If it seems like you heard Greg Grease’s name a lot in 2015, that’s because he had an extremely busy year. He put out his sophomore full length record, Born to Lurk, Forced to Work, and followed it up with a pair of well-received EPs, in addition to guesting on at least half a dozen tracks by other artists.
Greg also appeared on Open Mike Eagle’s podcast, Secret Skin, and I was intrigued by how candid he was in that interview. If you know Greg at all, you’ll know that he’s kind of a quiet guy, even though he might deny it. He hangs back, soaking up his surroundings, taking it all in. It’s part of what makes him such a compelling writer, and his reflections on modern life and the dynamics of the city are personal and poignant.
Greg sees things in our city that we don’t always like to acknowledge or admit out loud. He’s observed the deep divides that have kept our music community segregated, and has worked as an activist and a socially minded artist to help fellow artists of color create safe spaces, celebrate and support one another.
I was excited to unpack all of the layers of Greg’s artistry, from his approach to writing and the backstories of some of his songs to his thoughts about race and social justice in the music community. I hope you enjoy learning about Greg as much as I did.
Andrea Swensson: You’ve had a really busy year, musically. What was it about 2015 that made it a very ripe time for you creatively?
Greg Grease: Really, I just try to continuously progress. In the past, I might have had a level of what I was doing, but I always try to do more and be better, you know? It’s just like, let’s see what we can do; let’s see how many songs we can do. I actually have another EP, too.
Wow, when is that one out?
Hopefully within the next two months. But don’t take my word for it. [laughs]
So you must be writing pretty frequently. Do you write every day?
No, not really. I kind of write when I’m inspired. I’m not really good at just sitting down and writing, you know. But luckily I’m around with a lot of really cool creative people, and they inspire me a lot. We have writing sessions. So that’s kind of how the EPs worked out; they’re collaborative, with the producer, and with different people that I have on the songs. But really, my whole album, most of the music I make is with multiple people, even when it’s just me on it. That helps a lot. Because I don’t often write, actually.
What do you look for in a collaborator?
Energy. It’s all about the energy. If you have a high level of energy, it’s fun. I just like to have fun with it. My favorite person to collaborate with is Proper T, my cousin. He’s a singer, and this dude – you’ll put on a song and he’s just like, “Aw, yeah!” It’s a good energy, and it inspires me. I think that’s probably better than just being by myself, because then I’m just over-analyzing stuff.
I was listening to all of the music you’ve put out this year, and one thing that sticks out to me is that the vibe of the music is very laid-back and hypnotic, but if you listen to the words, you’re actually talking about very serious things, about your life and the world. How do you balance those two things?
I think it mostly has to do with my taste. I mostly listen to laid-back music, like jazz. I listen to a lot of jazz. A lot of easy listening music. Because I just like to – there’s always so much going on. I need music that calms me, because I have a lot going on in my head. So I think the sounds, soundscapes, I’m attracted to really calming music. And then the words, that’s all the stuff that’s going on in my head. So I think it kind of coincidentally happens that way.
What kind of jazz do you like?
I listen to all kinds of different jazz, but mostly older. Like I listen to a lot of Monk, and Mingus, and I like Art Blakey. I like the mellow, soul jazz. Pharell Saunders. I could keep going.
I love jazz too. I play a little bit myself, on piano. I find myself actually the opposite – I can’t relax when I’m listening to jazz. I think maybe because I’ve been studying it, so I’m trying to figure it out.
For sure. That’s how it is when I listen to rap music. Which is why I don’t listen to rap that much. I listen a fair amount, but not as much as one might think, because I end up over-analyzing it.
I was watching someone rap recently, and I had never really thought before about the similarities between improvising on whatever instrument in jazz, and the rhythmic part of being a rapper. And I’m just fascinated by that now. Do you find that love of jazz coming across in your delivery?
Yeah I think so. I’m also a drummer. I’m not really a jazz drummer, but I love it, and I respect it. So I think that definitely does affect my cadences and my rhythm. Also, my care for the beat — like I don’t really care that much about the beat, as far as staying locked into a traditional form of what it means to be on a beat. I think definitely jazz influences me in that way, probably positively and negatively.
Maybe that’s where the laid-back part comes from — you’re literally laying back from the beat.
Right? Yeah. And when I listen to some of my older, older stuff, there’s some songs that just don’t have any structure. And I now kind of do that on certain songs, where there’s not really a verse-chorus structure, but it’s a little bit more organized, and I think that’s definitely a jazz thing.
I want to talk about the title of your latest album, Born to Lurk, Forced to Work, and specifically the word “lurking.” That word has some fascinating connotations, especially related to antiquated lurking ordinances. When did your interest in exploring this word begin?
