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Keith Greeninger on Songwriting, Social Justice and ‘Human Citizen’

Santa Cruz singer-songwriter to release new album at Jan. 31 show

Keith Greeninger will release his new album ‘Human Citizen’ at a show at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on Jan. 31. PHOTO: tarmo hannula

Though it may have been all but drowned out in the endless coverage of President Donald Trump’s border wall and Brexit, the 21st century has seen the rise of a small but growing movement that advocates the elimination of national boundaries altogether. In the careful, nonthreatening language of politics, this is called “open borders,” and the details of how it might possibly work could fill a book (and in fact, they do fill one coming out next month, Alex Sager’s Against Borders: Why the World Needs Free Movement of People).

Musicians can be far more blunt. In the famously public-school-suppressed fifth verse of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” he fired a shot across the bow of the very concept of private property: As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing/That side was made for you and me.” John Lennon asked the world to “Imagine there’s no countries,” because “it isn’t hard to do.” And in the Dead Kennedys song “Stars and Stripes of Corruption,” Jello Biafra sang, “Look around, we’re all people/Who needs countries anyway?”

“Human Citizen,” the title track of Santa Cruz singer-songwriter Keith Greeninger’s new record, continues that tradition of thinking outside the invisible lines drawn by centuries of politicians and despots, instead championing “A one world community/Of tolerance and dignity/Everybody’s got a right to be free/Everybody everywhere.”

It might seem like some kind of utopian vision for the future, especially with the tightening of borders constantly in the news. But that’s not how Greeninger sees it. To him, the recent resurgence of nationalism is actually a response to the huge strides that have been made toward that one world community, with the internet allowing social moments to spread internationally—and not allowing oppressive regimes to do their dirty work in secret. He calls this pushback a “last gasp” from those used to getting their way without resistance.

“They’re like, ‘We can’t let this happen,’” says Greeninger. “So ‘Human Citizen’ for me became, ‘Wait a minute. It’s already happening. It’s here.’”

Obviously, this kind of unbridled positivism does not reflect the general mood on any part of the political, social or cultural spectrum right now. Which may be why it’s more important than ever.

“Negativity is a killer. It’s self-defeating,” says Greeninger. “At a certain point, if we lose our sense of humanity and our sense of positivity, we’re fucked. And I think that’s a lot of what’s going on with the powers that be: ‘We gotta break ’em down. We gotta make them think there’s no hope.’ Well, everywhere you look in your neighborhood, there’s hope springing up like grass through the concrete every day.”

STREET VALUE

That idea of a neighborhood is central to how Greeninger thinks about his music. And the hope keeps springing up there because people—like the teachers, farmers, and others he references in “Human Citizen”—keep inspiring it. In that sense, he doesn’t see his music as much different from his other chosen craft, carpentry.

I think sometimes in our society, musicians get a lot more credit than they deserve,” he says. “I appreciate that people will pay money and give me their attention for a couple of hours. They come to shows and buy my records, and I love that—I never want to take that for granted. But at the same time, I’m just another service in the neighborhood.”

One thing his particular service allows for is the opportunity to raise awareness about things that are important to him. For instance, the song “22 Angels” on the new album came about after he heard about the staggering suicide rate among U.S. veterans—which is said to have been as high as 22 per day over the last decade, giving the song its name. Greeninger had wanted to write a song about the struggles among veterans, but he didn’t feel like he could write an authentic one without input from someone who had lived them. 

“Then my buddy Terry Gerhardt asked me if I would help him make a CD, and I told him I would,” says Greeninger. “One of the first songs he brought to me, that he was just starting to write, was a song about his comrades from Vietnam who were going back to Vietnam to search for the remains of their friends who didn’t come back in the jungles.”

That song, which they co-wrote for Gerhardt’s album, was called “Old Bones.” It became the basis for “22 Angels”—with Gerhardt’s approval—in a highly modified form.

“Something like 40 to 45 percent of the homeless in this country are veterans. So if I can help raise a little bit of awareness with a song like ‘22 Angels’—I mean, that’s part of my world. That’s part of all of our world,” says Greeninger.

Homelessness was one of the first issues Greeninger became aware of as both a musician and activist.

“I used to work at the 76 station in Aptos in high school, and Peter Carota had started the St. Francis Soup Kitchen. He used to come into that station when I was a high school guy pumping gas. He’d come in in a little Franciscan robe and bare feet and my buddy Bert Moulton—who is just an amazing guy—gave Peter this funky old Chevy station wagon he had. That was the first vehicle Peter used to start picking up leftover food and driving downtown and feeding the homeless. He would tell me, ‘You should come down and help us feed people.’ So I went down a few times and then I wrote the song ‘Lookin’ For a Home.’” 

