Citizen Cope: Thinking outside the box

March 1, 2010


The music of Brooklyn's Clarence Greenwood, better known as Citizen Cope, has never fit neatly into any one box. There are elements of the singer-songwriter, the R&B soul man, the hip-hop street poet and the psychedelic rocker.

Think of a much less smarmy John Mayer crossed with Stevie Wonder and a hint of Randy Newman. As for Cope, as his friends call him, the only label that doesn't make him balk is the amorphous "urban folk."

"A lot of journalism and radio seems so segregated or divided and niche-oriented, whereas I know very few people who just listen to one type of music," the artist says. "Fans seems to just listen to the songs, whereas the record companies were always like, 'It's not fast enough or this or that enough,' or they don't want to play it on the radio or write about it in the newspaper. It affected me from the ego standpoint, but it never affected my determination to continue doing music."

Unfortunately, this open-minded, genre-defying attitude has never been one that the major labels comfortably accommodate, and Cope's discography offers ample evidence of that. Signed to Capitol Records in the late '90s, the album he recorded for that label was never released; he moved instead to Dreamworks for his self-titled 2002 debut. When that label folded, he signed to Arista for "The Clarence Greenwood Recordings" (2004) and "Every Waking Moment" (2006), though by the time the latter arrived in stores, he was more than frustrated with the label's pointless demands and seeming ineptitude.

"It's unfortunate, because there are a lot of good people at the labels, but every label I was at either got closed or people got fired. When that happens, who do you call when you have something important and they own your stuff forever?" Cope says, the frustrations still evident. Still, he never considered quitting.

"I love music, so it's always worth it, and the struggle is just part of it. You're not like entitled to make records and play music; you have to fight for that. And I've always just felt so close to the songs that I wanted them to be handled right and I fought for them."

Through all of these battles, there were plenty of small victories, including guest spots on albums by Carlos Santana and Dido, and the inclusion of "Son's Gonna Rise" in one car commercial and "Let the Drummer Kick" in another. Most importantly, Cope never stopped touring--his quintet with two keyboards, bass and drums also is called Citizen Cope--and he began to notice an odd phenomenon.

"It seems like people began listening to my music slowly, the more I kept touring,. The first record came out in 2002, and the second in 2004. By 2006 and 2007, people were finally hearing the first two records; by the time the third one was out, they were just kind of getting turned on to the first two. It was like a delayed reaction. So I just toured constantly, until there was a moment when the third record kind of caught up to the other two. But before I knew it, it was 2009, and I realized I was way overdue to start making another album."

The touring has paid off with a loyal and ever-expanding audience--this weekend will mark the third time Cope has sold out the 1,300-capacity Vic Theatre--and now he finally is releasing his fourth studio album, "The Rainwater LP," on his own label, RainWater Recordings, Inc.

"It feels good to have that ownership," Cope says. "The major labels can get your music to more people in certain instances, but there are different things you have to give and take for that. I'm excited; I think I can do just as well as them."

With a mix of tunes written over the last few years and some that came together in the studio--including "Lifeline," the gorgeous emotional centerpiece of the disc--the inclusion of "LP" in the title was intentional and meant to evoke the classic vinyl albums that the musician Cope fell in love with as a kid growing up in Washington, D.C.

"I made it a length to fit on a [vinyl] album, with eight songs and two bonus tracks that are instrumentals. Sometimes I think 12 songs are just too much for a record. I plan on doing another one this year or next, and I think it's a good medium--the actual LP length--as far as the listening experience goes."

While it may be succinct and devoid of filler, the album nevertheless showcases the broad range of Cope's music--from the experimental electronics of "Jericho" to the straightforward balladry of "Lifeline"--as well as his determination to take whatever life gives. As he sings in "I Couldn't Explain Why," "The world keeps turning/The sun keeps burning/For all to learn what/Heavens only knows."