Glenn Copeland has emerged from near isolation after twenty years away from the spotlight. When we meet in the busy foyer of the Barbican in London on a Monday morning, the musician is in his element and full of vitality. Now, at 74, Copeland is about to embark on his first international tour.
Born Beverly Glenn-Copeland in Philadelphia in 1943, the black, trans musician and activist has not only overcome growing up in a postwar generation but fought a slew of prejudice against his race, gender and sexuality. Defiant and humble, Copeland credits his parents for his strength of character.
As a sci-fi obsessed child who cites European classical arias as his cradle music, Copeland spent his former years in a protected Quaker community in the American suburbs. At university in the ’60s he fought oppression and avoided shock therapy for an illegal same-sex relationship, living at the time as a woman with a lesbian lover. Leaving mid-study, Copeland went on to create folk-electronica hybrid masterpieces and performed on children’s TV for nearly two decades, notably on Sesame Street. It wasn’t until he left television that Copeland felt comfortable coming out as transgender in 2003. Now, having written and self-released seven albums, most of which didn’t gain mainstream recognition at the time of release, now Copeland is getting his deserved moment to shine.
Copeland’s vast musical archive was brought to the fore when enthusiastic crate diggers uncovered the deeply futuristic Keyboard Fantasies. The 1986 release is a long-standing collectors’ item but, more recently, with plaudits from Caribou and Four Tet, Copeland has cemented a youthful fanbase and worldwide adoration.
Touched by this otherworldly “spirit music”, British filmmaker Posy Dixon set the wheels in motion to create a chronological time-travelling documentary which explores Copeland’s half-century-spanning musical output.
Premiered at the Barbican at the beginning of this month, the heartwarming Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story has already received high praise.
“I don’t read the reviews,” says Copeland on his new wave of success, “but what they say to me is that the movie is incredibly moving. I always keep hankies with me because I’m always crying and most of the people that I’ve been talking to, they’re crying too.”
And, now that the documentary is out, Copeland’s off on a UK and European tour.
You had an interest in music from a very young age…
My father was a brilliant pianist. He played classical music for five hours a day. He was playing in the basement on an upright and my mother went, “If he’s going to play five hours a day I need to do something,” so she went out and bought him a Steinway Grand in 1952. Suddenly this gorgeous piano appeared in our home.
You moved to Montreal at 17. In the documentary you mention that you often went against the grain, which made a lot of people feel uncomfortable. What behaviours were you referring to?
[People] were freaking out because I had a lesbian lover who lived in the dorm with me. She was a female and I made no pretences about it. I was in that relationship for five years, it was not a casual thing. For three and a half years of that I was in the university, before I had actually had enough and couldn’t stand it anymore. Eventually the young women there started freaking out so badly that the assistant dean of the whole college tried to get me expelled. But the dean of women, she was hip, she was ahead of her time. I moved out of the dorm in a fury and the dean gave me all of the furniture for my first apartment.
What hurdles did you cross during your time there?
My parents were in contact with the university behind my back and trying to manipulate my behaviour. At one point they ganged up on me when I was home for vacation and tried to take me to the doctor and have me committed. That’s when I ran out the door.
Did you feel like you weren’t able to explore music as freely due to circumstance or because you were confined by society?
Yes, because I was a children’s entertainer and wrote music for those shows. I was on television for over 20 years. So if I had come out one day and said “I’m Beverly she,” like I was for all those years and then one day I was Beverly he, it would have caused havoc. Parents in 1993 were not ready yet, by and large. They barely understood same-sex, much less transgender. So I just kept that to myself. In 2003 when I did come out because I was no longer working in children’s TV, there was a major newspaper article written about me in Canada and the interviewer concluded with the statement that I probably decided to be trans so that I could make it in my career.
How did you react?
I didn’t do anything, I just said, “They’re not ready, they don’t understand it. It’s 2003 and they still don’t get it.” The only reason I was having an interview is because I was putting out an album at the time, I was just being real about who I was. She made that assumption. She got a lot of flack.
On the flipside, were there moments of positive press?
Another journalist did a live radio interview which was broadcast across Canada. People wrote me and said, “If you can do that, I can deal with whatever I’m dealing with.” I was driving on the highway and I had to pull over and cry. I got so much positive feedback. People my age, thirties, forties, fifties, said it touched them. It wasn’t about me being trans. Everybody makes this thing about sexuality as if that’s the main thing in your life, it is NOT. The main thing in your life is to get through it with a sense of joy, whilst being able to deal with the pain that life will bring you. That’s the point.
Keyboard Fantasies has been played by contemporary musicians like Caribou and Four Tet. You’ve also been showcased on NTS. How does it feel to be part of this modern musical sphere?
It’s shocking to me it continues to be shocking, it will always be shocking. It’s just not something I ever thought about or expected. That’s life, you don’t know what to expect. But I’m grateful and I don’t take any of it for granted.
What’s wonderful is the relationship that I have. It just makes me feel loved in a true sense and I am getting to be loving in a true sense. When I arrived here in London I was exhausted, physically and emotionally because my life had been non-stop for five months. I came with the attitude of “I promise to do this to the best of my ability.” But that’s not joyous. After the first evening with all of the young folk, there was so much loving energy coming out of them. It has changed everything for me. So from that moment on I carry this sense of joy.
Keyboard Fantasies has become a collectors item with people young and old. It must be fascinating to witness the reaction.
It had become a collectors item over the years as much as some of my older ones. Every once in a while someone will pay $2000 or $3000 dollars for an album. If you have $3000 dollars to spend on an album, that’s your priority but I have a judgement. I’m like “reaaaallllly?!”
Are you producing new music?
Constantly. I’ve never stopped producing. There’s some new material that will be on the tour that I’ve only produced in the last few years, but my emphasis for the next five months is going to be recording new material, writing new material and collaborating with people.
So how did the documentary with Posy Dixon come about?
She just emailed me out of the blue one day and introduced herself. She told me that she’s a filmmaker and she started listening to the music, she really appreciated and related to it. Then after five or six emails back and forth one day she said, “Well would you like to Skype?” and so I got to see her face and she’s so beautiful.
Do you think it’s interesting that the documentary has been made by a UK filmmaker?
I don’t think anything is an accident, I just think that whatever is the right thing for our collective life in all its different minuscule and huge spheres happens and some of it is painful but in this particular case, it was the opposite of painful. It was just supposed to be. That was where our paths were meant to intersect.
What are you excited for on your upcoming tour?
Well I’m excited to see what this new group of musicians on my tour will sound like. We’ve practised together, but that’s not the same thing as getting on stage. I’m excited for the new interpretations, because in our practises they are their own reality. Every time I play with a musician I’m learning new subtleties and sometimes things are not subtle. I’m learning all the time because every person is different and so they have something wonderful to offer.
Glenn Copeland’s UK and European tour kicks off tonight in Bristol and finishes in the Belgian city of Leuven on 22nd November.