EVERY LINE AND EVERY WORD, A CONVERSATION WITH CITIZEN COPE
BY BRENT THOMPSON
PHOTO BY ALEX ELENA
In a recording career spanning more than 25 years, CITIZEN COPE (born Clarence Greenwood) has blended soul, folk and rock into a unique style of his own. Along the way, his songs have been recorded by a diverse list of artists including Santana, Dido, Brett Dennen, and Richie Havens. In March, Cope released Heroin and Helicopters [Rainwater Recordings], his first release since 2012. The album’s title alludes to advice he received from Carlos Santana that heroin and helicopters are two things that don’t mix well with musicians. On WEDNESDAY, JUNE 19, Citizen Cope will perform at IRON CITY in a show presented by Birmingham Mountain Radio. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his Los Angeles home.
Thanks for your time. With several albums in your catalog, how are you comprising setlists for the current tour?
What’s weird about my audience is it’s not a passive audience. They listen to all the records, so I usually end up playing a long time. I try to play certain songs that I know people are going to want to hear like “Sideways,” “Sun’s Gonna Rise,” “Let The Drummer Kick,” and “Bullet And A Target.” When I have a new record, I try to get some of the favorites going. I don’t ignore the music that has gotten me there, especially because I think people have had emotional experiences with some of the songs. A lot of artists are inclined to not want to play stuff when they have a new record, but I’ve always felt like I’d get killed if I didn’t play “Sideways” [laughs].
How do songs – like the ones you just mentioned, for example – stay fresh to you after you’ve performed them countless times?
Every night, I try to stay present with the performance. It’s kind of weird – you don’t put it on autopilot. It’s not like you’re just singing the songs – you’re trying to have an emotional experience on each song, really on every line and every word. That kind of helps you get through stuff as far as pushing the boundaries. I never feel like, “Oh, I have to play this again.” I’m learning about performing, and I used to have stage fright over the years, so I wasn’t able to enjoy the actual performance. Now, I’m starting to include the energy of the crowd and that’s opening up a spiritual awakening. Every show is a different show on a different day of the week.
Prior to the release of Heroin and Helicopters, your last album [One Lovely Day] came out in 2012. Why was there a delay between releases?
I really didn’t know that the time would go so quickly – I feel like it just happened. I had a daughter about eight years ago, and my father passed away and I was estranged from him for most of my life. I had a weird block going on. I had to get over that, and some of the records that I did I thought would be received better – that can be tough. At the end of the day, those records have done well, but you get beat down when you feel like you’ve got a good record and there’s not the response that you think equals the album.
I got my fans one at a time, and I’ve covered the country so many times. I don’t take this thing passively, and I don’t ever want to dilute the records that I’ve done by just putting something out for the sake of having content out. Popular opinion thinks you should keep putting stuff out, but I never wanted to dilute the catalog by putting something out that I didn’t feel was great. I felt like my last two albums had some really great songs on them, but I don’t think they were as good as my first three records. I think that Heroin and Helicopters is up there with those first three.
One track on the new album, “Forbidden,” was an older track that found its way onto the record. How did that track resurface?
I recorded that during [2004 album] The Clarence Greenwood Recordings, and I sang it straight to tape – it just had a vibe. So I used that – it was just something that felt really good, and I lost sight of how great it was, and it made sense still.
How would you describe your writing process?
I’m always writing something, and I recorded a bunch of things for this record that didn’t make the record. I’ll probably put another record out within the next 12 months. It costs a lot of money to record, so you have to go out on the road and make the money to pay for the album. It used to be that I wrote every day. When I started touring so much, it became a little difficult.
In 2010 you founded your own record label, Rainwater Recordings. If you will, talk about your decision to do start the label.
I just had really good executives my whole career that I worked with when I signed record deals – people that were supportive of my art and let me do my thing. In every major scenario I had, those companies folded and all the people were gone. So, I realized that I was signing with these people, but my content was owned by a corporation. I couldn’t get anyone on the phone about license requests and stuff like that, and I wanted ownership for my family and for me, personally. If that meant that my stature was less, I had to make that choice. I was fortunate to have labels invest a good amount of money in the beginning of my career, but I get the enjoyment of owning my stuff from here on out, and I’m going to continue doing more and more records like that.
Some artists say this is a great time for the music industry given the ability to record at home and self-release music on outlets such as iTunes and Youtube. Other artists say that the current climate makes it difficult to be found among the crowd. How do you view the current state of the industry?
I think that’s a true thing that you can get it out, but you still have to build an audience. I think there is somewhat of an illusion that, “Oh, anybody can make a record in their bedroom and hit the charts.” But it’s a long, tough road for most anybody
Birmingham Mountain Radio presents Citizen Cope at Iron City on Wednesday, June 19. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $26 and can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com.