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Citizen Cope 'just a dude playing songs'

Citizen Cope 'just a dude playing songs'

Clarence Greenwood to take stage at Troy Music Hall
Citizen Cope 'just a dude playing songs'
Citizen Cope.
Photographer: The New York Times

TROY -- There will be no swimming pools or fancy lighting when Clarence Greenwood takes the stage at Troy Music Hall on Friday night. 

“It’s just a dude playing songs with a guitar. That’s what it is. Ain’t no dances ... ain’t no fancy costumes. It’s just me playing my songs,” said Greenwood, who goes by the stage name Citizen Cope. 

But that’s all Cope fans are really looking for; nothing extraneous, just Greenwood playing out a few songs that have stuck with them. 

Greenwood’s music makes listeners do a bit of soul-searching. It tackles societal issues, mental health issues and emotional traumas through blues, rock, soul and folk-pop. 

“I don’t have all the answers spiritually, or even a fraction of them. I just . . . I’m searching for them,” Greenwood said. 

When Greenwood was growing up in Washington D.C., he learned more from “street philosophers” than he did in the classroom. They gave him his worldview and an ability to connect with others. It’s this ability that has helped his fan base grow to what it is today. 

Going to a Citizen Cope concert has been described as a cross between going to see the Pope and hanging out with friends. It’s a relaxed reverence.  

Since the late 1990s, Greenwood has been making music, working on either solo albums or with artists like Santana. Although he was signed with record labels like Capitol Records and DreamWorks, he also started his own record label in 2010. He’s toured all over the country, playing acoustic shows and shows with a full band.  

Here, Clarence Greenwood takes a moment to talk about his music, the music industry itself, his roots and the job he never thought he'd have.  

Nash: What got you started playing guitar and making music?

Greenwood: “Well, it was interesting. I had a couple of guys in my neighborhood from D.C. helping me out. One of the guys was one of my neighbors growing up and it was like two or three kids and we all hung together. One of them actually passed away . . . Nicolas Brenios was the one who taught me. Both of his parents were opera singers and he came from a very musical house and they taught me the chords. 

Q: You’re a fairly independent musician. How did you get to that point?
“You know, I always wrote my own stuff and produced it and when I started getting into record companies they kinda understood that I had that power. . . I always wanted to work with major companies because you know they have all the money to make records and I wanted to spend a lot of time and money on my work.” 

Q: A lot of your songs mention spirituality in some way. Can you tell me about your spiritual views?
I had a lot of physical abuse when I was a kid. It was a way to overcome it . . . I had some real obstacles growing up. Not just cultural, but just personal sh** that I had to deal with . . . that I dealt with making songs. 

Q: Any particular philosophers or people that you look up to?
Absolutely! Malcolm X, . . . I don’t really study a lot of the written word because I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder when I was a child so I never really understood how to comprehend reading when I was a child. So I didn’t really comprehend a lot of that stuff. Some of the people who have taught me a bunch of sh** . . .They’ve been former criminals, people that have farmed land in Texas. I learn from everybody . . . not just philosophers, but what I call street philosophers. 

Q: How did you go from having a difficult time with reading and reading comprehension to writing songs?
Well I just think that’s one of the weird things about life. With these standardized tests and these comprehension tests, they have nothing to do with actually being able to write a good story. . . It’s not built for everybody and it wasn’t built for me. I came from down South and we have a different understanding of the written word and also of the story. We understand stories. So when I came to D.C., they became more interested in the standardized tests. I just think it’s a failed system that we live in in America. 
Honestly, I think it’s something I had to develop. It was just something I didn’t develop at a young age and I think that because I didn’t develop it at a young age it was considered that just because I didn’t understand it early that I never would. But it would be good to show people that just because you’re not naturally inclined to something doesn’t mean you can’t come to some type of greatness. 

Q: What made you want to be a musician?
The fact that I wanted something better in my life. I wanted something to live up to. I wanted to go to places and I wanted to meet people. I didn’t want to stay in one place or be pigeonholed into one thing. I wanted to go to exciting places, meet beautiful women, and do everything in life that would be possible that my own father and my own mother didn’t get to do.

Q: What messages do you feel are important to tell people with your music?
I think part of it is just having a point of view. To have a perspective as an artist is important. I can’t force somebody to get something from my music I just, it’s just really what I’m saying. Like you can get it or you don’t get it. If you’re an artist, a real artist, it’s not about yourself. It’s about helping somebody else. But at the same time it’s kinda like a funny manifestation where you’re trying to put yourself in a better position and do it for for somebody else. 

Q: Where do you get the ideas for your music?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. I don’t sit there and contemplate them. Like I said, I’m trying to figure out my own personal stuff with my family, my own abuse growing up and a lot of mental sh** going on that I had to try to do something that was artistic it just came through.

Q: What other current musicians do you respect?
. . . I like Rihanna's records. I’ve got a lot of respect for Jay-Z. I like obviously like Tupac, even though he’s not around anymore. I thought Beyonce’s new record was really good too, even though it’s actually for pop. She made a great record. I mean OutKast, I was always a fan of them. So there’s a lot of good stuff out there. You know, it’s a pop culture driven thing right now so it’s not like I don’t live in that same world. Like a lot of artists, they weren’t  really artists. They were like television stars or Disney stars. So I can’t really connect with them. Ten years ago, you used to see guys that were out there, out there. Not anymore. These guys got their moms managing them, moms at their meetings and stuff. It’s a different world. 

Q: Do you feel like because you don’t come from a different background, your music connects with a wider group of people?
No! I think the music that they make connects with a wider group of people. What they’re doing connects around more people. I don’t know about for the long term, who knows? I think inevitably my songs will still connect with a lot of people . . . in the long term. But it’s not like, I mean obviously the kids that were on Disney they’re pop culture. But they didn’t have the same life as most people. They were stars since they were young kids so they don’t write, they don’t produce. So I’m more drawn to people that like . . . I want to hear about somebody who knows how to make money on the street. Not on the boardroom. But that’s just me. It’s nothing against those kids at all. But there’s always been that. It’s not like a new phenomenon. 

Q: Did you think that you were going to be a musician growing up?
Absolutely not. I would never have thought I’d be on this route. But that’s the funny thing about life. I was always scared to be on stage. I kinda had a feeling that there was going to be something cool that I’d be doing, but I didn’t know what it was. I just kinda rolled with it. The second I got on stage I didn’t feel that initial connection. I was terrified to be on stage. Trying to connect on that level, I was like “I can’t believe I’m trying to do this.” This was not what I wanted to do because I wanted to write and produce, but I never thought about performing. It wasn’t in my nature. 

Q: How did you get past that?
I just played a lot of shows! I just realized that if I wanted to make a record I had to play live. I still get a little nervous but not as much. There’s actually moments when I’m on the stage where I don’t feel comfortable. But I’ve started telling stories on stage and that’s helped a bit.  

Citizen Cope

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fri. April 21
WHERE: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 Second Street, Troy
COST: $36-$46. $1 of every ticket will go to youth arts programs such as Turnaround Arts and Beauty For Freedom. 
MORE INFO: www.troymusichall.org

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