There are many different settings where you may have seen or will be able to see Citizen Cope live – from being in the middle of the masses at a major festival to sitting at a cocktail table at City Winery. The environment may vary drastically, but the songs do not. Clarence Greenwood, aka – Citizen Cope, writes mobile music that is relatable and has an inimitable ability to magnetically attach to a wide range of emotions. His songs can companion a laid back good time or serve as deep soul-searchers that tug at your heart strings. Either way, they come from an honest place.
Born in the south, Citizen Cope was mostly raised in the Washington DC area before moving to Brooklyn as his career took off. He now spends a lot of his time in California. Through his different paths, there’s an edge to Cope’s art that demonstrates a real awareness of his surroundings mixed with a taste of all his stops along the way.
Citizen Cope’s debut self-titled debut record was released in 2002. He would go on to release four more records, his latest being – 2012’s One Lovely Day, and has record number six teed up for the near future. Even with a relentless tour schedule, Cope has found a way to leverage his unique, chameleon- like craft, to collaborate with such artists as Carlos Santana, Sheryl Crow and G. Love and the Special Sauce.
Prior to his Boston show at the Wilbur Theater, Alternative Nation had the chance to catch up with Citizen Cope where discussed the ways to identify the loud voice in soothing music, lending his hit song “Sideways” to Santana for his Shaman album and the two different collections of Cope music on the way.
This tour is all solo acoustic. When you’re playing solo, do you feel like you know what to expect with the crowd as opposed to playing with a band where the crowd’s energy can be different each night?
It’s different for sure. Some people are just excited to be there and others are there are just listening, checking it out. Then you have people that act like it is a big live show. It’s going well though. It’s been great to be on the east coast and play all these nice theaters.
You seem to be heavily influenced by your habitat, whether its references to growing up in DC or living in New York and California.
Yeah, I think DC was certainly a heavy influence. When I moved to New York that was a big influence on where I thought things could go. In DC, artistically, I spent a lot of time in solitude. It was good to be a writer there. I wish I would have come to New York earlier, but I needed to spend that time in DC, to hone my craft and get my songs down. When I got to New York there were a lot of cultural things that were going on that I wasn’t used to. It opened my eyes to a lot of things. I thought it would be more closed off, but it turned out that the people were really accepting. It was a great place to move. I felt in general, I had been walking in quicksand in DC, then when I moved to New York I was free on my feet.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing trumpet when school would make you play an instrument. Then I started playing around with friends who had guitars. We’d try to play other people’s songs. I never felt like that was what I was going to do. I thought it was really cool, but I felt the guitar was such a hard instrument to maneuver. Learning other people’s songs was not my forte. Instrumentally, I saw a lot of great musicians and vocalists, even in my junior high school. It was like people who were ordained to do something like that. I never thought it was something I would get into until I started writing poetry. I was then going back to the guitar from that standpoint, without putting so much emphasis on technique or playing great solos. I got a drum machine and started making four track demos and playing one line guitar tracks. I learned how to sample and began to understand how songs were developed. It had been such a mystery to me. It was small steps. I started mixing in with different bands and doing some recordings. I started to feel the goosebumps come when I wrote my own songs, so I’d do open mics and put out demos. That led to opening up for other people, doing showcases and eventually getting a record deal.
During that process, how did you come up with your musical persona of Citizen Cope?
I didn’t have anything else to call it. It was a play on Citizen Kane. Cope is my nickname, short for Copeland. At the time I was really thinking – who is Clarence Greenwood? I didn’t want to just name it Clarence Greenwood. Musically, I was mixing in what I really liked as a listener. I like heavy drums. I was highly influenced by Chuck Brown and songwriters like John Lennon. I listened to hip-hop records from Outkast and Tribe Called Quest, plus the classics like Al Green, Sly and the Family Stone as well. Stevie Wonder has always been a God to me. I never saw myself in their world, but I thought my lyrics were good enough – mixing in all those elements and taking the new with the old gave me my own perspective. I used to buy and sell tickets so I was exposed to the underground in Washington DC. My peers were a lot of drug addicts and former drug dealers. It was a time in the late 80’s where there was a crack epidemic going on too. DC was pretty much a forgotten city. It was getting its funding from federal so it was never really taken care of in a lot of ways. You had that point of view politically, socially and culturally that there’s something going on in America. Also being from the Deep South I was exposed to a lot of differences in people. I was exposed to racism in different ways. Now I realize the policies that were made and the budgets that were put in were from states that really didn’t care about DC. So I was exposed to a unique culture. I was always intrigued by the Lennon’s who were inspired by the current pulse of where they were. I wanted to try to do that lyrically and emotionally, but also while having songs that had to do with my own personally struggles, joys, pains, victories and losses. All of that helped me formulate the artist Citizen Cope as opposed to Clarence the person.
Your music is very versatile and flexible. For example, you’re playing an intimate venue tonight and the first time I saw you live was at the Austin City Limits Festival. So your songs translate over a theater and a sea of thousands. It’s unique to have the style of music that can plug into all those different atmospheres without having to change the songs.
When you play acoustically, there’s an intimacy feeling, bringing me back to sitting down writing the songs in my room with a guitar in DC. That’s how I still write songs today. I’ve always had a love for production and making records. This setting is for the songs to just be stripped down. It’s just all about connecting, whether you are with a band or by yourself. The song is the common dominator.
You seem to be very hands on and have a firm grip on your career moves. Putting out all your music now on your own label for example. Do you enjoy that element of almost running your own business?
