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Coping with his lack of fame
Question of the Day
Clarence Greenwood, known to his listening public as Citizen Cope, often plays strings of sold-out concerts, hitting venues like Philadelphia’s Electric Factory and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
He wrote, performed and produced a track (“Sideways”) on Carlos Santana’s double-platinum-selling “Shaman” album and has opened for artists like Nelly Furtado and Ben Harper. His most recent album, 2006’s “Every Waking Moment,” hit No. 69 on the Billboard 200.
To most people, such accomplishments add up to a successful career. But to those who’ve been predicting the artist’s big breakout for nearly a decade now, it all comes up a little short. For some reason, Mr. Greenwood and his street-savvy, genre-busting tunes haven’t gotten the kind of attention many think they should have .
When compared to the rest of Rolling Stone’s “10 Artists to Watch” of 2004, for example, Mr. Greenwood is by no means the least recognizable name on the list. Yet he’s received only a fraction of the press that its biggest movers have — namely acts like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and Rilo Kiley.
Mainstream and college radio haven’t shown Mr. Greenwood much love. His many record labels don’t appear to have broken the bank plugging his albums, and you’re more likely to find him profiled in Surfing Magazine than in Spin.
Why is this?
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have the marketable curves of Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley or the made-for-teen-mags-and-tabloids gender-bending tendencies of Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz. Mr. Greenwood’s low-key lifestyle and chill vibe may leave bloggers and other writers feeling uninspired when it comes time to write a juicy story.
More likely, though, it comes back to Mr. Greenwood’s music — an indefinable blend of Southern rock ‘n’ soul, Northern street prophet and Caribbean groove.
One minute, he’s a Michael Franti-style preacher, ranting about the mess we’re all in; the next, he’s on some Linkin Park, rap-rock tip; yet the next, he’s crooning a plaintive love song that sounds like it could be the result of a collaboration between G. Love, D’Angelo and David Gray.
This original sound is precisely what Mr. Greenwood’s biggest supporters appreciate, be they hip-hop heads, graying intellectuals or college preppies. At the same time, the industry and the press don’t seem to know exactly know what to do with it.
Thus, Mr. Greenwood has had to be his own marketing machine to a large extent, and a man and his music can only travel so fast; one city, one microphone at a time.
“After three records and now I’m working on the next, people are still finding out about Citizen Cope,” Mr. Greenwood says, speaking by phone from Hawaii.
This pattern of pounding the pavement to promote his music isn’t a new trend; it’s something the artist has been doing since his early days of dabbling in the creative field.
He was born in Memphis, Tenn., and spent his youth in Mississippi, Texas and the District. The capital city, in fact, is where he developed his voice, deejaying for the hip-hop act Basehead, shopping around his own demos and performing at open mics as much as he could.
“A lot of people wouldn’t have done what I did, playing all those spots, chasing people down,” he says. “When WHFS was still around, I used to sit in their lobby until they’d let me play music.”
His distinct tunes eventually did start winning people over. Go-go godfather Chuck Brown gave him encouragement. WHFS’s Bob Waugh began playing his music on-air. Fans poured out to hear Mr. Greenwood sing and strum his oddly tuned guitar (which has no bottom E string and its B tuned to B-flat).
But even after he moved to Brooklyn and landed his first recording contract, things didn’t always go smoothly for the artist. His first label shelved the concept album he made, and Mr. Greenwood says that the three labels he’s been on since haven’t exactly rushed to get his tunes on the radio. Moreover, he’s not currently signed and doesn’t plan on inking another traditional contract.
“So I go on the road; that’s been the story of it,” he says, sounding not bitter but pragmatic.
In truth, he’s had a little help spreading the word about his music lately, and we’re not just referring to the word-of-mouth that’s been so valuable to him. We’re talking about licensing deals — with Pontiac, NBC’s “Scrubs” and the film “Alpha Dog” (released earlier this year) to name a few. It’s just another way of “getting the music to the people,” Mr. Greenwood says.
Ever the poet, he manages to find a silver lining in what he describes as a struggle to be heard and build an audience. “What’s beautiful,” he says, “is that this is still underground music. It’s still on the rise.”
Citizen Cope plays Thursday at the 9:30 Club (www.930.com), Dec. 28 at Baltimore’s Rams Head Live! (www.ramsheadtavern.com), and Feb. 6 at Towson’s Recher Theatre (www.rechertheatre.com). The first two shows are sold-out.
By David Keene
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