Even if you don’t recognize him immediately by name, you’ve no doubt heard Citizen Cope’s music somewhere. It’s been featured in commercials, in the films “Accepted” and “Alpha Dog” among others, and on the TV shows “Entourage,” “One Tree Hill,” “Scrubs,” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
The Memphis-born singer-songwriter whose real name is Clarence Greenwood mostly grew up in DC but he keeps Memphis in mind and on his tour schedule. In recent years he came back to play Minglewood Hall, an interactive show broadcast from Stax Museum, and a benefit concert for Memphis Tilth.
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Since his 2002 debut, his brand of laidback, bluesy, and soulful urban-folk has earned a solid fanbase without much support from mainstream radio. He counts Willie Nelson, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Outkast, and A Tribe Called Quest among his favorite artists, and you can hear the hip hop and reggae influence come through on some of his most popular songs like “Son’s Gonna Rise,” “One Lovely Day,” “Let the Drummer Kick,” and “Bullet and a Target.”
It’s been seven years since his last release and now Citizen Cope is back with a new album, ‘Heroin & Helicopters.’ He’s bringing the tour to Crosstown Theater on June 18th.
We got a chance to chat with him about the album and what he connects to in Memphis.
C901: It’s really cool that you seem to make a point of coming back to Memphis when it would be super easy to bypass us for Nashville or Little Rock on a tour.
Citizen Cope: I was actually born there and I still have some family there.
Musically, I’m certainly influenced by the production of Willie Mitchell and the Stax sound and Al Green’s records. It’s the history of music there.
It’s one of those places that I can’t get to every year but I’m trying to deal with it. It’s a real tough place to try to get people to come out unless you’re like a really big artist. The challenge has been different venues. Minglewood is like 1200 capacity, and that’s what’s cool about this new room [Crosstown Theater]. [The size] will allow some more people to be able to come and play and have a good place to see a show.
C901: What can fans expect with the new album?
Citizen Cope: First of all, I want to start with the title. I got the title from Carlos Santana. When I first met him, he told me to stay away from the two H’s. And I was asking what they were and he said heroin and helicopters. They’re not good for musicians.
He said that a long time ago and I realized this connection with the title with today’s situation with addiction to substances and opioids and all this stuff going on. And not just addiction to substances or substance abuse but also the addiction to cell phones and social media and conflict. I think it just shows we have a common ground. No matter what’s going on with us, no matter what political, cultural, or spiritual base people have, that we all have similar human struggles.
The helicopter part of it was just a play on how today, there’s kind of a rush to get places and not put authentic stuff out, and to make things disposable and built around profitability instead of authenticity. With any work that I do, it’s built to take on a life of its own and do something genuine and authentic. That’s really what I strive for with everything I do.
C901: It’s been seven years since the last release, and you said it happened because you just sort of knew it was time. What’s the process once you know it’s time? How does it come together?
Citizen Cope: You just gotta wait for your inspiration to write. Making a record, they say it’s not rocket science but I think sometimes it is. You have to be able to put something down and then record it, and if you have an emotional experience, the listener will, too.
C901: A dollar from every ticket goes to charity. Can you share more about the areas where you’re working to make an impact?
Citizen Cope: I’m giving it to different people that I’ve worked with in the past like Turnaround Arts, which is a program for music and arts in middle schools. I’m working with a Native American reservation in Minnesota called Red Lake. I also work with a group called All Our Kids, and some of these [proceeds] are going to Memphis Tilth, as well.
C901: Why is arts education of such importance to you, personally?
Citizen Cope: We just stopped putting music and art in schools and it’s built around taking tests that really have nothing to do with somebody’s potential.
We’re losing a lot of really, really good kids because they’re not being turned on. A lot of times you’re not turned on by a lot of the curriculum in school, but [with the arts] you’re able to be taken over because at least part of your day is really cool. Sometimes those artistic things can make them better math students or make them better writers, or better readers because they’re interested in something they learned in a music class. They want to read about some musician or some photographer, or they want to write a paper about Leonardo Davinci because they saw a piece that he did.
If I didn’t have an outlet like that, it would’ve made it very difficult for me because I wasn’t a good test taker nor did I have great grades in school. It would have made it difficult for me to have a way to make a living but also most important, without a creative outlet it would have made my life a lot less exciting. The arts really are just a vehicle for human growth.
They’re going to have to figure out a way to really fund the schools and pay the teachers so you can get people that are interested in it. And hopefully, they legalize marijuana in the South so they can get some money for [funding arts in schools]. Every other state is going to benefit off of agriculture when the South should have been the region to do it. It baffles me that even a puritanical state like Massachusetts has legalized marijuana and It hasn’t happened in the Deep South and I think it comes with a lot of history that I think people need to get above because our kids aren’t getting educated. Basically, you’re gonna be left behind.
C901: Is there anything you look forward to each time you come to Memphis?
Citizen Cope: I like that Central Barbecue spot. I used to go with my grandfather to Piccadilly’s to get fried catfish. I’m regionally specific in what I eat so usually if I’m going down South I’ll eat some barbecue or some fried fish or something like that.
Check out the full album below and read his bio here.
What: Citizen Cope
When: Tuesday, June 18
Where: Crosstown Theater-Kemmons Wilson Family Stage
Tickets: $41 PURCHASE HERE