I prefer to connect with people first. Our conversation for example, there’s a bit of a disconnect if management and publicists get involved given it’s between me and you. I understand why all the channels are put in place, but I’m not in the middle of any scandal where I’m worried about being exposed. I’m not doing a ton of interviews so I take it seriously. There are times where people just ready a Wikipedia page and are not informed about the music and it feels like a school assignment. When you bring it to a personal level, it takes the bullshit out of it.
I went independent because I wasn’t using a lot of the resources around me. I wasn’t going to radio because people didn’t think I had radio songs nor was I doing anything internationally. Once I started touring a lot, I realized I can do this all myself. The label industry was in flux. I was originally signed by Arista, they got disbanded. Then I signed with Dreamworks and they got disbanded. I then got picked up by RCA. I wouldn’t have signed with them, I didn’t completely agree with their vision. But they let me do what I wanted to do.
Do you control who you collaborate with in writing and performing? What’s your process there?
I’ve always produced and written my own records. When I first started doing my demos, that’s what people clicked with. Then I signed with a record company that respected that and let me do it my way. So I was never in a situation on a label where A&R came in and made me go write or record with someone they’d chosen. I came in from the start with a lot of ideas and a big vision for the music. It ended up being me producing the records by myself. I still got to work with people that I learned a ton from. Luckily, I established myself as someone who can write songs instead of being directed to go write with the songwriter of the moment.
As far as collaborating, I’ve written with Dido for example. Someone came in and asked me to do that song, I had the time and it worked out. I don’t feel like I’ve ever had to be artistically compromised. Even with the majors. I’ve always started by making sure the other side completely understands the vision.
In regarding your past collaboration with Santana, was there any type of lesson that you got from working with a guy like him that you now always carry with you?
He was just coming off of his huge record, Supernatural, and everyone was trying to get to him. I had just written “Sideways” which was always going to be on my record as well, but it had gotten to him to check out. It was a big deal because they put me on the record and I was the only unknown amongst a record that contained a ton of producers and writers. I think he and his family emotionally liked my song. It was a boost of confidence. I then got to play, tour and perform with him. I remember the first time he met me he said to stay away from the two H’s – heroin and helicopters. (Laughs) I just learned a lot from him by watching his professionalism and spiritually as well. He’s an ambassador for peace and love around the world. He as an artist and he as a person are two very different things. I was very fortunate to have that opportunity.
I once bumped into Santana at Bleeker Street Records in New York City. I had a backpack full of my CD’s and asked him if I could give him one. It was just he and I in the store. He graciously took it, but asked I tell the clerk at the front so they didn’t charge him for it. (Laughs)
What’s something about Santana that people would be surprised to know?
He just always plays. He’s one of those guys who gets off the bus, runs on stage and just starts playing. He does a very long sound check. It’s more like a rehearsal than sound check. I really liked how he would queue up a record to make sure the band wasn’t straying too far from the tempos. The communication with his band is great. He’s an incredible band leader.
His life as a whole has been interesting. He hung out with Desmond Tutu and heads of state. He’s kind of had a second life as an artist. He’s become a big artists a few different times.
Your lyrics seem to all come from a place of experience; whether they are personal subjects or something you’ve witnessed. I know lyrics are open to interpretation, but to me, it doesn’t seem like there’s much fabrication or fiction in your songs. Is that a fair assessment?
Very fair. Sometimes I write something and it seems to come from my subconscious. I never really sit down and think I want to write a song about a certain subject matter. Even with “Pablo Picasso,” the character was set as someone who was homeless or delusional. Someone wrote that it was inconsiderate to write about someone like that and make light of that. The truth is, I saw a lot of myself in the character. It was coming from a personal place. I was able to use an analogy to express that. So I take it to different levels. Even when I use someone else as the protagonist, there’s a lot of me in it. When I wrote “200,000 in Counterfeit 50 Dollar Bills,” it was about this guy I knew, but there was still a lot me in that character. I always like to write from a place that just flows and gets through the subconscious and goes to some kind of place in our DNA that we don’t know about.
Your song “Lifeline,” I think is a good example of what I’m referencing. The lyric “Maybe we were born to be sure to endure when the storm comes.” That line alone artistically channels that subconscious level.
Yes, that is one. When I wrote the line “forgot what the wise man said about the ancient thread,” it just flowed out of me. I was thinking – where did that line come from? What’s the ancient thread? I mean, I know what the ancient thread is, but I’ve never used that line before. Hard times ain’t hard to find, you know.
What’s on tap for you after this tour? Are you going back into the studio?
I’m making an acoustic record and I’m going to do a studio record. I’m trying to figure out if I am going to partner up on any of them, put them out myself again or do a joint venture with someone. So that’s next on this list. The acoustic record will probably be some stuff I’ve done already and some new stuff. The studio record will be all new songs. I’ve been in the studio already, I’m just trying to work out some time where I can sit down and really get it done.
It’s an interesting time. By devaluing music, it’s been hard for real artists to get out and say something. Luckily, I’ve been able to maneuver myself through that minefield. It’s interesting looking back on it, it seems intentional so that there would be innocuous things going on as opposed to pushing the limits. Not just socially, but musically too. I feel positive that I can still have somethings to say and have an outlet for it. It seems like pop culture is beholding to advertisers. The in-game has become being a spokesperson for Revlon. It’s not really using a lot of people’s artistic abilities. There’s a lot of shit going on right now. And a lot of shit we don’t know. The stuff that we are finding out economically, there are certain outlets like the NFL or NBA or movies that get a lot attention from the media as opposed to what’s really going on. It’s always been that way, but it feels like now there are fewer voices out there. So I feel I have to say something if I have an audience and do something about it.