Caribou On 'Suddenly' And The Inspirational Beauty Of Glenn Copeland

Apr 1, 2020
Originally published on July 16, 2020 1:46 pm

"Home," the first single from Caribou's latest album Suddenly, has taken on an unexpected meaning. As millions of Americans sit under self-quarantine at home and may be reaching for music as a form of solace, you could hear the refrain — "I'm home" — as either a cry or a reassurance.

Caribou, the stage name for Canadian songwriter and producer Dan Snaith, is the first artist in our new series Play It Forward, in which musicians express appreciation for each other and introduce us to the music that they reach for when they're in need. I wanted to start the chain with Caribou because he's a musical wanderer, picking up shiny things he finds in his path and weaving them into the fabric he creates, and his music lowers my blood pressure.

Caribou's choice to begin the chain of gratitude was Glenn Copeland, a pioneering electronic artist, composer and transgender activist whose long overlooked recordings provided much of the inspiration for Suddenly.

"Listening to Glenn's music, I heard a way of taking things that are difficult and making something positive and affirming and reassuring and comforting out of them," he says. "And that's what I tried to find in the music that I made."

Listen to the radio version in the audio link above and read on for highlights of the interview.

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Interview Highlights

On using his own vocals more than ever before on Suddenly

This is a first: that my voice is prominently there and it's singing a real lyric, a real vocal on every track. I think that's a first for me. Still my worst nightmare is karaoke or singing in front of people that I don't know. There's definitely people who say, you know, "He's not got the best voice." I would agree with them on that. The feedback I've gotten about the way I've used my voice and the frailty and imperfections in it has been really reassuring, and that's what's given me the confidence to use it more and more as time passed.

On his choice for Play It Forward: Glenn Copeland

He's someone that I talk about any chance that I can and somebody who had a huge influence not only on this album, but also just in my life over the last five or six years. I came across his music first on YouTube, a track called "Ever New." He made this album called Keyboard Fantasies which is just so wonderful, so beautiful, such an enveloping, warm, comforting piece of music — which was exactly what I needed in my life in that time but also reflected exactly what I wanted to be doing with the music that I made. It was kind of this guiding light as to "Music can do this, and this is how it can do it." It is captivating, so packed with emotion, so beautiful.

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There's something elemental about it. And the story with that album is that Glenn recorded it himself, made about 50 copies of them, sold about 10; the other 40 sat in a cupboard somewhere for 30 years — whatever it is — then were bought by a Japanese record collector. Then the word started to spread; somebody uploaded it to YouTube. But really, truly [it was] a lost gem. It wasn't like "Oh, people 'in the know' know about this album." No, really nobody knew about this album for a long, long time.

On the influence of Copeland's positive outlook on Suddenly

I think the last five or six years of my life while I've been making this, [there] have been these moments where the shift in the narrative in my life has happened in an instant. It needed to be in the music that I was making, and so listening to Glenn's music and particularly that track, I heard a way of taking things that are difficult and making something positive and affirming and reassuring and comforting out of them. And that's what I tried to find in the music that I made.

I'd just like to say "Thank you." His music has meant so much to me, and so much to so many people that I've talked to. You get to meet a lot of people that are meaningful to you as musicians, and I've never met anybody who still has such a limitless positivity and optimism and is so enthusiastic about the possibility of youth and what music can do to change the world. It was really, really inspiring to meet him and to hear his music and to just be deeply affected by it.

NPR's Mano Sundaresan and Sami Yenigun produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The first single from Caribou's new album has taken on a meaning that he could not have imagined when he wrote it. Millions of Americans today are working from home or stuck at home without jobs, reaching for music as a kind of solace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")

CARIBOU: (Singing) Baby, I'm home. I'm home.

SHAPIRO: You could hear this refrain, I'm home, as a cry or a sort of reassurance. The artist Caribou is helping us to launch a series that we hope will provide a sense of calm and gratitude. We're calling the segment Play It Forward. It's an opportunity for musicians to express appreciation for each other and introduce us to the music they reach for when they're in need. I wanted to begin with Caribou because he's a musical wanderer, picking up shiny things he finds along the way and weaving them into the fabric he creates. I reached him at his home, where he recorded his most recent album "Suddenly."

Hi. This is Ari Shapiro in Washington. How are you?

CARIBOU: Hi, Ari. Nice to talk to you. I'm good.

SHAPIRO: I kind of love, just to begin with, the idea that you're sitting there in the place where you've made all of this music that we're listening to. Will you just describe what the space is like?

CARIBOU: Yeah, well, I'm standing - this is - I'm talking into the microphone where I recorded all the vocals for the album.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CARIBOU: And then I've put some kind of heavy curtains up in one corner to make a little improvised vocal booth. There's a computer and then a bunch of synthesizers, piles of records everywhere, all sorts of stuff lying around. But it's a tiny room. A lot of the albums that I made were recorded in a bedroom with my wife trying to sleep in the bed the other side of the room.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

CARIBOU: And I'm trying to quietly record bits and pieces - like, you know, record a guitar part on the other side of the room. To some degree, it's soundproofed, although when my kids come home from school, I hear their feet above me.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")

GLORIA BARNES: (Singing) Home. Home. Home. Home.

