The universal language of Beverly Glenn-Copeland
If you’re a fan of outsider music, it might seem like you’ve heard Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s story before.
Insanely talented, genre-defying artist toils in total obscurity for several decades, only to be discovered by a vinyl collector. Then, through a tight network of record enthusiasts and industry insiders, the artist is finally rewarded with the elusive popularity they’ve been due for their entire career. Go beyond the surface, however, and you’ll realise that’s where the similarities end between Glenn-Copeland and anyone you’ve ever heard of in your life. His trajectory has been one of wondrous advancements and stuttering setbacks, but as we settle into what will become a spirited conversation over Zoom, Glenn-Copeland is a bottomless well of positivity and light. At the age of 76, some would consider his career only just now taking off, but he stays assured that everything is happening at its natural pace.
Glenn (as he is called by his friends and family) possesses an aura of complete calm. Whether that is the result of his Buddhist faith, which he has practiced for most of his adult life, or just his natural demeanour, within moments I feel like I’m catching up with a close friend. He wears his hair natural, in neat salt and pepper curls, and his eyes glint behind his glasses when he speaks. Much like his music, which spans multiple genres like jazz, folk, electronic, classical, new age and experimental, you realise that there is a deep complexity to him.
© Paul Atwood
“My parents told me I started humming when they put on the radio at about five months old,” says Glenn, recalling a childhood spent in Philadelphia, in a household with parents who were both trained pianists. “So obviously I was very attuned to music. My mother sat at the piano when I was in utero and would play, trying to turn me into a musician.” Glenn’s parents were Quakers. His mother had adopted the religion in the 1940s when a Quaker woman took her in during her college years at Penn State University, where she had been the only Black woman on campus. Interestingly, this was one of the factors that led to Glenn’s unique vocal style, when at 15 years old, he began to seriously train his voice. “Because my parents were Quakers, we didn’t go to Black churches where it would have been a whole different influence and a different way of producing sound,” he explains. “Besides which, my father was a classical pianist, of the European tradition, and he played five hours a day, so that’s what I heard.”
And as the 60s began to roll around, Glenn heard many other things. American jazz became a huge influence, but also: “I was listening to West African drumming, I was listening to Indian music, to Chinese music, I just so loved world music, including music from my own genetic background.” Glenn moved to Canada to attend McGill University, and would try and find a way to mesh these interests while training in German lieder, which in turn led to a kind of singular, inimitable musical sensibility. “One day I decided that I had already lived a life singing lieder,” he says matter-of-factly, “and that’s why I was so good at it. I didn’t want to relive that life – that’s how it occurred to me. I thought, in this lifetime, I want to bring in all these other influences. I’ve got other things to say!”
All of these different converging paths of influence and interest gave way to a pair of records in 1970, Beverly Copeland and Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Looking back, it’s kind of astonishing that these collections didn’t make more of a mark on avant-garde music: Glenn’s vocals alone sound like some sort of extraterrestrial interpretation of jazz-folk, mutating from a soaring soprano to a commanding falsetto, sometimes dipping into a lush alto. Imagine Joni Mitchell with the avant-garde grace of Alice Coltrane, and then raised in the forest on a steady diet of German classical music, and you’re halfway there. Instead, the fanfare was modest and by the mid-70s, Glenn felt like there wasn’t a place for his music in an industry unprepared for a Black, queer musician’s full-bodied expression. “I had stopped giving any concern, because I knew the record industry was put together in such a way that I didn’t fit any of their categories,” he says, soberly. “They had no way to market me. So once I really understood that, I stopped even thinking about touring or anything like that.”
© Paul Atwood
While taking an ‘extended hiatus’ from recorded music, Glenn’s output continued to be prolific. He started a 30-year stint as a guest player on beloved Canadian children’s program Mr. Dressup, was a writer for Sesame Street, and continued to amass a back catalogue of hundreds and hundreds of songs, most unrecorded, all while supporting his family. Then, sometime in the 1980s, came his watershed moment, an expansion on Glenn’s musical practice that changed his outlook on songwriting forever.
Science fiction has been one of Glenn’s lifelong interests – or “speculative science”, to be more precise. “I love reading award-winning astrophysicists who also happen to be incredible storytellers. I am so curious about what we can learn about how the universe got put together by itself, or God, whatever you want to call it. The Great Mind – whoaaa,” he explains, laughing. “At that time, scientists were saying life was based on either silicon or carbon. That’s what they thought, they know more now, but at the time that was the science. Silicon had sent people to the moon and back. I was fascinated by these rooms full of huge computers, I saw it as us starting to experiment with silicon life.”
