poetry and written things kind of somewhat naturally. It’s kind of hard to explain because I wasn’t a big reader. I got, like, a 350 on the English part of the SATs.”
Although he later started reading more on his own outside of school and even took a few college courses, which he did well in, after high school, music was what truly inspired him.
“I feel it’s within everybody to want to learn and gain knowledge, but people learn differently,” says Cope. “I think it’s all about when you feel inspired to learn about something and I got lucky that I found something that I loved. It would be difficult knowing you want something out of life but never finding out what it is.”
He released his first self-titled album in 2002 for DreamWorks Records. The follow-up, his debut for RCA, “The Clarence Greenwood Recordings,” elevated his profile with raves from critics, increased touring and the use of the album track “Son’s Gonna Rise” in a Pontiac commercial. Several of his songs have since been used in film and television, but Cope remains less interested in the commerce end of things than he is the creative.
His most recent CD, “Every Waking Moment,” shows off both his pop and streetwise sensibilities, as he continues to blur musical boundaries, offering love songs, cautionary tales of indulging the ego and abstract meditations on spiritual seeking and the troubles of our time against iridescent, multi-layered arrangements.
“It’s just paying tribute to the music I’ve loved as a listener, from the production of Willie Mitchell and some of what he did with Al Green and that Memphis soul stuff all the way to the influence of Chuck Brown and John Lennon and Stevie Wonder,” says Cope of his genre-defying sound. “It’s taking all that stuff and making it unique and important and at the same time sound cool.”
For him, making music is an instinctive process, which partly explains why he left RCA after the release of “Every Waking Moment,” wanting greater creative freedom and sole ownership of his songs.
“It takes a passion and a vision to do this and you have to marry it with someone who still holds that music is a precious and valuable thing,” he says of his decision, noting that the traditional record deal these days only gets artists so far. “It’s more important to me that the people who really kind of get your records still feel that you’ve given them something — some sense of hope and joy amid trouble and pain — and that at the end of the day, I still feel inspired.”
– The Intelligencer