Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s Late Bloom

It took thirty years for the world to discover the singer-songwriter. Is fame worth waiting for?

Three photos of Beverly Glenn-Copeland pictured nearby his home with his wife blended together to create one image.
Three photos of Beverly Glenn-Copeland pictured nearby his home with his wife blended together to create one image.
Three photos of Beverly Glenn-Copeland pictured nearby his home with his wife blended together to create one image.


Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s Late Bloom

It took thirty years for the world to discover the singer-songwriter. Is fame worth waiting for?



Published 6:30, Jul. 28, 2023

When his big career break finally came, Beverly Glenn-Copeland was seventy-three years old and living in a state of financial uncertainty. Throughout his life, he’d been a classical vocalist, a touring musician, a recording artist, and a children’s songwriter, but he’d lived in relative obscurity—and sometimes in poverty too. In the early 2010s, he and Elizabeth, his wife and creative partner, had a theatre school in Miramichi, New Brunswick, where community members created musicals together, some based on folktales or Celtic lore. But in 2015, the region suffered an economic downturn and the school closed. “We had no idea what we were going to do,” Elizabeth recalls.

Then, in 2016, Glenn-Copeland—who today goes by the name Glenn—got an email from a man he didn’t know: Ryota Masuko, a record-store owner in Niigata, Japan, who specializes in undiscovered music. Masuko wanted to buy copies of Keyboard Fantasies, an album Glenn had made in 1986 while living in Sprucedale, a village near the Muskoka region of Ontario. At the time, he had self-released Keyboard Fantasies with a run of 200 cassettes, of which he’d sold roughly eighty. “I don’t know how anybody could’ve found out about it,” Glenn says. “I was just happy somebody wanted it.”

He sent Masuko a box of thirty tapes and, a week later, a box of thirty more. Masuko sold the cassettes in his store and uploaded clips to his website, an international hub for audiophiles. Soon, Glenn was sending tapes to the US and the Netherlands too. In 2017, he received another unexpected email, this time from Brandon Hocura, co-founder of the Séance Centre, a label in Picton, Ontario. Together, Glenn and Hocura planned to reissue Keyboard Fantasies on vinyl and eventually on online platforms. In a moment of financial uncertainty, a lifeline had materialized. Since the rerelease of Keyboard Fantasies in 2017, its tracks have been streamed over a million times.

Listeners are drawn to the album for its hearth-like warmth. Despite being made with dance-club technologies—an Atari computer, a synthesizer, and a drum machine—the record feels liturgical, with repetitive motifs that mimic the rhythms of prayer. Keyboard Fantasies has “an intimate sound,” Masuko says, “that made me feel Glenn’s body temperature.” Julia Hotler, a Los Angeles composer, is part of a cohort of leading musicians who are now avowed Glenn-Copeland fans. (The list also includes Romy Madley Croft, co–lead singer of the indie band the xx, and Justin Vernon, the hip hop producer and songwriter who records as Bon Iver.) Hotler attributes Glenn’s popularity to the way his songs convey hope. “His music has a rare positivity,” she says. “It’s not simply happy but expansive and enveloping. Music that invites you to feel magic or wondrousness—I believe this is what young people want and need.”

Although beloved of DJs and fellow songwriters, Glenn is perhaps most revered today among queer and trans youth, who consider him an elder. Though he knew he was male at age three, Glenn lived the first five decades of his life as a woman. In the mid-1990s, however, he read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, a classic of queer fiction, which introduced him to the term “trans.” Finally, he had the language to describe himself.

Both the art and the backstory have garnered Glenn international attention. Since 2018, he has embarked on three tours, one in Canada and two across Europe. In 2020, Keyboard Fantasies won a Polaris Heritage Prize, which honours classic Canadian albums by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Oscar Peterson. A new record, The Ones Ahead —Glenn’s first in nearly twenty years—is out July 28. Unlike his others, it’s being released into a world full of people eager to hear it.

Fame, of course, can be destabilizing at any age, but it’s particularly dizzying when it arrives in what would normally be an artist’s retirement years. For Glenn, however, it was somehow both expected and surprising. “I always knew I’d be famous posthumously,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d live to see it happen.”

Glenn was born Beverly Anne Glenn in 1944 to African American parents in Philadelphia. His mother, an early childhood educator, was the first Black woman to graduate from Penn State, and his father, an athlete and mathematician, would sit behind the piano for five hours a day, working through pieces by Bach and Chopin. Neither parent was particularly religious, but as a ten-year-old, Glenn attended a Black church in his neighbourhood. He soon decided that he disliked the preacher’s oracular speaking style and fire-and-brimstone sermons. So his mother took him to Quaker meetings, which had an ecumenical approach to worship. “We sat in silence, which I appreciated,” Glenn recalls. “There was no minister. When you felt moved to speak, you could get up and share your thoughts.”

In 1961, he commenced a degree in classical vocals at McGill University. He was the only Black student in the music program at the time and, as far as he knew, the only out lesbian his peers in an all-girls dormitory had ever met. They feared and shunned him, and he boldly walked hand in hand with his girlfriend in the hallways. The assistant dean of women eventually tried to have him expelled, although the dean of women ultimately overrode the decision.

When Glenn visited Philadelphia one summer, his parents took him to a doctor, who recommended that he be institutionalized and subjected to electroshock therapy. He fled out the door and into a phone booth. “In the directory, I ran my finger down a list of nearby doctors,” Glenn says. “I stopped at one name in particular, I don’t know why.” He walked briskly to the man’s clinic, with his parents following. The doctor took him into an office for a consultation and then emerged, minutes later, to explain to Glenn’s parents that they’d been wrong to medicalize their child’s sexuality. They backed off, allowing him to return to Montreal.

He still remembers the soundscape of the city. One year in May, members of the Black Watch, a reserve infantry regiment of the Canadian Armed Forces, paraded past his McGill dormitory, playing the bagpipes. When he heard the noise—a reedy melody combined with an apian drone—he felt electrified. “I ran to the window,” he says, “and started to weep.” He wanted to evoke a similar experience with music, to create otherworldly sounds that bypass listeners’ rational faculties and appeal to their primal selves.

In 1970, he added “Copeland” to his name (an homage to the American composer Aaron Copland), moved to Toronto, and joined the city’s famously eclectic folk scene. Even in that milieu, Glenn’s music was difficult to place. It was racy, spooky, and weird. His self-titled debut—which he recorded at the CBC studios in Montreal before leaving the city—fuses dark folk with modal jazz. The most idiosyncratic track is “Swords of Gold,” a tale of devastation and loss, which sounds less like a folk song and more like an operatic work by Alban Berg, the master of creepy atonalism. His 1971 follow-up—also self-titled—features songs like “Ghost House,” a ballad about a character who dreams of an encounter with the spirit of an ex-lover, and “Erzili,” a ten-minute epic about desire and ecstasy, in which Glenn yodels and wails and strums violently on the muted strings of his guitar, turning it into a drum.

Audiences didn’t know what to make of these releases. The albums sold poorly, and the tastemakers of the era mostly ignored them. “If the Mariposa Folk Festival [a musical showcase in Southern Ontario] had welcomed Glenn with open arms, that would’ve raised his profile considerably,” says Nicholas Jennings, a journalist and historian of Canadian popular music. “But he was too unconventional for the purists at Mariposa.”

In the early ’70s, Glenn moved with a girlfriend to Los Angeles and worked in a flower shop, where he was visited by a group of Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhists, practitioners of a meditation regimen from thirteenth-century Japan. When he returned to Canada in 1973—after being hired to write music for an experimental film, Montreal Main—he brought with him a gohonzon, a sacred calligraphic scroll. (Twice a day, Nichi-ren Buddhists kneel in front of their gohonzon and chant the words “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” a Japanese mantra.) Glenn lived peripatetically in and around Toronto. For a time, he stayed in a communal house, where lovers and ex-lovers cohabitated and people slept wherever they could find space.

He made what money he could by road-tripping around Southern Ontario, playing lecture halls, outdoor festivals, coffee houses with low ceilings, community theatres with subpar PA systems, and swanky clubs with velvet curtains. He’d perform for three hours, switching between drums and piano, then load his equipment into his Datsun station -wagon and return to the city, often in the dead of night.

Kim Deschamps, a pedal-steel guitarist who would later play with the Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo, accompanied Glenn on hundreds of those excursions. Glenn encouraged Deschamps to play his instrument in new ways. Deschamps learned, for instance, that by manipulating his volume pedal, he could conjure ghostly tones that materialize slowly, like distant light on a dark road, and by using two amplifiers, he could produce a full-bodied sound, more befitting a cello than a honky-tonk guitar. Gradually, Glenn amassed a small but loyal audience—older folkies, young hippies, gay men and women who were thrilled to see one of their own on stage.

