The first thing you should know about singer and songwriter Craig Greenberg is that he’s a heck of a pianist. His new EP, Spinning in Time, showcases his knack for writing upbeat piano riffs that support catchy melodies and thoughtful lyrics.
But, as people who know him will tell you, he’s also known for his genuineness—and in the music business, that’s saying a lot. He’s the kind of guy who turns an afternoon gig with no cover charge at Rockwood Music Hall into a benefit for tornado victims in Alabama; the tip bucket is used to collect donations instead of tips. He’s the kind of guy who, in April 2010, organizes a concert at Brooklyn Bowl with Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors, webcasts the show to an international audience, and gives the proceeds to Americares to aid survivors of the earthquake in Chile. The kind of guy who brings Starbucks treats to a friend in the hospital and stays to chat even though he’s feeling a little under the weather himself (thanks again). And the kind of musician who works diligently not because he wants fame but because writing and sharing music make him happy.
It’s a joy that’s contagious. The energy of Greenberg’s piano playing quickly wins over audiences, but the authenticity of his lyrics and of the way he delivers them, unselfconsciously and in earnest, keep people listening. There’s something about his songs that feels very solid and true, attributable to the fact that that’s kind of person who wrote them.
Greenberg also has a strong independent streak, a sort of stubbornness he credits to his being a native New Yorker. Originally from Long Island, he spent three years after college in Chile and Spain on a self-guided sojourn, finding himself as a songwriter before taking on the challenge of making it in his hometown. “You don’t want to be place-dependent,” he says. “You want to be work-dependent. It’s like, is it about New York, or is it about the work you’re doing?”
It seems like the answer for Greenberg is both. Largely self-taught on the piano, he has worked doggedly to refine his natural talent while drawing inspiration from his New York roots: he recalls hearing his parents’ Broadway records as a youngster and later studied Billy Joel songbooks religiously.
But for someone who’s lived in the city for most of his life, he still feels a bit like a fish out of water. “It’s tough in New York,” he explains, “because there are a lot of ‘scenes’ and circles…It’s hard for me to swim in the scene because I’m kind of a loner. I just can’t belong to any one scene too much.”
Fortunately, New York is a place that also rewards individualism. “There’s a definite integrity in what I’m doing,” Greenberg says. “In the long term, people come around to it. I feel like if I dig it, other people will. And you find your people.”
(I can’t help adding that that’s the attitude of an Original Hipster.)
OH: Tell me about your time in Chile. How did you start playing music there?
CG: There were these two guys that played in this bar three nights a week that would play like two-thirds English stuff—Beatles, Rolling Stones. And grunge music was still really big there at the time. So I started just sitting in with them with these egg shakers I had, and then after a while I graduated to getting a pair of bongos there, and later to singing harmonies. I was doing it all for free, getting food and drink.
After a couple months, one of the guys I was playing with there had a friend who had opened up a new bar that was looking for a house musician, and so I went in and auditioned. At that point I had like six or seven cover songs that I could play and sing, but they hired me. Maybe partly because I was like a gringo novelty. So that was the start. I was playing there Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, three sets a night. Each night I would learn more and more songs, and that’s when I really started singing. That kind of changed my whole career trajectory–up until that point I thought I would just be a songwriter. But I remember having this very profound moment. I woke up that first Sunday after just three nights of playing, and something had just fundamentally changed in my life. I just felt like, wow, if I’m doing this in my life, I can be happy.
OH: What was your musical background, growing up?
CG: I took guitar lessons. I started playing guitar when I was sixteen, and I went to this guitar workshop in Connecticut one summer. So that was the formal training, and I had a good amount of theory through that. In school I took some music classes, like electronic music and jazz. I played in the school jazz band.
I never had a piano. I had friends that played and who would show me things here and there. But, that I really mainly did learn on my own, like sitting with Billy Joel songbooks. It was a lot by ear. I was also able to translate a lot of what I did on guitar to piano.
Piano opened me up more because all of a sudden I could now keep the bass in my left hand. It was a much fuller sound and added a new level of sophistication to my music. I feel that when I started writing on a piano, I became more of a composer. Vocally, too, it brought out my voice in a deeper, more resonant way.
CG: People say modern-day Billy Joel or Ben Folds. I definitely relate to Billy Joel, musically and background-wise. So I absorbed a lot from him–especially in that sense of New York identity and pride.
OH: I’m noticing your Ben Folds t-shirt.
CG: Oh, yeah. Ben was a huge influence, though much later.
OH: He’s like the ultimate rock pianist. There’s kind of no one better.
CG: I agree. And that’s the thing—there are a lot of piano player/songwriters out there, but I don’t think there are that many that really rock. There are people who take parts of what Ben does, but it doesn’t really have that rock attitude. So, that’s something I definitely feel, and I’m trying to incorporate that in what I do.
But also, Phish was a band that was hugely influential on me. It’s now kind of my guilty admission. They had a looseness in their music and this giddy exuberance. So I always thought about taking some of that but putting it into more of a pop structure. So you have good, hooky stuff and emotional vocals but room for improvisation and solos. This has been like the vision that I’ve been trying to actualize this whole time, that i think i’m only just getting down now.
OH: How would you describe your lyrics?
CG: They range. I have several songs that are about overcoming adversity. I guess I’ve tried to put some of the struggle I’ve gone through with this crazy career path I’ve chosen into songs that will inspire others. Also some about relationships, some about just random city experiences, and some political thoughts sneak in there from time to time, too.
For me most often in writing it’s a process of discovering what the song is about. That’s how I’ve always written. I’ve never sat down and said, “I want to write a song about this.” As some who considers himself a pop-songwriter, and a big melody guy, to me the lyrics just need to serve the song, and if you can say something interesting, that’s a bonus. The goal is always, you don’t want a lyric to take people out of the song.
These days I try to pull from concrete experience as much as possible, and I think my better songs are based on real things that happen to me.
I consider myself an old-school troubadour songwriter, kind of a throwback. And someone with a conscience, too, not just trying to write typical love stuff. There’s just so many people that do that, and I’m trying to explore other themes.
OH: How would you describe your singing style?
CG: People say there’s a little bit of a twang in there…I think there’s also a bit of sadness in my tone.
OH: How did your experiences abroad influence your music?
CG: More than musically, it was the experience of being on my own in these foreign places and being forced to make a life there and interact. Also, people say they get a very visual impression from a lot of my music, like a sense of place, so I guess my travel experience comes out that way a bit.
OH: What strikes me as interesting is that, even with all the traveling and your sort of wide-eyed view of the world, you seem to have remained consistent in who you are.
CG: Yeah, I think that’s true. I guess I would attribute that to my “New Yorker-ness”. With my music, at a certain point, I just accepted the fact that I’m never going to be the coolest thing out there, partly because I consider myself a throwback in many ways and also because keeping up with what’s currently “cool” is just too exhausting. There’s just too much stuff! I decided to just make the kind of music I’d want to hear and that the most important thing is to be true to yourself and to your vision.
OH: What’s the alternative to cool, for you?
CG: Being real. Being who you are. I feel like cool is such an intangible thing. And so is fame and celebrity. I just want to do good work…I’m just trying to find something real and find a connection with people.
There are people that are in “the scene” and trying so hard to be cool. But I don’t really think—mainly from my experience with my travels—it’s something most people in the world care about when they experience music. I’ve always tried to approach what I’m doing from the broadest perspective possible. And I really believe that, anytime in music, soul will cut through. So in my view, if you have soul, you’re cool.
At the end of SXSW, Charlene Kaye, along with band member Megan Cox on violin, are playing El Mercado, an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant—and an appropriately ironic venue for Kaye to finish out the week. “I don’t think I can eat anymore Mexican food after this trip,” she laughs. “If I never see a taco again, it will be too soon.”
A 24-year-old Hawaii native with Singaporean parents, Kaye grew up in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Arizona before attending college as an English major at the University of Michigan. She moved to New York about a year and a half ago, immediately after college, with a number of musician friends from school, no money, and no place to live. Since then, she says she’s been “single-mindedly” pursuing a career in music.
“I really can’t see myself doing anything else. I almost don’t really feel like I have a choice.”
A few minutes of listening to Kaye’s jazzy vocals, poetic lyrics, and strong song arrangements will convince anyone that she’s chosen exactly the right profession. Her exotic beauty and effortless confidence onstage present a singer/songwriter who seems primed for success.
