Interview: floating down a stream of songs, meaning and moments with Citizen Cope
“They’ll take you down by the river…”
The opening line to the first new song Citizen Cope has introduced us to since 2012’s One Lovely Day. It’s a powerful strand of six words. Who is they? Why are they taking you down by the river? And why a river? The imagination of such a journey matches the wander of water rippling away. Perhaps, therein lies the artistic touch of Citizen Cope. Using a blank canvas to paint a picture, dipping his brush into an paint that is filled with truths, but results in a finished picture that both sparks your engagement and bends to the course of your own path.
With his sixth studio record on the horizon, I had the opportunity to spend an evening Cope. Our conversations have always been those of grab a drink and let’s sit on the back-porch style with our thoughts flowing like, well, a river. Since 2002’s Citizen Cope debut, it has been evident that these songs come from a place of experience. A place of deep meaning. One where Cope has allowed the recordings to take on a life of their own where he not only trusts them but relies on his art to lead the way. Staying true to your vision without pressure of result often leads to expressive connection in the truest of forms. It’s simply the state of being in it for the right reasons. Authenticity.
Sticking with our “porch” style theme I then saw Cope perform at Levitate’s new backyard venue the next night. In addition to the large number of dedicated fans singing back each word with their eyes sealed shut and hands held high in the air, what moved me most was — here was an artist taking to the stage the same exact profound tide of perspective that he brought to our table the night before. It’s conversation from. It’s song form. Either way — it’s certainly relatable, genuine and sincerely appreciated.
As we pulled our chairs up to the table and our minds to the stage, Cope and I floated down stream into the mouth of the river of songwriting — detailing how his sixth studio record came to be, the drive behind it and the gratitude for the moments around it.
Your summer has been filled with solo shows, and I know you’ve been writing and recorded some new songs, how are you doing?
I’m doing great. I’m feeling blessed and fortunate, and I’m just glad to be here. I just finished the new record. I initially finished it awhile ago then I went away to Jamaica. I was listening to it and I decided to record some new things I had written. Spending some time away allowed me to realize I wanted to make some sonic changes to it. I filled out the drums a bit more and added a few things I felt were missing. Sometimes it takes listening to the songs outside of the studio to realize that. So, I finished the record a couple weeks ago and I feel really good about it. I have a couple opportunities, but I’m not sure who I’m putting it out with yet. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some people be quite enthusiastic. I’m so used to doing much of it myself, I want to make sure I make the right decision if I do go with a company. It’s just about passion.
Did you add any new songs to the record when you went back into the studio?
I did add some new songs and I took a couple off. I revamped a couple too. It’s mostly the same record, but there were a couple new ones that I really liked. I thought about doing two records or a double album, but I realized the best thing to do was to consolidate the material.
Jamaica to me is one of the most inspiring places to be artistically. What was it about your trip to Jamaica that influenced your process?
Jamaica is such a creative place. I used to always go away to write. I haven’t done as much of that lately since my daughter was born. I have been touring a lot and if I do that, then I’m going away again. This time I felt I really needed it. It’s about woodshedding and having moments of stillness. It helps allowing things to happen without forcing. I was able to get in a rhythm of being open. I’ve always had a good time writing in Jamaica. I always have great conversations and I love the people. The point of view there is so unique.
When you first start making records and you get acknowledged for them, it can change your point of view as a writer. You’re the same person and you sing the same songs you had before that no one knew, and now people do know them, it puts expectations on you as a person. Jamaica is a great place to experience things and have authentic conversations with people who do not have preconceived notions around what you do for a living. They don’t know what you’ve written. That had somewhat gotten lost in my life.
What were the burning fires you had inside that you wanted to write about this time around?
All my records have been thematic, but I don’t know that I premeditated that. You’re just flowing from a stream of consciousness. You always want to write something great. You always want to do something that inspires you, and that’s what leads you to do what it is you do. You have to have a good song and a good performance, but then you have to make it a record. How do you make that sound good coming out of speakers and how do you touch people with that emotion? That’s the challenge. You always try to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in your life. The end game is to have something that connects on a timeless level. It can last 10 years from now. I take a lot of pride and care in that.
I was thinking a lot about that lately. I was listening to your self-titled debut and The Clarence Greenwood Recordings and noticing how applicable they are today still.
The interesting thing is, in art you always have expectations beyond what people suggest you write about. I’ve been talking about these subject matters ever since I have been making records. Historically, we are still suffering from humans not being as good to each other as we could be and realizing this is an incredibly giving world we have. The earth gives us oxygen, nutrition and things to shelter ourselves with. We’ve become beholden to the dollar bill and celebrity. It’s magnified now with technology. As an artist, I’m just trying to express myself in a way that is hopefully giving something. If somebody can take a positive from my work, that’s all you really want. Sometimes people aren’t going to get what you are talking about, they just like the song.
