Catching up with

Greg Tannen

by Richard Cuccaro

This month marks Acoustic Live’s entry into its 12th year of publishing. We began in June of 1999 with a cover story on Steve Tannen, the older brother of this month’s featured performer, Greg Tannen. Since we’re only now getting around to younger sibling Greg, you might say we’re running a little bit late.

His music is what some would call “adult acoustic rock,” full of catchy phrases and big hooks. Over the years, while I kept getting distracted by Fast Folk Musical Magazine alumni or someone new who’d catch my ear, Greg just kept getting better and better, winning and placing in songwriting competitions (John Lennon, UNISONG, USA, ISC) and awards in festivals (Sierra Songwriters, Telluride, Rocky Mountain Folks). I’d run into Greg often over the years and he’d greet me warmly, seemingly knowing it was only a matter of time before I’d recognize his mastery of the songwriter’s craft.

Recently, Greg’s new album, Maybe the Sun, drew the attention of WFUV’s John Platt, who featured Greg on his “Sunday Breakfast” radio show and in his monthly “On Your Radar” live show at the revered East Village songwriter mecca, The Living Room.

The title track of the new album seemed to be the game-changer for me. However, after reacquainting myself with all of Greg’s albums, I found that it’s really a continuation of a body of beautiful and compelling songs. It was definitely time to give Greg his overdue props.

The Family Tree

Elements of bold performance, musical chops and clever wordplay in the family lineage hint at what was to come for Greg and his brothers.

Louis Tannen, Greg’s grandfather, was an influential magician who opened a magic shop in New York City in 1925. Although Louis died in 1982, there is still a Tannen’s Magic showroom near Herald Square and a Tannen’s Magic website where magic products are sold. Coincidentally, Louis Tannen’s Catalog of Magic is referenced in an article in this week’s (May 29, 2011) New York Times Magazine article on TV/movie producer J.J. Abrams (Lost, Mission: Impossible III). A never-opened wooden “mystery box” Abrams got as a boy at Tannen’s Magic Shop played a seminal role in shaping his suspense-heavy career vision. About that magic book… it sits on a shelf and, when pulled, it opens the door to Abrams’ secret bathroom (really). You just know it’s made an impact.

Greg’s father, Pete, is a humor columnist, who has been syndicated in many newspapers. He is also an amateur jazz pianist. Pete had been admitted to the Berklee School of Music for jazz, but his parents told him, “There’s no money in music,” so he didn’t attend. Pete’s weekly columns, full of arch commentary, can be read at (Greg’s website has a link). His bio reads: “Pete Tannen is an award-winning humor columnist. When faced with enormous expenses for his kids’ college tuition, he spent years as Creative Director of various advertising agencies in New York City, Sydney, Australia, and Toronto, Canada. He stopped doing that when the last one graduated.”


Greg was born in Australia. His family moved to Toronto right after his first birthday and stayed for around six years. They then moved to Mamaroneck, N.Y., where they lived for about 15 years. Greg finished high school there.

Given Greg’s father’s jazz leanings, there was always music in the house. Greg said that while he was growing up, “The only hard and fast rule in the house was, you had to learn a musical instrument.”

His parents’ record collection was jazz-heavy, but diverse. The first names to come tumbling out of Greg were: “a lot of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans” (Pete is a huge Bill Evans fan). However, their tastes included Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Listening to his father play and hearing the melody digressions in jazz were a big part of Greg’s formative experience (still “…my favorite thing to listen to”).

At around 9 or 10 years old, Greg studied clarinet, but said, “I was terrible at it.” After maybe a year of cacophonic practice, he switched to guitar. Greg’s mom had an old nylon-stringed Martin guitar. He picked that up and started playing it, saying he didn’t want to study clarinet any more, and began taking guitar lessons from a female jazz guitarist. The lessons lasted five years, into high school. He learned both jazz and rock ’n’ roll.

First Steps

In high school, he got his first band together called Talking to the Wall, with Greg on vocals and his Fender Telecaster (which he still owns). The band played covers of the Rolling Stones and REO Speedwagon, among others, and some of Greg’s original songs. When Greg was 17, the band came into New York City and recorded its first  (and only) album — material that “will never see the light of day,” he wryly states.

During high school, almost all his performing was with the band, strictly electric. At home, in more private moments, he was writing on acoustic guitar, focusing on songwriting, under the influence of acoustic-based songwriters such as Bob Dylan and those in Dylan’s lineage. Toward the end of high school, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he performed his original work at open mics and at the end-of-the-year senior talent show.

The Soloist Emerges

Greg went to college at Oberlin in Ohio. He describes it as “a great music conservatory attached to a ‘60s style hippie liberal arts college.” He recalled that, “The ‘liberal hippie’ vibe was great for a songwriter.” He experimented, drifting through several majors, music and creative writing among them, and finally got his degree in history. While at Oberlin, Greg did more performing on acoustic guitar, doing small gigs and open mics.

G’Day, Mate!

