Anyone trying to fathom the eccentric wonders of Clarence Greenwood's life and music should probably start with his guitar. When most people learn the instrument, they tune it to something called standard tuning and strum all six strings. Not Greenwood. He ditched the bottom E string because he just wasn't playing it, and then tuned another, the B string, to B-flat. This is a little like going to work without a shirt: You can do it, but it will complicate your life in unexpected ways, and it will freak out a lot of your colleagues.
For Greenwood, this strange tuning has long limited the number of people he could play with, since it requires sophistication to translate the obscure language his guitar speaks. But he really wasn't trying to be difficult.
"At the time, I didn't know it was wrong," he says, sitting at the dining table in his Brooklyn apartment. "It just sounded right and the chords I would use sounded better that way. And I just started making up my own chords."
That's Greenwood for you: highly inventive, utterly earnest and a little peculiar, singing and speaking a patois of his own creation. For years, that patois has been heard only by regulars at small Washington music venues like the Velvet Lounge, the Black Cat and the Metro Cafe, and the fortunate handful who showed up at open-mike nights in places like the now-closed Food for Thought on Connecticut Avenue. Greenwood, as it happens, was raised in Washington and worked here for years, scrounging up rent money by scalping tickets at events around town, until he decamped to New York in late 1999 just before landing a major-label deal with DreamWorks Records.
But tomorrow this intense, soft-spoken underdog hero of D.C.'s music scene is finally going coast-to-coast. The self-titled debut by Citizen Cope -- it's his stage name, not the name of his band -- will turn Greenwood into an artist of national stature. Though it's only January, here's a prediction that doesn't take much guts: "Citizen Cope" will stand as one of the best albums of 2002. He is the city's most soulful export since Marvin Gaye.
Greenwood's music, like the man who made it, takes some hyphens to explain. White folk-funk gets close, or maybe stoner hip-hop. Subtract the irony from Beck and add heart, an affection for all things ghetto, big drumbeats, a whiff of ganja, some tinkling piano notes and an urban folklorist's sense of story -- and then you're getting warmer.
The influence of a diverse group of heroes, including John Lennon, Stevie Wonder and Randy Newman, lurks somewhere in this mix, too. You can hear it on tunes like "Salvation," the story of a Satan figure who does battle with Greenwood, the former armed with three golden bullets, the latter armed only with his guitar. His lyrical themes hark back to the one-world idealism of the late '60s, and either celebrate the joy of human connections (the colorful and majestic "Contact") or tell tales about the hardened real-life characters he's met, like "200,000 (In Counterfeit 50 Dollar Bills)," the true story of a drug addict and ticket scalper named George.
"When I heard it, I was immediately taken in. Stunned was more like it," says Bob Waugh, assistant program director of Lanham-based WHFS and an early advocate of Greenwood's. Four years ago, Waugh plucked "200,000" from a box of local music demos and then did something he'd never done before.
"I finished listening and picked up the phone and called him and said, 'Hey, man, I just listened to "200,000" and I think it's amazing and I'd love to meet you.' I don't know. It was one of those instances in my career where I felt like I've got to do something about this. If there's anything I can do to help him, I'll do it."
Waugh put him in touch with manager Jon Leshay, who eventually visited a Manhattan-based DreamWorks executive named Michael Goldstone. "I went and said, 'I've got this thing and I've no idea what to call it but we need to listen to this together,' " Leshay says. "Not to sound trite, but after we listened to a song or two he said, 'Where is this guy?' I said he was walking around the streets now with an acoustic guitar." Greenwood had been playing nearby at a friend's apartment. "I called him and he was in [Goldstone's] office in 15 minutes, playing the music. It happened very quickly from there."
Maybe for Leshay it was quick. And maybe it seems quick now that MTV2 is hailing Greenwood as an artist to watch in 2002, now that he's set to tour nationally as the opener for Nelly Furtado, and now that people like Macy Gray are clamoring to write songs with him. But for Greenwood, who is 33, all of this was more than a decade and a few hundred unpaid local gigs in the making.
"It goes from one extreme to the other," says Greenwood, shaking his head a little. "I remember it was coming up on New Year's Eve 2000 and I was thinking that I had only a few months' rent money left. I was looking for places to play on the street the day I got a call from DreamWorks."
Greenwood's hair is pulled back and stuffed into a knit cap, and he's wearing a blue shirt and baggy jeans. It's a style that suggests the intensity of Che Guevara and the scruffy, beatnik airs of Shaggy from "Scooby-Doo." He talks with an accent that could pass for New Orleans, turning "that" into "dat" and "with" into "wif," but Greenwood hasn't spent much time in the Big Easy. Like the sound of his guitar, this is something all his own, brother-speak that he fashioned after splitting time between Upper Northwest, where he lived with his mother and stepdad, and rural Texas, where he spent summers with an uncle and aunt who raised cattle and farmed cotton.
He lives here in Brooklyn on two floors of a town house. There isn't much in the place, aside from a charcoal drawing of Stevie Wonder, a guitar, boxes of equipment and a stereo system. This is the first time he's sat for a lengthy interview, and he'll candidly admit that it all makes him a little uncomfortable.
