On 'Transmissions,' Beverly Glenn-Copeland Looks Back On A Long And Varied Musical Life
Beverly Glenn-Copeland's new album, Transmissions, released on the artist's new Transgressive label, is a collection of recordings from a stunning, expansive and largely unknown five decade career in folk, electronica, jazz, New Age, world music and genres of his own invention.
Born in Philadelphia to musical parents, Glenn-Copeland entered McGill as one of the school's first Black music students. He was also one of its only out lesbians—a fact which almost got him ejected from the school. (Glenn-Copeland eventually came out as a trans man in 2002.) After college, he recorded a couple of folk albums before starting a two-decade career as a regular songwriter and performer on the Canadian children's show Mr. Dressup.
Glenn-Copeland was still writing his own music, though, including the stunning, forward-looking electronica New Age album Keyboard Fantasies. Released in 1986 to virtually no notice, the album was rediscovered in 2015 by Japanese collector and music store owner Ryota Masuko. Masuko had links to adventurous music communities worldwide, and suddently, people knew about Glenn-Copeland's music, and wanted to hear more. He toured Europe in 2018 to enthusiastic audiences. And he was able to start rereleasing old albums—including Keyboard Fantasies. He's also planning to release new recordings.
Transmissions only scratches the surface of Glenn-Copeland's vast back catalog. It includes a couple of tracks from Keyboard Fantasies ("Ever New" and "Sunset Village"), but also many tracks that have been unavailable to most fans. GRAMMY.com talked to Glenn-Copeland about the creation of the album and some of the highlights from his long and varied musical life. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Transmissions is a collection of tracks from your 50-year music career. How did you pick the tracks?
Well, let me put it this way. I didn't have anything to do with this album. Except that I had the say "yes" or "no" about each track.
My publishing house, my record company and my management company, friends for many years, all three of them, they got together and started brainstorming stuff. And the head of my publishing company had come with my manager to my wife's and my house back in December, before things closed down. So he showed up and they poured through everything I've ever written for 55 years. In every format, you can imagine. And they took them away as though they just found all kinds of diamonds or something.
Wow. How much music was that they looked through? I mean, it must have been hundreds of hours of music.
More than hundreds of hours! More like thousands of hours of music!
I mean, literally, they took out boxes of stuff. It was like a treasure hunt. I've been writing music and I had all kinds of formats, everything from cassettes to things that no longer even exist in terms of machines even to translate it, to big reels, to old fashioned floppy discs that you stuck into the computers.
Oh my god, they had a blast. They went berserk. They were just so happy. They were like kids that had found Christmas early.
So they poured through that stuff, month after month in great detail and then they got together to brainstorm.
I was going to be recording with my with band Indigo Rising, but that was canceled because of COVID.
So they came up with this release instead. And they also released a live album in August from a show at Le Guess Who in the Netherlands.
There's a track on Transmissions from that session, right? The song "Deep River." When did you record that concert?
I think it was the first one we did, which would have been fall of '18.
Was it a good experience? The track sounds really fun. You got the audience to yodel with you.
Oh my god. Noah.
I mean, I was still at the point of—I'm still at that point, if people show up for concerts, I'm thrilled. When I walked into that concert hall, there were 3000 people in there! For me?! They actually have a recording of me walking in and going, "Oh, my goodness, there's so many people."
There's some people who will have 50,000 a concert. But I'm not among those. My concerts normally had 200 people if I was doing really well, and that was back in 1902. [Laughs.] It was a stunning experience for us all. They were singing along. It was wonderful. It was wonderful.
When is the song "Deep River" from originally? How did you write that?
I had put out an album that I published in 1999 purely from my own studio and sent to a very few people. It was called Crossing Over. And the whole album was a retake and an Africanization of Negro spirituals.
Instead of singing them the way they were sung in the United States, I sang them the way they might have been in Africa. I put the drums back in, because the drums were forbidden to slaves in the United States. So I put drums back in and I put all kinds of sounds in it that might sound more like what I imagined you would hear in various villages.
I began playing this piece live but instead of Africanizing it in the way in which I had on this album I came up with other sounds that people could sing.
So I know you didn't pick the songs on the album, but I'm curious if there's a track on the album that you were particularly excited to see made available.
There is one piece that I'm that I'm excited about. And that's "River Dreams." Because that was something that was written just a year ago. That has never been on any album at all. I just recorded it at home for fun.
And they listened to it and went, "Nevermind, it's good enough! We're putting it on."
It was one of the things that I had hoped to be able to with Indigo Rising.
Who is Indigo Rising?
They're the band I've been touring with. [Nick Dourado – piano; Jeremy Costello - voice, keyboards, electric bass; Kurt Inder - guitar, keyboards; Carlie Howell - acoustic bass, clarinet, percussion; Bianca Palmer - kit drum and percussion.]
I initially found the members separately, I thought. They played with me for six months and then they told me after six months that they'd been playing together for years. I just flipped out. What a joke! That was their little personal joke on me that they kept secret.
The last song on the album, "Erzili," is from one of your earliest albums, right?
Oh yeah. That was the 1970 recording "Beverly Glenn-Copeland" on the GRT label. The song was an exploration of my African roots. And I was exploring it with four of the finest jazz players the world had ever seen— unbeknownst to me! I had no idea how famous these guys were. Lenny Breau, one of the finest guitar players that has ever lived, was on that album.
They all got in the studio and they were so kind, they were so loving. And they said, "Well, would you like to just play the song for us." And I'd play a song for them. They'd go, "Oh, lovely." And then the producer would hit record. And all of the songs were taken live off the floor, first take.
So "Erzili" was live off the floor, first take, and they'd only heard it five minutes before they played it.
That's pretty impressive. Because it's like 10 minutes long.
Yep. I let them hear the basics of it and then we just cut loose.
It wasn't like it was going to be exactly 10 minutes. We just played it the way you play a jazz piece. You play it until you finish with it.
It was absolutely a stunning experience for me. I mean, I was like a little kid from lollipop land, landing in the midst of, you know, French cuisine.
There's an audience for your music now that there hasn't been through much of your career. Do you have a sense of why that is?
You know, young people these days are world citizens and they're connected with each other all over the world, and know what's going on all over the world. And their tastes are very catholic, small c.
They listen to all kinds of music and the average young person these days will listen to everything from ambient to rock to classical to you name it.
So that being true, they've been able to identify with the different music landscapes that I've traversed over the years and they enjoy all of the different styles. All my mixtures of this and that.