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Susan Greenbaum’s websites where you can listen to her songs and read the lyrics.

The Creation of Susan Greenbaum: How do you become a star in 2001? E-mail, e-mail, e-mail.” Meg Medina. Style Weekly. February 20, 2001

Switching Tracks: National award confirms local songwriter’s decision to leave the office for the recording studio.” Ames Arnold. Style Weekly. Sunday March 7, 1999

Download Susan Greenbaum’s songs on the MP3 site.

Susan Greenbaum may not be a name you recognize today, but it won’t be long before her poetic melodies and rock and roll beat come across the radio station on your way to work, or she appears on the late night television circuit in your very own home. She’s a tiny woman with a gigantic voice who has "sunlighted" between gigs as vice president of communications for Internet startups and Fortune 500 companies. I suspect, however, she won’t be doing that for long. Her soulful, heartfelt songs speak to her audience in a way most musicians seldom grasp. When I sat down with Greenbaum last fall in her favorite hometown coffee shop, I found her plain spoken, sincere, and feeling quite responsible for creating a wonderful experience for those who listen to her songs.

Conner: How do you focus on the people in your audience when you write and perform?

Greenbaum: Well, there are different audiences for me. There’s the audience that listens in the privacy of their home or their car (or wherever they’re listening to music) and then there’s the audience that’s sitting there listening to my band play live. For both I want to provide a variety so it holds a listener’s interest. It’s good for a musician to have a sound, a recognizable sound and style, but it’s good to mix it up a little bit just to keep it interesting.

Also, I want my sound to be enjoyable to all different kinds of people, not just those from my background or my hometown. And the really cool thing that’s happened is that I now have fans—fans from little teeny kids who know the words to my songs to people in their 70s.

Part of the reason my songs may have that kind of appeal across a wide range of ages and demographic factors is that I try to write like people talk, in a way that most listeners can relate to. That goes for my regular writing as well as my song writing. You can sound fancy or incredibly deep, but most people are going to be intimidated, insulted, or bored. There’s enough of that already in school. I don’t want that when I’m listening to music, and I think other people probably don’t want that, either.

Conner: How do you achieve that voice?

Greenbaum: It’s always fun to be able to, if you can, find a word to rhyme with something like “meteorology,” which I did in one of my songs. But I really think it’s important to be as plain spoken as you can be. That doesn’t mean using only one syllable words, but it does mean writing the way people talk. And another really big part of my writing philosophy, in regular as well as song writing, is that I want people to laugh; I want people to enjoy themselves. I write a lot of very serious songs, but I may add a funny little twist of things even there, because people remember when they laugh. If you’re smiling, laughing, and having a good time, you’re going to remember that.

I have one song called, “She’s No Sarah Vaughan” that came from a real incident that happened when I was a teenager; it’s mostly true and it’s a really funny story. People request that song all the time because they remember that there’s this little twist at the end.

This perspective started when I began doing corporate work. Looking back over my corporate career, I did advertising and produced a lot of shows, like variety shows, or trade show extravaganzas, and entertaining jingles. Every business needs that. Plain talk and fun.

One example I clearly remember involved a seminar where engineers sit and talked about environmental issues in their company. Many fell asleep. It was that boring. I was assigned to produce their next event, creating something for them for Earth Day (a big event in the corporate environmental world). I turned their usual boring meeting into sort of a Late Night Talk Show: their environmental success stories and challenges became guest appearances by the scientists and engineers who had done such good work. I also made a video for this event, featuring a guy named “Mr. Environmentally Curious” asking good questions designed to reach and educate people. It was a very funny video; we filmed real people in the manufacturing plants. Then, at the end of the whole show, I was the “musical guest,” and I performed a song I’d written on the topic of environmental awareness. This was as close as a corporation is going to get to a variety show. People remembered this stuff more than anything in their earlier events. There were 500 people in the audience, from the assembly line level of the plants all the way up to every vice president of the company, and they all participated.

