LOWELL — Less than a year after Colleen Green sold almost all of her possessions to fund a move across the country in a Dodge Shadow with her boyfriend to Oakland, Calif., the 24-year-old Dunstable native and UMass Lowell graduate was diagnosed with an incurable auto-immune disease that she hadn’t even heard of before, and which left her unable to work or pay rent.
It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to her.
Now 36, making music for a branch of a record label she idolized when she was younger, and having the first single off her latest album recommended by the New York Times for the nation’s summer playlists, Green is back from a decade in LA and told her story over tequila at the Worthen House Cafe in Lowell, where she used to play shows upstairs with her college bands.
Four other friends, including those who started The Have Mercys with Green in Boston, had also moved with her to Oakland in 2009, but Green had to leave the boyfriend and bandmates behind just months later as her disease — myasthenia gravis — initially left her with no real options other than moving in with her brother in Los Angeles, a city where she knew no one else.
“I had a crisis when I realized I had an incurable disease and was never going to be normal again and was going to have to take medication every day for the rest of my life. I was devastated. I was also really (expletive) depressed and I was alone and it was really, really hard. It was bad,” Green said. “I had a revelation like what if I just die? I don’t know what this disease is going to do to me. I’m basically blindly following what my doctor is telling me and I don’t know what’s going to happen so I need to start living for myself and doing exactly what I want to do and quit worrying about this and that because I could die tomorrow.”
Green had three things in her favor.
First was an immediately intense reaction to Los Angeles, where her brother lived in a neighborhood near Santa Monica, and where Green would remain for the next decade even though she arrived under stress. Green had lived in Dunstable, Lowell, Boston and Oakland already, but said she never felt the way she did when she arrived in LA.
“I remember it clearly. I went outside and I just … the sun was shining and it was so beautiful, and I was like ‘I belong here,’ ” she said. “Maybe it was because I was alone for the first time just completely experiencing life totally on my own. I just remember being really, really happy once I was in LA despite everything that had happened leading up to that.”
Second was $35 worth of friendship that had somehow survived purges of Green’s property when she moved to Oakland and then LA — a drum machine she had bought from a friend in Boston in an effort to help him scrape together some cash years earlier.
“I had that drum machine and I had never had the wherewithal to play with it, but when I was there, alone, had no friends and nothing to do with my time, I figured it was a good time to play it,” Green said. “I just started making drum beats with it and I made like 10 different beats and wrote songs over those beats and that’s what ‘Milo Goes to Compton’ was.”
“Milo Goes to Compton” was Green’s first album as a solo artist — no band — and her lack of either a job or money led her to paying “two punk friends” $100 to make 75 cassette tapes and sleeves for her.
Green wanted to be a rock star since she was 6 years old, but said that up until she was in Los Angeles she hadn’t realized creating music alone was an option — she had always thought she needed a band.
“I’m very self-sufficient, I’m really independent, and I don’t like having to rely on other people for everything,” Green said. “I would have loved to play music with just me, but I guess before that point I just never thought it was an option. At my age and where I come from, I thought ‘no, you have to have a band.’ “
She preferred recording to playing live shows, but started playing shows around LA just to distribute the tapes.
Green — who got a degree in marketing from UMass Lowell after disliking her time there as a music major — also gave out a six-song EP she recorded on CDRs to those who bought the cassettes, which she knew would likely be shared online.
Green’s first tour used public transportation to take her to about a half-dozen stops across the country that she set up with help from Craigslist. But then she was offered a chance to join a six-week tour around the country with the band Girlfriends, who she knew from Boston.
“Maybe halfway through that tour I started getting orders for my cassette tape from people with Sub Pop email addresses,” Green said. “I’m totally a ’90s kid. I worshipped Sub Pop as a label, and I remember one day I was in New York City and was just like ‘people with Sub Pop email addresses are ordering my tape and sending me emails about how much they like my music right now.’ I was pretty overjoyed.”
Green had her tapes made in January 2010, went on tour with Girlfriends in July, and signed with Hardly Art Records — a subsidiary of Sub Pop — in September 2010, all while the medication for her illness increasingly enabled her to return to a normal life, no longer facing the potentially fatal muscle weakness the untreated disease can cause.
“I just started doing my thing and just kinda never stopped,” Green said.
In 2013, Green released “Sock It To Me” on Hardly Art. In 2015, she released her second album with a title riffing on albums from punk rock legends The Descendents. “Milo Goes to Compton” had been a riff on The Descendents “Milo Goes to College,” and Green was inspired by the punk rock classic “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” when she made “I Want To Grow Up.”
It was the 2015 album — her first recorded in a studio — that pushed Green into the pages of magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone, with critics often noting Green’s humor and riffs on other bands, as well as deeply personal lyrics that a Spin review called “jaw dropping.” In 2019, Green released an album of all covers, creating a lo-fi version of pop punk band Blink 182’s “Dude Ranch.”
“She’s doing something that’s kind of a tricky balance, where her songs have humor in them yet they have heart in them too. If you look at her song titles, you think it’s just going to be a goof, but there’s something personal about them. There’s a lot of thought behind them. It’s not a goof. She’s trying to make a point, even if her mode is funny,” a record store owner told the Los Angeles Times for a profile of Green the paper published in 2015.
The first song released from her new album, “Cool,” still fits that bill. “I Wanna Be A Dog” was described by the New York Times last month as “a catchy, funny and straightforwardly earnest song” as the newspaper recommended Green’s new song and a dozen others for the nation’s summer 2021 playlists.
Living with an auto-immune disorder and facing a pandemic that devastated the music industry which had allowed her to live in LA on nothing but royalties and her music career, Green moved back to Lowell from a “bleak” LA a few months ago.
“Cool” was recorded in 2019 before the pandemic hit, and will be released on Sept. 10.
Reflecting on the path she took through the City of Angels, Green recognizes how incredibly lucky she is to have experienced the third thing she had in her favor when she arrived in LA.
“I always like to say getting the disease was like the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it was also the best thing that ever happened to me. I was kind of forced into that situation and I think it was the best thing possible for me in my life, ironically enough. If I had a job I wouldn’t have been able to dedicate my entire brainpower to just making music, but I was able to because my brother wasn’t charging me rent and that was all I did,” Green said. “Even though it was because of something that was so devastating, it was such a privilege to have that time alone. Most people will never, ever have that, and it sucked, but I’m really lucky to be able to have had that opportunity.”
Green plans to stick around Lowell now. Her parents and 102-year-old grandmother still live in Dunstable, and even though she’s working a part-time job since she can’t tour due to COVID-19, Green is enjoying housing prices far lower than those in LA, and feeling back at home in New England.
“I think if COVID had never happened I wouldn’t have moved back here, but I had always wanted to,” Green said. “I’m so happy, and I can afford to live alone here. I’m going to be 37, I can’t be living in a frat house, and that’s kinda what it felt like I was doing (in LA).”
And what are the next steps for a woman whose life experience has shown that doing whatever she wants leads to success? Music isn’t the first answer.
“My plans for the future are to continue, first and foremost, trying to grow as a person and trying to grow emotionally and just trying be the best version of myself that I can possibly be. That’s my No. 1 main goal,” Green said. “No. 2 is continue making music that I’m proud of.”
To learn more about Green and her music, visit: www.hardlyart.com/artists/colleen_green.