profile: Colleen Green
Colleen Green is magenta, lit up under the lights, a tangle of cotton-pull spiderweb splayed on the wall behind her. She wears sunglasses like she’s incognito. Her hair hangs to either side of her face, elongating her features. She holds her guitar in her hands and the guitar is as wide as she is. Though unassuming and demure, she exudes an aura of cool control. It’s the sunglasses: Colleen Green always wears sunglasses when she plays, even in poorly lit bars like this one.
“This is gonna be fun,” she says quietly into the microphone, speaking more to herself than to the audience. She’s just about finished her set. She looks back to the drummer, who is also wearing sunglasses. Green doesn’t typically play with a drummer. On her records, she plays over a drum machine, but for tonight’s show she’s recruited Dr. Jerry Rogers to play drums and the tunic-clad Unkle Funkle to play bass.
The drummer counts off—too fast—and the band false starts. They try again, but Green stops them. There’s some whispering. The crowd titters. But on the third try they get it right. The audience sways as a vaguely tropical Eurodance beat takes hold, and some people cheer as they recognize the cover: “All That She Wants,” by Ace of Base. The band follows it up with “The Sign.”
“Thank you! Happy Halloween!” she says when they finish.
Colleen Green packs up her stuff and exits through the front door. I wander out after her, onto the street, where I spot her talking with some friends. I wait patiently for a break in the conversation, for her to turn my way, so I can begin our interview. But she doesn’t. Instead, she heads off down the street with two companions, out of sight.
Dunstable, Massachusetts, lies about 30 miles northwest of Boston. A little more than 3,000 people live there. Among them are many of Green’s relatives. Her mother’s side of the family runs a dairy farm in the small town, on which her grandmother, 96, still lives. Growing up, an aunt and uncle lived next door to her family; the farm was “a one-minute drive away.” She spent much of her time there, playing outdoors. Then, at age 13, her parents gave her a guitar. One of her uncles taught her to play it. Like so many New English adolescents, she spent her teenage years listening to Reel Big Fish, Sublime, Blink-182, and other ska and pop-punk bands, and she fastidiously replicated their sound and style. California skater rock is a strong antidote to wintry Nor’easters.
“I got into Sublime, and I was obsessed with Sublime from like sixth grade until maybe ninth or tenth, and I was obsessed, like only Sublime all the time. Then I got into Blink-182 a lot, and I was really, really obsessed with them, all throughout high school.”
After three hours of subconscious hide and seek, I’ve finally caught up with Green. We’ve taken to a parking lot across the street. A dim streetlight glows dully on the hoods of cars. She’s no longer wearing sunglasses. She looks tired. She looks stoned. She stops talking and looks up, beyond me, and turns her ear toward the bar.
“Oh, they’re playing ‘Badfish’ in there right now!” she says. “Awesome!”
Listeners might have trouble picking up on Green’s ska obsession. Her recordings—Cujo, Milo Goes to Compton, the Green One 7”, and 2013’s full-length Sock It to Me—trade in hook-heavy pop music that’s more Shirelles-meet-the-Ramones than Reel Big Fish. Her lyrics are invariably about her boyfriend: how his eyes are so dark and how he always knows just what to say, how she just wants to be his number one. But there are darker undertones, as on the title track of her latest album, or the Ramones rip “I Wanna Be Degraded.” She’s not pining for the days of being swept off her feet. What she is pining for is a little more ambiguous.
“Sometimes I wish I was a normal girl,” she sings on one of her songs, the appropriately titled “Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl.” You’d be forgiven for mistaking her straightforward delivery for sincerity. But when I ask her if she means what she says, she tells me that she doesn’t.
“That song was inspired by a Weird Fantasy Band song of the same name that I wanted to rip off. The subject matter is completely different, but the title always stuck with me and I wanted to use it. My song is sarcastic and light-hearted.”
But it doesn’t sound sarcastic and light-hearted!
