Beverly Glenn-Copeland: Finding the strength within

It was the owner of a tiny Japanese record shop who finally turned Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s career around. This was in 2015 when Ryota Masuka emailed to ask the transgendered singer/songwriter if he still had any copies of his 1986 cassette-only album Keyboard Fantasies. Glenn-Copeland – Glenn to his friends – was readily able to oblige. Precious few of the 200 cassettes had sold. Masuka took the lot, and suddenly Glenn-Copeland found international success – although you’d hardly say it happened overnight. He was in his 70s.

A new generation latched on to his otherworldly voice and drifting, wistful songs, and interviewing him in his Ontario home via Zoom is strangely akin to listening to his music. You feel your heart lift as an unfamiliar optimism spreads through your bones. Were there not bursts of uproarious laughter studding the conversation, you could be communing with a spirit rather than a clunky human, such is the light Glenn-Copeland seems to radiate.

Beverly Glenn-Copeland. All photos: Brianna Blank.

Yet his story is darker than either his music or his temperament suggests. He has enumerated three major challenges in his life: being black in a white culture, being transgendered in a hetero-normative culture and being an artist in a business culture. He could have added the challenge of having to wait decades for the acclaim that was his due. So which was the biggest challenge?

“Being transgendered in a hetero normative culture is the most difficult for me,” he replies. “Of course, that was true when I was young, when the word transgendered was not even in play. But it is also true now, because there is a push-back that is happening globally again. Those who do not fit into the heteronormative norm are now in danger of being jailed or killed by the most extreme elements of this pushback. It is deeply distressing to me that this is happening, and I honour all those like the young actor Elliot Page for standing up against this pushback.”

Glenn-Copeland’s mother told him that when he was three and ostensibly a girl, he announced to her that he was a boy. She didn’t think he was serious, but he was. “I really felt that I was a boy,” he says, “and I’ve continued to feel that way for the rest of my life, basically.”

Referring to himself as an artist in a business culture is an unusually succinct expression of this particular age-old conflict. While acknowledging the two cultures can converge, Glenn-Copeland feels the interrelationship is defined by the artist’s imperatives. “If the most important thing is making money,” he observes, “then there’s the possibility that they won’t really connect with their true artistry, but instead look at their artistry as something to be sold.”

When I ask him to expand on being black in a white culture, Elizabeth Paddon, Glenn-Copeland’s wife, gently intervenes to say that at this point in Glenn’s life, she is his memory, and therefore if we leave the questions that I’d provided in advance, she’ll need to chime in, so we return to the agreed path.

All photos: Brianna Blank.

Glenn-Copeland has described himself as primarily a composer rather than a poet. To write lyrics, he says he listens to what the music is trying to tell him. Many artists have had the experience when executing their best work of feeling like a conduit; of taking dictation. Glenn-Copeland calls this phenomenon the “Universal Broadcasting System”. “I and many other artists believe that ideas have sentience; that they’re looking for a willing host,” he says. “This person has to have their artistic skills sharpened so that they’re ready when the call comes. I’m ready. I open myself, and listen.”

On his new album, The Ones Ahead, his music and singing are supremely organic and unforced, with Harbour Song surely among the new century’s most beautiful pieces. “Harbour was written for my wife, Elizabeth,” he explains. “The words and the music came together, all at once, because Elizabeth has been a harbour for me. A harbour is a place where one is protected from the giant waves of life; where one finds safety and calm.”

Africa Calling is vibrantly celebratory, rather than lamenting a cultural dispossession. “To access the heart of what was lost,” Glenn-Copeland suggests, “we must go to the beauty of the culture: the sophistication and the joy. Elizabeth and I both believe that in these difficult days, to find joy in life is to reclaim what it means to be alive – to be human.”

Stand Anthem is a song you instantly imagine being sung at massed climate-action rallies. It was spawned by an eco-play, Bearing Witness, penned by Paddon, a poet who whose work lies at the intersection of art and activism. “We want this song to be used by any and all who are standing up for life, for social justice, for the protection of whatever wild spaces are left, and for the preservation of biodiversity,” Glenn-Copeland says. “Music is medicine.”

Few artists of substance have to wait so long for recognition, but Glenn-Copeland has been patient rather than frustrated. “I was told in my early years that success would not come to me until I was older,” he recalls. “I don’t think I knew at the time how much older!” He laughs. “I’m actually glad it came later. I’m not sure if my fragile human ego would have handled all this fuss early on, or if I could have maintained my essential connection to what the Universal Broadcasting System was asking of me, which is a complete letting go of ego identification in the work.”

Glenn-Copeland’s journey towards this point began when he was born in Philadelphia 1944. This was not only a time when the Ku Klux Klan still spread terror, but he was a boy in a girl’s body. “I learned that who I really was had to be hidden,” he said in a speech in June when the University of Toronto awarded him an honorary doctorate, both for his music and his advocacy on behalf of black, indigenous (his grandmother being First Nations) and LGBTQ+ communities. He bravely jettisoned that need to hide when studying music at Montreal’s McGill University in 1961, but says that “being openly gay on a campus where I was already ‘othered’ as the only black person, I paid a price.” With non-hetero-normative behaviour illegal, other students targeted him and the assistant dean tried to expel him. “It was so disheartening,” he says, “I just gave it up and went off and did a whole bunch of other things that were just way more fun.” He taught himself how to play guitar and began to write songs – “songs that would allow my essential self a voice”.

Intermittent recordings, collaborations and performances formed an erratic career until the rediscovery of Keyboard Fantasies, and a subsequent European tour with his band Indigo Rising. This eclectic quintet consists of brilliant players as little beholden to idiom as are Glenn-Copeland’s songs.

Looking back on his career, he sees a clear through-line. “The most important thing for me that continues to this day is providing the music that comes through me from the Universal Broadcasting System, no matter the style… Lucky for me, the generations coming up are not as focused on only loving a particular style, say, rock or jazz, but rather listening to what moves them.”

The Ones Ahead is released on July 28 through Transgressive/[PIAS].