Then the disco era hit, and many clubs abandoned live shows for pre-recorded music. For musicians, it felt like an entire economy had died. Iconic Toronto venues, like the Colonial Tavern on Yonge Street or the Riverboat Coffee House in Yorkville, shuttered for good, and many musicians sought other kinds of work. In 1982, Glenn decamped for Sprucedale, in Muskoka, with his then girlfriend, Evelyn Wolff, a psychotherapist and stained-glass artist. “Pretty much everybody was walking away,” Deschamps says.

In Sprucedale, the couple lived in a bungalow off the highway. They shovelled waist-high snow off their roof, gathered kindling for their wood-burning stove, and subsisted on income from Wolff’s part-time psychotherapy practice and whatever Glenn could make writing songs for Sesame Street and the children’s variety show Mr. Dressup, on which he was a regular guest. “We were never going to have enough money for Glenn to hire backup musicians,” says Wolff. So she blew through her retirement savings to buy him an Atari computer, a Roland TR-707 drum machine, and a Yamaha DX 7—the commercial synthesizer that produced nearly all the glossy sounds of the ’80s, from Whitney Houston’s syrupy keyboards to the chunky bass on Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone.”

At first, Glenn had no idea how to use those technologies, but he was fascinated by them nevertheless. His first computer had been a small hand-held device, which he’d bought a few years earlier. “I’d walk around the house with the computer in my arms,” he says. He’d also stroke it or sing to it, willing it to divulge its secrets. The Atari was more user friendly, though, and after years of solo experimentation, he experienced a kind of mind meld with the machine.

In 1986, he began working feverishly from sundown to dawn. He wasn’t composing, he believes, so much as transmitting—receiving signals from the atmosphere and conveying them into the instruments. By layering DX 7 effects overtop one another, he conjured unusually complex tones: timbres as thick as oil paint, as gritty as river water, as resonant as plainsong beneath a cathedral vault. He wrote expansive songs, in which long tones merge like stars colliding, and cacophonous songs, which conjure a dense woodland, with bird-like chimes above a rhythmic underbrush of bass and hi‑hat. After months of round-the-clock labour, he emerged with Keyboard Fantasies. “The music came zooping out of me,” he recalls. “Whenever I listen to it, I think: How the heck did I do any of that?

Three photos of Beverly Glenn-Copeland in his home blended together to create one image.

Last November, I drove to Glenn and Elizabeth’s current home for the first of several visits. The house has an outdoor sugar shack and a basement recording studio. Wolff’s stained-glass art is scattered about. (Glenn and Wolff broke up in the ’90s, but they remain close.)

I arrived with a novel I wanted the couple to read: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is narrated by an elderly preacher named John Ames. Like Glenn, Ames experiences a dramatic change late in life. After decades alone, he falls in love and fathers a son. He then finds himself wavering between elation, over the wife and child he never thought he’d have, and regret, since he knows he won’t live to see his boy grow up. The novel concludes with a haunting final sentence—“I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep”—which captures both Ames’s gratitude and his acquiescence in the face of mortality. If his sleep turns out to be permanent, he’ll die knowing he got more than he might’ve gotten, even if he didn’t get all he now wants.

Glenn is similarly equanimous. “Recognition at any stage of life is a gift,” he says. “I’m not resentful that it happened late. I wasn’t resentful when I thought it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime at all.” I found Glenn similar to Ames in another way: he’s convinced that cosmic or supernatural forces are shaping his life. One incident in particular confirms his faith in kismet. In the ’90s, he cut ties with his mother, who couldn’t accept that he was trans. “I told her, ‘I’ll never speak to you again,’” he says, “and I hung up.” A year later, he awoke with a powerful urge to make amends. But the phone rang before he could put in the call. “My mother was on the other end,” Glenn recalls. “Her first words were, ‘Oh my darling, please forgive me.’”

When Keyboard Fantasies blew up in 2017, Glenn realized that he needed a touring band. Once again, serendipity stepped in. At the time, he was living in Sackville, New Brunswick, where Elizabeth was taking courses at Mount Allison University. That summer, he attended Sappyfest, the town’s annual music festival, where he played his first gig in decades. While there, he walked by a tent where an R&B band was performing. “The music was beautiful,” he says, “and I especially noticed the drummer,” a woman in her twenties named Bianca Palmer. Palmer, as it turns out, had noticed Glenn too. After the show, she approached him to tell him she’d been moved deeply by his performance earlier in the day. “She flung herself into my arms and began to cry on my shoulder,” says Glenn.

