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Part 2

The Creation of Susan Greenbaum


Of course, all of this marketing savvy doesn't preclude great musicianship. Greenbaum has had the good fortune of being born with a set of pipes that can both grind out a salty come-on or float high up on the octaves like a love affair. Listen to half a dozen of her songs, and you'll get as many styles: bluesy, folk, country - even pure, shameless cotton-candy pop. If there is any complaint to be heard about her music, it's that it tends to be a bit friendly — it lacks a cynicism of sound that could make it more provocative. The band seems unapologetic. "Well, I could agree that it's a softer sound," admits 30-year-old bass player Steve Barber. "But I also really couldn't care less. How many Offspring metal bands keep rehashing the same old crap? I'm really over a guy screaming over music." A veteran of other local Richmond bands, Barber says Greenbaum's strongest quality is her voice. "The range, I think, is what always keeps you listening to her," Barber says. "When you don't have it, it starts to sound like you're singing the same song over and over again. With her, you don't stop paying attention. She gets everything out of her voice she can." Greenbaum doesn't scream. She listens, and creates music with what her band regards as an excellent intuitive ear. "We'll be doing a gig somewhere and people will just yell out the name of some song. She strums the guitar once or twice, thinks it over for a second and says, 'Yeah, we can do that one,'" explains Chris Parker, the band's drummer. "And then there it is, exactly right." Bottom line, the band members agree, is that it's the Susan Greenbaum Band. Her music, her lyrics. And, as she is painfully aware, her job to make them stick together and play well. Fact is, though, it's tough to be the boss, whether it's in a corporation or in a band. Maybe worse in a band, since there's a fine line between working as a group and having players feel like a big backdrop to her success. In its short existence, the band is on its second bass player and is currently searching for a permanent replacement for guitarist Rich Stine, who left early this month to pursue a free-lance touring option with another local band. Stine, 23 years old, talented, and packed with stage presence "loves Susan to death," he says, but wanted to experiment with different styles. For now, the band's original guitarist, Jay Mullen, will fill in. "It absolutely turns my stomach," admits Greenbaum. "It's not only losing good musicians, but it's the time and energy it takes to find just the right person for us. The chemistry is never guaranteed, and that's where the music is made. I never, never think of the guys as hired hands. They are vital to me." And it appears to be true. The band is like a complicated ecosystem, each person's success depending precariously on everyone else's musicianship and personality quirks. Matters get even touchier with the quietly understood fact that Greenbaum and Parker are romantically involved. A rehearsal in her chilly basement sometimes looks like siblings goofing around, and at other times like a scene of a mother reining in the brood. Every now and again, a tense moment has Greenbaum - normally sweet and cajoling — getting right to the point. During a practice session a few weeks ago, she insists on a change in how Stine is playing "Looks Good." Silence. "What? Did I say something wrong?" she demands. Quiet shrugs — picture kids cheating and getting caught red-handed. The changes are made. Other times, there is plenty of room for experimentation and conversation. Parker eventually wants to play strictly hand percussion, his specialty. Barber wonders what Greenbaum would sound like on an electric guitar and — more tentatively — what he would sound like singing. Greenbaum, meanwhile, says she plans to take up the piano, an instrument she feels she understands pretty intuitively. [image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Greenbaum greeted fans of all ages for about an hour after a recent appearance at Borders. Ideas like those are always simmering, Greenbaum watching intently for the right time to experiment with the band's sound, careful not to disturb the delicate threads that hold the group together. ertainly, the band's resolve will be tested. As Greenbaum is quickly finding out, the music industry is strictly a cash deal. And for those musicians who are women, a career has to evolve despite a pervasive Hooters mentality and the fact that not one major record label is run by a woman. Greenbaum is only too aware of what she's up against. For example, she refuses to discuss her age. Still, she openly bristles at the implied idea that the "chick sound," the acoustic-rich music she prefers, is somehow for pansies. She deals with it in her typical, let's-be-friends way of bringing people around. "You always hear people refer to chick music or chick bands. I don't even know what that is," she insists. "Why do we need that distinction? It's just music, period, for everybody." Against this dismal backdrop, she is using the years she spent figuring out how to sell stuff like kids' shoes to her advantage. Only now, she's the product to be sold, the thing to make people want. And it amounts to a balancing act between using the calculating tactics of a businesswoman and nurturing her creative process. That's exactly the way to approach things, says 1960s icon Janis Ian, easily the grand pooh-bah of female folk artists. Ian's 40-year career power has meant being queen of the very balancing act Greenbaum is trying to strike. For Ian, music isn't just an art. It's a business. "It takes some of us a while to realize that we're in a service industry like waitressing or cutting hair," Ian says in a phone call from Nashville. "That's tricky because that concept sits right alongside the idea that you have to do your work the way you want to do your work." Greenbaum seems to have caught on sooner than most. Like most emerging women artists, she is the talent, the manager, the promoter, the roadie — the everything — to the band. But she approaches her job as systematically as a tax accountant. She ignores both praise and criticism, and plows through press releases and e-mails for at least a dozen hours a week in between making phone calls and singing melodies into her bedside tape recorder. She doesn't get rattled by the possibilities of failure or success and has no illusions about being an unknown, unsigned female artist. She considers her chances of hitting big about as close as a kid becoming an NBA star. What she's after is a chance to make music her way. "I don't know what's going to happen with the labels or with anything else," she says matter-of-factly. "I can't rely on a label to make me into a good, well-known and successful musician. I have to do it myself, and plow ahead with personal goals that don't require or even factor in a major label deal." For now, Greenbaum is playing everywhere she can, talking to loads of people in the field and doing a lot of thinking. Often, it's about her brother, Ron, who died three years ago of a brain tumor. His words often help her take on challenges that seem beyond her scope, then as now. Just before she packed her things and headed to Harvard, he told her, "Don't be intimidated by others' brilliance. You belong there. This is not some accident." "That," she says quietly, "is the best advice I ever got." Jump to Part 1, 2

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