“It’s different for me because I write the songs and they sound completely different to me than for anybody else,” she explains. As with many aspects of Green’s life and music, what at first glance seems banal betrays subtle tensions, like a Magic Eye picture that slowly reveals itself as you pull away.
She lends the impression that there is very little space between Colleen Green the artist and Colleen Green the person, and the exility of that space holds the roots of her appeal.
Ten miles from Dunstable lies the old mill town of Lowell. In the 19th century, Lowell was the center of the textile industry in America. It was also the birthplace of Jack Kerouac and Bette Davis. Besides tourist attractions and abandoned factories, the city houses the second-largest public university in the state, the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Colleen Green went to school here, to study music business. But two years into it, she dropped the music.
“The music program was pretty intense,” she says, brushing off my surprise. “The way they look at it is that it’s like a major in music performance, with a concentration in whatever you want to do. And I really wanted to study music business, but it took a backseat to all the performance stuff. It was a lot of jazz and standards. It was very, very intense. And that wasn’t my jam… It wasn’t really what I was looking for.”
So why, I ask, did you switch to business?
“I was imagining that I would work at a record label doing something, so I just switched into regular business,” she tells me. “I figured it would be pretty much the same.”
The idea of Colleen Green with a marketing degree is difficult to imagine. She is not the type to wear blazers and pleated skirts, and she doesn’t give the impression that she has much appetite for profit-seeking. Unsurprisingly, she never really took to the corporate world. Upon graduation, she worked at call centers and an Old Navy. Meanwhile, she remained focused on her guitar playing and formed a power-pop band called The Have Mercys. It was only later that the lessons of her time in college would prove useful, as she began self-releasing her material on tapes and online. Although it would be a gross distortion of reality to say that she used her business background to catapult herself to stardom, between recording, touring, and self-promoting, she managed to clear the semblance of a path.
That path began to take shape when some of her homemade recordings made their way to the leporine ears of Justin Champlin, who performs as sleaze-punk provocateur Nobunny. At his request, she played her first solo show at the Star Bar in Los Angeles in March 2010. Since then, her music has wound its way from San Diego’s Art Fag Recordings to Sub Pop-subsidiary Hardly Art. Through it all, she continues to record and produce her tracks herself, right down to the programmed drum beats that make up the backbone of her musical skeleton. To the extent that others help her, it is so that she can learn to help herself. In this way, her music business education continues.
“The best part of working with a real label is feeling like I have a home base and a support system. I can ask them anything and they will help me with anything I need,” she says. “There’s nothing bad about it. The only thing that is different now is that I have help, I’m not alone, and tons more people get to hear my music.”
Colleen Green is long hair and getting high.
The above is a quote from Colleen Green’s artist page at Hardly Art, the label that released her latest album. When I ask her how she feels about being sold this way—or any way—she shrugs it off.
“I don’t know, I feel like half of it is just people trying to have a catchy line to write about, like a literary line that grabs you, and half is just them imagining whatever they want to imagine about it. When people hear my music, I feel like everyone imagines different stuff, and everyone relates to it in a different way; everyone is reminded of different things when they listen to it. So I don’t mind. Maybe people are trying to create a persona, or they think that I have a certain persona, so they’re just trying to write about it or whatever… but I’ve never really been bothered by anything.”
Green is a very down-to-earth person. She lends the impression that there is very little space between Colleen Green the artist and Colleen Green the person, and the exility of that space holds the roots of her appeal. She talks candidly of boyfriends, breakups, fears, drugs, and the mundane minutia of her life. She talks as if the fact that people want to interview her at all is a testament to her good fortune. For someone as self-conscious as she is, she does a remarkable job of masking her anxiety.
Marijuana probably helps. In a scene known for extolling the virtues of the drug (see Fullerton, California’s Burger Records, who released Sock It to Me on cassette and with whose artists she regularly tours), Green stands out as one of its more vocal proponents. She did a short film for Impose magazine called “How to Smoke a Joint with Colleen Green,” and she was the Stoner Girl Guide’s Stoner Girl of Spring 2013. She plays her affection for the drug up to such extent that the marketing copy comes across as understatement. Her Twitter handle is @colleengreen420. The cover art on the Green One 7” is a picture of her passing a bowl; Cujo features a drawing of her smoking a joint. She talks about marijuana in most every interview she’s done. It’s so much a part of her persona—and she’s been asked about it at such length—that I chose to forgo mentioning it. Still, it came up.
