For his fifth album, Citizen Cope needed "a shot of optimism," so he wrote its opening song, "One Lovely Day." The sparse, acoustic guitar-driven track finds its narrator trying to persuade a woman to come with him "to where there ain't no more pain."
The song, which became the title track for the July release, lacks a happy ending, but it's more about the desire to find a utopia away from a corrupt world.
"Every time you do a record, you have the opportunity to spread some love," said Cope, who plays the Silopanna Music Festival in Annapolis on Saturday. "I wanted to do that."
During a recent talk, the Washington native (born Clarence Greenwood but known to friends simply as Cope) had plenty on his mind. He's worried about the country's lack of jobs, this generation's pursuit of materialism and America's insatiable obsession with technology. To him, there are Americans worth idolizing besides Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
"Where are the Albert Einsteins? Where are the Bob Marleys? Where are the Martin Luther Kings?" he said. "Where are the people that did something for the greater good? It's really a disservice to what those people have done."
This line of thinking will not surprise longtime Cope fans. Since the release of his self-titled debut album in 2002 (and years before his first deal as DJ and singer-songwriter), Cope has balanced first-person narratives with songs that look outward, while filtering the songs through a hybrid of blues, folk and hip-hop, among other genres. He's the increasingly rare artist whose willingness to comment on the world's problems has helped develop his fan base, not diminish it.
Cope begins 2004's "The Clarence Greenwood Recordings" by singing, "Things have been getting real heavy these days / The media, the system, the people chasing pay." Nearly eight years later, those issues still weigh on his mind.
"People are running around, chasing a paycheck, and we've all lost sight or don't understand that there's a higher purpose and reason we're all on this earth," Cope said.
This type of theorizing can get dangerously close to holier-than-thou territory, but Cope doesn't hesitate to turn the mirror on himself. He has built a devoted fan base over the years through incessant touring, but also by never portraying himself as infallible. Like many of his fans, he's still searching for his own purpose.
"I struggle with trying to do something righteous and also become a better person," he said. "[I want to] be in a position where I can help people."
In 2010, Cope made a major move in line with this thinking — he left major-label RCA and created the independent Rainwater Recordings. Cope says major labels are no longer willing to invest long term in artists with social messages, so he left.
"You go in the office and play something really spiritual and great, and they don't get it," Cope said. "They're looking at it at like, 'Where's the chorus? Where's this, where's that?' Great music wasn't made like that. It was made from the heart, and no one understands that anymore."
He has gripes, but Cope isn't jaded. Lately, his concerts have provided solace ("I'm really feeling spiritual on stage"). But — naturally, at least for Cope — he's struggling with all that accompanies his growing celebrity.
"It's a fine line between trying to make a spiritual connection on stage and indulging yourself and trying to be acknowledged," he said. "It's always a double-edged sword, but I'm doing this so I can go somewhere else after we pass away. I want to spread some love while I'm here."
If you go
Citizen Cope performs Saturday as a part of the Silopanna Music Festival at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds, 1450 Generals Highway in Crownsville. Cake,G. Love and Special Sauceand others will also perform. Gates open at 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $59.50 in advance, $75 on Saturday. Go to tickets.silopannafest.com.