Citizen Cope takes the long view of making an album
Ryan Summerlin September 3, 2009
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – The title to Citizen Cope’s upcoming CD – “The RainWater LP” – is intended, in part, as a small swipe at the recording industry. Cope, who has had more than his share of record-label drama in a four-album career, says that music business contracts still use the outdated term, the “LP,” to refer to the piece of music an artist is obligated to deliver to the company. Cope’s use of the abbreviation is a way to raise the issue of how music has been turned into a commodity, and the compromises a musician makes when entering the machine that is record labels, radio, etc.
“The RainWater LP” represents Cope’s break from that world. Following deals with Capitol, DreamWorks and Arista, he is essentially on his own; “The RainWater LP” will be self-released. “Now I’m not obligated to any record company, so I thought it was a nice play on that,” he said of the title.
There is another meaning to “The RainWater LP,” and this one is at once subtler and broader. The new album – which will be released partially in November, with the full CD available in February – is akin to a “long-player” in scope: It will be 8 or 9 songs, rather than the 14 or so often jammed into a CD. Cope – real name: Clarence Greenwood – thinks his latest effort has more in common sonically with the vinyl of old than with modern digital creations; he refers to its “analog” sound.
To Cope, LPs hearken back to a time when the music business was more music than business. In his thinking, the LP represents a full artistic statement, one that required a sustained period of inspiration on the part of the musician, and demanded a corresponding commitment from the listener. On the other side is the single, the quick hit that is disposable, fleeting, and asks for little of the artist, the fan or the record company.
“It’s paying tribute to that time when people did things right, and did what they said they were going to do,” said Cope from his home in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, where he has lived some 8 years.
A big part of getting the music “right” is lavishing attention on the production of the music. Cope is a fan not only of soul singer Al Green, but also of Willie Mitchell, the producer behind many of Green’s classic albums. He also praises the Beatles and Stevie Wonder – for their songs and voices, yes, but also for the care and innovation they put into making their albums. It is his hope that “The RainWater LP” will be mentioned in the same way.
“A classic album – hopefully that’s how it sounds. Something that gives tribute to people who made records seriously,” said Cope, who declines to give his age (34 is my educated guess) or speak about personal matters. (His father, Sterling Greenwood, is publisher of the occasional local news-sheet, the Aspen Free Press.) “There’s an art to the record, not just making songs.”
That stance flies in the headwind of current trends, fueled by downloaded individual songs and pop acts that are the creation of label executives and TV shows. “Everyone says that’s where the world’s going – single, single, single. Nobody seems to have a long attention span – or people don’t think they do.
“My albums – even though I haven’t done a lot of them – especially the last two, you can listen to them as a record, as a whole.”
Those albums have revealed a deft blend of folky rock and hip-hop, although Cope doesn’t like the idea of dividing his music into its constituent parts. He points out that he has produced all his albums, so the strummed acoustic guitars are as much a part of his personal expression as the drum beats.
“I’m very much responsible for that part of the sound,” he said of the rhythms that have become a big part of his signature style. “I’m not just throwing a loop under the acoustic guitar.”
Cope adds that hip-hop is very much a component of his artistic make-up. He grew up in Washington, D.C., during what he calls “a pretty bleak time in urban America.”
“I identify not just with the beats of hip-hop,” continued Cope, who speaks in an urban drawl that is best described as “street.” “There was a lot to say. A lot of people were affected by hip-hop and have used it in that way – the spirit of hip-hop, the poetry of hip-hop, the rawness, the truth, the ability to paint a picture.”
“The RainWater LP” marks Cope’s first proper release in four years, since 2006’s “Every Waking Moment.” But he has hardly disappeared in the interim. His songs have appeared on numerous TV shows, commercials and movies; he made a guest appearance on “Radiodread,” the Easy Star All Stars’ notable, reggaefied cover of Radiohead’s “OK Computer” album. Since 2002, when he released his break through album, “Citizen Cope,” and made a high-profile appearance on Santana’s “Shaman,” he has seen his stature rise. He says the primary reason he has gone four years between albums is not the corporate shuffle, but being busy, mainly with touring.
“I’ve never been the type that, the week the record came out, it was a huge success,” said Cope. “New people are coming all the time, and after the last three records, it came to some kind of culmination in 2007, 2008. So many people were coming, and I felt I couldn’t stop.
“The country is so big. Tuscaloosa; Oxford, Miss.; Fayetteville; Telluride; Spokane; Allentown, Penn. – those kinds of places, you’re not thinking of playing when you’re first coming out. They’re not Chicago, L.A. But it’s a huge country, and a lot of people there go to shows.”