State of mind

Citizen Cope seduces with funky introspection

On first listen, the voice, reminiscent of Bob Dylan in its flat, deadpan delivery, grates on the nerves. But by the second, third, and definitely fourth listen, that simple, one-trick voice sneaks up on you. Suddenly you hear the emotions, the subtlety, the texture coiling beneath the words. His search for self and his uncompromising desire to reach into his own depths draws you in.

This is the feeling you get from Clarence "Copeland" Greenwood, aka Citizen Cope, on his new album, The Clarence Greenwood Recordings. It's an innovative, wildly appealing cornucopia of blues, rock, folk and soul grooves. And the boy's got an ancient kind of soulfulness that goes beyond R&B tinged backbeats. He even called on some of the great musicians of today to help him realize his vision. Carlos Santana delivers an impassioned guitar on "Son's Gonna Rise." And Me'Shell Ndegeocello provides a seamless and easy bass on "Sideways," a kinda grungy, red-light basement groove that haunts with feeling and intensity and makes you want to bump and grind up against someone you love.

Cope, a self-taught musician who plays guitar, keyboards and various drum machines, started in the business as a member of the artsy, '80s, hip-hop act Basehead. The group was known for its willingness to experiment with funky basslines and progressive lyrics. Now, a decade later, Cope is still the rebel, still trying to express his own inner voice.

The process hasn't been easy. Cope struggled with words as a child, perhaps due to an undiagnosed case of dyslexia. But the poet inside still managed to thrive. Cope wrote every song on the new album, taking wild leaps of fancy on the enigmatic "Pablo Picasso," about a deranged man in love with a 40-foot mural of a woman. Other times he writes about love and desire, or fear and survival. "A Bullet and a Target," for instance, talks about the political madness that surrounds us today. Listening to the album, you experience 35-year-old Cope as an astute and imaginative social commentator on the ills of society, and you cheer because he is not afraid to wrestle with his own emotions.

Artists like Tracy Chapman and Ben Harper leap to mind when you think about Cope's music. They don't all sound the same. But all of them tap folksy, storytelling roots for a mixture of melancholy grooves, socially conscious poetry and thoughtful personal expression.

That thoughtfulness comes across when you speak to Cope, which I learn while talking to him over the phone, as he makes his way through the Northwest to a gig in Seattle.

How does he feel about the new album?

"I listened to my first instincts and it connected," Cope says. "I was the main filter on this album — the one saying that this track isn't good enough. I was my own toughest critic, and now when I listen to it, I enjoy it. I feel like I've won."

Early indications suggest that he's right. Though the album was just released in September, it has connected. Underground buzz keeps him in demand traveling from city-to-city, playing to crowded clubs and head-nodding audiences.

But amid the waves of admiration, Cope has received criticism from those who think he's just another white boy mining black music for his own reward. It's an assertion that Cope is used to addressing.

"In the sense that the music sounds like I'm black — naw, that's not what I'm going for," he says emphatically. "I don't wanna sound like anybody else. I just wanna do my own thing. Plus, soul is not something you can put a color on. All singers are influenced by each other. I'm influenced by John Lennon, who was influenced by Little Richard. I am influenced by Stevie Wonder, who was influenced by Donny Hathaway. But I can't sing like Stevie. My singing is more like Randy Newman, who was influenced by Ray Charles."

Instead of dwelling on the criticisms, Cope is staying focused on the things that got him to his current status. He explains, "I'd like to keep playing shows, put out a few more records and just continue to evolve."