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Casey Greenleaf on songwriting, karma, and community

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

Originally from southern Vermont, Casey Greenleaf is a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, recording artist, performer, and thinker about shared meaning-making. At the height of the pandemic, she founded and led Familiar Strangers: an artistic discussion forum and critique series, which doubled as a support group for creatives feeling unmotivated and adrift in the midst of lockdown. I called her to talk about the genesis of the group, as well as her new project, her Buddhist practice, and the connections shared between all of the above.

Noise Mag: Tell me about how this idea came about? How did you decide to do this?

Casey Greenleaf: Pandemic, I guess, like anything else. I have wanted to start an arts venue,

an arts collective, for four years now, and I was like, okay, maybe later. In a future life. And then, well, I guess the future is now, and I feel like it was a good time strategically to start something like this, because it was a good time to build community; a time when people don’t have a good community. I think both practically and for what people need emotionally, it felt like a really good time. To try it out, and see what came of it.

NM: For me, I feel like the pandemic so easy discouraged all attempts at creativity and community, but what you say makes so much sense. It’s almost like we’re living in a vacuum, so that need is more pronounced. Has it empowered your own creative practice?

CG: Yes, definitely.

NM: Tell me what you’re working on? You’re making music?

CG: I’m making a literal fuck ton of music. I started like three years ago, and you know, the pandemic really increased the ability to work collaboratively online, and I think that almost lowers the bar, and it empowers me to really dive into producing on my own, because before I was like: “I wanna do this myself,” and now it’s like: “I have to do this myself.” I’ve spent a lot of solo time in Logic, and so much contemplative time writing songs in my head, going for drives, and writing songs about the drives. I feel like I just keep cranking them out.

NM: Well it’s funny you should mention Logic. That seems like a good enough segue to tell you, we are currently in Logic right now. I’m recording this call, I just want to make sure you know.

CG: Oh! Hi Logic. (Laughs)

NM: Yeah, Logic is doing its thing with the one audio track. This is my angle, figuring out how to use Logic, and recording conversations for interviews, as opposed to making music, but maybe it will expand one day. There’s so much you can do with this program it’s crazy. It’s so cool.

CG: It’s so amazing, I love it.

NM: Well I guess we’re already underway with the interview. I tried to have a smooth segue from normal conversation to interview questions.

CG: Well done.

NM: Thank you, thank you, here we are.

CG: You’re welcome, welcome.

NM: So, tell me more about your process. You’re talking about writing while you’re on a drive, producing, recording, what does the process look like for you, if you could expand upon that. I’m very curious, for a songwriter, for you in particular as a songwriter, how that works.

CG: It really changes from song to song, and I feel like no two songs are quite alike in terms of how I’m writing the. Well, maybe that’s a lie. I think there’s a certain degree of “I need to have a guitar in my hand.” When I was living in Tucson, I only had my electric guitar, and my interface, and my laptop. That was what I was doing to make music. It was really awesome for forcing my hand into other territories. But when it comes down to it, at the end of the day, where my flow state really happens, is when I’m playing my acoustic guitar, so when I got back from Tucson, in December, first I was like “hey Mom, hey Brother, I’m going to be up in the attic, and then I beelined for my guitar, and all these songs kind of start pouring out. I feel like it was this pent-up energy. I start, usually, on guitar, with a little riff or a chord that I like, and I screw around on my acoustic, and then I add lyrics. Sometimes I have lyrics that come to me, when I’m sitting, when I’m driving or something, and I’ll rush to record, lest it disappear into the ether forever. What I do for producing… I like to have the song sort of done on the guitar and able to be played all the way through just on acoustic guitar, because that’s my favorite way to share my work. Then when I move to Logic, it gets really complicated. You can start totally screwing with drums, and synths, and harmonies. I really get in the weeds with harmonies. I could literally spend hours and hours and hours just layering more harmonies until no one wants to listen to my music anymore. (Laughs)

NM: No! We love the harmonies.

CG: So that’s kind of my process.

NM: I can picture you up in the attic. I saw a video you posted with you full drum kit. You’ve got the whole one-woman-band.

