Singer-songwriter Citizen Cope inspires fervent devotion while shunning the mainstream

The last time singer-songwriter Citizen Cope played the Jannus stage, I attended as an absolute newb. In fact, I'd originally planned on seeing G. Love that weekend, but my friends persuaded me to check out Cope's fusion of blues, reggae, folk-pop and hip-hop instead.

I bought my tickets in advance, and a good thing, too, since the show sold out only moments after I joined the massive herd of music-hungry fans milling outside the venue. Some of the ticketless accepted defeat with downtrodden faces and slumped shoulders; others weren't going down without a fight, like the dude who tried to cut a desperate last-minute deal for a ticket, shouting "I'll give someone $100 for a ticket. $100!" I don't think he ever found one.

Such open fervor for an artist so far from the mainstream radar piqued my interest. Someone wanted to pay $100 to see this guy? Really? But after Citizen Cope took center stage in his characteristic retro leather jacket and tethered dreadlocks, and began delivering songs in his rusted soulful croon, I understood exactly what all the fuss was about.

I caught up with Citizen Cope (real name Clarence Greenwood) while he was on tour in Hawaii, and we discussed how he's cultivated such a devoted fanbase despite veering so far from the mainstream radio model.

He attributed his success over the past eight years to writing songs that people can identify with; he explores love and loss, touches on societal woes and injustices, spins poetic stories about the shady characters who dwelled in the cities that have served as the backdrop to his own life, like D.C. and Brooklyn. "The music I make always means something to me first and I think that translates," he told me. "I think people connect to something when it truly comes from the heart and soul — and that is more than just a passing fancy."

When crafting an album, Greenwood tends to focus on putting together a cohesive collection of songs rather than attempting to produce any ready-made radio singles, an inclination evident in his 2010 album, The Rainwater LP, which was released after a four-year break from recording and through his new label, Rainwater Recordings.

When I asked Greenwood about his decision to abandon label support, he launched into a poetic rant about executive-run record companies that are "so far removed" and "totally detached from the reality" of what music is. He said what he loves most about his decision to set out on his own is having total ownership of his music, because the labels "give you money and then they own your shit forever."

Greenwood's satisfied with the success of his new LP and Rainwater Recordings. "I feel real good about it — knowing that I can do on my own what I did with a major record label, I can generate more press, more buzz, get plays on college radio. I've toured all over the country promoting it," he continued, "and there ain't a lot of muthahfuckas who can do that with a hit."

He said The Rainwater LP has brought new blood and energy to his shows and has been received well by his audiences. "As long as I can connect and catch a vibe," Greenwood said. "There are some rooms where that just doesn't happen and there are others that can hold a sound so well. But really none of that even matters. It all comes down to how the stars are aligned."

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