It's not just any artist who can go decades between album releases and still maintain his stature as one of America's most distinctive and intriguing singer-songwriters. But Greg Copeland isn't just any artist.
As his new album The Tango Bar makes clear, the Southern California native tends to operate on his own iconoclastic terms, following his uncompromising creative instincts rather than music-biz conventions.
Incredibly, The Tango Bar is only the third release of Greg Copeland's unlikely four-decade recording career. But the stirring set consistently makes it clear why Copeland is one of a kind, with such indelible new compositions as "Let Him Dream," "Scan the Beast," "Coldwater Canyon," "Lou Reed" and the title track exemplifying his compelling lyrical vision. The album's vivid, spacious musical settings are ideally suited to Copeland's voice, which carries the effortless emotional authority that comes with experience.
"It's the first time I've had this many songs all at once," Copeland notes. "It's really a matter of when the songs present themselves, and how long it takes me to get them recorded. I don't generally have enough money that I can go in and record a bunch of songs, so they tend to get recorded one or two at a time, until I have enough for an album. It takes awhile to live through this stuff, so you have to be patient."
For The Tango Bar, Copeland has enlisted an assortment of talented collaborators, including acclaimed female singer-songwriters Inara George, who lends her voice to the album's opening track "I'll Be Your Sunny Day"; Caitlin Canty, who takes the lead on "Mistaken for Dancing," "Better Now" and "Beaumont Taco Bell"; and Madison Cunningham, who adds haunting backing vocals on "Let Him Dream." The album also features such noted players as producer/multi-instrumentalist Tyler Chester, guitarists Greg Leisz and Val McCallum, keyboardist David Garza, and drummers Jay Bellerose and Don Heffington.
"Inara and Caitlin were the right voices to sing those songs," Copeland says, adding, "For me, it's not just the right voice, it's more a matter of the right person. I like people who sing words rather than notes, and that's what I try to do myself. I love the community aspect of recording, and every single person credited on this record is a great person as well as a great musician. Every time we'd go in to record, it was always exciting and inspiring."
Copeland began writing songs while growing up in Orange County with fellow budding tunesmiths Jackson Browne and Steve Noonan; high school friend Browne has said that watching Copeland create songs inspired him to start writing himself. Copeland experienced his first commercial success in 1967, when "Buy for Me the Rain," which he wrote with Noonan, became a hit single for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He also collaborated with Browne on several early numbers, including "The Fairest of the Seasons," which Nico recorded on her classic Chelsea Girl album.
Longtime admirer Browne signed on as producer of Copeland's belated first album, Revenge Will Come, released in 1982 by Geffen Records. The debut set, driven by Copeland's impassioned, politically charged songwriting, won widespread acclaim from critics, and earned the loyalty of those listeners fortunate enough to hear it. Meanwhile, Copeland's song "El Salvador," a scathing assessment of the Reagan administration's Central American policy, was covered by Browne, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, while Browne also recorded Copeland's song "Candy" on his Lives in the Balance album.
Revenge Will Come instantly established Copeland as a significant artist with a bright future. The album appeared on Time magazine's year-end Top 10 list, alongside the likes of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom and Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. But instead of solidifying his career with a quick followup album, Copeland quit the music business. He joined a friend's law firm as a paralegal, and eventually became a full-fledged lawyer, while he and his wife raised two sons.
"I just decided not to be a songwriter anymore," he explains. "It wasn't heartbreaking, it was just a practical decision. Certain days are burned in your memory, and there was a day where I just decided 'I can't do this, I can't support a family and still make records.' So I decided to give everything I've got to making a living, rather than giving everything I've got to something that was going to leave me in a ditch.
"I got quite a lot of good notices on that first record, and I still run into people who are fans of it," Copeland continues. "It got great reviews, and it looked like I was gonna get some momentum, but I just couldn't afford to keep doing it. So I got realistic and I just said 'Screw it, I'll find another way to make a living.'"
It would take a quarter-century for Copeland to return to record-making. "Like someone flipped a switch," he explains, the songs eventually started coming again, and he ended his extended hiatus with his 2008 independent release Diana and James. That album, which one critic described as "bleak and wondrous," quietly reestablished Copeland as a rare talent, while introducing a spare, rootsy new sound that's an appropriate vehicle for Copeland's resonant lyrical insights.
"The odometer just clicked over and the songs just started pouring out," Copeland recalls. "The songs were coming from a different, fuller place, because now I was able draw on everything that had happened in the time that I wasn't doing music."
Diana and James was welcomed by old fans and new ones, generating a wave of new acclaim. But it would be another dozen years before Copeland delivered The Tango Bar.
"I'm kind of a deliberate writer," he says, "so it takes me a while to see what's real in a song, and to accumulate a group of songs that sound like an album. I tend to group songs together, and that tells me when I have a record."
The Tango Bar's unusual cover photo was taken in the summer of 1968 on the Greek island of Milos, with a 22-year-old Copeland, his then-wife, songwriter Pamela Polland, and their dog Canina, who joined them in Italy and followed them to Greece and then back to L.A. They're joined in the shot by a pair of older gentlemen who happened to be passing by. Copeland chose this photo for the album cover because he's now the same age as those men. The photo has special significance for Copeland because The Tango Bar's songs are about time and the friction we feel as it passes.
"It's the last picture that was taken of me before my life changed completely," Copeland notes.
Having once turned his back on music, Greg Copeland is now embracing his art with a rekindled sense of inspiration. At 74, he's excited to be launching a new chapter of his creative life.
"It's totally exciting now," he enthuses. "It's by far the most fun I've ever had, and I don't have to do my day job anymore. I have a really good work ethic, and now I feel like I can do something positive with my time. The gears of the machine are whirring now, so it feels like there's something going on.
"I've got another album's worth of songs ready to record, as soon as I can raise the money. It may take awhile because this stuff just costs so much when you don't have a record company paying the bills. But so what, just do it.
"I do believe that you get better and more creative as you get older and gain more experience," Copeland concludes. "A lot of people give up and don't get to experience that, so I'm really happy to be doing this now, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes."