Suzie Brown has never been one to settle for anything less than her best effort.
When the Boston-reared Philadelphia artist decided to pursue a career in medicine, she set an ambitious goal of becoming a research cardiologist. That meant getting her MD at Harvard, followed by a master of science in translational research from the University of Pennsylvania.
But when music, the passion she’d flirted with as a young adult, became more of an incessant pull, her long-imagined career started losing some of its luster. She knew she would never be fully satisfied without the space to write the songs that called to her.
Brown traded her aspirations in academia for a part-time clinical job but never imagined committing to music would lead her where she is today: an award-winning songwriter whose 2011 debut album “Heartstrings” was picked up for play by Starbucks, who has opened for the likes of Lyle Lovett and Livingston Taylor and whose dulcet, dusky-edged twang has earned frequent comparisons to Patsy Cline.
Not bad for having written her first song in 2008 and released her first EP the following year.
“I think part of my success has been just pure, pure hard work,” says Brown. “I have trouble doing things half-way. It’s just who I am.”
It’s not surprising then that when it came to recording her new album, “Almost There,” the singer dove in with a similarly decisive focus. That meant getting Oliver Wood, of The Wood Brothers, to sign on as producer. Though she’d never met him, Brown dashed off an email with a link to her music and her vision for recording the album live. It wasn’t long before she was headed to Nashville to work with Wood and a stellar band of musicians, including Grammy Award winner Scot Sax on guitar, Jano Rix of The Wood Brothers on drums, organ and piano, James “Hags” Haggerty on bass, and Jim Hoke on pedal steel and horns.
“I love The Wood Brothers and I love Patty Griffin and I love those old Bonnie Raitt recordings. All of them sound like they could be live recordings. As Oliver said, they leave the warts on. It just translates into a more emotional and real sound,” says Brown of what she was after herself.
She recorded “Almost There,” which was funded entirely through a crowdsourcing campaign, in seven days at the famed Sound Emporium studio.
The result harks back to the rough-hewn beauty of some of her favorite recordings while showcasing her growth as a songwriter and musician over the last two years. The album spans a vivid tapestry rooted in the Americana tradition yet hints at influences from reggae and R&B to rock and pop.
Throughout, Brown plies an engaging candor as she charts the many stages of relationships, as well as her personal struggles with time. The rootsy title track, one of three songs co-written with Sax, is a wistful and clever meditation on the challenges of embracing the present moment with so many yearnings unfulfilled, while the plaintive “28 Days” finds her fixating on an elusive turning point in a seemingly endless state of malaise.
Brown is breezy and playful in love, as on the catchy folk-rock sing-a-long “Everywhere I Go” and loping country charmer “Own Little Show,” but also exhibits some of the sass evident on her debut. “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” is a Fats Domino cover that makes jaunty haste of exiting a relationship while the retro country-rock of “Receipt for Love” wryly warns against getting too comfortable in its embrace.
Brown admits the song was an unusual one to write with Sax, who also happens to be her husband, considering they’d penned it only a month after meeting. “If it’s all peaches and apple pie, you don’t feel the need to write a song,” she says. “It’s the conflict that makes you need the song.”
She’s never shied away from such transparency. It’s why ballads like the tender and smoky “Don’t Know If I Dare” and haunting “Space Between,” about surrendering to and being torn apart by love, strike with a startling vulnerability. It’s also why she was able to channel her heartbreak and horror at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting into “Fallen Down,” a spare and aching lament for the lives stolen that day.
“I think that’s why I can’t work in medicine full-time. I’m such a sensitive person, and I take it really hard,” says Brown, who spends a few days a week in the heart failure clinic at Albert Einstein Medical Center.
Music has given her the freedom to express that softer side.
“Medicine is all about the patient – you come last behind the patient, behind the patient’s family, and the rest of your team…You need to be there for all of them before you think about yourself. It can be really hard,” Brown admits. “Music is the total opposite. It’s all about how I’m feeling. I enjoy not having to be so strong.”
When she first began venturing into music, it was the freedom to be that honest that appealed to her. But she also was motivated by the fear of sacrificing something she loved.
Music had tugged at Brown all of her life. She remembers locking herself in her room with her Billy Joel and Whitney Houston cassette tapes as a child, learning the lines to every single song. And her voice, even at a young age, arrested all who heard it. But with parents who were doctors and her own affinity for math and science, the Montreal native was naturally drawn to medicine.
Still, she joined an a cappella group during her senior year at Dartmouth College, and sang with a cover band of mostly orthopedic surgeons while doing her residency. With every foray into music, no matter how fleeting, she felt a kindred belonging. She even attended Berklee College of Music’s Summer Performance Program before starting medical school.
But it wasn’t until she began her fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania that, inspired by a breakup, she wrote her first song. Seven months and several songs later, she sold out one of Philadelphia’s premiere listening rooms.
“I didn’t even write creatively before I started writing songs. I always wrote science stuff,” says Brown. “I discovered a voice I never had before.”
It’s a voice influenced by songwriters and singers like the aforementioned Griffin and Raitt, along with Gillian Welch, Ron Sexsmith and Linda Ronstadt.
These days, it’s also a voice that favors a newfound simplicity.
“Any music where you can just pick up your guitar or sit at a piano and play, it just feels like the most authentic music to me, just down-to-the-bare-bones kind of music,” says Brown.
“I’ve tried to be a little simpler on this album because that’s the stuff that resonates with me the most.”
For all she’s accomplished musically, she has no intentions to abandon medicine.
“Each makes me need the other,” she says. “ I crave having unstructured time to just be me and share all that creative energy but there’s a part of me that loves being a doctor and loves giving to other people. I think if I had to make money and support myself with purely music, it would take some of the joy out of it.”