With Palmer’s help, Glenn eventually assembled a band: five members, all in their twenties or thirties. In rehearsals, his directions were both endearing and, at times, hard to decipher. He told Palmer to evoke wind and water with her drums and instructed Kurt Inder, the guitarist, to mimic the sound of a flute. (Both complied, Palmer by caressing her ride cymbal with guitar strings dangling from her mouth and Inder by using his volume pedal to make his guitar notes breathe.) But when the group went on tour, the roles were reversed. Now the young people were lecturing their elder peer about the rigours of life on the road. “Glenn’s luggage was obscene,” says Palmer. “He’d pack two pillows, a rain suit, a rice cooker, a cooler, soy milk, oatmeal, tuna, bags of nuts, and a shrine to meditate with.” (The latter is a reference to his travel-sized gohonzon.) He seemed unaware of modern touring strategies. “Within days, he’d use up the data on his phone,” Palmer adds. “We’d be like, ‘Yo! You can go to a cafe and ask for the Wi-Fi password.’”

On the road, Glenn was energetic and ebullient, but his bandmates noticed occasional signs of burnout. At a beachside festival in the Yukon, he injured his knee while walking across the sand. At shows in Europe, he’d find himself surrounded by ecstatic fans who wanted to recount how his music had helped them weather a breakup or depressive episode. “He’d speak to all of them, when what he really needed was sleep,” says Inder. “He’d wear himself out to make other people happy.”

The big crash happened after his second European sojourn. He and Elizabeth had sold their house in Sackville and had hoped to get financing on a new home with revenue from an upcoming world tour. But then the pandemic hit, the promised income evaporated, and for nine months, the couple found themselves effectively homeless, relying on the largesse of friends. The music industry did nothing for them—streaming revenues are a pitiable source of income—but the fan community stepped up. When Elizabeth’s daughter launched a GoFundMe campaign in 2020, people donated enough money for the couple to live independently for years. “My conception of the kindness of individuals went through the roof,” Glenn says.

Still, the stress was destabilizing, and after the crisis, Glenn’s health deteriorated. “My body was falling apart,” he says. He had high blood pressure and his kidneys “went berserk.” Once, he attempted to get out of bed and involuntarily fell back in. Elizabeth, a writer and arts educator, had to put her creative plans on hold to take care of her husband. She helped him through physio sessions, went with him to doctors’ appointments, and got him on the medications he needed. In late 2021, despite his fragile health, he managed to record a new album.

The Ones Ahead, out on July 28, has a funky, energetic sound. While the earlier records sought to challenge or beguile listeners, the new one seeks to communicate clearly. There are songs about love, past and present: “Prince Caspian’s Dream” revisits a love from half a century ago, and “Harbour (Songs for Elizabeth)” expresses Glenn’s gratitude to his wife for the care that sustains him.

Much of the album deals with climate change. Sometimes, Glenn expresses optimism that a greener world will emerge after the present crisis abates; at other times, he exhorts listeners to do what they can to ensure these happy prognostications come true. The instrumentation is as eclectic as anything in his oeuvre, but the songs adhere to familiar conventions—four-chord progressions, verse-chorus structures. The Ones Ahead is more impassioned than enigmatic. It’s the kind of album you record when you have things left to say and limited time in which to say them.

Typically, an album release is a prelude to a flurry of other activities: concerts, interviews, appearances at radio stations. This one, for now, will live mostly on streaming platforms and record players. “I’ll never tour again,” Glenn told me during an interview last winter. He’s since changed his mind and now plans to perform in five cities this fall. The big international tour he was planning before the pandemic is still on hold.

A photo of Beverly Glenn-Copeland looking up the sky with his eyes closed blended over a photo of daisies in a field.
We tend to think of popular music as young people’s music, but this isn’t entirely true. In his book The Late Voice, Richard Elliott, a musicologist at Newcastle University, discusses a cohort of artists with long careers— Mitchell, Cohen, Bob Dylan—who, even at a young age, seemed to possess a measure of gravitas, as if they understand the pain and sagacity of the generations that came before. In their twenties and thirties, these musicians can seem like walking contradictions, but when they reach their seventies, the incongruities disappear, giving them a new kind of star power. “The voice comes into alignment with the persona,” Elliott explains. Performers who once channelled the wisdom of their forebears now embody that wisdom themselves.

