When Glenn Copeland was in his late 20s, he received a reading from a palmist and was told that success wouldn’t come for him until he was old. The singer and musician took the prophecy in stride, continuing to live a life that was chock-full of opportunities for him to share his talents with the world—from writing music for shows including Sesame Street and Shining Time Station to being a recurring guest on Mr. Dressup for 20 years—though comparatively few people bought his music. And then it happened.
Two years ago, at the age of 74, Copeland embarked on his first world tour as a result of renewed, widespread interest in music he recorded 30-something years prior. That journey is chronicled in the doc Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story, which is available to stream through June 6 via Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival—North America’s largest documentary film festival—which has gone virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic (only Ontario residents can stream the film; look for other festival appearances throughout the summer).
To only now receive this level of attention after so long a career might be surprising to some; not to Copeland. “I don’t think I was ahead of my time,” he tells me over Skype. “I think I was in my time but the consciousness of that time had not yet hit us on a larger level. These sounds were sent to me and they were meant for now.”
Directed by Posy Dixon, Keyboard Fantasies takes its name from one of Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s albums that was originally self-released on cassette in 1986. Recorded in the northern Canadian town of Huntsville, Ontario, entirely on then-emerging technology, the album melded countless influences—classical and folk music, sci-fi and electronica, Negro spirituals and jazz—into a unique sound all Copeland’s own. The music went largely unheralded until decades later, when a fateful email from a guy in Japan breathed new energy into Copeland’s career—an encounter he easily could’ve missed since his gender transition made him difficult to locate.
“When you first learn about Glenn’s history, the obvious story is around Glenn’s gender identity and that fact he wrote all this music living as a woman and wasn’t ‘found’ for so long because of his transition,” Dixon says. Copeland goes by Glenn (he/him) to friends and family. Professionally, however, he’s known for his work as Beverly Glenn-Copeland. “As soon as I started talking with Glenn,” Dixon continues, “I realized that was just a tiny, near-inconsequential part of what made his story so rich. It was his understanding that his purpose was to help young people through his music, and his belief in the power of intergenerational exchange sent tingles down my spine and made me realize I’d stumbled across something I wanted to share.”
Ahead of the film’s Canadian premiere at Hot Docs, I spoke with Copeland about growing up in Philadelphia as the child of a classical pianist, what life was like as one of few out lesbians at Montreal’s McGill University where he went to school and what it’s like to sing, at 76 years old, to sold out audiences half his age.
Talk to me about how you first got into music. In the documentary, it says your dad played piano.
Yes, my father was a Black man playing classical piano in the ‘50s. He played five hours, easily, a day. And my mother loved the piano, too. She’d sit me beside her and sing Negro spirituals. But it wasn’t like my father only liked classical music—he had a huge collection of big band music of the ‘40s, and I got introduced to Black jazz. Then I introduced myself to folk music, rhythm and blues, Chinese music. I listened to everything because I had a blast just listening to music.
So you went to McGill to study classical music, but in the film, you say you experienced some difficulties there. Was it because you were Black?
It wasn’t being Black that wasn’t easy. It was the fact that I was out as a lesbian and I was the only one in the whole university.
That doesn’t seem fun.
It wasn’t. I had one friend, who was a cellist, and then my girlfriend. We were very isolated and because it was really obvious that we were a couple, it really freaked everyone [out]. The only ones who weren’t freaked were the Americans. I didn’t feel any hostility toward anyone, though, because I realized they were very upset because I was not hiding it.
How did that experience, and your education there, affect the recording of your first album, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, which you released in 1970?
Well, there was one before that that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation put out called Beverly Copeland. I come from a tradition of classical music—from 1965 to 1968, I was doing professional things with it. So, the CBC recorded my classical stuff. I was on the verge of going to Germany to continue my classical voice studies when I had this sudden understanding that I had done all of that in another life already and I wanted to meld and combine all the influences from this life. That album was extremely influenced in its intensity by the European classical song tradition, which is all about pain. When I listen to it now, maybe it was reflecting the deepest levels of my own pain—but it didn’t take long before that wasn’t where I was coming from. By the time I got to the album you’re talking about, there was some pain, some fun, some things that were flippant and some that were very get-down.
How did that come about?
That album happened because the person who wanted to produce it approached me and he brought together these amazing jazz players who were known worldwide. It was literally unimaginable, because I walked into the studio, played them a song on the guitar and they went, “Fine.” They hit the [record] button and they did it live off the floor, perfect. One take. Can you imagine that in today’s world? Give me a break! When I listen to that album now, I was being blessed but was too young to even know it.
It’s now been re-released, but how was it initially received?
They didn’t know where to put it on the shelf. Because everything was sold according to specific genres and it wasn’t really jazz. It was jazz-ish. It wasn’t folk music. And I was a Black singer but some of the songs sounded like classic music. They had no idea [what to do with it]. Some people loved it, and over time they’d buy it for like $5,000 if they found a copy. But very few people knew about it over 30 years. It ultimately sold, like, 200 copies.