CG: It’s really a studio, and I feel a little silly.

NM: It’s so cool. These songs that are pouring out of you right now, do you see them becoming a project, an album, or an EP? Or are they all one offs, or practice songs? Are there more of them that you’re going to share with the world? Hows that going to look?

CG: I just made a list of them right now, those that are pretty much done. They’re not all produced, and recorded, or whatever, but, songs I wrote that I would be willing to share with the world. And I have maybe, let me see, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight or so, ok maybe nine of them that are in Logic right now. And I’m trying to decide if I should release an EP with only a couple songs, or if I should just keep going. Finding a master is the big thing right now. I feel like if I really put my nose to the grindstone, I could probably crank this stuff out. And then, there’s enough for two albums. But I kind of want to release a long EP, that’s where I’m at with it. But I don’t know. There are so many different sounding songs. I heard this in a music interview one time, it was Dan Croll or something like that. He said the first album is the hardest, because it’s like you’re taking everything you’ve ever written, and then putting it out, and then the second album is easier because you’re just writing stuff for an album. I really feel that right now, I really feel the pressure to take my entire body of work and figure out what is most representative of me, and then put that together in a way that I actually like. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

NM: It’s almost an editing process, or a curating process, of yourself. I’m sure that the songs feel very personal to you. They’re your babies. I don’t know.

CG: My babies. Totally.

NM: I want to revisit something that you said earlier, — you were talking about being in a flow state, and that comes in when you’re playing your acoustic guitar. What does that feel like?

CG: I feel like it comes at different times, but it’s sort of that state when time kind of stops passing. Or, time stops passing and also passes really, really, fast, and you realize that you’ve been literally working for hours, or you started right after dinner and now it’s morning, or something. That’s what it feels like to me, I just sort of lose track of where I am, and it’s just the music for a little while. I mean, it happens with lots of things. Like it happens when I’m on a hike, as well.

NM: Yeah.

CG: Other times, like when I’m knitting, also. (Laughs) But yeah, it happens all the time with music, especially when I get into producing holes, with Logic, I’ll just be like *flow state working sound effects* and then come up for air.

NM: I know you had a project with Michelle, (interviewed in Issue 003) that you put out last year, under Mutual Friends, which I was super into, again, by the way. How does it feel now, taking this pivot to putting out music on your own as a solo artist? I imagine you’re going to put it out under your own name. What’s the difference there?

CG: Well, I miss playing with Michelle, very, very, much. We had a really stripped-down EP that we put out just on Soundcloud, it’s almost adorable to listen to now. (Laughs) It’s like “aww.” Which I feel like happens with every song. But yeah, we put out one song, and we had plans to put out more stuff, but it just never materialized, things got really busy. But I really miss playing with other people, I miss it so fucking much. I don’t know, there is something really cool about just working and producing the stuff myself. I feel a little proud of my production, what I’m doing. I’m really trying to remove my ego from it, I really love making for the sake of making music, I don’t know. I want to put it out, just to get it out there, I just love it so much. I want to get it out so I can work on more stuff. That’s the truth of the matter. Just to archive it. But I do like it, and I think other people will like it too.

NM: I totally relate, and I’m excited to hear it. What you said made me think of that exact same barrier I run into sometimes myself, where I just build up the expectation of whatever it is I’m trying to create, and then you don’t meet it and you don’t meet it, and then you don’t share anything, and then it just is a snowball of having these expectations for yourself, and if you just put something out, share something, then you can work on the next thing, and lower the stakes.

CG: I feel like also once you put stuff out, it’s really vulnerable too, it’s a practice of being like: “maybe this isn’t perfect, but it’s enough that I did it,” and that’s great. Maybe me putting something out will empower someone else to put something out. I think there are good karmic benefits that come from putting yourself out there. Which is another, more metaphysical, reason to be forthcoming with your work.

NM: Totally. I can already picture it, that’s going to be the pull-quote in the magazine. Karmic benefits of putting yourself out there. So true. So, you believe in karma?

CG: I do believe in Karma, I’m a Buddhist.