Glenn began to feel like this experimentation with silicon could be applied to his music, but wasn’t sure how yet. “Then all of a sudden, two computers were released that were specifically for artists. One was called an Atari, and the other was called a Mac. I was poor, relatively speaking, and I couldn’t afford a Mac. But I could afford the Atari, which was very inexpensive. The Mac could be used to do other things, but the Atari was only for music and art.” Unsure how to even work a computer, Glenn would hold the box in his hands, trying to figure out how to translate the sounds in his head through this little machine. “I was just walking around with it going, ‘Oh, I know there’s something I can do with it!’ I got an electronic piano, because before I had only had an acoustic one, and it connected up with the Atari. And suddenly, I had a palette of sounds that was outrageous.”
© Paul Atwood
“The universe is all there is, and we're part of it. It made us, and it's always communicating. With me, the universe talks to me through sound”
The result was an album which many now view as Glenn’s magnum opus, 1986’s meditative Keyboard Fantasies. The record is exactly that: musings stretched across twinkling keys, sparse electronic beats intertwined with waves of shimmering chimes and Glenn’s ever-present soothing vibrato. The songs are very simple, some even borderlining on rudimentary. This is obviously an artist exploring a new genre, but much like his earlier input, there’s just something so uniquely… Glenn about it. In an era when artists like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush were using state-of-the-art equipment to expand what electronic music would mean in a popular setting, it’s mind-blowing to think that a Buddhist children’s TV presenter living in rural Canada was quietly recording comparable music that wouldn’t be discovered for another 30 years.
“For the first time I could start to create the entire spectrum around a song that I heard,” Glenn continues. “The whole thing. Was I hearing strings, was I hearing horns? Was I hearing things that only a computer could make? Maybe that was the sound of the stars, I don’t know. It opened my expression, but it happens that the music that started coming through was very simple. Because I was living in the woods, the wild was talking to me, informing what kind of music was coming from the UBS.”
The UBS, or the Universal Broadcasting System, is Glenn’s philosophy on artistic inspiration. Actually, it’s much more than that – it’s the way the universe communicates with all its inhabitants, which for Glenn, happens to be musically. “I think the universe is all there is, and we’re part of it. But it’s not like we made it – it made us, and it’s always communicating. It’s got to broadcast to us in a way that we can understand, because we’re all put together slightly differently. Some people are mathematicians, and some people are homemakers, and some people are checkout folks in front of a cash register all day – what is their daily life like, and what are their dreams? With me, the universe talks to me through sound. Originally I didn’t understand it, but bit by bit I started to see that – wow; this music is beyond me in many ways. This is more than I could think up on my own, by far. Something is transmitting to me. That’s how I see it.”
© Paul Atwood
Glenn attributes a particularly powerful UBS transmission to the creation of his 2018 track River Dreams. It’s the lead single from Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, an anthology released this year on Transgressive Records. “I was sitting at my piano minding my own business, just noodling around,” he says excitedly, “and all of a sudden this weird stuff starts coming through, and I hit my iPhone and started recording it. Listening back to it, I thought ‘Good grief! What is this?’ I realised that it was in like, 17 beats to a bar of 8 notes… I wasn’t raised on that! And then because the vocalisations had no language to them, it was like, ‘Oh that’s amazing.’ I had been wanting to write things that weren’t limited by having to speak English, because you don’t have these lyrics telling you what you’re ‘supposed’ to be feeling.”
River Dreams’ climbing, complex piano composition and plaintive vocals serve as a perfect introduction to Glenn’s sound. At only 13 songs, Transmissions is decidedly sparse for spanning 50 years of output. But so much is represented, from Don’t Despair, a jazzy firecracker from Beverly Copeland, to Sunset Village, Keyboard Fantasies’ hazy and dream-like closing track. To come up with the tracklisting, Glenn gave full range to his publisher and record label, who spent hours and hours scouring his archives.
