March 04, 2010

An Interview with Citizen Cope

In the case of Clarence Greenwood, better known as Citizen Cope, the songwriting process owes as much to intuitiveness as it does to technique or ability. In the eight years since the Brooklyn-based (by way of Washington DC) artist’s critically acclaimed, self-titled debut, he’s turned out a handful of inspired albums, with each one intended at enriching “an overall artistic statement,” he says. “And each new record will give new life to the other music. I think that’s the best you can do when you make music.”

Citizen Cope furthers that philosophy on his latest work, The Rainwater LP, issued digitally last month and in physical distribution this week. Amid a hodgepodge of sonic styles he’s become known for drawing upon — everything from folk and blues to hip/hop and soul — he brings altogether fresh, to-the-bone commentary and perspective to his lyrics this time around. And underscoring the cumulative context in which he perceives his craft, he says of “Lifeline,” one of the album’s strongest tracks, “There’s something about that song that I don’t think I could’ve written before. I had to have written all those other songs to get to that song.”

Currently on an extensive tour in support of The Rainwater LP, Citizen Cope checked in with Donald Gibson to shed a bit of light on how inspiration informs his music.

How do you measure your progress as a songwriter to ensure you’re not just recycling the same things?

You just got to follow your muse, what inspires you. People will say, “Why don’t you write the kind of songs that were on the first record?” with all the characters and this kind of stuff. And Clarence Greenwood was a personal journey of trying to persevere through something difficult, having there be something great on the other end. Then Every Waking Moment was more of a love record, but [it] also questioned political times. This record [The Rainwater LP] is just a real personal record.

When you write, there’s these different emotions that come up at different times in your life where you might be pissed off about something and write a song like “Comin’ Back” and then you might be desperate and write a song like “Salvation” [both tracks from Citizen Cope]. All the different songs have their own emotions and people identify with [those]. I think those are just as powerful as the meaning behind the record.

You don’t tour with the people you record with. Do the session musicians foster your creativity or do you come to the studio with fixed ideas of how you want it to go?

Pretty fixed ideas. I really look, when somebody’s going to play on a record, at their tone and their feel; also, their ability to make something better than it could’ve been... There’s something about the way Preston [Krump, on bass] plays something that makes it sound better. There’s something about the way James Poyser plays the piano that makes it sound better; his touch, his feel is remarkable. Bashiri Johnson [on percussion] gets on a record and it sounds like a record. As a producer, you try to put the elements around you that work.

Does living in Brooklyn and the New York City area have an effect on your music that, say, if you lived in Los Angeles you wouldn’t get?

I think it’s a culmination of your life, the music that you do. And it just kind of evolves and your sound evolves and goes in a new direction. I always thought about that, If I hadn’t of left DC, would I still have written these songs? It’s kind of where you’re centered at… Whatever inspires you is probably pretty deep within and not as much as a surface of time and place.

For more information on Citizen Cope, including tour dates and locations, please visit the artist’s official website.