COVER STORY | Beverly Glenn-Copeland: Life After Fantasy
We sat down with electronic pioneer and multi-hyphenate to talk about The Ones Ahead, his first album in 19 yearsPhoto by Brianna Blank Music Features Beverly Glenn-Copeland
“When it came to making The Ones Ahead, was there a certain force that was guiding you towards assembling another album?” I asked Beverly Glenn-Copeland over Zoom in the early twinkle of summer. “I’m in the final act of my life here, so it was time,” he replied. I was taken aback by the answer—not because I couldn’t believe that someone flirting with the age of 80 would make such a stark assurance about their own finality, but because many in the music industry rarely do. I remember texting one of my dear friends about it, how that one line from Glenn had really stuck with me.
Because, for his entire life, Beverly Glenn-Copeland has survived—whether it be through a gender transition, growing up in Jim Crow-era America, being one of the first Black students at his alma mater or the very human, universal task of living a full lifetime in a world that is crumbling (both ecologically and socially) around us. In Posy Dixon’s 2019 documentary on Glenn, the constructionist spoke vulnerably about an instance when his parents (who, as members of a Quaker convocation, were no strangers to espousing homophobia) rushed him to a mental hospital with the hopes he could undergo electroshock conversion therapy to absolve him of his then-lesbianism. At the time, queer relationships of any kind were forbidden in Canada, so he had to date his then-partner in secret. He’d later drop out of school because the emotional burden of living a life deemed worthless by both his school and the country’s government was too heavy a weight to shoulder.
At the age of 26, Glenn began recording his own music. He made Beverly Copeland and Beverly Glenn-Copeland back to back, both records infusing elements of West African music, jazz, soul, blues and avant-garde experimentalism—all of which find their way back to the forefront of The Ones Ahead—and later become a writer on Sesame Street and a regular actor on the Canadian children’s show Mr. Dressup (the Canadian version of Mister Rogers). Though his voice has now grown deeper with time, it and his vision both rest in the company of those who carried the torch before him—like Marvin Gaye, Samuel Barber, Claude Debussy and Buffy Sainte-Marie—and they will endure long after all of us. The work he’s made across generations is not like that of his contemporaries, however. Every song he’s performed was not written by him but, rather, the “Universal Broadcasting System.” Glenn is one of many cosmological vessels who have been elected by the now-expanded universe to translate and perform its language across billions of years.
Many moons ago, when I was still dating my college girlfriend, she’d sometimes sit at the piano in her parents’ old house and gracefully press her fingers against the keys—trying to miraculously conjure the patterns she’d once memorized but had slowly forgotten. It felt miraculous to me then, to watch her just sit on the bench, arch her back and siphon small medleys out of seemingly thin air. I’d never learned to play an instrument myself, except for a few mandatory recorder lessons in fourth grade. Once, at age eight or nine, my own parents gifted me an electric Fender Squire for Christmas, and I labored through a half-dozen lessons before giving up. I’ve just never had the patience for music in that way, greatly preferring to spend all of my time listening to it. I have the ear but not the tolerance or diligence. And now, one Charcot Marie Tooth diagnosis later, I don’t think my hands will ever be able to, realistically, hold the capacity to play chords. The nerve damage in my fingers is far too severe.
But there was a time, about four years ago, when I began tinkering around with the GarageBand app on my college-issued iPad. Two summers prior, I’d lost my grandfather to cancer—and I’d lost both grandmothers in the 12 months before that—and my therapist said it might help if I tried experimenting with art forms beyond just writing. I wasn’t particularly interested in spending too much time with the pre-downloaded guitar tones or the drum machine I wasn’t clever enough to manipulate. However, I was deeply mesmerized by the app’s library of synthesizers, and there had to have been at least three dozen different versions available to use. For the next few months, I spent all of my time making two or three-minute synth tracks, just pressing keys that felt right. Some of it came out jumbled, some of it came out beautiful. I’m not saying I was Brian Eno, and making anything good was not the point—nor was it something I wanted. I had only hoped that the songs would sound like the grief that was rummaging around in my brain.
Those tracks, maybe 20 or 25 of them, are archived forever on a Bandcamp page you’ll never find. I tap into them here and there, because I still have dreams about how they sound. A memory pops up on my Facebook wall: It’s been six years since a death. I can hear the plucks and swells, the arpeggio I’ve mistaken for a flatline. I quit experimenting with digital synthesizers two years ago for two reasons. One, because I sometimes wake up in the morning and can’t feel my hands. The nerves in them don’t work too well these days, and even using my laptop for writing can prove rigorous. And two, Courtney Barnett introduced me to the work of Beverly Glenn-Copeland in the summer of 2021. Barnett and I had done an interview together for Bandcamp’s “Big Ups” series, where she—in anticipation of her then-new album Things Take Time, Take Time—picked some of her favorite music, and she mentioned Glenn’s 1986 album Keyboard Fantasies.