“Just before Covid started, my publisher came to my house and spent two days going through every single thing I had ever written, and he took off with them as if he had just discovered gold or diamonds or something,” Glenn chuckles. “He gave them to people who are brilliant in terms of bringing music back that has been sitting around on huge tapes. Then he sent them all to me.” He smiles wide. “I heard things that I didn’t even remember having had anything to do with. I listened to some of them and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so beautiful!’ And then there was a lot of stuff that was like, ‘Yeah, get rid of it, make sure it stays buried!’” He laughs heartily. “But I didn’t have a hand in choosing the songs – Transgressive gave me their list, and I looked at it and thought, ‘What good taste!’”
Transmissions represents a new dawn for Glenn, who still lives in rural New Brunswick with his wife Elizabeth. Never comfortable living a city life, the Canadian wilderness he calls home is featured heavily in his music. He describes landscapes filled with rivers, trees, and sunsets; rain and snow wash across his compositions. “I was running through the woods when I was a kid. The home that we ended up living in when I was 12 was abutted onto a huge wild park where there were deer and things that would come up on our lawn.” Glenn recalls a childhood spent rifling through the forest, creating his own adventures in the time between school letting out and his mother returning from work. “My grandmother was raised Cherokee, and she was a naturalist,” he continues. “She’d take a rifle and go out and get dinner. I spent a lot of my time with my grandmother in the summertime. It’s my natural place. I can deal with cities, but not for very long. I belong in the woods.”
© Paul Atwood
One of the reasons Glenn seems so wise, and so sure of his place in the world, is because he’s spent a lifetime reflecting on the nature of his identity and how it relates to his everyday reality. In 2002, Glenn came out as transgender, another step in his journey towards self-actualisation. As soon as he realised the language existed to describe how he’s felt his whole life, his identity just sort of fell into place. “And anyway, the truth be known,” he says, “by the time I was in my twenties, I would go down to one end of the block and I’d get ‘ma’am,’ and I’d go down to the other end of the block and I’d get ‘sir’.” Much like his music, people have never been able to categorise Glenn. “They couldn’t place me. It took me long enough to place me, and finally when I did it was like, ‘OK, I’ve been this my whole life, really.’ Human beings, we like everything to be categorised, but really we’re all sliding around all the time.” Glenn has been married a number of times before his current marriage to Elizabeth, and was even married to a man for a short period of time, years before his transition. “I’ve finally come to understand that yeah, this is really where I’m the most comfortable, but it doesn’t mean that therefore everything else was terrible. No! That’s not it at all. I told my mother I was a boy when I was three, so now I’m just living that.” Now, Glenn seems more content than ever with his personal life, even adding a heartwarming request that his wife gets a shout-out (“Sweet pea, thank you for all your support!”) during our interview.
“They couldn't place me. It took me long enough to place me”
With a renewed sense of inner peace and more people interested in his music than ever before, there was one last piece of the puzzle to Glenn’s comeback. A tour, something he hadn’t even considered since the early 70s. In 2018, Glenn finally began bringing his music to the masses, with a string of successful Canadian and European tours off the back of reissues of Beverly Copeland and Keyboard Fantasies. “Even though I’m very gregarious in a certain way, and I had a really good time, it was still like, ‘Wow, that’s not anything that I’ve experienced in 40 years.’ Now I’m old too, so to go on tour at 75, with 75-year-old knees, is not that same thing as going on tour at 25, or 35, 45, or even 50. But I am very engaged in it.”
But even with the trappings of age catching up with him, speaking with Glenn, it’s almost impossible to perceive a frail 76-year-old. He’s not closed off to new ideas, and several times during our conversation he remarks that it’s one of his missions to continue learning about modern society from younger generations (I even inadvertently introduce him to the word “cisgender”, the definition of which he absorbs without skipping a beat). Looking at his entire life, from being raised by Black Quaker parents, to children’s television, to defining his gender expression in middle age, to finally becoming a touring musician in his seventies, everything about Glenn’s story has unfolded at its right time. And the more music he makes, and the more true to his experience he stays, the more his legacy will continue to grow. “You know,” he says with a knowing eye, as if he’s letting me in on a private joke, “I’ve always said that the purpose of death is that there comes a point where you can’t take in any new information. Everything has a natural rhythm, the universe is always creating new things, and it never creates the same thing twice, and that’s the point. I’ve always said that when I stop being able to learn anything new, it’s time to go!”
Photography: Paul Atwood
Transmissions: The Music of Beverly Glenn-Copeland is out now on Transgressive Records