After college, Greg took a year off. Taking his acoustic guitar and travel bag, he went to Australia, “doing the vagabond thing,” staying in youth hostels part of the time. He always had his guitar out and busked in Sydney and Cairns (up the coast from Sydney near the Great Barrier Reef). His most rewarding experience was working as a first mate, cooking and playing guitar on an 80-foot charter sailboat that was also an America’s Cup challenger. He said, “I didn’t know anything about sailing, but the captain really liked me. He was a big ‘Dead-head’ and I would fudge my way through Grateful Dead songs, which he really loved.”

Carpetbaggers in Boulder

Returning to the States after one year, he settled in Boulder, Colo., (“A fairly good music town”) for about two years with older brother Steve. They played gigs together as a duo called The Kahluas (named after the family’s dog) and made a recording. It turned out to be a “learning experience” more than anything else.

“We converted a two-car garage of a house that I was renting with other people into a recording studio. We did a lot of dumpster-diving out behind rug stores for various bits and pieces of carpet and made this ‘wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling womb of carpet’ for soundproofing. We had some relatively simple equipment that sounded OK and we banged out an album. It was a lot of acoustic guitar with some electric thrown in. We both played bass and some piano. It was our first taste of diving into an independent, whole project, our own stuff, a complete album; not only the recording experience, but writing and producing, a kind of learning as-you-go, start-to-finish. The equipment broke down three times, and we had to get it fixed because it was so full of carpet fibers. [When I pointed out the deadening effects of carpet, Greg responded, “the stuff we got WAS pretty dead, but … that’s how you learn.”]

NYC, by way of NC

After that, they both left Colorado and together went to North Carolina, where the third Tannen brother, Robert (today a successful screenwriter), was living. They mostly wrote songs and didn’t perform much. After less than a year, Greg moved to New York City, and Steve followed a few months later. Steve’s song “Brother Uptown” on his debut CD Big Senorita describes him coming in late and crashing at Greg’s apartment. They began playing open mics, the Fast Folk Cafe among them, which is where I first made their acquaintance

A circle of songwriters formed at the open mic of the now-defunct midtown club Downtime that became the nucleus of what Greg termed his “high school class.” Among the players he named were familiar names from the mid-’90s: Joe Brack, Don Everett Pearce, Gabrielle, Teddy Goldstein and Jody Sheeler. “All great songwriters,” he said, “that would help push you all the time.”

Greg and Steve wrote together quite a bit in Colorado and, in New York, they’d hang out together at their respective apartments and at open mics. That said, career-wise, both brothers began to go in separate directions.  For one brief interlude, however, they collaborated on “Vegas, Baby,” a paean to youthful freedom: Friday I can’t see the use / Get the hell right out of Dodge / Slip the traffic like a noose / On the trail of some mirage / Cause every time it comes, I think my luck will change / Drive all the way to Vegas, baby…

Greg was visiting Steve at his place and while jamming, the basic riff emerged and by the end of the evening, they had the melody and the chorus. Then, as Greg tells it, during their respective “crap part-time jobs,” at their computers, they started emailing lyrics back and forth to each other. By the end of the week, when they got together again, the song was finished. Although free of drug references and busts, to these ears, stylewise, it’s a cousin to the Grateful Dead hit, “Truckin” with some “Friend of the Devil” thrown in. Their sibling harmonies make it irresistible. To many of their fans, it’s their most popular song and they still perform it together when touring schedules coincide. The song is included as a bonus track on Greg’s debut CD, Roam.

For the Record…

Roam, released in 2000, was about traveling around and it kicks off with “I Feel Lucky,” a joyous and twangy guitar rocker that matches anything Tom Petty ever wrote. This is followed up with the gorgeous “Everything I Said,” a haunting reverie about a girl named Vanessa who stands by the clock in Grand Central Station with her hair up. She seems out of reach as Greg sings: Summer comes and summer goes / I’d give a lot to know what summer knows. Two tracks later, we’re treated to the award-winning “Mary,” in which we’re young again and transported to a summer night car ride with a girl in a white dress. Over a throbbing bass line we hurtle down the road and, the dash board lights set our sights way up high… hold on tight to me… Mary

Coney Island, released in 2002, was a “love letter to New York,” Greg said. Things get pretty affectionate in “Coney Island, Mid-July,” as he sings Coney Island, Mid-July, tell my fortune, tell me lies / dollar chance, pretty girl and dance / The whole world’s hopping on the tilt-a-whirl… The flirtatious “Train Girl” explores Greg’s amorous thoughts on a subway to Brooklyn next to a girl pressed ever so lightly against him. It starts off slow and picks up speed as his thoughts fly faster.

“It’s You” is a gentle throwback to doo-wop with its slow-dance tempo. An attempt to do an extended riff turned into a laugher and is tacked on as a short bonus track.

Rocket, released in 2008, blew past me like a 100-mile-an-hour heater. I didn’t even see it. “Strikeout! Better luck next time, sport,” I tell myself now. It’s an absolute gem of an album. It centered around relationships and darker themes crept in, albeit always with beautiful melodies. Track one, “Something About October,” explores the sadness of a girl for whom There’s something about October / that cut her deep inside / like she was going left / and the world’s going right / there’s something about October / something to regret for her / in October…  In “Single Man,” Greg looks at the male attempt at post-breakup self-deception, telling himself, I can still see her standing on the coast of Maine, her hair in the wind like a weathervane / I can still see her standing here, when I close my eyes, so I’ll keep ‘em open most of the time but… I’m a single man, doin’ fine.  Nice try Greg, and… great song. “Just Waking Up” is a lighthearted look back at a lost day, waking up at 3:30 in the afternoon, after a lost night out: Last night I think I went to my favorite bar and caught my favorite band / I think they played a show / I saw some people that I know / they bought me lots of drinks, I said thanks, I think / and then I think I drank… The day’s unrealized plans fall away, chugging and percolating over captivating piano and drum riffs.

Maybe the Sun, released in late 2010, is a lot less New York-based and wide-ranging in its themes. The title track is another soulful rendering of a breakup that somehow seems a bit more sharply rendered than its predecessors. Over a crisp guitar strum, the lyrics look for hope in a desolate mood as Greg sings: The rain fell down on stone /thinking I’m lame / here on my own / walking the fields / rattling bones / for anything real / that I can take home / Maybe the sunshine will come… It’s sheer pop poetry, aching with melancholy, yet hopeful. “Bad Love,” one of his darker songs that didn’t fit stylistically into the earlier albums and had been around since he recorded Coney Island, was a good fit on the current release. The pensive rumination on the acceptance of the end of a toxic relationship strikes a truthful note: It’s just bad love / you can wash it off your skin like old blood / sometimes it’s tough / this ain’t how it’s supposed to be / and the thing you want to see / just keeps hiding. It’s laser-like in its perception.

The sharpness of Greg’s perception and scalpel-like wordplay are evident in “Feels So Right,” about an alcoholic trying not to take another drink: We have been wild before  / running through the open doors / it’s surrender not fight / it’s dark not light / but it feels so right … just once more / then it’s never again / like the last time / this was the end.

Maybe The Sun B-Sides. released in 2011, is a three-song collection of ear candy. It culminates in “Gone Again,” a soulful Chicago blues-style plea to a lover not to leave: Don’t pull back those blinds / let the world come creepin’ in / realize it’s all gone again / Lover, stay, lover stay, a little longer… It’s sublime, and the replay button beckons, over and over.

On the Road and On Screen

I talked with Greg about his road experiences. He has opened for Rosanne Cash a bunch of times. Rosanne has been very supportive of Greg, twittering to her fans about him during his opening sets, and generating lots of CD sales. When I gingerly opined about her as a cover feature for Acoustic Live, he encouraged me, saying she is “the sweetest person you’ll ever meet.”

We also discussed his brief, three-second television appearance. After Steve went on to form the successful group The Weepies with singer/songwriter Deb Talan (now his wife), they settled in California. Greg has opened for them numerous times, especially on The Weepies’ East Coast tours.

One time, however, when Greg was in California, he appeared with them during one episode as part of a sub-plot on the TV series Dirty Sexy Money (2007-2009). I posed the idea that brother Robert’s screenwriting connection had something to do with it. Greg said that wasn’t a factor and that they still don’t know how it happened. They think that the head of the show was a big Deb Talan fan and wanted her on the show, so The Weepies were written into the script. Greg appeared with Steve and Deb as part of the group.

After eight hours of hanging around, they got all of three seconds of screen time, playing secretly in a hotel room for the Lucy Liu character, who couldn’t be seen in public attending a concert with her illicit lover (deep-pocketed, since how else are ya gonna afford a private Weepies concert?).

Songwriter in Demand

Given Greg’s uncanny knack for radio-friendly tracks from the first album on, our conversation turned to songwriting. Greg has been approached by Nashville songwriters about co-writing. His take is that when you collaborate with someone, a different style emerges, a hybrid of two people. He good-naturedly referred to the results of the combination of his efforts with others as “Frankenstein” in nature.

We talked about the co-writing scene in Nashville. He said, “I’ve made a bunch of trips down there, written with some great people, had some great meetings, but… they want me in Nashville, and I’m just not ready to live there.” That’s good luck for us. We’ll get to see more of him here.

Although Greg went on tour in late 2010 for two weeks behind the new album and played some one-off shows, performance plans at present are minimal. There’s one in the East Village at Rockwood (see below). Greg’s in the middle of a writing spurt and hopes to have enough material for a new album next year. He’ll be touring California in August in support of Maybe the Sun.

We want to encourage our readers to order Greg’s CDs online and look for upcoming appearances in our listings pages in the months to come. You’ll be glad you did!

Upcoming appearance:

Sunday, June 12, 7pm Rockwood Music Hall196 Allen St., NYC