Check out any edgy Chicago institution and musician Miki Greenberg is somewhere in the mix. A writer, pianist and singer, Greenberg has had a hand in everything from the Lunar Cabaret to Curious Theater Branch to This American Life to art-punk band World Gone Mad. He even spent twelve years running The Old Town School of Folk Music’s café. Now Greenberg is back performing after a four year hiatus and along with new band mates Elizabeth Breen, Lindsay Weinberg and Jason McInnes, he’s released Havin’ Stuff and Bein’ Pretty. He spoke with Our Town about his influences, wide-ranging career, and his new band, It’s a Girl.
Our Town Tell me about your new album.
Miki Greenberg With "It's A Girl" we wanted to do a project that was positive and sweet, something that would make a thoughtful person glad they were alive. It is for sunny days or the good kind of rainy day. It is not for tornadoes, floods or funerals. "It's A Girl" is about re-affirming joy and hope as the starting points of a life worth living. It is much easier to make dark, sad art that feels deep. Making happy art that is fulfilling is a huge challenge. The story and theater of [each] song is vital. We use props. Each song has its own very distinct arrangement and live presentation that grows out of the content of the song. Our sound is one or two instruments with two to four singers, no drum kit or electric guitars. Jason plays acoustic guitar, ukulele, banjo, and trumpet. Lindsay and Elizabeth have rich, clear tone and they can blend voices seamlessly; they know how to get inside the emotion and humor in any lyric. The positive and the feminine are two engines driving this CD. Jason and I are men who love life and embrace girl power.
OT What’s your songwriting process like?
MG My songwriting is very intuitive as far as initial melody, structure and story. A lot of my songs write themselves in less then an half an hour. The last song on the CD, "So Aloha" is a perfect example. I signed an e-mail to a friend " you're so a love, so alive,” I looked at it after hitting "send" and the whole song tumbled out. It has an elaborate rhyme scheme that I would never have arrived at by working over time. I do have a huge bag of tricks for editing and making arrangements more interesting once the initial idea forms. Sometimes when an idea is super catchy I wonder if it is new or pulled from memory. Sometimes it is both.
OT Who are your influences?
MG The two bodies of work I try to live up to are the Beatles and Cole Porter. Setting your sights high helps you fail high.
OT You’ve described some of your music as “pop and catchy” yet your songs/albums boast titles such as The Oral History of Anal Sex. This seems like a schism. Is it?
MG Pop music has always been filled with mature images. "I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" is Beatles in the summer of love. Its A Girl is all joy but also silly/sexy. I think we are completely accessible even though we're a little offbeat. Kids like our goofy energy and adults like well written lyrics.
OT Throughout your career you’ve moved from band to band. Did each fulfill a specific function?
MG I was in Maestro Subgum and the Whole for ten years. A lot of folks loved that band and some were deeply moved. The Whole is every emotion all side by side. There is a tremendous freedom in that approach but it can be overwhelming. After that I tried to focus each album around an emotional or lyrical concept and find the people who could best embody the idea.
OT In the 90's you worked at This American Life. Any stories you'd like to share?
MG For three years I answered the hotline and made all the cassette tapes people ordered. Ira Glass is a first rate artist who stays true to his vision and he was a super nice boss. People have no idea how hard he works. Every week people would tell me how the show had made them cry or laugh so hard they had to pull off the road for an hour to listen. Ira works in a big city but the show was getting to people on the road in the middle of nowhere.
OT What was it like to run the Old Town School of Folk Music café?
MG It was like feeding my family times 200. I knew everybody's favorite foods and allergies and I tried to make everyone feel loved. Sometimes with food. Sometimes by listening or telling a joke. It is where I met both Jason and Lindsay. They are both fabulous teachers there. They spend their days engaging young people in discovering the joy of music. It is a wonderful, open community of people who love music.
OT You quit music between 2004 and 2008. What brought you back?
MG I was not writing new material. I had plenty of older stuff I could have just kept playing but I felt it was more real to just not do anything at all. In 2008 the stuff that became Its A Girl just popped into my head. It was too happy to dismiss. Not defining myself as an artist for 4 years had turned me into a different person. The joy of rehearsing and arranging with Jason, Lindsay and Elizabeth was the most productive and easygoing process of my career.
Follow It's a Girl on twitter.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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