This is where I first heard “Ever New,” a seven-minute, downtempo electronic track with a drum machine backbeat—that sounds like leaves rustling across untouched hills— and synthesizer chords—which arrive aglow like ballerinas skating atop a frozen Canadian lake. All at once, the song is mythical yet grounded, indebted to what nature is largely embedded in its DNA. Though Glenn made the album with just a Yamaha DX7 keyboard and Roland TR-707 drum machine, Keyboard Fantasies sounds like an orchestra permeated across a vast universe.“Welcome the spring, the summer rain, softly turned to sing again,” Glenn intones in a delicate tenor. “Welcome the bud, the summer blooming flower. Welcome the child whose hand I hold. Welcome to you, both young and old. We are ever new, we are ever new.” His work was a treasure trove of grief and awe and resolution I’d been trying to conjure on my own.
At that point in my life, I’d just begun—at least internally—identifying as gender fluid and embracing the ways in which my body had undergone a rebirth while on hormone therapy. As an intersex person, I have an intimate relationship with the argument that what I was born into is unnatural. But I am one with the cosmos, and “Ever New” is not just a symbol of my own transformation; it’s an articulation of how alchemized with Mother Earth each of us are—that our bodies, like the planet we call home, are brimming with atoms that dare to bend with the shapes of our souls. There’s something organic yet supernatural there, in the fabric of the plains we walk and admire.
“Ever New” appears as the second track on Keyboard Fantasies, which Glenn self-released on cassette through Atlast Records (named after his third album, At Last!, which had come out six years prior). Keyboard Fantasies largely went unnoticed in greater music circles for the next 30 years, as did his work at-large. But, when a fan from Japan got in contact with Glenn in 2015 and asked for some copies of the album, which were then sold, a greater awareness of the album came flooding in.
Within a few months, a handful of record labels were offering to remaster and reissue Keyboard Fantasies and the Toronto-based Invisible City Editions ended up re-releasing it in 2017—turning Glenn into an electronic pioneer almost immediately. Séance Centre would put Keyboard Fantasies on vinyl later that year and even make The Lake Sultra, a short film dedicated to Glenn returning to where he recorded the album. In 2021, Transgressive Records unveiled a 35th anniversary of the landmark New Age project, including a new version—which featured remixes and re-workings from artists like Bon Iver and Blood Orange. Very few of the original cassettes still exist.
Glenn was born in Philadelphia just before the end of World War II to a family who would join a Quaker congregation in the city, hoping that a community like that could become a haven for their young child. But he never played by the rules and still doesn’t. When Glenn became the first Black student to enroll in the music program at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, he began studying German lieder—a vocation rooted in the art of setting poetry to piano compositions that weave through different modulations. But don’t think of it as slam paired with backing tracks; it’s more akin to a recital glossed with operatic incantations.
It helps that, while growing up in the Greenbelt Knoll suburb of Philadelphia, Glenn’s father was a brilliant pianist who introduced his young son to the works of Bach, Mozart and Chopin, while his mother was a spiritual singer and a gifted pianist (as well as, once upon a time, the first Black woman to finish a grad program at Penn State). The story goes that Glenn, even as a baby, hummed along to the radio from his crib. You can hear those classic, otherworldly influences and folklore on Keyboard Fantasies, too. The album’s wondrous and peaceful architecture embellishes a hermetic meticulousness that doesn’t outmuscle the finality of the ecosystems that surround the music.
Despite the landmark album’s digitized sonic sounding like a faraway and futuristic century the rest of us haven’t lived in yet, there’s a classical, age-old light shone upon the six tracks. Glenn does not ask the world to gift him with an idea for a song or an album; the world, which he has devoted an entire lifetime of curiosity to, chooses to send him down a particular path when it’s ready. A musician friend of mine once told me: “If you want to hear music, go make it.” I suppose they were right, to some extent, but that motto doesn’t seem to ring true in the context of Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s life and artistry.