NEW SOUNDS

Living in Santa Cruz County at that time was a revelation for the teenaged Greeninger.

“We moved over from San Jose the summer before I started high school. The first year, we ended up getting lucky—my dad knew some guy who was renting a house on Rio Del Mar Beach. So for the first year that we lived over here, we lived right on the beach. This is ’74, I think the house cost 500 bucks a month in rent. It was this huge, cool place. I was like, ‘This is a dream come true.’ I went from living on a semi-busy street in San Jose as a little kid to falling asleep listening to the ocean. I had this bond with nature that was totally, totally powerful,” he says.

Also powerful was his newfound love of music, after getting his first guitar at age 13. Human Citizen features two guest artists he considered heroes in his Santa Cruz musical upbringing: bassist Tiran Porter, of Doobie Brothers fame, and drummer Jimmy Norris.

“The gods of our time were people like Jimmy and Snail, and of course the Doobies were on another level,” he says. “There were just so many great musicians around. That was back when the Cooper House was happening. Aptos at the time had one of the best jazz bands in the country. We had a teacher by the name of Don Keller, who was a professional jazz drummer. I was this guitar player kid who couldn’t read music or anything, but he kept letting me play in the secondary jazz band because he liked the way I improvised.”

Greeninger at the soundboard in his Happy Valley studio. PHOTO: tarmo hannula

Greeninger at the soundboard in his Happy Valley studio. PHOTO: tarmo hannula

He played in his first band with two brothers who would pick him up for practice because he wasn’t old enough to drive. They started out doing rock covers, but when Greeninger began playing them his originals, they were open to working them in. They were also a bit shocked a couple of years later when he suddenly announced he was moving to a cabin with no electricity in the Rocky Mountains.

“I took myself out of what I knew and what everybody knew me as, and put myself in this place that was totally brand new and in a really remote setting in nature, and I just built this bond with the writing process,” he says. “I was in this little cabin with a wood stove, and I just started writing. I was listening to a lot of acoustic music—at a time in the ’80s when there was all this synth, I started getting into Doc Watson and John Prine and Jesse Winchester. That became my college.”

The importance of that period in his life can still be heard in Human Citizen, which carries on the Americana sound that has defined his solo career. It was the first time he’d taken a chance on a change of scenery, but it wouldn’t be the last—he lived in places like Alaska, Vermont and Nicaragua before eventually finding his way back to Santa Cruz.

EXPLORING THE CITY

But perhaps his most fateful move was to San Francisco in the late ’80s, where he joined a group called City Folk with Roger Feuer and Kimball Hurd. The Bay Area trio got popular quickly, and eventually gave Greeninger his first taste of national touring.  

“The thing that was great about City Folk was that we’d get together and rehearse really intensely,” he says. “The three of us would sit around a table for three or four hours straight and just work on parts and harmonies, and bring in new tunes. I kind of needed that at that point, I needed that structure. To this day, when we get together once in a while and play, we can still call on that work, all those hours we put in. You kind of feel it in your bones.”

“We spent a lot more time together than any band I’ve been in, or any band I know of,” agrees Hurd. “We all knew each other a bit before deciding to become a band, so we were friends from the start. I just felt that the combination of Roger, Keith and I was really unique. We really enjoyed, loved and respected each other.”

There were plenty of hard moments, too, Hurd says, but what they allowed each other was the space “to be together without having to compromise being our total selves.”

Perhaps the best example of how they meshed their identities without surrendering them was their famed vocal harmonies. Hurd’s natural range is tenor, while Greeninger’s is mid-range, and Feuer’s is baritone.

“We have a vocal connection,” Hurd says of his collaborations with Greeninger. “It’s an ineffable thing, it’s a DNA thing. I don’t know what it is. We can just follow each other. He goes somewhere, and I’m right there with him. It’s magical.”

Some of the tension in the band, Hurd says, came from he and Feuer knowing that deep down, Greeninger wanted to do his own thing. But Greeninger was always generous, Hurd says, as a collaborator.

“Keith, in the context of the trio and in his life in general, provides a space for you, and he allows you to explore it,” says Hurd. “He really creates a good, solid, supportive musical space.”

THE NATURE OF MAKING ALBUMS

There’s a lot of space in Greeninger’s current studio in Happy Valley—it’s some 2,000 square feet, with 16-foot-high ceilings, and a warm wood feel. He works as a producer for other musicians and produced his 2014 solo record Soul Connection there, as well as Human Citizen. It’s like a shrine to both of his neighborhood services, music and woodworking.