It had to be when I was a teenager, and seeing people lurking, basically, and not really knowing exactly if they were someone from the neighborhood. The way I was raised was to be really observational; my dad is a really observational dude. So if someone’s on the block – not really in a nosy way, but [I’d wonder] who’s on the block. When I was a kid, I’d just start noticing grown-ups in South Minneapolis, lots of people on the block. And not necessarily on my block, but just in the neighborhood, and just trying to understand what they were doing, because they’re not at home. As a kid, you to school, you go home, you hang out with your friends, but they weren’t really hanging out with their friends. They were doing something else. So that was the first inkling of that.
But then, really myself starting to lurk, getting a little bit older, going out, hanging out. So then understanding that, oh, maybe they were just hanging out with their friends. And I was just a kid, and they’re big scary people. So that idea of, oh, it can mean multiple things, and it can be multiple things.
That’s interested that you bring up the scariness part of it; there is a connotation that lurking is not acceptable or appropriate.
Right, like you’re doing something bad. Obviously in rap people love to use words that mean the opposite, and so I think maybe I was drawn to it like that too. But I do think there is some depth and multiple meaning to it.
When your new single, “Moderation,” was released, the article that accompanied mentioned this idea of radical self-care. I’m really interested in the idea of self-care, in general. Where does that practice enter into your life?
For me, my self care is very important, but not number 1 important for me, at this point in time. It’s mostly just because there’s a lot of different things going on family-wise, and I have to be more of the older person to help out someone a little bit younger. But to me, it’s really important, the idea of self-care through identifying your problems and being ok with having problems. For me, self-care is through my music, and my art, and my expression, and I don’t think a lot of people get to express themselves, you know. So a lot of people have stuff pent up. And I try not to pent stuff up. I try to be really honest with people. And really, you know, just be honest with myself. I think self-care has to do with self-honesty, and realizing when you’re kind of messing up. And when you’re on point, too — and celebrating yourself.
I was listening to some podcast, and they were talking about the idea of body movements for energy, and how most people, when they succeed in something, they put their hands up, like in a victory pose. And they did a study about people that take victory poses, versus inward poses, with crossed legs and crossed arms – they took two different groups of people, and had some of them do victory poses for 30 seconds, and then go into an interview. And they had other people do inward poses for 30 seconds, and then had them go into an interview. And then they asked the interviewer who they would hire, and almost every time it was the victory poses. So there’s something going on inside your brain when you do a victory pose, that it actually makes you feel better. Even blind people do it. And so, that’s something that I’ve been doing, and I’ve been doing that for a couple years now. Sometimes if I’m down and out, I’ll just look in the mirror and put my hands up like Fela Kuti, like, “Yeah, boy! You got this!”
That’s so fascinating to me that the mind and body are connected in all these ways we don’t realize.
And we take ourselves for granted in that way. You could help yourself, if you were more in tune with yourself.
What is “Moderation” about?
I think it’s me writing a letter to some of my friends and family members. And to myself. Without trying to be like I’m better than anyone, by talking about it. Because I have my problems too. Me and my friends, we say that a lot — “everything in moderation.” So it was kind of a joke, but then it was like, well, maybe we should talk about it. Because the idea right now is like, everyone is a drug addict, and it’s “cool.” And it’s like, I know real drug addicts. I grew up with kids that are drug addicts, and it is not anything pretty. So when you see these rich artists that can glamorize it in a cool way, it’s like, you’re rich, who cares dude? You can make anything look cool. But the kids don’t know that; they just see “cool.” And success. When I was young, it wasn’t about that. It was about being smart, and it was about quiet-scary; people that were quiet and you knew they were scary. Not like, “Look at these drugs I take!” and showing it on Instagram.
The O.K. Show, Episode 1: A candid discussion on mental health with Charlie Van Stee
The O.K. Show, Episode 2: Mary Beth Mueller and her one-woman crusade against cancer
The O.K. Show, Episode 3: Adam Levy’s devastating loss and beautiful new solo album
The O.K. Show, Episode 4: Irv Williams, the elder statesman of Twin Cities jazz
The O.K. Show, Episode 5: Lydia Liza on empathy, anxiety, and staying grounded in the music business
The O.K. Show, Episode 6: Hard-touring rapper Astronautalis talks about staying sane on the road
The O.K. Show, Episode 7: Mayda on her health and her journey as a Korean adoptee
The O.K. Show, Episode 8: Manchita on feminism, rapping, and her relationship with Eyedea
The O.K. Show, Episode 9: Lizzo on self-acceptance and falling in love with herself
The O.K. Show, Episode 10: Rock ‘n’ roll dreamer Dan Israel comes to terms with his divorce and his health
The O.K. Show, Episode 11: Claire de Lune on anxiety, imposter syndrome, and finding herself through music