Recently, I had a chance to sit down and catch up with Richmond-based Singer-Songwriter Susan Greenbaum. Even though we have worked together several times, I learned a few new and marvelous things about this powerhouse musician! She'll be coming to the Festival on Wednesday, July 22 to sing some of her own songs as well as some songs from 1975, the year the Wintergreen Resort was founded. Check out her fascinating journey and beautiful songs below, and then join us on July 22 for a celebration not-to-be-missed! - Erin
When did you start singing?
I cannot remember not singing! In fact, I have memories as far back as age 3 of singing, “That’s Amore” with my dad and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” with my mom, and “Our Love Is Here to Stay” with both of them! I sang in elementary school choir, I sang at my neighborhood talent show on someone’s driveway, I sang in choirs all the way through and beyond college, and I have always sung on my own—especially once I learned to play guitar.
Were you always a singer-songwriter?
I think the answer to this question is “yes,” but it took me a while to figure that out! I was unaware that a person could actually pursue a career in music, and I certainly had no idea how to do such a thing. I graduated from college and took the first job I applied for; I moved through a few corporate jobs and really learned a lot, sprinkling my business responsibilities with creative efforts that supported the consumer products my company made. For example, I wrote a song and produced a music video for it to promote a camera whose target audience was kids. The video was on MTV (back when MTV had music videos), and the VP of advertising at my company, Polaroid Corporation, was stunned that someone “in-house” (vs someone from the very expensive NYC advertising agency) had made the video and written and performed the song—for a very small budget. It was only after my youngest big brother passed away from brain cancer that I discovered free will and realized that I needed to follow my dream—and my dream was to make my living and life as a singer-songwriter. Wonder of wonders, that’s exactly how I’ve made my living and life for the last 12 years!
How do you go about writing a song?
I have to say that, in many cases, the song writes itself. A melody will come to me, a lyric will come to me, often a lyric will arrive in my head with a melody attached, and I then sit down and try to expand on the initial inspiration. It’s a really thrilling and challenging combination of music just showing up and then the rigorous, very focused work of turning that inspiration into something that will make sense to a listener, both lyrically and musically. It’s really a combination of my right brain doing creative work as my left brain organizes and corrals that creative output. Usually, I have my guitar as I write, with a tape recorder to capture ideas that might slip away if I don’t get them recorded! And I always have paper and pen at the ready—everywhere! My very patient husband has to put up with sticky-notes and envelopes and other random scraps of paper all over the place, all covered with different words and musical notes! He’s also a musician, so he gets it!
Do you have a favorite from among your songs?
It’s very difficult to choose a favorite, because every song I’ve written comes from my heart, no matter what the subject matter. But some do stand out to me. I think my song, “Virginia, the Home of My Heart” is one that particularly springs to mind, because it really flowed so easily once I started to write down my initial idea.
I wrote it as a love song to my husband, who is a Virginia boy through and through; as I mentioned, he’s also a musician, and we travel the Commonwealth to play music in cities and towns large and small. I was away from him for about a week, and it was the first time we’d been apart since we’d been married. I was really missing him, and I expressed my feelings by describing the state that I’d grown to love and call my own, thanks to him and the wonderful people we meet in our travels, or as we call them, our adventures together. The song came straight from my heart, and we both cried a little bit the first time I sang and played it for him. Reaction to the song has been overwhelming, as people everywhere we play it have urged me to submit it to become the new State Song of Virginia. I’m overjoyed and so excited to say that “Virginia, the Home of My Heart” was presented to the General Assembly in a bill and is now officially under consideration by Virginia legislators to be named the new State Song!
At Wintergreen, you'll be performing some of your own works and some works from 1975, the year the Wintergreen Resort was founded. Do you approach singing your works differently than singing songs written by others? And how?
I think that I have a dual responsibility when performing other people’s songs (that’s also known as covering a song). I need to sing the song in a way that is recognizable to the audience, especially if it’s a well-known cover. People understandably like what is familiar to them. But I also feel that, as a performer, I have a responsibility to bring some of myself to the song, either through a different stylistic interpretation or just by changing inflections or improvising or, in some cases (because I can’t play lead guitar when my rhythm guitar is the only melodic instrument—and I can’t play lead guitar anyway!), scatting or whistling what might be a guitar or keyboard solo in the well-known version of a song. When I perform my own songs, I tend to stick pretty close to the way I wrote the song. Sometimes I’ll change things up a bit, but as my original songs aren’t well-known, I want to present them as clearly as I can. That way, if a listener hears me at different venues or buys one of my CDs or downloads my music, s/he will recognize the songs on the recording as those from the live performance—at least, I hope so!
