The Heart Won’t Lie: An Interview with Suzie Brown

Paul Wallen | May 5th, 2014

suziebrowm photo by laura keenThere are a lot of new things in Suzie Brown’s life: a new city, a new job, a new album and even a new baby girl.

The Harvard Medical School graduate and clinical cardiologist moved from Philadelphia to Nashville early this year and began her new role specializing in heart failure at Vanderbilt University Medical Center two weeks out of every month.

Brown dedicates the other two weeks each month to her career as a singer and songwriter, no easy balancing act. But Brown says the combination of medicine and music help her find harmony.

“Being a doctor is about everything but you,” Brown says. “You come last. It’s such hard work, the hours are really long and everyone needs something from you. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a bad day, if you don’t feel well, nothing matters. You have to put the patient and everything else first and that’s emotionally exhausting. You kind of have to stifle yourself just to get through the day.”

Music gives Brown an outlet to focus on how she’s feeling and what she wants to say, which keeps her happy and helps her avoid burning out on medicine. “Writing songs is the most narcissistic thing I can think of,” Brown says, laughing. “I love being a doctor, it’s so rewarding. I like the pressure in some ways. But I can’t do it all the time. Music is a place I can really be honest and self-centered in a way that feels cathartic. They really do balance each other out.”

Brown can now add mother to her list of job titles. She and husband Scot Sax welcomed their first child, Josie, to the family on April 9. As if that all wasn’t enough for Brown to keep up with, Brown releases her sophomore album, Almost There, on May 6. The follow-up to Brown’s first album, 2011’s Heartstrings, was produced by Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers and recorded at the Sound Emporium in Nashville.

We recently caught up with Brown to talk about becoming a mom, her new album, managing her roles as doctor and singer, and a few other matters of the heart.

Congratulations on the birth of your daughter. What did it feel like when you met her for the first time?

We didn’t know if it was going to be a boy or a girl. It’s just so hard to believe that’s who was in my belly for the last nine months; it just feels like a miracle.

Has she changed your perspective in any way?

Well, she’s only two and a half weeks old so I’m still just trying to get from feeding to feeding and grab a few hours of sleep when I can. But it does make it seem like nothing else is so important, in a nice way.

How did you end up becoming a doctor and a musician?

It just kind of happened. My parents are both doctors, my sister’s a doctor, my uncle’s a doctor … it’s kind of the family business. I was always good at math and science, I like working with people and it seemed like a gratifying career, so I thought I’d be a doctor too. In terms of music, from a really young age I always loved music and singing … but it never even crossed my mind that I could pursue it in a serious way. As I grew older and got further and further along in my medical career, it became clear to me that I couldn’t work full time in medicine and I needed to somehow make time for music. It was confusing at first because I hadn’t been writing songs at all. I just would sort of tool around in my bedroom and play cover songs. So I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t shake the music thing. Then I did start writing songs and playing them anonymously at an open mic night in Philadelphia. I realized that I had to make time for this in a real way, because it made me feel happy. So it really just happened incidentally. I was sort of fortunate that I started writing songs at the end of my training. So I was already a fully-trained cardiologist. And I just decided to apply for a part time job for my first job.

Was there a moment that made you decide to dive into performing music in a substantial way?

When you’re in medical school in residency and fellowship, you work so many hours that it’s hard to find time to do anything. Just to eat, pay your bills and survive. You don’t have time to really think about yourself. But then I finished that difficult part of my training and was doing research in a lab, getting a Master’s degree. For the first time I had my nights and weekends free. It was the first time I came up for air in probably 10 or 15 years. All I wanted to do was go see music, and in the lab I would just listen to music all day and just get totally inside all these albums that I love. I started seeking out people to play with and I met this guy at the gym who also played guitar. We got together to jam and play songs, and he said to me, “Suzie Brown, why are you not writing songs? You have to write songs with how you sing, you must have something to say.” And I basically said, “Of course I have something to say, I just don’t want to write something that sucks.” I was really afraid to write a terrible, cheesy song that insulted all of music. He was like, “Of course you’ll write a song that sucks. Everyone writes songs that suck. It’s not about that, stop being such a perfectionist.” And I think that was sort of the turning point, I think I was so afraid of doing it badly that I didn’t do it at all. I’m so Type-A in the other part of my life. And as soon as I had permission to suck, the floodgates opened. It just so happened I went to a wedding soon after that and there was a microphone set up at the rehearsal dinner. When I got up and sang, the whole tent went completely silent. And I couldn’t believe it, because I hadn’t really sung in front of that many people. And people came up to me all weekend asking if I was musician. It sort of encouraged me that people might want to hear me sing.

How do you balance those two very different professions?

