In “Ever New,” electronic artist Beverly Glenn-Copeland greets the coming of new life over lush, ambient soundscapes. The opening track to his 1986 album Keyboard Fantasies parallels the changing seasons with birth and death, evoking the cycles of renewal that defines the natural world:
Welcome the spring, the summer rain, Softly turned to sing again. 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.
In the 36 years since recording this, Glenn Copeland (as he is known today) has risen from elusive singer-songwriter to global phenomenon. The meaning of his words has therefore shifted over time, as he greets a younger audience from the other side of life.
Now 78 years old, Copeland is experiencing a career resurgence that could only be possible in the internet age. A recent documentary by Posy Dixon, simply titled Keyboard Fantasies, details the Black trans musician’s rise to fame over the last few years. Copeland’s eagerness and humility are deeply infectious on screen, and the film serves as an uplifting antidote to a period of profound loss and isolation.
The opening scene finds Copeland in a small garage with his two cats, sifting through his email inbox to locate a message from Japanese record store owner Ryota Masuko. In 2015, Masuko reached out to Copeland — who went by the pseudonym Phynix — to express his enthusiasm for Keyboard Fantasies, asking if he had any extra copies. Copeland happily obliged, and the cassettes sold out in a matter of days. Within a few weeks, record labels reached out to make deals, and people around the world were tuning in.
Copeland’s music has always been ethereal and contemplative, but the soft ambience of Keyboard Fantasies grew from the dawn of the home computer. All six tracks were composed entirely with a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and Roland TR-707 drum machine on an Atari PC, and they range from electronic soul to new age folk, with the artist’s crooning baritone relaying thoughtful and soothing aphorisms. Copeland details the album’s cover art for the camera, isolating a piece of stained glass by Evelyn Wolff. The refractive glass continues to inform Copeland’s art and overall vision, which is kaleidoscopic and rooted in spirituality.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Copeland describes his earliest memories of his mother and father playing Bach, Chopin, and Brahms on the piano. He expresses awareness of the injustices surrounding civil rights, as well as his descent from slavery, but claims that his childhood was nonetheless filled with good fortune. As one of the first black students at McGill University in Montreal, he coped with the isolation by absorbing himself in world music. This early independence allowed him to escape the strict confines of a traditional family, and he relocated to Ontario after graduation.
Copeland describes himself as a “radio that’s tuned to certain frequencies,” in which inspiration strikes at random. His early forays into songwriting in two self-titled albums in the early ’70s that blend guitar-centric folk with progressive jazz. “Good Mornin’ Blues” solemnly muses on themes of love and death, while “The Color of Anyhow” acknowledges the necessity of self-preservation. Copeland claims his music “didn’t fit any model” at first, but this changed as music went digital.
Dixon’s interviews with the artist show him seated alone in spacious rooms of his house, filling the empty space with unbridled joy. His self-assured smile as he describes the creation of Keyboard Fantasies reveals his dual infatuation with nostalgia and presence. While living in a remote town north of Toronto, Copeland slept only four hours a night and occupied his time shoveling snow, feeding his family, and recording in quiet seclusion. The scene interweaves sepia-tone shots of rural Ontario with droning synthesizers and interviews with family, collaborators, and radio DJs hailing his music.
Copeland embarked on his first tour at age 74, with his live band, Indigo Rising, composed of Millennials who match the artist’s energy. One band member, Nick Dourado, addresses making difficult financial decisions and potentially risking “Glenn’s retirement.” Rather than an indictment of the artist, this reflects the state of the music industry today. Despite all complications, Dourado expresses admiration that Copeland can balance being “completely out of time and place always.” For Copeland, however, the timing has always been “just right.”
The film does an excellent job of addressing conflict in this way. As Copeland tells NTS Radio host Charlie Bones, “There was no new age scene.” True enough, the genre has long been a subject of scorn in hip music journals, but Copeland’s ability to let troubles slide off him shines through. Because the documentary focuses on the album that garnered him international fame, however, other aspects of his life are left out of focus — such as his Buddhism, which he has practiced since the 1970s, and his work as a writer on children’s shows like Sesame Street and Shining Time Station. This omission makes it somewhat difficult to envision how the artist made a living up till his recent discovery.
Copeland started transitioning in 1993 but did not come out until 2003. While his family caused him anguish in his youth, he claims they lacked the resources to understand. Nonetheless, his mother lived with him until her last breath and eventually came to embrace his gender identity. During one interview, he describes the sexual dynamics with queer and heterosexual women first as a lesbian and then as a trans man living within the gender binary. He maintains that only after meeting his wife Elizabeth did he achieve the confidence to feel comfortable in his body.
Copeland relates that his own generation lacked the language to discuss nonbinary and trans identity, but that younger generations have given him the courage to speak openly. Dixon juxtaposes this detail with recent footage from an LGBT support group, in which someone pays respects to him as a “queer elder.”
“We’re meant to live in a community that is multigenerational,” Copeland responds to the group. “That’s how we survived as human beings, right? And the way we’ve been living the last while, it’s not good for us.”
At this point in the film, Copeland reaches a grand conclusion about his work. He recounts how a young fan once told him, “We’ve only heard how selfish we are,” and that his music assures Millennials and Gen Z that they are beautiful. With tears welling in his eyes, Copeland claims that this small gesture made him realize his life’s purpose — encouraging youth to see their value in the world.
This sensitive candor gives Keyboard Fantasies its charm as it visualizes an artist whose legacy is already beginning to precede him. This is evident in a scene from a 2018 performance in London. The camera trails Copeland as he enters a dimly lit café to take the stage. Each person he passes recognizes him and smiles in his direction, with some offering words of praise. That his mere presence can light up a room in this way, before he even utters a word, speaking to the energy he emanates out to the world. It is our responsibility now to preserve that light for future generations.
Keyboard Fantasies is available to stream.