Courtesy of Girlie Action
Clarence Greenwood, the singer-songwriter who performs and records as Citizen Cope, says he didn’t initially think he’d be a singer.
“I just wanted to produce and write records,” Citizen Cope says via phone from Nashville, where he was prepping for the solo acoustic tour that brings him to Music Box Supper Club
on Wednesday, May 24. “I didn’t sing at the beginning. I was more doing spoken word stuff. I started adding rhythmic things and more rap kind of stuff.”
His self-titled debut might not feature his strongest vocal performance, but it shows off his poetic lyrics and connects the musical dots between him and songwriting masters such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
“Even just recording and trying to find where my frequencies were for the first time was difficult with my lack of confidence as a vocalist,” Cope says of recording his debut. “I shied away [from vocals] on my first record. I think on ‘If There’s Love,’ I got a great vocal performance. The guy who engineered that session helped me. I think learning the dynamic of a microphone and how to sing is being able to sing into a mic is part of that. That development took a while.”
Cope has recently spent some time thinking about those early days. For 2021’s The Pull of Niagara Falls
, Cope revisited several tunes he originally wrote prior to releasing that self-titled debut in 1992. He re-recorded acoustic versions of the tunes, sometimes playing acoustic guitar and sometimes playing piano. They center on the themes of family, betrayal and gun violence, heavy topics made heavier by Cope’s distinctively raspy voice.
The current tour, however, serves to promote the forthcoming Victory March, another terrific distillation of Cope’s storytelling tendencies. Album highlights include "Close to You," a song that builds slowly with its woozy horns, strings and somber vocals. The title track also benefits from strings and piano and nicely puts Cope's vocals up front in the mix for the tune's defiant refrain.
Looking back on his upbringing, Cope says spending time in both metropolitan and rural parts of the country has contributed to his approach to songwriting.
“I primarily grew up in Washington D.C., but I had family in Texas, and I spent every summer in Texas,” Cope says. “I was born in Memphis, but I never spent much time there except that my grandmother lived there, and I would go see her. I don’t have too much affiliation with it because I left when I was really young. My main two places were Washington D.C. and a small town in Texas. I got a small town perspective and both sides of Washington DC., and I went to school with people who were the children of people working for the State Department as well as kids who were from more troubled circumstances."
Touring and recording with the D.C.-based alt-rock outfit Basehead was an informative experience too.
“I didn’t have much creative input into Basehead, but [singer-multi-instrumentalist] Michael [Ivey] brought me on the road and showed me the thing and let me sit in on sessions,” says Cope. “Basehead was really Michael. Everything was him. He just taught me so much about everything and gave me a lot of confidence. It wasn’t hard because he taught me a lot in that way. I got to tour with him without it having to be my thing. I got to be in the studio with him and hang with him personally. I got to see him do interviews. I could see the good things and the things that might have held him back. Ninety-nine percent of the things were amazing. I owe a lot to Michael.”
With regard to the upcoming unplugged show that takes place at the Music Box, Cope says he simply plays to “the feel of the room.” He’ll sometimes throw in covers of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and Randy Newman’s “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” and he likes to touch on tunes from throughout his career.
“There’s somewhat of a table of contents that I follow, but I don’t normally write a setlist for an acoustic show,” he says. “I play the songs that I know people want to hear. I know they want to hear ‘Sideways’ and that kind of stuff. It’s been like 20 years of writing songs, so I want to put everything together and do a good show. It’s just a different and more intimate vibe and kind of cool experience. The listener gets to see where the songs come from.”
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