“I wanted this to be a place where you could record jazz, you could record orchestras, you could record rock. And I also wanted it to be a place where I could have a guy on stage here planing wood if we were doing a workshop,” he says. “I think it disarms people a little bit, when you walk into a space that’s not overly clinical. Half of my job when I’m helping people as a producer is to get them out of their head and into their heart space, into their spirit. What’s nice about this is by the time people get out of their car, a good portion of my work is already done. Nature does all that work.”

But when he brings musicians in to play on his albums, he’s more concerned with creating that musical space that Hurd described. When he plays them his songs, he doesn’t give them a lot of details—or any, necessarily—about what they should bring to them.

“When I play with people, I want to play with people. I want to invite them and their personality and their spirit into the project. I don’t want to tell them what to play. You choose the musicians because you want their instincts. They’ll lead you somewhere you can’t even think about going. And that’s what happens in these projects—if you set them up right, you get great musicians that are listening and you count off, you don’t even know where it’s going to go,” he says. “If I come in here and sit down with Jimmy and Tiran, I want them to rise and fall with my energy. I want them to be on the edge with me. We’re holding space together. Once we get that raw honesty, that space holds throughout the project, if you don’t smother it. So then when you start bringing in other great musicians, they get inspired by that and they feel the rise and fall of the energy.”

Greeninger sees the result, he says, on songs like “She Moves Me” from the new album, which features Porter on bass, Norris on drums, and Doug Pettibone—a longtime member of Lucinda Williams’ band—on guitar.

“What Jimmy’s doing on that track and what Tiran’s doing, I would have never thought of the bass part like that, and I would never have thought of Jimmy’s part. When I listen to ‘She Moves Me,’ I still don’t understand why it glides like it does,” he says. “Then, when you listen to what Pettibone’s doing—that was maybe the second time he’d ever even played that song. I pay attention to when an artist feels like, ‘Something happened there.’ And Pettibone at the end of that song was like, ‘I don’t know man, that felt really good.’ I went back and listened to it later, and he’s doing this thing that’s really cool. It’s kind of arpeggiated, it’s like a lead the whole way through, but he gives me room on the vocals. It’s crazy.” 

PLACE TO BE

One longtime collaborator who knows very well how Greeninger’s musical mind works is Dayan Kai, who will join him at the record release show for Human Citizen on Jan. 31 at the Rio. Kai, who was based in Santa Cruz for many years before moving to Hawaii, says he and Greeninger have many things in common, especially how they seek to combine music and activism. Even though Greeninger is known for his dedication to social justice in the Santa Cruz community, including playing a number of benefits, Kai says even most locals don’t know the true extent of his work for social causes and individuals who need his help.

“I think people would be surprised to know all the things he does and that he’s involved in,” says Kai. “I don’t know if they really understand the scope of it.”

As musicians, Kai says they have always been in tune. “Keith and I had a really good telepathy from the beginning. We have a lot of similar influences, I think, including a big soul influence.”

The Rio show will feature the backing of a full band; although the songs can all be played solo, this is the best way to hear the impressive instrumentation showcased on the new album. Kai says the fact that they can recreate that live is a testament to the support of Santa Cruz audiences. “What an honor to be able to do that,” he says. “We can’t take this show and tour it all over Europe, it’s too expensive.”

And the truth is, Greeninger would rather do it here, anyway. He never felt the call to move some place to “make it” as a musician.

“I love writing the best songs that I can, being the best singer I can. I love getting out in front of people and bringing things that hopefully mean something to their life. But I never wanted to be famous,” he says. “At a certain level of any career, you have to see if you can make it fit your life. The thing that’s so awesome about Santa Cruz is that it’s one of those places where if you look deeper, you realize that music is just another career like anything else. It’s just like being a builder or a doctor or a teacher. I think there are a lot of people who chose to stay in Santa Cruz not because they were afraid of going somewhere else, but because this is where they wanted to be. If everybody who did music or art ran off to make it where someone else told them they had to make it, there’d be no artists here. But the ones who stick around, they make a community.”

‘Human Citizen’ Release Show

Keith Greeninger will release his new album ‘Human Citizen’ at a 7:30pm show at the Rio Theatre on Friday, Jan. 31, featuring Dayan Kai and a full band, with co-headliner Fred Eaglesmith. Tickets are $30/$45 gold circle. Go to snazzyproductions.com for tickets, or call 479-9421.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Dennis Taormina

    January 25, 2020 at 2:12 pm

    Steve,

    This is nicely written look into the life and music of Keith Greeninger. I am a long time friend and fan of Keith and his music; you captured the essence of his personality and writing style beautifully. I can personally attest to the fact that Keith never wanted to be famous, As young men, I was one of those people that wanted to make him famous. And I didn’t ask only once. Throughout his life Keith remained honest and true to his “chosen calling” and developed as a true artist that hopefully is just now being discovered by a larger following. Hope to see you there on the 31st.

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