In part, that's simply because Greenwood is private. He apologetically begs off questions about his parents, aside from saying that they divorced when he was a kid and that he hasn't had a relationship with his dad for a long time. The discomfort also reflects a painstaking search for the right words. The laid-back Cope, say friends, shares mental space with a guy who is hellbent on precision and a musician with a hard-core work ethic.
"When you're playing with him, you don't want to make any mistakes, or you'll hear about it, even onstage," says Daniel Parker, a Citizen Cope bass player and owner of D.C.'s One World Studios. "We were playing at the Velvet Lounge once and he turned around and told the drummer to just stop. I think he didn't like the sound of the high-hat," Parker chuckles. "He's one of the most feeling musicians I've ever played with and he already hears the music in his head. He's just trying to draw it out of people."
Bob Power, who produced "Citizen Cope," sounds as if he's only now recovering from the collaboration, though it's already months behind him. "I love him dearly, but it was the hardest nine months of my life," says Power. "If you listen to his music you realize Clarence's depth, and living with everything that's inside his head for that long isn't easy."
Greenwood isn't much of a compromiser -- he's been known to shush people who talk during his shows -- but no one seems to hold that against him, probably because he takes his songs with such Zen seriousness. He's a latecomer to music, and he clings to it now with the zeal of a convert.
"Until I found music I didn't feel at home," he says, staring at his dining table. "Music came in my life and I decided that was what would make me feel confident, make me feel good about myself and an outlet to energy that I had."
Greenwood was born in Memphis, and was nicknamed Cope by his mother, apparently for his ability to deal with life. (He added "Citizen" when he recorded, he says, because it sounds cool.) He moved to Greenville, Miss., where he lived until his mother relocated to Washington when he was 6 years old, and he was raised near Pinehurst Circle, a neighborhood of mostly Colonial houses not far from the Maryland border. The big adjustment, Clarence recalls, was reminding himself that he couldn't urinate outdoors anymore.
At Wilson High School, he sang in the gospel choir and struggled for decent grades. "I tried hard but I just didn't get it," he says. "My problem was that I could read words but I didn't understand sentences."
He'd almost given up on his intellect when he moved to Texas after graduating and started taking classes at Texas Tech. A teacher there was struck by his grasp of a poem by Faulkner, and that inspired him to start writing -- stories, poems and eventually lyrics. That's when he taught himself the guitar.
In the years that followed, Greenwood recorded some demos, one of which he gave to Chuck Brown after the godfather of go-go had finished a 1990 show at Kilimanjaro. Brown called soon afterward, burbling praise and offering introductions to key managers and musicians. Another local musician, Michael Ivey, recruited Greenwood to a band called Basehead and they promptly hit the road, opening for the Beastie Boys.
When the Basehead gig ended, Cope spent years playing just about anywhere in town with a stage. He mailed out dozens and dozens of demos, and occasionally made unannounced visits to the offices of major labels. Eventually, a scout from Capitol Records fished a Cope tune from the bottom of a pile of tapes and urged his bosses to sign the man immediately. They did, though the experience ended bitterly when Greenwood delivered "Shotguns," a concept album about a guy who accidentally kills his brother in a hunting accident.
"They listened to it and said, 'We want more colors,' " Greenwood remembers. "I was like 'What the [hell] are you talking about, more colors?' I just had tears rolling from my eyes because they didn't understand the album." A top-to-bottom revision of the album didn't interest him, and Capitol eventually dropped him and the project.
Back in local clubs, he wrote a song called "If There's Love," an ode to romance ("If there's love /I just want to have something to do with it") that he pegged right away as something special. He flew to Atlanta and recorded the track with some professionals. On the drive home from Dulles, while playing a CD of the session on his car stereo, he had a mild epiphany.
"I know this sounds cocky as hell, but I felt at that moment like I'd never have to worry about money," he says. "I just had this inner peace that this was going to be all right. I told people: 'Don't worry about it. This is going to be fine.' "
At the time, Greenwood was an unlikely candidate for any list of Washingtonians on the Verge of a Decent Living. He was still scalping for his cash, and he'd seen his share of eviction notices. But his optimism made sense, not just to him but to just about everyone who heard the song. Within months, three major labels -- Def Jam, Interscope and DreamWorks -- were pleading for his signature. After more than a decade of unreturned phone calls and years of being ushered by security guards out of well-appointed lobbies, Greenwood was courted by the music industry's tastemakers in meetings across the country.
Now the task is marketing a guy who defies niches and has either transcended -- or trampled -- racial lines in both his manner and music. DreamWorks is hoping that the album sells by word of mouth; it's betting "Citizen Cope" finds an audience of its own rather than one already waiting in front of bins marked "rap" or "neo-soul." Lenny Waronker, a DreamWorks executive who years ago produced classic albums by Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, sounded last week like a guy who isn't expecting to retire on Greenwood's work. But he's sure he's about to release a quality product.
"You get an album like this once a year," he says. "If you're lucky."