After I make a song, I have no control over what the song does. Somebody recently sent me a message and explained how they listened to “Bullet and a Target” before they went out firing — overseas at war. I’ve heard that before and that’s not really what the song is about. But to them, I think what they took from it was the storyline of putting yourself in that position. I once did a performance at Walter Reed Hospital where the soldiers went, for someone who had lost a leg. I asked what the guy wanted to hear, and he said, “Bullet and a Target.” I thought — Wow. It proves my point you can’t always control where a song goes. You just want it to touch people. I recently got another message from someone who has a child with special needs and she explained to me how the child brightens up when she hears the music. That’s really what it’s about. And that’s not to say it is not about people who are going to war, they need salvation too.
Sometimes songs understand better than anybody else.
Exactly right. That’s why when people ask me what a song is about I don’t really know. I just follow the muse. I wish I could explain my themes more, but it’s not based on a novel.
Leaving songs open for interpretation offers compassion for the moment. Whatever that is for the person listening. With that in mind, do you still draw a lot of inspiration from your DC roots?
Things that happen in your life are always going to be driving factors in your art. I’ve come to terms with the fact that — what’s gotten me in this position today isn’t necessarily what I need to fuel the rest of my life. That sometimes can be detrimental. When you’re young you are aggressive. DC is also so different now. The place I used to rent for $800 a month, which was a big 2,500 square foot loft in the middle of a big drug and prostitution area is now a three-million-dollar building. It feels like every city is going through some sort of economic boom where there’s a design to be built with a higher plan. There’s an attitude and a swagger in DC that I would not be able to replicate had I not been there. I used to buy and sell tickets, so I had an understanding about how to conduct events. There were so many characters around to draw from.
You make me think of one of my favorite lyrics of yours. “Maybe we were born to be sure to endure when the storm comes,” from “Lifeline”. I’ve always gravitated towards that line. Sometimes it means different things to me. It’s very heavy-hitting and yet welcoming.
Thank you. Lyrics are something I take very seriously. I never think I’m the best singer or the best guitar player, but I do think I can write well and make a good record. I don’t think most articles, or the press has really understood (except for a few) what I have been saying. It’s usually, here’s a white guy trying to do some stuff on a drum machine. A guy who was influenced by hip hop and the Beatles. Someone once wrote a poor review of the lyrics on “Lifeline”. It was one of the only times where I felt the person really missed it, you just can’t say that about “Lifeline”.
In terms of your writing process, do you have a certain way that works best for you? Do you write the music first and then add lyrics? I imagine you have a decent bank of words ready to go at any time.
I don’t work with notebooks of words. I did a poetry thing recently where I did spoken word. I used a couple of lines from those poems in this new record because I thought they were relevant. But for the most part, I strum the guitar, hear the melody and then the words come. It’s an energy with the rhythm. Sometimes the verses don’t come, but I have a chorus. Or it’s the opposite. Like “Hurricane Waters” off The Clarence Greenwood Recordings, I had the music, the beat, the piano lick and the chorus line, “carry you through the hurricane waters” line and I didn’t have the verses done. I wrote down dome poetry and that ended up being it.
Do you have all the titles done on the new record? Song titles, album title etc?
The record is going to be called Heroin and Helicopters. The reason for it is because when I first met Carlos Santana he told me to stay away from the two h’s. I had no idea what the two h’s were. He tells me, “It’s heroin and helicopters. They don’t work well with musicians.” I always thought that was important. Now it makes sense, with the opioid crisis we’re going through and the idea of what a helicopter is — something that can be dangerous that goes in circles. It can be used for war or something that’s an elite status. The title just worked in a lot of ways. Anytime I say the title people wonder if I am trying to glorify heroin, but really, it’s about something I was told not to do. This record gave me a way to explain that.
If you think about where you are at this point in your career, a tour winding down, a new record on the horizon, what does this moment mean to you?
The purpose of the journey before I knew what it was is to really find inner-peace. I don’t think I’ve ever felt it this strong. I was always worried about trying to land a record deal, keeping a record deal or trying to put out a record that people would like. Then you’re out running on tour, building a fanbase and hoping people like the show. You can come from a place of insecurity and fear doing that. I had to look at this whole thing and ask if I was enjoying it. There are moments though I enjoy writing, recording and the adventure of going on tour. I stop myself and make sure I savor what it really is. There are times where I can do that, and I think it’s evident in the music. That’s ultimately what it’s about, but I want to focus on getting there as a person not just an artist. I don’t how far you can get without it. It’s something we strive for that sometimes we don’t even realize.