In fact, Kaye’s recent single “Dress and Tie” has already earned her an impressive amount of recognition for someone so relatively new to the music business. Recorded with fellow U. of M. alum and Glee cast member Darren Criss, the song made the top 150 downloaded songs the day it was released on iTunes. Not surprisingly, Kaye says this has significantly expanded her fan base. “I have a lot of all-ages fans, as in, under-21 fans, because the Glee demographic tends to be a younger crowd,” she explains. “Everywhere we’ve gone, I’ve gotten at least ten little girls who are like, ‘I love Darren, and I love you! I love you because Darren loves you!’”
While the Midas touch of the Glee association has increased Kaye’s popularity, the attention certainly isn’t undeserved. Keep an eye on this talented lady. She is going places.
OH: Where did your band name, Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes, come from?
CK: It came from a dream that I had. The more I thought about it, the more I started to conceive it as the people around me, my bandmates and others that inspire me, who help me realize the musical ideas I have and flesh out my vision. It was also kind of inspired by the feeling of looking out into the crowd the second right before I start to sing and seeing all these eyes looking back in anticipation.
I feel like performing is kind of like having a conversation with somebody. If you feel like they’re giving something back, then you want to give more back.
OH: How long have you been playing music?
CK: I was trained in classical piano since the age of five, and I took piano lessons until I was sixteen. And then when I got into middle school and high school, I kind of dropped the piano and got really into Elliot Smith and Blink-182 and Good Charlotte and Goldfinger. I went through a big punk stage and learned like every song in drop-D possible. The first guitar I ever played was my mom’s classical, nylon strings, and I was playing Blink-182 on that. I just got frustrated with the formal training because it was nothing that I was listening to at the time, and once I discovered how to play songs I actually liked, I got really excited. And that was sort of the portal into discovering how much I loved music, when it didn’t feel like a homework assignment.
OH: I noticed Megan, your violinist, was playing and singing at the same time. I’ve never seen anyone do that before.
CK: Megan was a prodigy classical pianist. By age ten she was playing these really advanced sonatas, winning regional competitions and beating her older brothers. And then she was like, actually, I want to learn how to play violin. And so she became a badass at violin, and then she was like, actually, I think I want to be a classical voice major! So she majored in that in college, and now she’s a monster. The perfect triple threat.
OH: Did you take any voice lessons?
CK: Here and there. I took one class in college with this huge opera singer that was amazing in his own way, but I don’t really feel like I took anything from it because I’m more like a soul/rock vocalist, or at least I aspire to be. And he wanted me to sing in a traditional style. It didn’t really resonate. So I just sing however it feels good. I’ve been known to take Mariah Carey karaoke tracks and just practice with that because she’s so all over the place that anything you sing after that feels so easy—especially my stuff that has very defined melodies. I don’t riff that much. So, if I have to warm up, I’ll run through a Mariah Carey song! (laughs)
CK: My first album [Things I Will Need in the Past] I would describe as indie-folk-pop. All the instruments on the album are real acoustic instruments—cellos, lots of strings, real drums, lots of ambient percussion like woodwinds and chimes and glockenspiel and stuff like that. My EP [Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes] I would describe as more alternative rock. There’s one song that’s inspired by old soul songs…I’m so blatantly influenced by everything that I hear.
The new album is going to be much more personal and more intense. I’ve had a lot of life experiences since the release of my first album, and I think that though the voice that emerges is still me, it’s a more mature one, one that’s moved past writing about her first heartbreak or imaginary fictional scenarios. Musically, I want to say it’s stranger and more ambitious than the easy-listening pop stuff that’s characterized my sound in the past, but I hesitate because in some ways it actually does lean towards a more pop sound – a good handful of the songs from the new batch sound like singles to me, which I guess is a good thing. My inspirations are all over the place, from Blondie to M. Ward to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to of Montreal.
OH: Is this your first time at SXSW?
OH: What’s your experience been so far?
CK: Oh, man. I’ve had a blast. I cannot wait for next year. It’s been like margaritas nonstop!
Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes play Don Hill’s in NYC with Shoot the Freak and Hank & the Cupcakes on April 24 at 7:00 p.m.