Were you expecting or hoping that it would do better? What did you want your career to look like at that point?
I just expected it to do ordinary things. I didn’t expect to be Carole King or Nina Simone. I thought it was a fine album and hoped it would sell. But it didn’t take long for me to understand, well, how could it sell? [laughs] The audience that might be attracted to one track would not be interested in another one. Very few could like the whole thing. Luckily, I wasn’t so much concerned with my [performing] career as I was about continuing to write. I just wanted to write.
Tech innovations bring us to the doc’s titular album, Keyboard Fantasies. What made you think that, of all things, the sounds you were hearing and discovering from a computer would make good music?
I didn’t think about it that way. I would just get so excited about something that I had to do it. All these pieces would come to me at all times of the day. I’d be up at four o’clock in the morning and sound would come through and I’d race to try and get the concepts down. I was just exploring technology. I was a sci-fi nut anyway and here it was, my concept of what silicone could do. I just didn’t think about it all.
And once I got out of classical music, I listened to almost nothing. I don’t even know who’s out now. I’m a person who lives in silence. That has certain advantages, in that I’m not influenced by anything. But the disadvantage is I’m a dunce and terribly embarrassing when someone really famous comes up and hugs me and I don’t know who they are. [laughs]
Tell me about the fateful email regarding Keyboard Fantasies. I feel like if I read it, I’d assume it was spam. What about it made you inquire further?
The gentleman was Japanese. He could speak English but it wasn’t his first language. But the email was so sincere and so simple, and because I have a long history with Japan—my Buddhist sect is out of Japan—I made that connection, checked him out and sent him 30 copies. He sold them in a few days. And he sent me the money ahead of time, before I sent him anything, so I knew it wasn’t spam. After he sold those, I sent him more.
What was going through your head at this time?
I think I was mostly in shock. I was happy that he reached out, but I didn’t know he had an international presence that was watched worldwide. My wife had found all the cassettes I had—I couldn’t even remember where they were. But I didn’t really expect anything beyond that, because after 40 years of not having anything major happen, I didn’t expect it to go [my form of] viral.
When positive things started to happen, did that palm reading from when you were younger come back to mind?
When he told me it wouldn’t happen for me until I’m old, I didn’t think about it. But when it started happening, when several companies were trying to re-release my stuff, I went, “Oh, I’m old now. And it’s happening just like he said.” [laughs] I was in my mid-70s.
How does it feel to have your music embraced by a new generation of folks, many of whom probably weren’t alive when you initially released it?
No, y’all weren’t. But you have to understand, I wasn’t waiting—I was just doing what I was doing. I was involved in a children’s show for over 20 years, and my partner would think of things that we could do together. So we opened a children’s theatre school, and that gave me the opportunity to write four musicals. I was so busy doing other stuff; my life was full. But I am definitely grateful.
Your band, Indigo Rising, is made up of significantly younger folks. And in the film, we see you visiting youth groups. In one scene, someone tears up talking about how you’re an elder in our community. We don’t often know the names of some of our trans elders, because history hasn’t been too kind to our people. Talk to me about the changes you’ve witnessed in your lifetime, in terms of LGBTQ2 visibility and rights.
I am deeply encouraged by the way it has changed in the places where it has changed. But there are places where you can still be killed, and some of those places are on this continent. So there’s a lot yet to do, and we still have a long journey ahead of us. But the difference between me being the only person in a school of however many thousands that I knew was open about being “gay,” to now it seems like every third person is defining themselves on this spectrum—that is the real deal. I am so proud of your generation.
And that might explain why your music resonates with so many younger audiences, right? Because it, like so many of us, is fluid and genreless.
I consider those things sent to me for now, and in the idea of universal time, you can’t even measure it. It may seem like I recorded them a long time ago, because we count time out as minutes, seconds and days, but it was meant for this time, in a general sense, and we are awaking to that.
Based on the fullness of your life and career thus far, what advice do you have for other LGBTQ2 artists who might be struggling to get the attention they want or feel they deserve?
I say don’t base your life on that because what we want and what we need may be different. The most important thing is to grow as a being. Do what you love, because that’s part of your growing. But if you’re attached to what is going to happen because you do what you love, that could be a difficult thing. Do it because you’re called to do it. There are going to be people out there who will hear it and be transformed: Understand that you have a calling and that calling is a sacred thing you were born to do.
Editor’s Note, June 8, 2020: Beverly Glenn-Copeland and his wife Elizabeth are “essentially homeless,” according to a post by the couple’s child, Faith. A busy international touring schedule was about to kick in when COVID-19 struck. And the couple had just sold their New Brunswick home, leaving them without a place to live and no income to finance another home. A GoFundMe campaign was launched June 1 to help support the couple.