Conner: Sounds like fun.

Greenbaum: It was. I always try to make sure people are having fun. And that gets to the performance part of my job where I take songs I’ve written and songs that other people have written and decide what songs to play and how I’m going to arrange them and what I’m going to say in between each song, if I say anything. Sometimes it’s best just not to say anything, just keep going. That “keep going” thing can be hard for me, because I love to talk!

When I create a set list, I try to pace things so there aren’t many slow songs in a row because I think it’s important that people stay engaged and interested. I try to mix up the styles.

It’s also nice to be able to tell people what my songs are about. I feel like they need that because sometimes my songs are very personal and the story is something I want to tell the world.

For instance, I wrote “One More Angel” after John Salvi killed people in an abortion clinic in Boston. It was a very famous incident. It’s fascinating, but also frightening, to realize the difference that I felt introducing that song and singing it in a notoriously pro-gun city. That’s upsetting to me, because I should be able to express my beliefs and feel safe in expressing these beliefs, but I don’t want to make people in my audience uncomfortable either. It’s a fine line.

Conner: How do you determine what will make the listeners comfortable?

Greenbaum: When you have a microphone you have an awful lot of power. It’s very important to learn not to abuse that power. For example, yesterday we performed at a local venue—a Borders bookstore with a café—in the middle of the afternoon. There were probably a hundred people. Some came to hear us, but others came to spend time in the café or to buy a book. In places like this, we have to be extra mindful of the variety of people who might be sitting out there and even consider their personal beliefs or values.

Little kids come to places like this with their parents, and one of my songs has the word damn in it, repeatedly. It’s not frivolously used; it’s a very emotional song, an angry song. When I’m singing that in a bar and there are kids around, and it’s 10 o’clock at night, I think, “If your kids are in a bar at 10 o’clock at night, I’m not going to worry about it if I sing damn.” But in venues like Borders I always ask, and so yesterday, I asked if any parents would object to me using the “d” word. I happened to know one of the people who had a son there who’s ten and she said to me, loudly, “You’re the role model.” I didn’t do the song because that told me that she wasn’t comfortable with it. I don’t want to make other people feel awkward—that’s the last thing I want to do with a song that’s not intended for that purpose. If I’m trying to stir something up, then I’ll go for it and do it, but I try to have great respect for my music, for these wonderful people who are going to come out and listen to me play, and the way we work together.

Conner: What is your intent?

Greenbaum: What is my intent? I love music. Music has just filled me up ever since I was a tiny, tiny, tiny kid and I know what joy it brings. I know what comfort it brings me and I also know that it’s this common denominator; I really don’t think I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t like some kind of music—rap, country, classical, rock-n-roll, and even classic rock (code for “I’m over 40”). And I’ve been given this gift. I can do musically what people I’ve listened to my entire life do, and that is a very serious power I have to respect. I didn’t make myself; I was built this way. I didn’t plan it.

There is no feeling like watching people listening intently to what you’re singing, seeing them mouth the words, having them tell you afterward, “Your song really means a lot to me because this is what’s happening with my life right now.” I just want to provide people with the overwhelming joy that music has given me. Selfishly speaking, I get a huge amount of energy from people and I hope it’s a total exchange.

I also believe that I have good things to share with people, very important messages on a variety of topics that I’ve come to as I’ve grown. Some is basic day-to-day stuff, but others come from difficult experiences. The song, “Everything But You,” for instance, talks about being the luckiest person in the world materially, but still missing that perfect person.

“Everything But You” describes a successful person surrounded by fancy physical comfort, but all of this comfort means nothing because she can’t be with the person she loves. So many people have this comfort, but may have lost—or never found—the person of their dreams. That’s when you realize it doesn’t matter what you have physically, all these things you have mean nothing, really.

