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10 March 2021

“What does ‘old’ mean, anyway?”: Beverly Glenn-Copeland on finding acclaim in his seventies

The musician has been making futuristic music all his life, yet his songs have recently found a new audience with 20-and 30-somethings.   

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Beverly Glenn-Copeland was 20 years old, he went to see a palm reader on the recommendation of a close friend. The palmist asked Glenn-Copeland to take off his shoes, examined his feet, and instructed him never to dive. Glenn-Copeland was struck: just a couple of months beforehand, he had dived into the wrong end of a swimming pool, and nearly broke his neck – only because he had turned his head a certain way at just the right time did he avoid serious injury, or worse. He believed the palm reader, then, when he made one more prediction about his future: “You will not be successful until you’re old.”

“But who remembers that, when you’re young?” said Glenn-Copeland, now 77, when we spoke over video call. The musician was sitting in his studio, looking over his piano out onto the ocean off Nova Scotia, eastern Canada. He wore a navy blue jumper over an open-necked shirt, and sat in front of a small table over which lay a distinctive red cloth decorated with Peruvian condors. “And what does ‘old’ mean, anyway? When you get to be between 70 and 80, you think, ‘Oh well, maybe not in this lifetime.’” Such prudence contrasted with his youthful presence: he pulled faces, imitated accents and often made himself giggle. “In many ways I’m still a teenager,” he said, brightly.

The palmist was right: Glenn-Copeland has been a musician all his life, but it is only lately that he has found renown. A transgender man, he was born Beverly in Philadelphia in 1944 to a middle-class African-American Quaker family (he now goes by Glenn, but has retained his birth name). “My mother told me that when I was in utero, she would sit at the piano and play, in order to turn me into a musician,” he said. He remembers, as a small child, listening to his father playing the piano too – Bach, Mozart and Chopin, for five hours every day.

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In 1961 Glenn-Copeland, then living as a lesbian woman, moved to Montreal to study music at McGill University. He was classically trained, learning to sing German lieder, and later studied opera in New York City. As the music department’s only black student, who openly went out with women before same-sex relationships were legalised, he felt alienated, and soon abandoned academic tuition. In 1970 he released two self-titled albums of folk music – blue, searching songs about love and heartbreak – that didn’t find an audience. Sixteen years later, he sold less than a hundred copies of Keyboard Fantasies, a lucid record of slow synth tracks that could be ancient lullabies or tribal plainsongs. “Welcome the child whose hand I hold/Welcome to you both young and old,” he sings, warmly, on “Ever New”, over gently mesmerising harp-like synths.

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He continued to live in relative obscurity, until, in 2015, he received an email from a Japanese rare record collector, who bought his remaining stock, and sold it. “I was shocked!” Glenn-Copeland said, still laughing at the memory. “And because I’m an old person and I’m not hip to all these things that are going on online, I had no idea he had an international online presence.” Soon, Glenn-Copeland was receiving requests from labels asking to re-release his old songs.

Transmissions, a career retrospective, was released by the prominent indie label Transgressive in 2020 and a reissue of Keyboard Fantasies, now acknowledged as an electronic new age classic, will appear in April, marking the record’s 35th anniversary. With his band Indigo Rising, he was touring internationally until the pandemic hit last February, making a living from his music for the first time in his life.

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His songs have found an audience with 20- and 30-somethings, many of whom would not have been born when Glenn-Copeland first wrote the tracks. His music was in many ways futuristic at the time it was written, yet he does not feel as though he was born into the wrong era. “I really believe that human lives are so short they’re immeasurable in universal time,” he said. “So anything that’s been happening in the last 10,000 years that has to do with human art, human philosophy – we are now uncovering some of those messages and going, ‘Ooh, that’s a message for now.’ Only now do we understand what was being said.”

It is the thoughtful tranquillity of his music that he feels has resonated most with contemporary listeners. “People feel the need to calm down from the pace of life that has been established on a global level as pow, pow, pow,” he pursed his lips and waved his hands, “and when we’re moving like that all the time, there’s no time to exhale. You’re constantly shallow breathing,” he mimed, taking three short breaths as though gasping for air. “So this music makes people breathe. It makes them feel like, ‘OK, it’s tough times, but we can manage this if we let our hope be palpable.’”

And while Glenn-Copeland, now revered as a transgender elder, has brought faith to young audiences, he too makes it his mission to learn from them. He first came across the word “transgender” at the age of 50, and it was only then, with the confidence language brings, that “everything lined up; my history lined up”. Now young members of the queer community are his “teachers”, he said, beaming. “It’s wonderful, because there they are living in a natural way. And I’m going, what? Wow! Look at that. OK! Now, the social conversation has deepened into an understanding of the incredible diversity of human life.”

[See also: How Chick Corea shaped a jazz generation]

He isn’t only re-releasing old music – an album of new songs is ready to go, just as soon as pandemic restrictions allow the band to get together to record it. After having been more or less ignored for the best part of 45 years, Glenn-Copeland isn’t concerned about whether his music will outlast him. “It may or may not. It may be that it’s relevant for another five years past my mortal existence. Or it may be that it lasts longer,” he shrugged. Even with an expectant audience for the first time in his career, releasing these songs will “be no different than all the ones before. They found their way. These will find their way.”

“Keyboard Fantasies” is released on 9 April on Transgressive Records

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This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation