Talks with Jennifer Greer
Fistful of Stars
CEV: I’ve always felt that environment contributes to a person’s desires, interests and how they choose to express themselves creatively. Tell me about growing up in a suburb of New York City and how living to such a large cultural center influenced you creatively?
JG: I have to be honest and say in this case there was little or no influence. My parents were divorced, and I lived in Nyack, NY with my mom, and would visit my dad in the city 2 weekends a month. Neither parent was into going to cultural activities, or the arts in any strong way. Nobody was seeking that out or involved in it. The one thing I can think of is I saw Annie when I was 8 or 9 and that had a huge effect on me as a young singer.
CEV: Did your parents encourage your efforts as a singer/songwriter/pianist?
JG: Since I came to songwriting later in life (in my mid-20's), not in any formative way. But they are very supportive of what I do and really believe in me and my music and want me to keep following my passion.
CEV: I’ve seen many artist’s bios proclaim that they are self-taught in regards to their musical talents. How hard was it to teach yourself something like piano and does that allow you to more easily move outside the “rules” of what you might have been taught in formal lessons to make the music more uniquely yours?
I think it would help me immensely and be a powerful tool and broaden my language and technique a lot.
The problem is that I can barely keep up with the songs I am writing-- so many seeds and ideas and paths to follow and develop in the time I do have. And if I don't get to it, it gnaws at me. If I was also formally studying music I'd have to play 5-6 times a week to keep up with it all. And one day I will do it!
CEV: I noticed in your bio that poetry was very important to you and you’ve had several of them published along with winning a National Collegiate Poetry Award while you were in college. In your mind is there a difference between the lyrics that populate your songs and the poetry that you write independently of music? I was curious as to whether you felt that lyrics were just poetry set to music or if these were two distinct art forms not to be confused with one another.
JG: Another great question! I do find them completely and utterly distinct. I think I was a very different artist as a poet. It was a whole other world. For a poem to succeed it must have its own music in it-- people forget that-- that there is already music in a poem. So yes the lyrics are totally separate and although I spend a great deal of time on them, and they have a metaphoric quality a lot, because that is how I think, they don't at all have the level of craft or architecture or power that a poem does. They are there as a puzzle piece against and within the melodies and rhythms. They all illuminate each other. A poem is illuminated by itself from within.
CEV: When was it that you first started to put your words to music and meld these two areas of your creative life? How did that feel? Was it a natural progression to what you felt inside?
CEV: You have such a lovely voice. Did you have any vocal training along the way? Tell me about your progression as a vocalist and what was it that attracted you to expressing yourself this way.
JG: Thanks Michael! As with the piano, I took a year or 2 of the basics. With singing they mainly teach you breath stuff, and some stuff to help you sing high notes. That's all I really remember from it. Again I just kind of do it organically.
CEV: Tell me about the first time that you sang your music at an open mic for the public and what was it that motivated you to take your music to that next level of actually performing it for others?
CEV: Did winning the open mic award at the Towne Crier Café give you a boost and confirm that you were on the right track? Tell me about that.
JG: Definitely. I was so raw at the time, I had been writing songs for 6 months or so, I was striving for the kind of aesthetic that would become the base of my particular sound, wanting to give everything of myself in the songs and to move people, and it was very confirming that I was able to touch people. It was very beautiful.
CEV: Your music is definitely a blending of several genres including jazz and classical. What did you grow up listening to and how do those influences find expression when you are in composing mode?
JG: Its funny. I grew up listening to pop like most people. My mom was a former hippie and there was some folk music played in the house, though I didn't like it. I loved the usual pop stars-- Michael Jackson, Madonna, and I loved Led Zeppelin (my all time favorite), the Police, Pink Floyd. Later I started listening to some of the great female songwriters-- Suzanne Vega, Joni Mitchell. Around the time I started college I was introduced by my boyfriend to classical music. And I actually listened to that almost exclusively for many years. There were a few other bands that I listened to, but mainly it was a steady diet of classical, and it was an incredibly enriching time. My favorite music for a while now has been world music. I have so much more to learn, but what I am exposed to just slays me! Mainly music from Africa and the Middle East, as well as Eastern Europe.
CEV: Once you started performing live were you already thinking in terms of putting your music out in the marketplace as CD release or making it available as MP3s on iTunes? Does that realization change the way you approach your music or what you might compose?
JG: No, it didn't change anything regarding how/what I write. But I always knew I'd be making records.
CEV: Tell me about your first CD release. What went through your mind when you had to start planning what songs were going to go onto it and was there a theme to the project that you tried to stick to?
JG: For my first CD, Jewel Machine, I just wanted to capture, like a snap-shot, what the music was at that point. I played and sang live, which I really liked. Drums and harmonies were added after, and that's it. Its a very clear album in that sense.
CEV: Where do you draw your inspiration from when you are composing your music, writing your lyrics or even expressing yourself in your poetry?
Surprises often await in terms of images, melodies, key changes, memories, empathies, etc etc in the coming to be of a song.
The song has a main theme, which is sprinkled with and informed by these side stories or side images, sometimes based on my own life but sometimes not. When I write a song its like painting a house or putting up a concrete wall-- that act of building is the main task at hand, the central task, but what's in the air-- the dust, the feathers, the particles-- it all gets captured in there.
CEV: Are you a lone wolf when it comes to putting out your music or do you have others who help you to completely realize the music that you have composed once you are ready to actually put it down on tape or whatever medium is used these days? (band, producers, etc)
JG: I am definitely a lone wolf. I'm the stamen and the pistil! But the band plays a big role in shaping a new song to get the details and dynamics right. I may have a vision but I'm really open to what they have to say and I let them be as creative as they want to be as long as it stays true to the song and lets it breathe.
CEV: Do you see your music as an evolutionary process for you as the singer/songwriter and musician? How have you seen it evolve from the days when you first started composing?
JG: Oh definitely. It has to be an evolutionary process. I'm not even sure I can put my finger on how its different from when I started, but it is very different. Which again is why it's such a gift to have this in my life-- the excitement of discovery and development always there. It is a massive blessing.
CEV: Your most recent release Fistful of Stars came out in February 2010. The description says “her most ambitious album to date.” What is it about Fistful of Stars that makes it your most ambitious release to date?
JG: Ambitious in the sense that it captured the best of 4-5 years worth of material, and the tracks span a large range of material, from ethereal ballads, straight forward pop, eclectic pop, and rockers.
CEV: When did you start working on Fistful of Stars and did you have anything specific in mind for the direction of this CD?
JG: Fistful of Stars is really the second of two albums-- the first one which did not get made due to financial restraints. (That album had a title and everything!) So I guess you could say I started working on Fistful of Stars 4 years ago. But the recording, mixing and mastering part started in March of 2009. The album took about 9 months to make-- as long as a human baby, haha!
CEV: What was it that you learned from each of your previous releases that you brought to bear on the creation of Fistful of Stars?
JG: Mainly just to have the band well rehearsed and in good shape, to rehearse my ass off for my piano parts, and that I like to use the first cuts to base my harmonies on. I went around listening to them on cassette for weeks and came up with all the harmonies that way.
CEV: Are there any songs on Fistful of Stars that absolutely spotlight your growth as a singer/songwriter? I know that this is a very subjective question but no one knows the songs like you do as the composer as to the ones that really opened your own mind to new possibilities.
JG: As a ballad, there's something in "In Your Arms Starfish" that shows where I've taken the ballad in a way that is very personal. But no, there's no particular song-- they all reflect where I'm at and have been at as a writer.
CEV: I did notice a peculiar thing about the song listings on the back of your CD. You divided them up into Side 1 and Side 2 songs. Brought back memories of listening to LPs back in the day. Was there a message regarding the songs that appear on each side? Did this indicate a division between the songs on each side?
JG: Yes, that came from working with making a track listing, and trying several orders, but nothing made the right sense until I thought of it in 2 parts, like an LP. Then I could see the sides, and the experience I wanted to happen on each side. Also it was showing a bit of nostalgia and preference for those days, when a CD wasn't one long super human experience, but more human and in more digestible pieces. Now of course we mainly just have pieces-- the one song download!
CEV: What was the Indie Music Collective about why did you feel the need to be involved with it?
JG: That was an experiment I did with another songwriter in town, Jenn Taranto, to try to create more community among the music community here in the Boston area. We ran it for a year at one of my favorite venues, the Lily Pad in Cambridge. It was a good experience and though it didn't go where we wanted to I would try it again sometime.
CEV: Do you still take your music out on the road? Will you be performing Fistful of Stars live in the coming months? What do you as a performer take away from live performances and what do you hope that the audience remembers about the music that you perform for them?
JG: Oh yes, lots of shows happened already, many more to come, including an upcoming solo tour this fall. Live performances is where it's at next to of course the composition. It's where you bridge worlds, from public to private, and offer what you have and have been working on to others with all your heart and all your musicianship. I often gauge a performance based on how strong and open my voice was, since that's the prime way I'm communicating. And of course the ultimate point is to have fun! I definitely set out to move people, to help them in some small way, to make them shake their booty, to help remind them not to be afraid of what is in their own hearts and imagination. To cherish all that.
CEV: Any final thoughts about your music, life, the universe and everything as this interview finishes up?
JG: Well I've already written the next album, with title and all, so I'm hoping to find a way to record it soon! As hard as doing music is in terms of all the competition, no money, etc, etc, its is still such an unimaginably deep gift I truly could not live without. Its the thread that runs through all my days. Thank you for this interview Michael!
CEV: And thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. And thank you for the wonderful music you create. I hope that you are able to do this for many years to come with much success.