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.
How do you focus on the people in your audience when you write
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.
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.
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.
How do you achieve that voice?
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
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
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.
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.
Sounds like fun.
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!
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.
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.
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.
How do you determine what will make the listeners comfortable?
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.
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.
What is your intent?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
You are very lucky.
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
What drives you to do this?
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.
How do you determine which experiences you share?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Oh, please do come and hear us!
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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