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An Interview with Susan Werner (Part Two)

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[ Continued from Part One. ]

I wanted to talk to you about the style of music you've been doing and how it's shifted over time. It seems to be, at this point, fluctuating back and forth between straight up folk to more jazz and vocal based. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador bringing together fans of both to appreciate the music in general?

I think that a good song makes its own argument. It doesn't matter if it's a great American songbook type song, or if it's a folk ballad, or a tweak on a traditional sounding tune like a Ralph Stanley a cappella tune. It doesn't matter what the materials are as long as the concept holds up. As long as the thing is well executed and is a self-contained world, it will work for three minutes and thirty seconds. It doesn't matter what the musical materials are.

I think it's more about writing good songs in what ever medium you choose. I do think that until this last project (the great American type songbook project), until I took on a project where I wrote everything of a certain style, I think that I experimented a lot. It's almost like painters who paint all kinds of things in their school years and then they stumble on this thing that becomes part of their signature. I feel like now I'm getting to where I can do a themed project; from start to finish it's going to be made of these materials, this concept, and this argument. Now I feel like these are coming together in groups of ten or twelve.

I'm happy about that because I think that it allows you to dig in deeper into any particular subject matter and any style of music. You become a complete student of it. It's almost like language immersion camp. I'm listening now to bluegrass and spirituals and church music. That's all I’m listening to. I'll listen to that until the project is done, and then I'll start to listen to something else. Serial monogamy, maybe. Any project is like falling in love. When you're in love with a style, when you're in love with what this does to you, how you feel when you listen to it, what it makes you think about… it's an obsession. It's gonna last about two or three years.

So, you can have a very stable personal life. You can kind of whore around, musically. Creatively, you can be a bit of a tramp.

It's one of the things that I really enjoy about musicians who are able to do that. Where they take little bits of here and there and combine it all into something that you wouldn't have expected and a really well blended influence of styles. It makes it more interesting, rather than just putting out the same album every year.

I believe in it. I think you have to do something you can't do, like learn a new instrument. I'm learning trumpet now, and I’m terrible at it. Just awful. I pity anyone who has to overhear me doing my scales. It's awful. Now I'm taking tap lessons. I'm really terrible, but you have to be willing to dispense with the thing that you mastered to get somewhere new. My favorite quote is from Miles Davis who when asked, "Why don't you just do those ballads again?" He said, "Well, 'cause I already did that, man." [laughter] Once you figure it out, you know?

Where's the challenge?

Where's the challenge? I mean, are you making paintings to hang over people's sofas? Then you just do the same things over and over. Then you get a brand. Are you willing to put your brand at risk? That's what makes it interesting for me. Anywhere the word brand shows up it gets almost creepy.

About Anna Creech

  • Tracy

    GREAT interview here with Susan Werner. I absolutely LOVE her music, particularly the jazzy songs and the new gospel-y songs. I love that y’all got into a discussion about religion in America; it’s really cool to hear where she’s coming from on these new tunes. I’m a recent divinity school graduate and while my faith means a great deal to me, I fluctuate between a kind of seriousness and earnestness and a kind of subversive desire to shake things up a bit. ;o) A healthy skepticism and doubt, if you will, combined with a deep sense of faithfulness. This is what I love about Susan’s new songs in this genre, and I think they’re really going to resonate with a LOT of folks in the church around the country, probably more than she realizes. Most of the folks I know from the types of churches I’ve been involved in have just this kind of perspective… a wilingness to laugh at oneself and be critical of something while still being loyal to it. It’s nice to have some music that expresses that complexity of thought and emotion.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this and wanted to thank you for taking the time to write it and share it! :o)

    Grace and peace,