What are some of your favorite musical memories?
I’m really blessed to have so many favorite musical memories! Certainly at the top of the list was standing in front of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and singing one of my songs as the RSO played a magnificent, soaring orchestral arrangement to accompany me!
I don’t mean to make your readers think that I cry all the time, but that was another experience that brought tears to my eyes! It was literally breathtaking to hear such a marvelous group of musicians playing my song, and I had the thrill and luxury of singing along! I’ll never forget that!
Another great memory was attending the awards ceremony for a songwriting contest I’d entered; I’d received the top award in two categories, and as the hosts announced the overall winners for the entire contest—selected from all the top award winners in each category—I was overjoyed when they called my name for second place. I returned to my seat very happy, with prize in hand; the hosts then said, “This is the first time in our contest’s 22-year history that the same person has won the first and second top prizes.” I didn’t really register what they saying, as I was still glowing from having won second prize. I sure didn’t think they were talking about me—until they said my name. Even then, it took me a few seconds to figure out what was happening. It was literally a jaw-dropping experience!
And one more vivid memory: When I was in college, performing as the youngest member of the women’s close-harmony group, I was just really excited to have been chosen for the group. We had a very big concert for 3,000 people, and the hall sold out—it was Junior Parent’s Weekend, always a big weekend for a show on campus! I had a solo in the show, singing most of the song, “I Only Have Eyes for You” with the group singing backup. In the middle of the song, I returned to the “U” that we sang in, for the part where we all sang a few lines together; the audience started clapping as I returned to the “U,” in the middle of the song, and then wouldn’t stop clapping at the end of the song. I’m actually getting chills as I remember this now; it was my first inkling that people really liked my singing. I have that concert on cassette tape; I’ll have to dig it out and get it digitized before the tape disintegrates!
What is your favorite thing about singing?
I am a very friendly person. I love talking with and getting to know all kinds of people. Singing gives me a great opportunity to reach out to people in a very welcoming way. Although I’m doing my best to entertain people when I sing, I’m also doing my best to communicate with them. I’m lucky to have a somewhat versatile voice and an affection for many different styles of music; this is really fun, as it allows me to reach folks who like all different kinds of music. I always enjoy hearing from people about what styles they like to hear from me. Some folks really like my blues-ier numbers, some prefer my more rock-oriented songs, and some prefer my gentler, more acoustic (some might say folk-oriented) songs. Plus, singing for me is a wonderful release. It’s just so liberating to get to make a joyful noise, and then it’s pretty darn thrilling when people clap at the end of a song!
What other artists do you admire?
I’m a very big fan of Patty Griffin, a singer-songwriter who not only has a very expressive and beautiful voice but also writes incredibly evocative, emotional, lyrically and musically interesting and gorgeous songs. I love the Beatles, because they wrote in so many different genres and had no boundaries to their creativity—and they’re the Beatles! I love James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne—these were the artists whose albums were in my brothers’ record collections alongside the Beatles (and a copy of Iron Butterfly and some other harder rock’n’roll groups!). I think I just internalized so much of their artistry while listening to their music over and over as a really young kid of 7 or 8. My brothers are all quite a bit older than I am, so I had to sneak into their rooms to use the stereo—and not mess up the records! I also love John Hiatt and a group called Fountains of Wayne (they’re amazing musicians and songwriters), and I’m a fan of Taylor Swift, for a lot of reasons! And I love Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett; I learn a lot listening to them, and I had the great joy recently of seeing Tony Bennett in person—it was like attending a master class in performance! I also admire my parents. Although they were never performers, they both have beautiful voices; we always sang around the house, not formally, just for fun. They instilled in me a love of music and have always encouraged me to pursue my passion.
Tell us something about you that might surprise the audience!
I love to cook! And eat! Not necessarily in that order! And I’m under five feet tall—which has nothing to do with the fact that I love to cook and eat!
(Sounds like she's a perfect fit for Wintergreen Performing Arts!)