Originally published on Swizzle-Stick.com (2002)
The other day I was walking around Target scoping out CD walkmen that would play CD-Rs with MP3s on them. From the wall of TVs that were set up behind me I heard the familiar sounds of Citizen Cope’s “If There’s Love” blasting throughout the audio/visual section. The older gentleman who was standing next to me, looking at personal hair trimmers, was tapping his foot to the smooth pop stylings of Citizen Cope. I looked over at him and said, “Excuse me sir, I just happened to notice that you seemed to be enjoying this song. I just thought I would mention that you can find the CD, under the letter ‘C’ in the ‘New Releases’ section.” He gave me the once over and then replied, “Hmmm, don’t know what song you’re talking about.” It’s not that Citizen Cope’s music isn’t impressive (it is), it’s just that his pop songs sound so comfortable, so familiar that you probably wouldn’t even notice them if it were you that was checking out hair trimmers at Target. But, if you happen to show up early for a Live, Ben Folds or Nelly Furtado show, it would be tough not to fully embrace Citizen Cope (who spent this past winter opening for all three). He’s got all the elements of a classic pop songwriter — he writes catchy tunes that evoke happy feelings (even when the subject matter is serious stuff), sings songs that have a hook and memorable choruses, and he just looks like a rock star (well, like a vagabond rock star — thrift-store clothes, dreds, unkempt goatee).
We caught up with Citizen Cope (aka Clarence Greenwood) on one of his off days.
I think you’ve made a great pop record. There seems to be something for everyone on it. It’s the type of record that I think my mom would enjoy.
It’s funny. I have people, like my girlfriend’s uncle, that really like it. Then my girlfriend’s nephew really likes it. You go along different ages, different racial lines, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to transcend those things in life that we divide ourselves from – skin tone and language and age. I don’t want there to be limits like that in music because music wasn’t that for me. I think everyone listens to. If there’s a song you like it doesn’t matter who wrote it or performed it. And it might hit you at different times in your life.
Does it feel like it’s hard to break into MTV and the radio?
Real fucking hard especially with the record I made. I’ve got some social things that I talk about and my music stands between different genres. A lot of these people claim underground but they ain’t been underground. They cry about MTV but MTV made them. I’ve been on tour with bands that make fun of MTV now but they wouldn’t be there without MTV. I don’t have problems with pop music and MTV because there has been stuff that I like on that station.
MTV2 is going to add “If There’s Love” so I think I’ll get some love over there. I write pop songs essentially. I didn’t sign with a major and make this type of record not to be on the radio so hopefully I get that. It’s going to take a little longer than these other things but I’m in it for the long haul.
Do you find yourself playing differently in front of Live’s fans then you do in front of Ben Fold’s fans?
I don’t play different for anyone. They are not here to see you anyway so you’ve got to get beyond that. Some of those subtleties and nuisances you can’t explore because people aren’t really listening or involved in what you are doing. And even if half the crowd is, the other half is blocking what you’ve got to do so you have to push yourself through it a lot more than you normally would. But it’s good exposure, it’s good to play with people and learn to read crowds and all that stuff and eventually take control of that situation.
So you’ve been doing this for a while – playing music?
I’ve been paying my dues, man.
When did you start playing an instrument, start singing?
I started playing the trumpet when I was a kid and started singing. I didn’t know that pop music was what I was going to end up doing. I started writing a lot, writing down poetry. I taught myself to play guitar and drum machines and got really into recording 4-track stuff. If I had some extra money I’d go and record in a proper studio – not a big one, but a proper one, I’d do a song in a day. I’ve always had that love for trying to do it but I didn’t know this is what I was going to do. The energy it gave back to me was something special.
When you started was it because you wanted to learn to play other band’s songs or was it because you wanted to do something creative?
I’ve never really learned other people’s stuff. Sometimes now I’ll do covers but I’ll do them my own way. I’ll do a Bob Marley song or a Randy Newman song. But I never really learned to play other people’s stuff. That’s not something I’m very good at. The other day somebody asked me to play “Teen Spirit” on the guitar and I’m like, “Oh shit.”
A lot of musicians get into playing music because they want to imitate their favorite bands – like say, for instance, Kiss.
I tried when I was a kid but I just wasn’t good at the whole memory and chord progressions. There were people that were really talented that I knew that could play “Stairway to Heaven” or “Brown Sugar” or whatever.
Do you remember the first song that you ever wrote?
Between that point and now what do you think you’ve learned that makes you a better songwriter?
Well, the first song I did, I wrote the lyrics and sampled the music. Now I’m writing the music as well and playing the instruments whereas early on I didn’t a grasp of how to make music. I think sampling helped me learn, “Okay, there’s four bars of this.” I was completely ignorant to that, to understanding bars and bridges. I naturally knew where a chorus should fit but I think drum machines and all that taught me how to put a song together. Eventually I was like “You know what? I’m writing all this stuff but I can’t sit down and play somebody’s song and I really want to do that.” So I started playing guitar and writing from there. I put that electronic stuff away.
So you’ve done electronic stuff and stuff where you’ve played all the instruments. What’s next?
I want to create pop songs that have a timeless essence to them so I’d like to work with orchestras someday on top of my music. I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio and I’d like to spend a lot of time in there on the next record, continuing doing what I’m doing, making interesting records and keep the drive going.