On my Zoom call with Glenn and his wife Elizabeth, we talk about The Ones Ahead, his first album in 19 years (and the first under his own name since Keyboard Fantasies)—which was set to come out at the end of July. Most notably, it’s his first project of new material since Keyboard Fantasies was rediscovered and he became revered across the globe. In the last six years alone, Glenn has been the recipient of Dixon’s documentary, a career-spanning compilation album, a Polaris Prize and Live at Le Guess Who?—a full-band live record that showcases just how commanding his voice still is.
When Glenn began putting The Ones Ahead together, he and Elizabeth were thrown into chaos as the genesis of the pandemic unfolded around them. They had recently sold their house in Sackville, New Brunswick and were planning to move into a “forever home” in the Laurentians. “We were about to sign on the dotted line when the pandemic hit,” Glenn says. “Suddenly, we had no income for 2020, as both of our tours were canceled. And we had no home. So, as we were assembling the songs for the album, we were moving from temporary home to temporary home, in New Brunswick and then Nova Scotia.”
His health would soon decline, and Elizabeth would become his caretaker and run their business. As we go back and forth on Zoom, Elizabeth sits behind Glenn, following along with his answers. In interviews and beyond, she acts as an aid to his memory, helping him pull past parts of his life back into focus. “What entranced me during that time was the love and support of Elizabeth, our friends and the new neighbors—in each community we moved to—who showed up to care for us. We moved to the Maritimes because it was well-known for its kindness. Community love is entrancing,” he says, before looking back at Elizabeth with a smile.
Glenn’s career is one of great, patient measure. Across 53 years, he’s released only six records and has maintained a relatively low profile, away from the public eye. It’s not that he couldn’t have made more records, his availability just didn’t always align with when the world needed him to translate its wonders. “I make music to keep my piano and vocal chops together, to be ready for the call from the Universal Broadcasting System,” Glenn tells me. “Like many artists, I believe that ideas have sentience, that the Universe itself is sending the music. If I can’t—or don’t—respond, due to some external situation, the music goes on to someone else.”
He actually has a file cabinet brimming with music he’s written but hasn’t yet recorded. The Ones Ahead came together because he finally had the support—be it from his community or from natural surroundings—in place to make an album. The record’s a healing, uncompromising masterpiece that no longer leans on the avant-jazz and folk music Glenn was zeroed in on on his first two albums 50 years ago. Rather, it embraces a large, sprawling and ambitious palette of arrangements and styles. From the operatic, theatrical performance of “No Other” to the confessional, generous, piano balladry of “Harbour (Song for Elizabeth),” the grand stature of The Ones Ahead is rhythmic, personal and prophetic.
The new array of sonics we hear on The Ones Ahead is the result of Glenn’s transcribing. He would listen to what the UBS sent him, decipher it and then consult with his longtime producer and arranger John Herberman—who would piece through what instruments were needed to bring the songs to life. Glenn also grabbed input from his band, Indigo Rising. On Keyboard Fantasies, the focus of each composition was largely on the instrumentation that Glenn was performing, rather than his vocals. On The Ones Ahead, however, the arrangements are similar to the gospel and soul progenies from his 2004 album Primal Prayer (which he released under the pseudonym Phynix, and his voice is so immensely front and center—especially on chapters like “People of the Loon” and “Love Takes All.”
But none of that focus was an active, intentional choice. “The placement of my voice is whatever is needed to serve the song as directed by the UBS—it’s that simple,” Glenn says. “I never try to showcase my voice on any of the songs. If the voice seems to be the most dominant, that is because the song calls for the clarity of the words or melody line.” However, he understands the gravity his own singing beckons. “I am blessed to have a wonderful voice,” he adds, smiling. Glenn isn’t able to sing as high as he once could, but he can reach lower notes now that he never dreamed of hitting 30 years ago. In turn, much of The Ones Ahead features him compensating for his octave change by transforming the keys he must vocally tap into.
Glenn’s relationship with his keyboard—and the limits it can, or cannot, push has changed over the last 30 years. Much has to do with the trajectory of his own health, which isn’t what it was when Keyboard Fantasies stretched the imagination of what a synthesizer unit could transform into. “There are songs I once played easily,” he says. “I have a huge hand span, but now my hands are arthritic to the point where my little fingers angle out in a direction that makes playing some chords much more difficult. I have to find ways around that.” On The Ones Ahead, the lack of in-focus keyboard-playing is substituted for a deep pocket of orchestral and titanic chart arrangements from Carlie Howell and the Indigo Rising core. From fretless bass to West African percussion to rapturous piano-playing, what you hear is a high-mark of a wide, stylistic range spread out across nine tracks—one for every planet and the sun itself.