But, for older musicians, the industry is still inhospitable. While the internet is a hungry beast, it doesn’t pay much for the music it consumes. Money comes from the touring circuit, which can wear a person out. (Even affluent artists suffer on the road. Touring, basically, killed Prince, who reportedly became addicted to opiates after incurring performance-related injuries.) We may live in a golden age of music—never has so much been available for so little—but our relationship to musicians is profoundly selfish. We take more than we give. We offer a choice between destitution or life in a touring bus.

Glenn isn’t the only artist to find success late in life. In this respect, his peers include Rodriguez, the Detroit singer­-songwriter—subject of the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man—who retired from the music industry in 1971 only to learn, thirty years later, that he had a fan base in South Africa and Oceania; Nic Jones, the finger-picking guitarist from Essex, UK, whose 1980 record, Penguin Eggs, became a classic decades after a brain injury took him out of the music business; and Vashti Bunyan, a horse breeder and furniture ­restorer in rural Scotland who, in the ’90s, looked herself up on the internet and learned that Just Another Diamond Day—a folk album she’d recorded in 1970 on a horse-and-wagon trip she’d taken across the country—hadn’t disappeared from the world as she’d thought it had. (It is now a collector’s item worth thousands of dollars.)

These narratives are often framed as feel-good stories: after being ignored for a lifetime, an undiscovered artist finally gets their due. And yet none had the second acts they deserved. Rodriguez’s late-career shows were lacklustre, and his comeback album never materialized. There’s a video on YouTube from a rare concert that Jones gave, in 2013, in the British Midlands, nearly three decades after his brain injury. On stage without his guitar, Jones seems stiff and awkward, like an artist whose performance career is rapidly ending again, as indeed it was. After thirty-five years away from the music industry, Bunyan returned and recorded two additional albums, but her revival was short lived. Following a gruelling mixing-and-mastering session in 2012, she turned to an audio technician and exclaimed, “I’m never doing this again.” She hasn’t.

Glenn, meanwhile, has learned that life as a world-renowned musician in the twenty-first century can be as precarious as that of an unknown performer in the 1970s. The home he and Elizabeth live in is temporary and their bank ­accounts are running low. They have some ventures, which may provide supplementary income. With a Canadian producer, they’ve filmed a pilot for a kids’ TV show. They’ve written five ­musicals that they’re shopping around. And they’re hoping that vinyl sales of the new album, as well as resales of Glenn’s older records, will provide a measure of short-term stability.

But they can’t count on it. “Retirement is deeply attractive, but it’s not in the cards,” Elizabeth says. “Glenn and I were talking about our end-of-life ­wishes the other day, and we acknowledged that we want to die at home. But where is that? Unless millions of dollars land in our laps, we will never have a permanent place to live.” They have set up a Patreon page in the hopes that somebody—perhaps a wealthy benefactor—may wish to reciprocate the legacy Glenn has bequeathed the world. It may be the best shot they have.

Of course, fans’ enthusiasm, while intangible, is a form of reciprocation too, and Glenn has always opted for gratitude over bitterness. His sense of wonderment was palpable when, in November 2018, he delivered his greatest late-career performance at Le Guess Who?, a festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands. In front of an enraptured audience, he played half of Keyboard Fantasies as images of Wolff’s stained-glass art projected behind him. He bantered between songs, discussing his love for Elizabeth, for Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism, and for his ­mother. He even played a Negro spiritual she’d sung to him when he was a kid. He couldn’t always control his excitement. “This is amazing,” he exclaimed repeatedly. He concluded the set with “No Other,” a power ballad that explodes in stentorian pianos and vocal ululations. “I hear the ancients calling, calling, calling,” he sang. “All the ancestors calling: come home.”

When the show ended, the bandmates went their own way for the evening. Bianca Palmer and Nick Dourado, the saxophonist, were too giddy to wind down, so they went to a free-jazz concert instead. Carlie Howell, the bassist, spent much of the night exploring the Utrecht venue, a musical multiplex with a black-box theatre and a Chicago-style blues club. Jeremy Costello, the keyboardist, remembers eating salad from a garbage can and dancing at a house-music show. Kurt Inder returned to the hotel early and helped Glenn to his room. “I was rolling his suitcase,” says Inder. “He was exhausted.” Glenn’s gohonzon was waiting for him in his suite. He prayed, and then he slept.  

Simon Lewsen
Simon Lewsen has contributed to the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and MIT Technology Review. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.
Sarah Palmer
Sarah Palmer ( has contributed to Toronto Life, Maclean's, and the Globe and Mail.