CARIBOU: (Singing) She does just what she pleases 'cause she's happy on her own.

SHAPIRO: You seem like such a magpie, taking inspiration and sounds and snippets from so many different places for your music. Can you take that one track "Home" and kind of deconstruct the puzzle for us and tell us about where the pieces came from?

CARIBOU: Yeah, so the track "Home" is an example of a track that's really based around another piece of music. And the piece of music is a track also called "Home" by Gloria Barnes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")

BARNES: (Singing) Baby, I'm home. I'm home. I'm home.

CARIBOU: It's this old, lost soul record. It's - you know, you'll never find the original piece of vinyl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")

BARNES: (Singing) Will you fear no more lonely days? Will you ever be alone?

CARIBOU: My first impulse was to hear it repeated. And I had it like that for a long, long time with a kind of beat over the top of it. And it was only when a friend of mine whose story is told in the song was leaving a kind of relationship that was toxic to her and literally went home, home to the house that she grew up in...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

CARIBOU: ...With her parents and kind of figuratively went home and, you know, found herself outside of this relationship that she left. And I wanted to tell her story and honor that experience, honor her. And I thought, oh, my God, this is something that I have - you know, I have the perfect thing to complement that already. There's already this loop that's talking about, baby, I'm home. I'm home. I'm home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")

BARNES: (Singing) Baby, I'm home. I'm home. I'm home.

CARIBOU: (Singing) Yeah, she's going home.

SHAPIRO: Your music hasn't always included your vocals, but I think you sing on every track in this album.

CARIBOU: Yeah, this is the first, I think, that I - you know, my voice is prominently there, and it's singing a real kind of lyric, a real vocal on every track. I think that's a first for me. I was the kid who was, like, you know, totally - still, my worst nightmare is karaoke or singing in front of people that I don't know. You know, there's definitely people who say, you know, he's not got the best voice. I would agree with them in that.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGPIE")

CARIBOU: (Singing) And now the world's been catching up to you.

The feedback that I've got about the way I've used my voice and the kind of frailty and imperfections in it has been really reassuring, and that's what's given me the confidence to use it more and more as time passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGPIE")

CARIBOU: (Singing) And yet it's still so high to climb. Generally, all she's got's so down. Something's got to give to turn things 'round.

SHAPIRO: The heart of this project that we're doing is about your appreciation for another artist, someone who looks and sounds different from you. So tell us about somebody who inspires you.

CARIBOU: When I heard about this concept in this program, I was so excited because I knew immediately exactly the person that I wanted to talk about. And he's somebody that I talk about any chance that I can and somebody who had a huge influence on this album but also just in my life over the last five or six years. And the artist's name - his name's Glenn Copeland. And he recorded as Beverly Glenn Copeland. He's a trans man. And I came across his music first on YouTube, a track called "Ever New."

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN COPELAND SONG, "EVER NEW")

CARIBOU: So he made this album called "Keyboard Fantasies," which is just so wonderful, so beautiful, such a enveloping, warm, comforting piece of music, which was kind of exactly what I needed in my life in that time but also reflected exactly what I wanted to be doing with the music that I made. It was kind of this guiding light as to, oh, this is - music can do this, and this is how it can do it. It is so captivating, so packed with emotion, so beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVER NEW")

GLENN COPELAND: (Singing) Welcome the spring, the summer rain, softly turned to sing again. Welcome the bud, the summer blooming flower.

SHAPIRO: It almost feels to me like an invocation, like Glenn Copeland is creating a space or a thing that didn't exist before this music started being played and sung.

CARIBOU: Yeah, there's something elemental about it. And the story with that album is that Glenn recorded it himself, made about 50 copies of them, sold about 10. The other 40 sat in a cupboard somewhere for 30 years - whatever it is - and then were bought by a Japanese record collector. And kind of then the word started to spread, and somebody uploaded it to YouTube - but really, I mean, truly a lost gem. You know, there were - it's not like, oh, people in the know know about this album. No, really, nobody knew about this album for a long, long time.

SHAPIRO: You said his music influenced your new album, this album we're talking about, "Suddenly." In what way?

CARIBOU: Listening to Glenn's music - and particularly that track - I kind of heard a way of taking kind of things that are difficult and making something positive and affirming and reassuring and comforting out of them. And that's what I tried to find in the music that I made.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Glenn next. And so what would you like to say to him?

CARIBOU: I'd just like to say thank you. You know, his music has meant so much to me and so much to so many people that I've talked to. You know, you get to meet a lot of people that are kind of meaningful to you as musicians, and I've never met anybody who still has that - such a limitless kind of positivity and optimism and is so enthusiastic about the possibility of youth and kind of what music can do to change the world. Yeah, it was really, really inspiring to meet him and to hear his music and to kind of just be deeply affected by it.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you for sharing that inspiration with us. I appreciate it.

CARIBOU: Great. Thank you for asking.

SHAPIRO: Dan Snaith records as Caribou. His latest album is "Suddenly." And we'll talk with Glenn Copeland in our next episode of Play It Forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN COPELAND SONG, "EVER NEW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.