Nowadays, Glenn plays a Yamaha P-515 and is particularly engaged with how it can produce sounds similar to those of a grand piano. “It has changed my experience,” he asserts. “Sometimes, I play it just to hear the sounds it makes. It can almost accurately produce the sound of a concert hall or a small room or many other types of venues in which one might play an acoustic grand, or a good upright piano. The only difficulty is figuring out how to trigger different sounds in other digital pieces of my equipment that provide strings or horns or whatever instrument I might want to hear. As I get older, learning new technology is getting harder.”
In the past, Glenn has said that music is “genetically” embedded into his existence and, on The Ones Ahead, he taps into his own heritage. A song like “Stand Anthem” emphasizes West African culture and its approach to rhythm and percussion. Though Glenn can be found scaling back his own family tree and ruminating on the places his ancestors called home, he didn’t set out to discover or explore any of those moments. “‘Africa Calling’ is full of joy and full of sorrow,” he says. “Full of joy to be expressing so much of my deep feeling for the continent where my ancestors were from, full of sorrow because so many of those ancestors were so deeply affected by the slave trade—and grieving is required.”
Glenn emphasizes the percussion on “Africa Calling” and “Stand Anthem” and elicits that they are meant to wake us up and emphasize what “the Earth Mother herself” needs us to understand. In these visions, the old world is fading away, but a new world is in the wings, waiting to be born anew. “So many in the world right now are affected by cultural dispossession, but, ultimately, to access the heart of what is lost in any culture, we must go to the beauty, the sophistication and, yes, the joy! My wife Elizabeth and I believe that, in these difficult days, to find joy in life is a radical act of reclamation of what it means to be alive.”
Perhaps what makes the work of Beverly Glenn-Copeland so timeless is his attention to what awaits him on the other side of music. He spends his days in the company of visual artists, doctors and, of course, other practitioners of the immediate world’s humanity. Those surroundings are just as influential to Glenn’s own purpose as the Universe or the captivation of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. “I have had the privilege of a life surrounded by brilliant thinkers from many different fields and ways of knowing, some were great friends who were also artists and scholars from various disciplines,” he says. “My very best friend, Evelyn Wolf, is not only an incredible visual artist, but also a physician. My wife is a brilliant thinker, as well as a professional artist, and we regularly have vibrant conversations of what it means to practice art in these times of discontinuous change.”
Across our call, it’s obvious that Glenn has already made peace with his own mortality. At this point, so many artists in the last chapters of their lives are doing whatever they can to stake one final claim in the momentum of the world—be it by selling their catalogs for millions, doing laborious farewell tours or calling it quits in an effort to snap the intimate fruits of a lifetime back into focus. For Glenn, it’s none of those things. He has, instead, answered the call of the Universe and has, once again, offered his services to its destiny. These days, he spends his time in the company of wife and the magic their souls make together in devotion to the cosmos. “Right now, I love listening to most anything by Dolly Parton,” Glenn tells me. “My wife and I dance in the kitchen at night to rhythmic music from Lionel Richie and Luther Vandross. Elizabeth just turned me on to the work of George Benson, and I am now a huge fan.”
“I am a child of this world, bathing in the waters of all my sisters,” Glenn sings at the end of The Ones Ahead. “Born upon the winds of all my brothers, I have no other.” Whether it was destiny that brought Keyboard Fantasies into the light long after its inception, or if—when it came time to make The Ones Ahead—it was the Universal Broadcasting System (UBS) reminding Glenn to not lose sight of his own role in this timeline, what is clear is that we have witnessed someone survive long enough to watch his own genius touch the potential of countless others.
But I’ve often thought about our own individual smallness—how remembering that there are countless other lifetimes uncoiling at this very moment—can sometimes be a daunting revelation. Glenn sees that truth, too, though he is a much better guide for how to embrace the limitless milieu growing and singing around us at all times. Perhaps I will one day try my hand at synthesizers again and be able to transcribe whatever grief, joy or beauty the world decides to offer me. The generosity Glenn gives to the world has allowed so many of us to better build an archive of our own pasts and futures, and what a gift it is to watch him get all of his flowers on The Ones Ahead.
“We are small fragments of dust, so to speak, of a large, expanding universe. And this Universe is intelligent,” Glenn assures me just before our call ends. “So, therefore, from my perspective, so are we. Making music helps me understand my own life, can help me navigate what it means to create while I’m alive, to live a life true to my vision of being of service, of being fully animated and alive. I think music helps so many of us understand these things. Music is medicine.”
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from his home in Columbus, Ohio.