It’s only natural to wonder about whom Clarence Greenwood wrote “Dancer from Brazil.” The song off “One Lovely Day” -- the sixth album, released in July, under his guitar-armed alias of Citizen Cope -- is a line-drawn sketch of the titular character. She’s all the answers to his questions, but remains just out of reach.
“I’ve been after love for years,” he sings at the song’s coda, “and I think I’m getting near/To my dancer from Brazil.” So where does the track come from? Frustratingly, its writer isn’t saying much.
“I don’t know, man,” Greenwood says in a recent phone interview. “When you write songs, ‘Dancer from Brazil’ could be a symbol for so many things.”
Come on. What’s it about, really? “Inspiration is a really difficult thing. I think it’s rooted in something a lot deeper than what the song is about. It’s what you say, how you say it and hopefully has a universal kind of untapped knowledge.” Pressed a third time, he offers, “It’s not really about a woman from Brazil. I don’t really like to get deep into it.”
As a musician, Greenwood’s aesthetic depends on him pouring out stories dunked in vulnerability. The archetypal Cope song is calm, wistful, sentimental and sparsely arranged. Greenwood’s greatest gift is his fascinating drawl, a fusion of time spent in Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and New York (at the moment, he’s based out of Brooklyn). His sound is goes-down-easy folk/pop rock that would pair well with Jack Johnson or John Mayer.
But as an interviewee, Greenwood is much tougher to crack. You learn a few things here and there -- he loves the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson -- but you always feel the overwhelming sense that he prefers to keep the details of his craft close to his chest. He swiftly summarizes his purpose for making music: “Ideally, when you’re writing a song, it’s hopefully healing yourself and healing others.” But what are those songs healing?
He talks about making the move from being the DJ of alternative hip-hop outfit Basehead to guitarist in 1992 because his new instrument offered him more freedom than samples and a drum machine, but he doesn’t go into what exactly that freedom allowed him to do. The things Greenwood doesn’t say about his work appear to be as crucial to the integrity of his work as the work itself.
The one thing he reveals is that he takes genuine pride and satisfaction in finishing songs and bringing them to listeners. “I cherish those moments more than the moments of getting my first check or signing my first record deal. All that stuff is exciting, but when you’re talking about the supernatural stuff that we all have within us, that doesn’t really rate,” Greenwood says. “It’s nothing you can take to the grave.”
Citizen Cope will perform at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25, at The National. $20-$23. For information, go to thenationalva.com.