When I was a kid, I was a listener," says Clarence Greenwood, a.k.a. Citizen Cope. "Music was something coming out of a radio or off a record, something that made me feel these things I couldn't explain. It was magical to me, and I thought it was something you had to be ordained with."
What's clear when you listen to Cope's own music now, years after he sat transfixed in front of his stereo speakers, is that he "is" ordained. Or touched. Or blessed. Or however you want to say it: The man has the gift.
If you've heard any of the work that Cope has created over the past few years, you already know how quickly he can paint a masterpiece with the lightest of brushstrokes. How he captures a character in just a few words. Remember George from his self titled album, the two-bit hustler from Baltimore in "200,000 (In Counterfeit $50 Bills)?" who "spends all his dough on the horses at the Pimlico." The amputees in Sierra Leone's sadly named capital of Freetown in "Bullet and a Target"? The lost soul worshiping his true love in the form of a forty foot tall woman in a mural in "Pablo Picasso?" The woman who vanishes on the streets of D.C. in "Southern Avenue," where 'you don't have to go overseas' to find war, because war finds you.
This is Cope's gift: He takes snapshots of the world around him, and turns them into universal truths. He sets them to the simplest of melodies, and weds those in turn to the most soul-stirring grooves.
"At a certain point, I got a guitar," says Cope. He'd played a little trumpet in elementary school, but knew that was not his path. "That guitar didn't have a high E string. The B string was tuned to a B-flat, and I thought that's how it went. I was a teenager, I didn't know."
It didn't matter. He made it work. "I was writing poetry, and working on some bits of songs here and there, and I just knew I wanted to try to make somebody feel the way I was feeling when I listened to music."
What he put into his music was his whole life: Born in Memphis, lots of time in a small town in Texas with an aunt and uncle, a year in Mississippi, up to Washington D.C. with his mother and sister. All throughout, the music he heard in these places was his escape.
It was in Washington that Clarence Greenwood found his voice. "I was keeping to myself, spending a lot of time on my own in my early twenties," he says. "I got a drum machine, figured out a little bit of sampling, and was writing songs on my guitar. I was learning to make demos of my own stuff."
In the mid-nineties, demos by Cope were eagerly passed around the D.C. music community. No one had ever heard anything like it. Was it folk? Hip-hop? Soul? Rock? Cope combined all, and made it his own. He recorded with members of Washington's go-go bands, ensuring the deepest of grooves in his mid-tempo funk tunes. (Go-go is D.C.'s homegrown funk, a conga-driven style where the slowed down beat is king). Even in his earliest performances, Cope commanded the stage. Whether with a full band, or just strumming his oddly tuned guitar with his thumb, Cope was proving to be a charismatic frontman who rewarded careful listening.
He caught the ear of Capitol Records, signed with them in 1997 and made an album ('Shotguns') which was never released. He then moved to Brooklyn (where he still resides) and was signed to Dreamworks and released, 'Citizen Cope,' in 2002. About that time, a demo of a new Cope song "Sideways" was passed to Carlos Santana, who was enchanted with it and asked Cope to produce and sing it for his 'Shaman' album which went on to sell five millions copies. After disappointing sales of his Dreamworks album, Cope asked to be released from the label and was immediately signed by Arista Records but before he could get his next release out to the public, further label shuffling ensued, Arista closed its doors and Cope landed on RCA where he continues to record.
His RCA debut, 'The Clarence Greenwood Recordings,' showed the world that the brilliant simplicity of "Sideways" was no fluke. His own version of that song was featured in movies and T.V shows. The uplifting song "Son's Gonna Rise" found its way into a Pontiac commercial, as well as several television and film soundtracks. In fact, the film world embraced his album so much that every song from it was licensed numerous times.
Cope had clearly arrived. Although never embraced by mainstream commercial radio, in 2004, he was seemingly everywhere.
Though he was living in Brooklyn, his real life at that point was on the road. He toured steadily for sixteen-months, a grueling stretch that Cope was determined to use to build a connection with his fans. He knew radio didn't know what to do with his genre-bending music, and that he would have to bring his music to the people.
It was challenging. "Out there for so long, it's a lonely existence, even when you're surrounded by people," Cope says. "You're away from the ones you love and it can be unsettling."