I added a line in the chorus, “I don’t need more stuff, I have more than enough,” and I remember when I was writing it that I was thinking, should I say stuff? Is that just too flip? Then I thought, “No, that’s what people say.” So, I’m going to put that in there. A couple of months later I heard Sting’s song, “Brand New Day,” where he says, “Turn the clock to zero buddy, don’t want to be no fuddy-duddy.” I realized that if Sting can say fuddy-duddy then I think it’s okay for me to say stuff.

I really just try to say what’s in my heart and my head. And I love people and have always talked to tons of people all the time, long before I ever did this. I’m just a very friendly person, and I think there’s so much comfort from the very simplest conversation with a person you may not know. You may never see them again, but you’re sitting next to them on an airplane or something and you just never, never know how something nice that you say or just a smile is going to change them. Imagine if you have this power of a microphone and this power to express all kinds of things in a very simple small four-minute period. Imagine how you might be able to help somebody out or tell somebody about something they may not have known about or have them look at something in an entirely different way than they ever have before. That’s kind of what I do and it’s really fun.

Conner: You are very lucky.

Greenbaum: I’m the luckiest person in the world. There’s just no two ways about it. So I’m having a blast, but I also realize the more I do this, the more people come out to hear me and send me emails and things like that. There’s something very deep inside of me that keeps me writing.

Conner: What drives you to do this?

Greenbaum: If you have the ability to share some of yourself, you have to do it. The song “One More Angel” I mentioned earlier doesn’t exactly cite that event in Boston, and it’s applicable to anybody who has been touched by a death from a gunshot. At a recent event called First Monday, I sang “One More Angel” for families of murder victims killed by gunshots and in other violent crimes, and I could barely sing it because I was crying. Imagine going through the hell of losing your loved one and finding comfort in a song that describes how you feel. It would be criminal for me not to share something that might bring comfort to someone who has been through such devastation.

Conner: How do you determine which experiences you share?

Greenbaum: Well, the experience I want to share depends on the venue. I can think of many venues right now where the experience requires us to be just a band so that there can be music playing and people can hang out. I do my best to play the songs well and try to make them interesting in the process. I know how to make good noise that isn’t annoying for people who just happen to be there.

For people who are really listening, I try to be funny, but other times it just happens. Yesterday I forgot an entire verse of my own song because I was engrossed in what my guitar player was doing as a soloist. A beautiful solo, really fun. I was just mesmerized and I forgot where we were. By the time I figured out where we were, I burst out laughing, was just having a good time, and kept going. By then everyone in the audience was laughing because I felt comfortable about everything. We all know that sometimes you forget stuff!

I just really want people to leave our shows feeling like they know who I am, what I believe in, and maybe pay attention to words of songs a little more, realizing there can be meaning in four minutes. Within that time, there can be something that they can take home with them that crystallizes a thought or feeling they’ve had. In the end, I want them to feel something about me, but also a little something about themselves and sometimes, when there’s a really big message, I want them to feel inspired and comforted.

I’ve written songs about good and bad relationships because I’ve been in them, and I’ve written songs about having lost a sibling because I have lost one of my brothers. Many people don’t have someone else that has been there, too. And so, I want to leave people feeling comforted about their own situation and knowing that they are not alone. Overall, I want them to have enjoyed themselves, and that enjoyment can come about for a various of reasons—hopefully one of them is my work.

Conner: Well I’ve enjoyed talking with you and look forward to listening to more of your songs, listening closely. I also look forward to hearing you live.

Greenbaum: Oh, please do come and hear us!

Susan Greenbaum takes great pride in telling people what she does for a living: “I am a singer-songwriter.” She believes in communicating as clearly as she can with people, and her songs reflect the need to express herself. Sometimes she tells her own stories, sometimes she tells others' stories, but she’s always striving for honesty, beauty, and love in the music she provides. Learn more at www.susangreenbaum.com.

Marcia Conner is editor in chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of Learnativity. While writing up this interview, she was listening to “Wake Up” and “The Best of Susan Greenbaum To Date,” some John Coltrane, and Bonnie Raitt. Tell her what you’re listening to at marcia@linezine.com.

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