Quick Q and A with Greg Greenway (Brother Sun)

Greg Greenway is a fixture here in New England.  Despite his “southern” roots down Richmond, Virginia way, he’s now a true New Englander with all the passion and zest for life that comes from living life with his eyes on the prize and his heart open to all things righteous and just.  Greg has a way with words and thus with lyrics….and some top notch music to go along with them.

Greg’s discography includes at least seven solo CDs and his latest recordings are as part of Brother Sun (along with Joe Jencks and Pat Wictor).  Greg’s music is as inspiring as it is honest. It’s soulful and affirming.

Take a listen to “In the Name of Love” and see what I mean.

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You’ve been a solo musician for a long time. Was the concept of recording and traveling as part of a band a welcome departure for you?
Believe it or not, even after all these years, I felt that my solo career was rising when we formed Brother Sun. So, I certainly wasn’t tired or fallow. But, I’d been thinking about some kind of trio for a long time. I looked at how Christine Lavin had brought a wave of Folk artists to larger audiences by organizing group shows and then finally the Bitchin Babes, and I realized that you have to be creative in ways far beyond songwriting to keep growing. I was so lucky to find two really fabulous men who share a commitment to so many things I value. Brother Sun goes far beyond what you see on stage. It’s been an incredible learning experience in every way. I’ve been in groups before, but never like this. I’ve grown so much as a musician and a person. So, it was a calculated risk that paid off so far beyond anything I had imagined.

Have the majority of people who have experienced you as part of Brother Sun also known about your solo work or have you each received new fans due to the merging of talents into this trio?
It’s been a mixture of both. We each have areas of strength as far as parts of the country where we’re known, or where we are well received. Combining them has brought new listeners to each of us. Certainly, I’ve learned what an international language harmony is. Undoubtedly, Brother Sun has a wider appeal than I have as a solo act. You should see what happens when Pat plays that slide in parts of the South. On some nights, Joe and I are just the noise between slide solos. On other nights in the midwest, Pat and I are the guys who preempt Joe. But, we set out to make Brother Sun greater than the sum of its parts. I believe we have succeeded.

Your bio states something that is oh-so-true about you.  It says that your “central appeal is that it comes through the singular lens of your humanity and your easy affinity for the audience.”  I’ve always admired that about you—your rapport and the caring and considerate way you treat your audience is very genuine.  Is that something that you had to work at over the years or were you lucky enough to be born with innate ability to communicate in a way that looks so effortless to those of us in the audience?
Thank You for saying that. It’s something I’ve always aspired to. I’m a “listen to this” kind of performer – as opposed to “look at me.” My ability to stand in front of an audience is directly related to what I have to say. It’s taken me a long time to be able to achieve that. It’s really the same with anyone. When you believe you have something important to convey, you are infinitely more confident, direct, and even open. The most powerful thing is the truth, and it’s taken me years to be able to believe that I have something valuable to say. But, I took my cue from Arlo Guthrie. He has always treated the audience as equals, as friends. I took it in my own direction when I realized that my lyrics are not for the faint of heart and I need to give an audience every reason in the world to want to hear what I worked so hard to create. If you want someone to cry with you, they have to laugh with you first. You have to respect that you’re engaged in a conversation, you have to respect who you’re talking to.

I also have to say that I am my father’s son. I’m just a formalized version of him. He was a funny,  funny man, who loved to talk to people. It was always dangerous to leave the house with him. We never came home on time.

Please share some of your songwriting secrets with us.  Are you a disciplined writer?  Do you have a daily or weekly practice of writing?  Do you journal?  Or do ideas percolate inside you for a while before you actually “compose” the song?
I am a quirky generalist who drives a lot. Songwriting, for me, is a state of mind. It has to be achieved. The more you experience life with the awareness, the intention of writing, the more songs life hands you. My lyrics are almost always distillations of a larger body of thought. It’s like writing a paper where the library is the planet Earth. We all have incredible stories inside us, some make us uncomfortable, maybe they don’t portray you in the best light. But, the unpolished truth is the single most powerful device a writer has.

Typically, I start with a word or a phrase that seems to encapsulate an emotion or an idea. If it’s powerful, it contains everything you need, including the music. Lately, my songs have come from poems. Poems allow for more space, more freedom.  They help me crystallize my thoughts. But, I really resist writing things down as long as possible because things on a page are different than words sung into the air.

That’s where the long drives come in. I sing my thoughts over and over until the unconscious meaning of the sounds and the cognitive meaning of the words heel up like a sailboat.

I did a lot of driving in 2012 and I wrote a lot of songs.

Do you compose on the piano or the guitar or both?
Both. Years ago, I tuned my guitar to C9 tuning to break out of the mindset of standard tuning. I’d also starting learning to play piano and unconsciously they merged. It has all become music. It has really set me free. I’m very proud of the songs I wrote for “Some Part of the Truth”  because they represent that effort, that freedom. Some are pretty standard 1-4-5-minor2-minor6 songs. Some are really uniquely harmonized around their melody. Pat and Joe have incredible musical minds and it was amazing to watch them work out parts over some of these chord changes. It was humbling. I have so far to go. But, I’m still a loyal beginner on the piano. I hear so much that I can’t perform yet. So, there’s an eternal carrot hanging out there in front of my face. I’m always trying to unwind mentally the things my ear has done in blissful ignorance on the guitar for years.

You’ve always been a musical mouthpiece for equal rights.  With all the changes in the past couple years and more and more states recognizing same sex marriages, what do you think is the next big issue we all need to be cognizant of and to which we should lend our support?  Will our work ever be done?
From the way the question is worded, I can tell you’ve been in Massachusetts a lot. There’s a very big, diverse country out there that is nowhere near Massachusetts on this issue. But, I believe, marriage equality is an inevitability. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (Theodore Parker via MLK). However, just as in the Civil Rights movement, the changing of the laws won’t change the mindset. Some people will go to their graves with these engrained attitudes.  It our job to make them feel that they’ belong in a natural history museum exhibit.. (here everyone who isn’t bothered by profanity should go to YouTube and search “Lewis Black Old Testament”).  But, the clock is ticking, there is an entire generation rising that could care less about sexual orientation.

But, will our work ever be done? No. New ways to divide humans are being invented every second. Those who have want to keep what they have, and a lot of them own TV stations.

For more information about Greg Greenway, visit his website.

Check out Brother Sun too.

Brother Sun will be appearing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, March 22.

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