Ostensibly, 2020 looked like a breakout year for Glenn-Copeland after four decades in obscurity. There was the documentary “Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story” making the film festival rounds, a fully booked tour that was to take him through Europe, Australia and the United States. Then the pandemic brought touring, and everything else, to a screeching halt.
Nevertheless, his music continues to find new listeners. There’s “Transmissions,” an upcoming compilation surveying his long, frustrated musical career, as well as a vinyl release of his triumphant live performance at Le Guess Who? Festival in 2018. His music made its way to shows like HBO’s “High Maintenance” and found vocal fans like actor Tessa Thompson and pop stars Robyn and Blood Orange.
“Covid wiped out my entire income for the next year and a half,” he says. Glenn-Copeland and his wife, Elizabeth, sold their home pre-pandemic but the loss of income meant no means to purchase another. The couple resorted to having a GoFundMe set up to mitigate the financial hit, with their story finding its way into some news outlets.
But then came a gift: “Two lawyers saw an interview with my wife and I on the [Canadian Broadcasting Corp.], and they wanted to pay it forward,” Glenn-Copeland says. “They offered us a house for nothing until we could afford our own.”
Most of his life, Glenn-Copeland has faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. As he once quipped: “There are three challenges in my life. The first is being Black in a White culture. The second is being transgendered in a heteronormative culture. The third is being an artist in a business culture.” And while it seems unlikely that Glenn-Copeland will play live again any time soon, his music continues to radiate. Hearing his music in 2020 can kindle a glimmer of hope for our grim future.
'Wow! Who is this?'
Posy Dixon, director of “Keyboard Fantasies,” recalls the first time she encountered Glenn-Copeland’s music. “When I heard that voice, I went ‘Wow! Who is this?’ And perhaps that you couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman or what era it was from, that’s one of the things that makes you want to know more about the music,” she said.
Dixon went searching around the Internet, unearthing his two early folk-indebted albums and “Keyboard Fantasies,” which he had originally self-released in 1986. “It’s very hard to classify it the first time you hear it,” she said. “It’s out of place and out of time.”
It was the cadence and presence of Glenn-Copeland’s voice that also first struck Dev Hynes, the musician behind Blood Orange who has championed Glenn-Copeland’s music. “I was blindsided by ‘Keyboard Fantasies’ and obsessively listened to that,” Hynes says via telephone. “It sounded like nothing I had ever heard before, coming from a place so particular and deep inside that it could only be from that person. It was a type of art that feels like a secret once you come across it.”
That disconnection from time and era, that vagueness surrounding gender and identity, are qualities that have informed Glenn-Copeland’s life, from obscurity and ostracization to eventual acceptance and adoration.
Beverly Glenn-Copeland was born in Philadelphia in 1944, the only child of John and Georgie Glenn. (The surname would be changed later in tribute to the composer Aaron Copland.) In a lecture with Red Bull Music Academy, Glenn-Copeland recalled his father playing the likes of Bach and Chopin on the piano for five hours a day.
“Without talking about it, he just encouraged me to be who I was,” he said of his father. “Whoever you are, that’s just fine. You don’t have to be this for me or act this way,” Even now, Glenn-Copeland gets wistful thinking about his father, who passed away when Glenn-Copeland was 28.
Being who Glenn-Copeland was would be a lifetime challenge. At the age of 3, Beverly told his mother that while born a girl, he was really a boy, all but unheard of in 1947. When Glenn-Copeland went off to college in 1961 to study German lieder and oboe at McGill University in Montreal, the culture shock was great. “At the dormitories, the alienation was obvious,” he says, as much for being one of the first African American students on campus, but also for being openly gay. “I was so unusual that I was frightening to the young women. I was actually frightening to them. They were unfamiliar with anything not heteronormative.”
With his short Afro and deep, resonant voice, Glenn-Copeland felt alienated from the students around him. Aside from his girlfriend at the time and one other friend from New York, Glenn-Copeland estimates he had no other friends during his years at school.
Performing classical concerts on the CBC and representing Canada at the World Fair of 1967, Glenn-Copeland one day had a vision. “I suddenly realized that I had been a lieder singer in another lifetime and that’s why it was so familiar to me,” he says. “But in this lifetime, I didn’t want to repeat what I had already done, so I sold my oboe and bought a guitar.”
Inspired by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Odetta, Glenn-Copeland began to play in coffeehouses around Montreal. Two jazz-inflected folk albums were recorded in minuscule numbers for the CBC and soon became collectors’ items.
