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Stage Buzz: Citizen Cope at House of Blues Chicago

| April 9, 2019

Citizen Cope

It was one of those you-had-to-be-there moments that might sound callous — even a little cruel — in the retelling. But rest assured, it was neither of those things. It was a reckoning.

Late afternoon a few years ago at a hip San Francisco nightclub — the universal hour for an artist’s pre-show soundcheck. Tonight, it’s R&B singer Alice Smith at the microphone, who had scheduled an interview with this reporter upon her rehearsal’s completion. But before taking the stage, she has the grace — and foresight — to ask, “Have you net my husband yet? He goes by the name Citizen Cope, and maybe you guys can hang out while I’m playing.” And — sure enough — a few minutes later we’re deep into a discussion favorite authors, and the guy knows his stuff. Sure, he’s got the hip Medusa-length dreadlocks and a kind of Orlando-Bloom-soulful stare that’s made him even more popular with his female fans (translation: he looks like an old-school bike messenger that needs saving). But the guy is immediately likable and pretty deep.

Lurking around the periphery (and you reckon the poor guy always has someone lurking around the periphery) is a stiletto-heeled twentysomething, dressed to the nines and — surprise! — carrying various Citizen Cope collectibles. With Smith otherwise distracted onstage, the girl sees her opportunity, clickety-clacking hurriedly over to the bar where he’s seated and begins to gush. Or maybe spew might be more appropriate. Something to the effect of, “Like, oh my GAWD, I just knew you’d be here, watching your wife soundcheck! I told all my girlfriends, but like, nobody believed me! So now I get to hang out with you, and they don’t! Ha! That’s what they get!” This writer just shrugged and turned back to his beer — these events occur regularly in a rock star’s harried existence, they have to turn away and tend to their flock. No harm, no foul. Just the nature of the branded beast.

But then something unusual happened. The gal had seriously misjudged the situation. Seriously. And while she stood blinking coquettishly, waiting for a warm response, she received something else entirely. Cope (nee Clarence Greenwood, who severed ties with all major labels a decade ago and now issues albums (like the new Heroin and Helicopters on his vanity imprint, Rainwater Recordings) doesn’t play the same industry games as everyone else. He conducts business in a no-nonsense, old school style. And he does not suffer fools gladly. Maybe this sounds more drastic than it was, but he slowly pivoted on his stool to face the interloper, who was still grinning like an idiot. And he said, slowly, precisely, and quietly, “What part about two people talking privately at a bar made you think that a conversation was not taking place? Or that you had the right to interrupt them?” The girl’s expression switched from glee to horror in a heartbeat. Trapped, she could only stammer an awkward, “S-s-s-sorry, C-c-citizen C-c-cope, I didn’t..didn’t mean to…” Wanly, like the last wing flap of a dying bird, she managed to wave the arm that was holding her stack of Citizen Cope vinyl. “C-c-can I still get some autographs?” Shaking his head sadly, he turned away from her with a cold, clinical finality, and back to the previous discussion with a bright, “Now where were we?”

Mentioning this road story to him makes him just sigh somberly, then nearly apologize. “I sometimes get into trouble for doing things like that.” No, I counter. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen when an entitled asshole did not get away with such behavior for once. And it proved a perfect metaphor for how a contemporary artist can survive in this creepy business by simply being honest.

Illinois Entertainer: You’re very protective of your privacy, your personal space.

CITIZEN COPE: Well, there’s a level of autonomy that I think is important in life, especially for an artist. And I try to be as gracious as I can be all the time. But sometimes people just cross those boundaries. And when you’re having a conversation with somebody, you can just feel the energy. But people sometimes feel that they have this…this ownership of you. I was in a bar the other night, after the show. And somebody said, “I want to take a picture.” And I said, “You know what? I’d rather not take a picture inside a bar because I have a daughter (Lula, now 8) and I don’t want her growing up to see a bunch of pictures of me in some bar. But I’ll go outside later and take some pictures with you.” But later, this same guy comes up and shakes my hand, and he had some other person taking a picture of me, shaking his hand. In the bar. And my security guy had to come over and erase his pictures. So there’s a level of respect that goes into that small level of celebrity, not some level of ownership. Because that’s kind of gross, ya know?

IE: Nowadays, people take concert selfies with the band playing its heart out behind them. Thereby missing the show that they’re working so hard to prove they’ve attended.

CC: That’s the dynamic that social media has brought on. I was talking to Alice about this today in fact. It’s just built to inherently [make people] not feel as good about themselves. I mean, people will take a picture of you before having an actual conversation with you — it’s really all about that, not any kind of real human interaction. And it’s like a drug. Like, “I don’t wanna talk to you — I just wanna get your picture.” Then people walk off, studying their phone, and if the picture’s not good enough, they’ll come back and want to take another one. It’s just the strangest thing to me.

IE: Have you ever lost your cool with some pushy stranger?

CC: No. But there have been moments where people just push that boundary too far. I was in Hawaii one time, and this girl wants to take a picture. But then she put her hand over my private parts — not touching them, but it LOOKED like she was holding them in the picture. And I’m going, “What the fuck are you doing?” That really pissed me off. So now I can’t even go out and shake people’s hands after a show. I used to like to go out to the merch table and mingle and say, “What’s up?” to people, but now it’s just become a photo fest. And I really hate those flashes. It’s an invasion of privacy, also. But in any kind of authentic interaction that goes on between artist and fan, I’d like to learn something, too. To learn something about them. But basically, you’re thrown into something that’s almost like a petting zoo. You lose your autonomy, you lose a lot of things. So this really isn’t the best profession for a good mental, spiritual, financial, and personal life. I look at all these peers of mine who are on drugs, or they’re broke or they’ve lost their voice. Or worse, they’ve died. It doesn’t end well. I’ve been trying to figure it out — who has it really ended well for, especially among the super popular?

IE: Billy Joel?

CC: Yeah but he still had his struggles. And we don’t know yet how it will all end for him. Then there’s Dave Grohl, who’s just a super happy dude. There are people like that who are just genuinely happy. Science needs to figure out what’s in their DNA and concoct a prescription drug accordingly. I really admire people like that.

IE: How is the missus?

CC: We’re still fighting the good fight. We both do the same thing, so sometimes it’s not easy, both being artists and having the same kind of struggles. But she is just amazing. I have so much love and respect for her, as a person and as an artist. It sometimes baffles me, how amazing she is and yet she’s not a household name. She has the type of lightning in a bottle to just walk onstage and kill it, every time. But I haven’t had the amount of acceptance that I thought was going to come with some of my albums; I have to say.

IE: Well, it did take you six years to finish Heroin and Helicopters….

CC: Part of making a new record is that you don’t want to dilute what you’ve done before. So making records has always been intense for me. But with this one, I had to get over some blocks. Partly it was some personal stuff I was going through, and also I had a daughter and I wanted to spend more time with her. And when I wasn’t, I was on tour, since I’m paying for the records myself and I had to go on tour to do that. So I didn’t want to take any shortcuts. I just wanted the record to be really great. And I feel like it’s the best one I’ve done in a while.

IE: What is this heroin and helicopters of which you sing on the title track?

CC: That’s what Carlos Santana (who recorded Cope’s cut “Sideways” for his Shaman album) told me to watch out for as a musician — heroin, and helicopters. Stay away from both. Then the phrase just took on a life of its own.

Appearing April 12th at House Of Blues, Chicago.

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