A Songwriter Finds His Voice

Based on the vast musical terrain he covers, Citizen Cope should be one of the most famous artists in the country. His achingly personal narratives hark back to the grand storytelling traditions of blues and folk. His self-produced beats and urban rhythms point to a lifetime as a hip-hop lover. And his laid-back vocals and streetwise lyrical approach call to mind everything from reggae to soul to go-go music. Few artists operating today can claim a sound so instantly recognizable yet so eccentrically uncommon.

Reflecting that panoply of sounds, Cope, born Clarence Greenwood, grew up bouncing between Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, D.C., and New York. He served as DJ and keyboardist for experimental electronic outfit Basehead in the ’90s, but started writing songs on acoustic guitar in the early 2000s. In 2002, one of his first creations, “Sideways,” became a hit in Carlos Santana’s hands; contributing vocals to the track, Cope, a hesitant frontman prior, realized he had a new career as a singer/songwriter waiting for him.

Cope’s first three albums were released on major labels like DreamWorks and Arista, but after building a dedicated fan base thanks to hardcore touring and honest, incorruptible artistic integrity, he founded his own label, Rainwater Recordings, in 2010. Cope talks about playing for his fans, writing his new album, “One Lovely Day,” and discovering his own voice.

Folio Weekly: Your new album charted higher than any of your previous ones. Do you consider it your best work to date?

Citizen Cope: Well, it’s my fifth record, but people are still getting turned on to all of the older ones. I’ve never been a mainstream pop artist, so it’s cool to still have people so excited.

F.W.: What personal experiences inspired this batch of songs?

C.C.: It’s just a further quest toward putting some love and joy into my music. As life goes on, I’ve learned and felt certain things that inspire me to write.

F.W.: You’ve got a hell of a tour planned this fall — 41 shows in three months.

C.C.: I’ve been touring like that for a long time — since about 2003. I used to dread it because I’d get bad stage fright, but it’s something that’s important, since I don’t get radio play or press in any of these markets. There’s such a big word-of-mouth for my records, so I have to go out there and play them for the people buying them.

F.W.: You’ve got a nice mix of small clubs and bigger halls planned, too.

C.C.: Sometimes you want to underplay just to keep that energy. I did a lot of that on the last record, playing four or five nights in a city when I could have just done one bigger show. You always want to play bigger places, but sometimes the smaller rooms can be more intense.

F.W.: As a fiercely independent artist, how important was it to start your own record label in 2010?

C.C.: Very important. Luckily, I’ve always had artistic freedom — I came into this writing and producing my own music. But it was a battle just to get my first record released. It’s nice to feel like I now have ownership of my music for a lifetime.

F.W.: When you were a DJ in the 1990s, what made you want to write stripped-down songs on acoustic guitar?

C.C.: I just wanted to write about the human condition and my own personal stuff. We all have our own things to say, so I just put some music to it.

F.W.: At the beginning, you were writing songs for other people and not singing. Did you not have confidence in your own voice?

C.C.: I just didn’t see myself as an artist going out and performing onstage. That wasn’t my forte — I was into the production and songwriting aspect of it. Once I had to go out and perform my songs live, it was exciting, even if it was nerve-wracking.

F.W.: What made you want to incorporate hip-hop beats into those songs?

C.C.: As a listener, I always loved hip-hop and how it used past music, pre-recorded music and samples along with drum machines. I also loved the fact that it was the music of our generation — it had spirit, a point of view and poetry. I guess I had to embrace my individuality. But the point of my music has always been the songs. I just wanted them to fit into a musical template that suited what I liked.

F.W.: Why’d you decide to perform under Citizen Cope and not your real name, Clarence Greenwood?

C.C.: Citizen Cope is just my stage name — but Citizen Cope is also what makes Clarence Greenwood able to write.

Nick McG

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