NM: Cool! A practicing Buddhist?

CG: Yes.

NM: Nice, what does that entail?

CG: Well, practice is very mundane. When you say “Are you a practicing Buddhist…?”

NM: I don’t even know if that’s the right terminology.

CG: I know what you mean, it means day to day, you get through your day as a Buddhist. And there’s very legit stuff you can do, like Tonglen, which is the Tibetan Buddhist practice of sending and receiving energy. Also, just moving through your day with mindfulness and compassion for others, and trying to treat everybody well. That’s what I would consider to be my practice.

NM: We could all use a little bit of that.

CG: Everyone needs compassion!

NM: Well, this idea of practice circles back to our conversation about music, and the idea of repetition, and trusting the process, and honing one’s skill and craft, but also with an eye towards an eventual product, or maybe performance. I’m not sure what question I’m going to ask you about this, but if you could offer any thoughts about that dichotomy, between practice and performance, as we await the times when musicians can perform for people again? Maybe it has to do with the distinction between being alone and being with people, or a different type of energy or intentionality that comes to the fore. Does playing the same song feel different playing it for practice versus playing it for a recording versus playing for performance?

CG: Funny you should ask that, because, I mean there’s just so much of it that’s wrapped up in everything these days, everything’s so fraught, everything’s so heavy, and not always in a bad way. I’m just coming into this understanding of how interconnected all these things are. I’ve done a couple virtual shows — from a purely logistical standpoint — I’ve done a couple virtual shows, and they just feel so bad. They just feel so bad. You just don’t receive the energy. Music is self-serving. I do it because I love it. And I do it because it gives me energy, and I do it because it makes me happy, as a way of expressing my consciousness, and you just lose the part of it that might be for others, when you can’t perform it. I know that a virtual show is, like, great, but it just isn’t the same. I’ve had to get really comfortable with being like: “ok, well, what I’m doing right now is going to be beneficial at the end of the day.” Because I know, and I believe that there will be a renaissance. My mantra is that I am in training for the renaissance. I think of practice and playing right now as: okay, get good, work on your scales, and your technique, just playing over and over and over. And it’s ultimately going to be good to perform again. I guess there’s a lot jumbled up in that, but I just really miss performing, and I really miss connecting with people, but I appreciate the practice, and I appreciate what it has given me, just personally, such an amazing coping mechanism, in really hard times.

NM: I was going to get back to the pandemic context of this whole conversation, I feel like you really got right into the meaningful bit of it, in terms of human connection, that we’re so sorely missing, and virtual shows — because I didn’t even think of that. I thought shows didn’t even exist right now — but it’s true, of course people are performing, on Zoom. And you, I’ve seen, have done that. Just can’t be the same.

CG: It’s not the same. It’s not a substitute, I feel like that’s the misconception. You wouldn’t think of it because it’s not. It’s really not a substitute.

NM: Because the essential thing about being in a performance setting is that shared space, I feel like. I don’t know. And it comes back to your ambition to start an arts venue, or a collective. Do you feel like you’re approaching that goal, with your music and with the arts collective ambition, is there something that you’re trying to get at from two different angles?

CG: I think more and more I realize how much of life is about community, and existing with others. Nothing that you do, as much as you work — this is going to get more psychological, I guess — as much as you work on yourself, and perhaps similarly, as much as you work on your art, and as much as I work on my music, it’s never going to exist in any way that is true or actualized, if it is not happening in the context of other people. And I think that that is true of personal growth, working on anger issues, anxiety, that kind of thing, all of that happens in the context of other people being around you. So yeah, that is what I’m trying to get at with an arts collective. We grow together. We are growing together. I feel more empowered to make my own music when I am around other people. I think other people feel the same way. I don’t think it’s just because I’m an extrovert, but I’m sure that definitely helps.

NM: You’re articulating something that has been bouncing around in my head, and here we are in the context of one another, in this conversation, and that makes these ideas all the more real for the fact that we’re sharing them. Because you can think until the cows come home.

CG: Chef’s kiss.

NM: Mwah.

CG: Mwah.

Casey performing

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