A Cardiologist Sings from the Heart

Suzie Brown, a Philadelphia M.D., records her first CD—and lands a deal at Starbucks.

by Jessica Testa
Suzie Brown music Heartstrings
Photograph: Susan Blond Inc.

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.

 

First Published June 17, 2011

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