Suzie Brown spent 11 years in clinical training before she could practice medicine, but it took her even longer to work up the courage to pursue her true passion: music. Now, the 37-year-old cardiologist spends half her week fixing hearts at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia and the other half sharing hers with hungry-for-more audiences. Her achy-breaky lyrics and blues twang have made Brown a local favorite with serious national appeal. Last year, Philadelphia Magazine named Brown “Best of Philly” in musical talent. This month, she signed a deal with Starbucks to have her debut album, “Heartstrings” (self-released, May 2011), played in the company’s coffee shops. In the middle of her Northeastern summer tour, the budding singer-songwriter spoke with More about balancing music and medicine — and planning a wedding, too.
MORE: Your education is impressive, with degrees from Dartmouth, Harvard Medical School and University of Pennsylvania. What led you to pursue medicine?
Suzie Brown: My parents are both doctors and they love what they do. Dinner conversation at the Browns’ was always like, “Oh honey, I saw the most interesting case today.” I was always good at math and science and it just seemed to make sense. I wanted to feel like I was doing something good for other people.
More: Why did you choose cardiology?
SB: Ever since I started med school, cardiology just appealed me. From a scientific standpoint, it’s about mechanical physiology — flow and pressure — as opposed to other specialties like infectious disease, where you’re thinking about things on a cellular level.
When you go into medicine, you think you’re going to see patents and make diagnoses and cure so many people, but then you realize that for so many diseases, there’s almost nothing you can do. So practicing medicine becomes about easing your patients’ suffering.
With surgery, on the other hand, there are many more cases where you can completely cure someone and send him on his way. For me, cardiology is somewhere in between.
More: At what point did you start pursuing music?
SB: My parents are big Canadian folk music lovers, and I always loved to sing. It was mostly a private thing though, because I was so shy. When we would drive up to Montréal from Boston to see my family, we would have the radio on and I would know every word to all the songs, and my dad would always tell me to sing louder, but then of course I would stop singing…
In college, I was pre-med and I was too shy to try and sing until my very last year of college when, on a whim, I tried out for an a cappella group. I was petrified, shaking like a leaf every single show. But despite that, singing with a group was a magical experience. It completely changed college for me. It was the first time I felt like I truly belonged.
More: What made you decide to go forward professionally with your music, rather than keep it as a hobby?
SB: After college, I was so scared to lose singing. I bought a guitar and a four-track recorder when I graduated, but I was just playing around. I never dreamed that being a professional musician was an option for me.
At the time, I was working in a lab doing my master’s degree work and I finally had time for myself. I had made it through all of my clinical training, which was 11 years of working nights and weekends and having very little time. I went to go see live music three or four times a week. One night, I was standing with a friend and he said, “Suzie Brown, why are you not writing songs?”
I was so scared of writing something terrible and cheesy, and he basically told me to get over it. And I needed that — I needed permission to not be perfect at something.
After that, I started carrying a lyrics notebook around. I went to this wedding and a microphone was set up at the rehearsal dinner and all my friends made me go up and play a song. I sang “Angel from Montgomery” and the entire tent went silent. The whole weekend, people asked me if I was a singer and I said, “No, I’m in cardiology.”
When I got home from that wedding, I broke up with my boyfriend and I said to myself, “Suzie Brown, if you can’t write a song when you’re feeling like this, you’re never going to be able to write.”
My songs were about love and heartbreak and I had never expressed myself in that way before. I went to open mike nights and people gradually asked me to play shows with them. But I was struggling in the lab. I wasn’t really that happy and the thought of staying in academic medicine and working 90 hours a week and sacrificing something I loved was terrible. I was so happy playing music — happier than I ever thought I could be! I decided to just finish my degree, work part time and play music.
More: What are your long-term goals for the two fields?
SB: It’s a pretty confusing way to live. Practically speaking, I’m too old to live in my car and tour the country. I’m getting married and I have a mortgage and a ridiculous amount of debt to the government for med school. Those are all incentives to keep working as a cardiologist. I also love what I do. Working gives me a freedom in music and that’s a real gift. I don’t ever have to worry about making money as a musician. It gives me a kind of clean slate when I’m writing songs. I don’t have to think about writing for what people will like. I hope people like my music, but I don’t need them to.
More: Do medicine and music share any of the same challenges or rewards for you?
SB: The rewards in medicine are all about other people. Medicine is about helping people at the expense of yourself. You sacrifice your 20s and 30s to get the training. Your whole day is about other people. It doesn’t matter if you had a bad day, or you have a stomachache, or you didn’t sleep well and you’re exhausted. You have to keep a poker face. But its extremely fulfilling when you help someone, and especially when you save someone’s life. Music is fulfilling in the complete opposite way. For me, its about being 100 percent honest about myself.
In medical school, you work in one-month rotations, so every month you’re rotating through different specialties. Every month is a challenge; you constantly say, “I don’t know how to do this,” or “This is impossible.” But you eventually realize that everything seems impossible until you learn how to do it. Having that fearlessness of trying new things has helped me a lot in music.
More: As a doctor, you often have to be emotionally removed from your work. How do you go from that to being emotionally open in your music?
SB: It’s very schizophrenic. The hardest transition is when I’ve had an amazing weekend of music and then I have to go back to work. I also find it hard to write new things when I’ve been working a lot. It takes me a day or two to unwind, to shed that skin. Especially for big shows, I try to not have to work on that day because I have to take on a whole different mindset.
More: Most of your songs are love songs. Why do you gravitate toward those?
SB: For me, songs are things I can’t say in any other way. “Heartstrings” wasn’t about just one person; those songs were like 10 years worth of heartache. Heartache is the easiest, most accessible emotion to tap into. I am curious what’s going to happen now that I’m happy and in love and getting married. I do want to grow as a songwriter and craftsperson. But there has to be a truth in a song, or it’s not a song.
More: What comes next for you?
SB: I’m taking September off to get married, I’m playing shows all summer and I’m really excited to start writing again. You really figure out what’s going on in your mind when you’re writing. The album was such a labor of love and now I’m excited just to enjoy it and share it with people.
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