Which song on the record best illustrates who you are?
I don’t know, I think the whole record is indicative of who I am.
You’ve said before that you want to be a storyteller, tell stories through your songs. Was there a storyteller in your past that inspired you?
I think it was hearing different country songs. You just realize the importance of a story in a song. Hip-hop influenced that too. There were storylines on this record. The last one was a concept album for Capitol Records but that one didn’t come out. It told a whole story. This one, like “If There’s Love”, has ones about love that aren’t storytelling songs. I think good songwriters, like Randy Newman, know how to rock it like that. That’s what it’s all about, writing great songs. That’s what I’m trying to do, be known as a top American songwriter of today.
It sounds like you have a pretty diverse taste, as long as the song is good.
I think all people have that same thread in them. I don’t think anyone just listens to just one type of thing. For a while, hip hop got like “I’ll only listen to hip hop.” Some rockers do that but I don’t know if they’re really loving the music or a lifestyle when they do that. Music is either good or bad. There are great country songs, great songs in rock, great records in R&B and hip-hop, great old records, great new records. Maybe not everything is your cup of tea even if it’s incredible. You might think Miles Davis is incredible but not get what he does. It may not touch you, but some Eagles song may really connect with you.
How did you get into music? Were your parents into it? Siblings?
People had records in my family. Eight-track recordings. I was influenced by what was around me, by my friends.
I really got into music when my friend’s sister went away to college and left her records behind. My friend and I were in 6th grade and listened to the radio at the time. We’d sneak into her room and pull out all of her Van Halen and REO Speedwagon records. We weren’t hearing these two bands on the radio and we thought they were the coolest thing ever.
Yeah, it happens a lot of different ways. Once you get turned on to it, you find something that changes your life.
How do you get past the insecurity of performing in front of people?
I had a real stage fright thing going on and I think I just got really into what I was doing to the point that it didn’t matter what other people were thinking. But, at the same time, you still get a little frightened. My stuff is really basic, I’m self-taught, and I’m not a prodigy at any instrument. If I do anything well it’s writing songs, not playing an instrument. I think people have their strengths and weaknesses. You definitely get nervous. I think everybody has stage fright no matter how great they are.
I’m trying to grow to the point where I’m including the audience and enjoying the energy from them and giving it back out. So far I’ve been doing a lot of opening so I’ve had somewhat of an adversarial relationship with the crowd. I’m not going to jump around. If you want to listen to what I’m doing I’m putting 100 million percent into it so check it out. I can’t try to appease a crowd just for the sake of appeasing them.
I hope this does not offend you but when people ask me what you sound like I say that I hear some Hall & Oates in your music. Maybe something like Hall & Oates meets Moby.
Oh really? (laughs) Cool. They wrote some great songs. I was heavily influenced by the Beatles who also took from black music. Essentially music is music and I’m just trying to take what I love and do something new with it. I never listened to Hall & Oates but when I hear some of their shit on the radio I’m like “Damn, that’s a great song” – same with Elton John. There were things I didn’t identify with when I was younger because it wasn’t cool but now I’m like “They wrote a great song.” It might not be what was cool.
I liked the Rolling Stones. I liked the Beatles and the Stones but I thought the Stones were cooler. I got turned onto them by older folks. That was a time when I was listening to classics like Hendrix and the Doors. I went through that stage. But now the Stones don’t do it for me. I think they made some great records. “Wild Horses” is a great song. And they made some great productions but they didn’t do what the Beatles do for me now. I think the Stones, even though I was a big fan and went to the concerts, are complete opportunists and really sucking the blood out of what they are doing.
I think Aerosmith is another band like that. They started off as a cool rock band but now all they are good for is soundtrack contributions.
Now they are just taking up other people’s space. When the Stones comes out with a record, people will write about it. I don’t care about it anymore. They aren’t writing anything with any heart. They are just going out every seven years and doing another record and another tour. They realize they can hit some more audiences and make some more money. It’s not about the heart of it anymore. I take my hat off to them because they are still doing it, but they already did their work. They don’t need to do it anymore. There’s nothing more I can ask for from them. I think they’ve given so much already … “Under My Thumb,” “Sticky Fingers” … all the songs and records they made have been an incredible contribute to pop music and rock and roll. When you see them still around doing their thing it’s not really about what that shit should be like.
We all should be happy that the Beatles didn’t try to reunite.
Yeah, definitely. They couldn’t do without John Lennon anyway. I think those cats had a good idea with what they did. They made their contributions as a team and then they all wrote great records individually. How they did that, got in and out, was cool. We all wanted a reunion but they did their thing and that was it. I guess some of these guys got to keep making money.
Socially the Beatles were really aware. I’m all into making money, but the art is what is important. There’s millions of ways to make money in this world; if you do it in music that’s cool.
So what happens when you reach the creative end?
I just say “Yo.” Hopefully I’ll just collect publishing checks. One day I’d like to be able to give back socially to people, have a family, and be able to enjoy that. Everybody has their time. When the juice goes out, it goes out. Sometimes the juice goes out but they still have a market. That’s where the Rolling Stones are now; they still have a huge market. I think people get caught up in the fame thing and that’s the most important thing to them.