How would you describe a day in the life of Colleen Green? I ask.
“Well, it would probably be me waking up early, going out to breakfast with my friend Kelly, hanging out with Kelly a bunch, watching TV, making something delicious or eating something delicious, and smoking weed.”
In 2012, Washington and Colorado voted to approve the legal sale of marijuana for recreational use. In many other states it can be prescribed for medicinal purposes, including California, where Green currently resides. In 1996, California became the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana with the passing of Proposition 215, and in 2010, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 1449 into law, which decriminalized the possession of one ounce or less to a civil infraction, punishable by a maximum fine of $100.
Green does not have a prescription for medical marijuana, but she could probably get one; she suffers from myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disease that is thought to affect .02 percent of the population. Symptoms include muscle weakness and fatigue, which often manifests in ptosis (drooping eyelids), diplopia (double vision), dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), and dysarthria (impaired speech). It can be treated with acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and immunosuppressive drugs, and life expectancy for those afflicted is typically normal.
Green received her diagnosis in 2009. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she explains, “but also the best. If it hadn’t happened, I would never have moved to Los Angeles and may have never started my solo project. It changed the way I think and really prompted me to ‘go for it’ because I realized that anything can happen on any given day, [that] I am not invincible and I won’t live forever. I also kind of felt like I was given a second chance, because while in the throes of the disease I couldn’t sing or play guitar. I could barely speak, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to do those things again.”
Besides music, Green keeps busy with a variety of projects. She hosts a web video series called “Comfortably Close with Colleen Green,” in which she asks bands “that a lot of people look up to and respect” to answer what she calls “the dumbest questions possible.” In its fourth episode, released in March, she spoke with Portland, Oregon’s The Thermals and grilled them with questions like “Why is everybody in Portland so horny?” and, naturally, “Where’s the weed at?” As of this writing it has 380 views on YouTube. She occasionally appears in music videos, makes comics, and draws her own artwork for her releases. The cover of Sock It to Me features the phrase sewn onto the back of her jacket; she made the patch herself. In an era in which nearly everything is touted as DIY, Green retains the spit-shine spirit of her forebears. Despite moving to a bona fide label with a budget, her work still feels like something that every girl, with the right chutzpah, could put together on her own. In this way, she practically defines “normal.”
“Watching shows like Jersey Shore sometimes made me wonder how much easier my life would be if I hadn’t a thing to worry about other than which club I was going to get wasted at on a given night,” she muses. “But I understand that everyone has worries, everyone has problems, even if that doesn’t seem apparent. There is no normal and there is no weird, and at the same time, everything is normal and everything is weird. All people are just trying to find a way to pass the time.”
About halfway through our interview, Colleen Green stops to tell me that she really needs to use the restroom. Although I secretly question whether this is true—and immediately feel guilty about it—I let her go. She tells me I can ask the rest of my questions via e-mail, but what else could I possibly want to know? It’s all there on the Internet, in the 20-some-odd other interviews she’s done. There are no secrets to Colleen Green. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain: Colleen Green is the mythos and the humdrum in one.
If there is anything that distinguishes Green the artist from the person, it’s the confidence with which she performs, and the vulnerability that she so masterfully aestheticizes. Her post-breakup breakdowns are well-documented. In an interview, she once claimed that she was afraid to go to Europe because she thought the people might be mean. In the spirit of Halloween, I asked her the scariest thing she could think of. “Being alone,” she said. And apparently no amount of weed can keep her from getting nervous before she goes onstage. But when she puts on her sunglasses, she transforms into Colleen Green, cool and collected in the fuchsia glow.
Profile by Sean Redmond.
Photography by AJ Henderson.