Music: Coping with Confusion

Singer/songwriter Citizen Cope is bemused by confusion surrounding his eclectic Pop mix

Danny Clinch

Despite label shifts and some resistance to his eclectic sound from the industry, Citizen Cope's grassroots audience continues to grow.

Citizen Cope has apparently confused more than a few radio programmers — not to mention music fans — who struggle to pin down his music.

The only thing that's difficult for Cope to understand, though, is why people find his music so tough to define and embrace.

"I guess it's been a blessing and a curse," Cope says of his sound, which blends urban music and Pop influences. "It has probably kept me away from a certain radio format. Also, it's been a thing that's kind of distinguished me. I think it's kind of kept me away from mainstream popular music, but, to me, I've got a verse, a chorus and melodies, and it's essentially Pop music. I don't understand why people think it's different. Maybe it's just because it doesn't follow certain trends."

Don't look for Cope to rein in his stylistic tendencies or dumb down his music to try to reach a bigger audience.

"For me, I kind of get a little more pleasure out of testing people," Cope says, noting that the topical slant of some of his songs might have scared off radio.

"It's like 'Bullet and a Target,' that song in itself, it asks a lot of questions, and that's a single," Cope says, pointing to a failed single from his second album, 2004's The Clarence Greenwood Recordings.

" It touches on issues of self destruction, of confusion or rebellion. That kind of stuff might fly in New York, but everybody wants a John Mayer record in middle America, so that's what they're going to get. They're going to get the innocuous Pop stuff that doesn't really challenge anything."

Cope is back to take another crack at expanding his audience with the new album Every Waking Moment. Like his two earlier records, Every Waking Moment melds diverse influences, including Blues, Hip Hop, Rock, Reggae and Folk. But the music isn't hard to digest. Songs like "More Than It Seems" (with its booming rhythm track), "Every Waking Moment" (with its quiet, brushed percussion) or "Brother Lee" (a skittering Ska tune) might be all over the map in tempo and intensity, but they aren't schizophrenic. Like all tracks on Every Waking Moment, they share Cope's obvious affection for warm Pop melodies and straightforward arrangements that don't require directions to follow — and perhaps most importantly, they showcase Cope's distinctively laid-back and soulful vocals.

A native of Memphis who started his career as turntablist in the Hip Hop/Rock group Basehead, Cope (real name Clarence Greenwood) signed with Capitol Records in the mid-1990s, only to see his 1997 album, Shotguns, get shelved by the label.

"It had real underground, kind of darker themes," Cope says. "I think it was kind of, for a major label, it was a little too depressing. (Capitol) kind of didn't get it and it didn't fully reach its capabilities. But I thought, lyrically, if they would have put it out, it probably would have been like an underground kind of classic."

Cope was dropped by Capitol without releasing a record, but landed a deal with DreamWorks Records, which released his self-titled debut CD in 2002, only to see it stiff commercially.

"They spent a lot of money on recording the record, but didn't know how to market and promote (it)," Cope says. "So that was tough."

But during this time, Cope got a break. A demo of his song "Sideways" was sent to Carlos Santana. The guitarist decided to record the song for his Shaman CD, and had Cope produce the track. This project introduced Cope to L.A. Reid, who was then the president of Santana's label, Arista. Once Cope freed himself from his DreamWorks deal, Reid signed him to Arista. But then Arista was closed down and merged into RCA Records, a move that resulted in Reid leaving for Def Jam Records.

Cope considered following Reid to Def Jam, but instead stayed with RCA. The partnership has now resulted in two records — The Clarence Greenwood Recordings and Every Waking Moment — and, for the first time, some forward progress, albeit modest. Cope says he realizes now that the key for him is to keep touring and building a grass roots following with a live show he thinks brings a fresh energy to his music.

"On (The Clarence Greenwood Recordings), I got to tour with my band and get tight and just start playing it and have it be about playing shows and not be about opening for somebody or doing a marketing kind of thing," he says. "It was just about playing, and then there was a little momentum happening, and the momentum helps you. People come out and start hearing you. So I feel that way still, with this record, because there's not any mainstream thing going on with it. It's all word of mouth."

CITIZEN COPE performs Sunday at Bogart's.

Scroll to read more Music Feature articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.