“Don’t Despair,” a track from the first of those two albums, appears on “Transmissions,” Glenn-Copeland’s three-octave contralto voice is striking from the start, his vibrato soaring alongside the saxophone and swooping down into a deep guttural mewl. It’s a song of heartbreak paired to the bracing elements of the Far North, with metaphors of freezing cold and ice-covered eyes, but with a glimmer of hope for love that may come tomorrow. Singer Lafawndah was deeply familiar with “Keyboard Fantasies” when, one day, “Don’t Despair” popped up on her YouTube.
“I dropped everything I was doing,” she writes via email. “It was one of those songs where the melody is something you had in your imagination, but could have never written yourself.” She covered it on her new album, “The Fifth Season,” and finds solace in Glenn-Copeland’s message. “He’s saying ‘don’t despair’ from a point of view of someone who did really feel despair and has come back from it.”
Hard to label
In the 1970s, Glenn-Copeland’s music career foundered. He says that he was shopped around to labels out in Los Angeles, but no one knew how to slot his music. Was it blues? Folk? Jazz? In the meantime, one of his friends was a writer on the beloved Canadian kids show “Mr. Dressup” and got him written into the script. “Beverly” was a recurring character on the show for the next 20 years and also contributed music to the program.
By 1983, Glenn-Copeland was living in a small cabin far north of Toronto at the edge of the Laurentian Plateau, often referred to as “the Canadian Shield.” Spanning from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Ocean and covering half of Canada, it’s granite and has some 30,000 lakes. “The first time I stepped on that land, I went, ‘Oh, oh, this is home,’ ” Glenn-Copeland says, adding you couldn’t grow a bean out there. Although he’s now in New Brunswick, he adds: “It still is home to me.”
Looking out on one of those 30,000 lakes, Glenn-Copeland began to compose — or as he would put it, channel — music using a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, Roland 707 drum machine and newfangled Atari computer. In the span of a few months, he wrote and recorded the entirety of “Keyboard Fantasies.”
Glenn-Copeland made upward of 200 cassettes; he estimates he might have sold 10. The rest went into a closet for nearly 30 years.
Then one day near the end of 2015, a collector in Japan named Ryota Masuko emailed Glenn-Copeland via his website inquiring if he had any of those tapes left. His early albums “were great jazz-folk masterpieces, but I remember listening to ‘Keyboard Fantasies’ and I felt a completely different feeling,” Masuko wrote via email. “I could feel very close to Glenn’s soul.” Glenn-Copeland obliged and after a few days of being for sale on Masuko’s She Ye Ye online shop in Japan, he couldn’t believe what he heard when Masuko soon followed up. “He sold 30 copies in three days,” Glenn-Copeland said. “I went ‘What?!’ ”
Séance Centre, a label based in Canada run by Brandon Hocura soon reached out about reissuing the cassette. Favoring sounds that fall just outside of easy categorization, be it Guadeloupean gwo ka or Mexican ambient, a New Age album made by a transgender man slotted in readily with the label’s aesthetic.
“After we rereleased ‘Keyboard Fantasies,’ things really started taking off,” Hocura wrote via email. “And from there word spread, he put together a smaller mobile group, and they played around Canada and then the world. And now he’s a real global phenomenon.”
At almost any other point in time, there might not have been a willing audience for Glenn-Copeland’s singular, deeply sincere keyboard music, conveyed by that resonant, calming voice. But in 2020, artists and audiences alike are frantic for something that can instill hope and resilience.
Hynes increasingly finds himself going back to Glenn-Copeland’s music and message: “With myself, especially in this current year, it’s either complete escapism or something hopeful. Glenn cuts through those two qualities: it’s otherworldly, but it feels like hopeful escapism.”
Perhaps its Glenn-Copeland’s example of boldly living as a transgender man or his dedicated Buddhist practice that imparts a sense of calm and perseverance. His music draws on the European classical tradition, but it’s delivered with the full weight of the African American spiritual tradition, as on his stunning version of “Deep River.”
Glenn-Copeland isn’t quite sure just what it is that led to his renaissance, only that “it’s feeding something, it’s hitting something important that was needed now.”
Lafawndah sees Glenn-Copeland’s music existing at the intersection of weariness and hope. “Maybe people are tired of dystopia,” she muses. “They want to hear music that imagines possibilities rather than music that ends the world. Glenn might be just on time right now.”