Sarah Greene is a Toronto based poet and singer/songwriter who hosts an open mic nitght at the Tranzac Club once a month.
Her new CD Toronto Blues is a mix of different genres that explores the ups and downs of life.
Check out what Greene has to say about writing, music, and Toronto life.
BCP: Why poetry and song?
SG: For me it was poetry first and then song. My poetry always leaned to the lyrical side of things, and one day I took a poem I had written and put it to music. But now that I write more songs than poems, I’d say that I’m more of a lyricist than a composer.
BCP: What is your process?
SG: I usually wait until inspiration hits me, often when I’m out for a long bike ride or walk. I wish I could be more workmanlike about it, and sit down and get to it, but so far it hasn’t worked out that way. I think our minds do a lot of work for us while we’re not consciously pushing for anything. But after that initial verse or chorus comes to me, I do work at the rest of it, figuring out the chords on the guitar or piano, and sometimes bouncing ideas off of friends.
BCP: How long have you been writing poetry and songs?
SG: I started writing poetry (and actually, probably songs) as a kid, maybe before I could even write anything down that was coherent. I went to an alternative school, and they encouraged us to tell stories. But the first song I ever wrote was in Israel in 1998. It was a simple song about wanting to fall in love with a stranger without ever meeting them or talking to them.
BCP: Who are your influences?
SG: I listen to a lot of contemporary songwriters these days, but I think that what gets us early stays with us – I still remember most of the words to Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. My dad used to play Paul Simon and Carole King in the car, and our basement was full of his old Beatles records. My older brother got me on to Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, old blues and independent Canadian music. I was obsessed with Eric’s Trip then, and I’m still a big Julie Doiron fan. Jonathan Richman’s been a big influence for me as well, and I love watching people discover him for the first time.
BCP: Your songs are honest and get the listener thinking. What do you try to convey to your audience?
SG: A friend told me recently that lyrics should be true, but she didn’t mean literally true, and I agree with her. You know when you write something down, or speak it or sing it, if you aren’t being completely honest. That said, I don’t want to dump a bunch of my baggage onto people. What I mean is, just because something is true doesn’t mean you have to share it. All writing has some editing in it, and some fabrication. If I can convey to the listener that it’s okay to go through darkness, and to come out, and to feel and express things, joyful feelings too, then I’ll feel like I’m doing a good job.
BCP: In It’s A Life you sing the Yiddish word “L’chaim” which means “to life”. Does your spirituality play a part in your writing?
SG: I’m actually singing “It’s a life, and it’s worth living” though “l’chaim” would make sense. I come from a mixed religious background, and my ideas and feelings about spirituality keep changing. I think some of my early poetry had a spiritual aspect, but it’s only recently that it has come up in my songs. That song in particular is about coming through a dark moment in time.
BCP: Do you see song as a form of prayer or ritual?
SG: For me, and probably for a lot of musicians and music lovers who don’t belong to a specific religious community, making music and listening to music stands in as prayer or ritual – I think regular visits to places like the Tranzac in Toronto have transported me, music can take you outside of yourself. Singing is also powerful, when you are doing it your whole body resonates – it’s still mysterious to me.
BCP: You shared your poetry and songs at the Brockton Writers 17 reading series in April, 2011. Do you participate in many readings and open mics?
SG: I host the open mic at the Tranzac once a month, and I love it. It’s a great community, totally unpretentious, and there are always surprises. I used to host a literary reading at U of T, and I still fill in from time to time at other similar events. I like going to readings and just listening, too.
BCP: Why the name Toronto Blues for your album?
SG: Toronto Blues is the name of one of the songs on the album, it actually started out as a bit of a joke from a friend who was commenting on my complaints about Toronto. I had just come back from Halifax, and I was pretty sad, I missed living in a smaller place. Toronto has a lot of great things to offer, but when you’re lonely, poor and struggling, it can be hard.
BCP: You mentioned that radio stations look at your album name and place it in the Blues pile. Is this still a problem? Do you wish you named the album differently?
SG: I think I knew that that might be a problem, but if they listen to it at all they can hear it’s not a blues album. Blues has different meanings. I don’t regret the name, and I still like that song.
BCP: You sing about everyday things: love, loss, celebrations etc. Some songs seem real personal and they are songs that people can relate to. For example, Silly Summer Day is about friends liking each other and not wanting to go there. Many of us have experienced this. Do you aim to write about everyday things?
SG: I was really proud of that song, because I wrote it and (What’s with the) How Do You Do? the same afternoon. I guess I would say that I aim to transform material that starts out as personal into something more universal. For some reason I just tend to write about simple, everyday things.
BCP: Although it’s not a Blues album some of your songs seem to be influenced by the Blues, especially the last three songs on the album. Many artists have been influenced by the Blues. Can you see modern day music existing without the Blues?
SG: Modern music would have been totally different without the blues! It took me a number of years to realize how much the artists I admired owed to the blues, and I’ve been slowly working my way backwards and forwards again. I’m still learning the basics about playing various blues styles, but I understand the sentiment: it’s a humorous, matter of fact way of stating what’s wrong in your life, but also somehow seeing beyond that and getting through it. There’s acceptance in the blues.
BCP: What are you working on now?
SG: I’ve actually been working on a number of covers lately, slightly more uplifting stuff. I’m not sure what I’ll write about next, but I’d like to get a little further out of my own head when I do.
BCP: When do you expect to have your own collection of poetry published? When do you see yourself coming out with a second album?
SG: I think both might take a few years. Poetry tends to come in spurts for me, and I need to dedicate some time to reading poetry again and getting my mind thinking that way. It’s a dream I’ve had for a long time to publish a book of poems, so I guess I’m more patient about it now.
BCP: What advice do you have for other writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print, or who are afraid to perform their poetry and music?
SG: Oh, just do it. Make space for yourself to be inspired by the world, and it will happen. Separate your writing from your editing. As for performance, it gets easier every time. The first time I played guitar in front of people I thought my fingers weren’t working. We all need to test-drive things. Audiences are usually more grateful and forgiving than performers give them credit for.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet May 6, 2011 for a video of Sarah Greene singing a song for BCP.