With difficulty, and it’s a work in progress. I was living in Philadelphia and working a part time job where I had to go in every week. That became a lot of back and forth, my mindsets are so different in the two worlds and I found it really difficult to switch so much. With the new job at Vanderbilt in Nashville, I’m going to be two weeks on and two weeks off. I think this will be much better for both, I can live in the medicine mindset and I can have two uninterrupted weeks every month where I can tour, really get into writing and just be in that creative head space. The other part of the balance is that I just work really hard, I’m very organized and I love it, so I make time. I don’t sleep very much.

Did you move to Nashville for your music career?

Yeah. Well, there was no place I could think of better than Nashville to be both a doctor and a musician. Especially because I knew we wanted to have a family and not be on the road so much. I wanted to be in a place where I could grow as an artist without necessarily leaving where I live. Nashville has such a rich community of songwriters, I felt that would be an important resource while our children are young. When they’re in daycare or whatever, I can go write songs and explore that in a meaningful way — but still be home for dinner.

How did Oliver Wood end up producing Almost There?

I emailed him cold, out of the blue. I wanted this album to have a real live, raw, unpolished feeling — much like The Wood Brothers albums, and I knew Oliver was doing some production. So I found an email address and just wrote him, I didn’t know him before at all. I just figured you get what you ask for; if you don’t ask it’ll never happen. The worst thing that could happen is he wouldn’t write back and then I would be no worse off. But he did write me back, he said he loved my stuff and would love to work with me. And I’ll tell you, he’s one of my favorite musicians but after working with him, I respect him even more as a person. He’s just the kindest, most professional and thoughtful guy. I can’t say enough good things about him.

What was the recording process like?

We decided on the songs ahead of time, I had sent him a bunch of demos. So we came down to Nashville, Oliver, my husband and I sat in a room and played through the songs, threw around production ideas. As a band, we rehearsed the songs for two days and then went in the studio and cut the whole album live in seven days. Including vocals, we did everything live. It felt like the way music-making should be, it felt organic and it felt like real music, not a digital construction. If someone came to see us play a show, it would sound like the album. That was important to me.

Tell us a little bit about writing “Fallen Down” as a tribute to the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting.

Yeah, I felt so gutted after that happened, as many people did. It was sort of swimming around in my head for a few weeks. It was the holidays and I just felt so dark and gloomy, even though there were all these Christmas carols on the radio. I don’t think I even realized I was going to write about that. When you need to write, you feel all pent-up and I had that feeling. So I sat down and that’s what came out.

Is “Receipt For Love” based on something personal?

I wrote that one with my husband very soon after we met. We had just started dating and he had this funny idea about not throwing away your receipt for love. It’s a funny song to write with your future husband but that’s the first song we ever wrote together.

What are you most proud of on this album?

I think my songwriting has really evolved. The songs are very honest and that’s something that’s important to me. Songwriting is a way to express how I’m feeling in a way that’s more acceptable than saying it. When I feel like I have something on my mind and I’m able to put it across in a song, I feel proud of that. That’s a successful song to me. So I feel like it’s really honest and the songs are really a picture of how I was feeling during that time. It’s sort of the time I met and fell in love with my husband, so a lot of those songs are different phases of that. And I’m also really proud of the way we cut it. It takes a lot of balls to cut an album live and expose yourself, expose your mistakes. You can make everything perfect if you want to, but I really didn’t want to do that this time. Oliver called it leaving the warts on. I really wanted to leave the warts on and just have it be about the songs. A live performance isn’t perfect, but it makes you feel things that perfection doesn’t make you feel. So I’m really proud that we did that.

  1. bob
    May 5, 2014 at 8:00 am

    Very interesting interview and an amazing woman, balancing music & medical careers. Made be think of Cleve Francis, the singing cardiologist.

  2. Juli Thanki
    May 5, 2014 at 8:32 am

    John Starling of The Seldom Scene was an ENT surgeon as well. We could probably put together a whole band of musical doctors — say, what rhymes with “myocardial infarction?”

  3. bob
    May 5, 2014 at 9:08 am

    I hope you’re going to tell us what rhymes with MI. I have no idea. I do recall a cardiac song,”Daddy Had a Cardiac, Momma Got a Cadillac”by Billy Yates.

    • Juli Thanki
      May 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

      I have no idea about the rhyme either. But here are a few more cardiac songs, Old 97s — “Murder (Or a Heart Attack),” Dale Watson — “Cheatin’ Heart Attack,” and Chatham County Line’s “Heart Attack.” Seems like good fodder for a Friday Five…

  4. Dave D.
    May 5, 2014 at 9:22 am

    Not a medical doctor, but John Tichy from Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen was dean of Nuclear Engineering at RPI.

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