“I don’t know what it is,” says Clarence Greenwood. “I’m not a great guitar player. I’m not a great singer. But I connect on a spiritual level.”
Greenwood has performed for a quarter-century as Citizen Cope, the name under which he has released five full-length records. His songs, which marry hip-hop, folk and soul, have been featured in numerous and films and television shows, from Entourage to Accepted to So You Think You Can Dance. But Greenwood attributes his longevity to a sense of “truth” in his music toward which he feels listeners gravitate. “The songs just come from a higher place,” he says. “I can’t really explain where they come from. I guess they’re deep within our DNA somewhere.”
Take, for instance, “Friendly Fire,” the third track from his excellent 2006 LP Every Waking Moment. That song, which depicts the shooting death of an innocent victim, begins and ends on a cautious note of hope in the face of injustice. “Help is coming,” Greenwood sings. “They say help is on the way.”
“The light is more powerful than the darkness,” he says of the song. “[But] some people are persecuted for things they haven’t done. That song rings true today. I think it’s always been true.”
Greenwood’s focus on imbuing his music with timelessness and longevity — he mentions multiple times that he intends to make “classic records” — has a deep influence on his songwriting. “I just think that history repeats itself,” he says. “I use a lot of Biblical references on my first record, not as a Christian or a religious [person]. It’s just a point of reference that I think people who speak the English language understand. Those stories always resonated, in some regard, to truth and to some sort of struggle. They’re relevant in our life today.”
He chafes at the idea of his music becoming dated; he brings up a line from “Salvation” — a track off his 2002 self-titled debut album — in which the devil calls the song’s main character “on the Motorola.”
“I don’t think there’s a Motorola around anymore,” he laughs. “I think that’s interesting.”
His latest album, 2012’s One Lovely Day, is perhaps his most focused attempt at a sort of timelessness. It’s an explicitly simple record; its press release declares it a rejection of “heady concepts” and “overly academic stories” in favor of the sweet, simple sunniness of a feel-good summertime record. Greenwood describes the title track as the closest to a “standard” he’s written; overall, he says, the record is “more poetic in some ways, reaching for a different spiritual answer.”
One Lovely Day was released on RainWater Recordings, Greenwood’s record label, which in some ways is a response to many of the issues that he has had with major music labels. (Greenwood has previously been signed to DreamWorks Records, Arista Records and RCA Records). Though he was never creatively stymied at any of those labels — “I was really lucky,” he says — he found that they were never sure how to understand or promote the music he was making.
“I was really into making records that had a social meaning, plus a payoff emotionally,” he says. “I don’t think major labels understand emotional music… They’re more geared toward throwaway pop music.”
Greenwood says he thinks music has been largely “devalued” culturally, and that devaluation has “made people beholden to this fast-money, money-right-now, quarter-by-quarter, corporate mentality that corporations have had to abide by, but music never really had to.”
“At the end of the day, it comes down to what you’re in it for,” he says. “I’ve always been self-made and can do things on my own, so [going independent] made more sense.”
Even so, he acknowledges the difficulty of reaching a wider audience without the infrastructure of a major label. “I think it’s really impossible for somebody to make an impact worldwide being independent, because essentially that major corporation’s going to put their claws into it or find a way to get to it,” he says. “Even if you get discovered from a YouTube video, then you’re going to get discovered somebody who’s going to want to align you with one of the major, corporate record companies, and the next thing you know, you’re doing Revlon commercials, and that’s how you’re making money. There’s nothing against that, but I think that’s some people’s endgame — to be more like a Madonna or a Michael Jackson than a Bob Marley or a John Lennon. Do you want to be a Tupac or do you want to be somebody that just wants to be famous?”
The new model of music, he says, has made artists more “beholden to advertisers” than to making long-lasting music. “If you think about the Al Greens and the Stevie Wonders, are there going to be records like that [made today]?” he asks. “I got into [the business] to make classic albums. It’s kind of interesting now, that they put a price on making a record. I think it’s kind of short-sighted, because really, records are supposed to last forever.”
Greenwood hasn’t released a studio album since One Lovely Day, but he says he has two in the works, including one that’s completely acoustic. “I’m probably just going to make more records and try to figure out [how] to play less live,” he says. “I just want to make a classic. That’s really where my head’s at now. Hopefully it’ll be something that people will hear and go, ‘Wow, what the [expletive] is that?’ A lot of people haven’t really heard a lot of my music. It’s not been in the mainstream psyche, even though it’s somewhat subconsciously in there. To my people, it is that. I think there’s a level of, ‘Why isn’t Citizen Cope bigger?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m playing all the time and I’m doing big shows.’ [So] I figure I might as well make that record that has the potential to reach the masses.”
Citizen Cope performs an acoustic show at the Lyric Theatre on Thursday, May 5. Maeylini will open. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $26 to $40. For more information, visit lyricbham.com.