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.”