Monday , April 15 2024
"You have to be willing to tolerate some dissent to say what it is you have to say."

An Interview with Susan Werner (Part Two)

[ 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.

Once you start to take steps to guarantee your position in the marketplace, I think it limits what you can choose from in making the next thing. Then again, if I wanted more commercial success, maybe I could think about a few of those things. Now I have a very nice touring career all around the country and I enjoy it. There are people who have made different choices and they're more of a presence on radio and television. You have to weight out what's important to you, what's the most rewarding for you.

For me as a creative person, there's nothing quite like coming up with it in the office. The big "a-ha!" moment. The big "oh my God that song is gonna work!" Going back to "My Strange Nation," I remember exactly where I was when that concept came to me. I was walking across the Columbus Avenue bridge on my way home. It was a sunny day in January, and I remember singing, "My strange nation…" That was it. There it was. It was both patriotic and musical. It had everything in it. That was the "a-ha" moment. This is going to write itself because it has everything in it, like the DNA.

The melody has the DNA for the whole song in it. It's the figuring that out that jazzes me more than fame or whatever slight amount of fame I might have. That's not it. The big motivator is figuring it out. I still get a kick out of that.

I was thinking about what you were saying about the decisions people make in their career as to what kind of a success they want to have, or what they consider to be success. When you started off in music, where did you think you would be now? Have you achieved what you thought you wanted to achieve?

I don't know that I had a vision of it other than I enjoyed it as a kid. I've played guitar since I was five. I enjoyed it as a kid. It was fun. It was interesting, challenging, and totally engaging, and it remains exactly that. I think that's success. I wanted to be totally absorbed by it and I remain totally absorbed by it.

I think it's a wonderful way to spend your life. I remember a bass player friend of mine said, "It's a great way to spend your life – totally unconscious." [laughter] You just played your whole life. You just were having fun, unselfconscious like a kid in the sandbox. That's a great way to live your life. That's a very fortunate way to live your life. I feel very lucky with that. So, I think I did get what I wanted.

Going back to the blog thing, a touring songwriter is almost like a blog, other than that you sing it. It's a song blog, really. Whatever you're thinking, you write a song and you play it in front of people. It's kind of Amish blogging. Being a performing songwriter is Amish blogging, because you write it and then you have to go travel and play it in front of people. It doesn't get out two seconds after you write it, it gets out that night, or two days later in St. Louis or Billings or Seattle. It's a kind of blogging.

The way music is distributed is changing, so you could blog your music, in a way. Like what you did with "My Strange Nation" by making it available on your website. There is a musician named Jonathan Coulton who writes really witty, funny songs that are very well put together. He has this podcast called Thing a Week where he makes a new song available every week for free, and you can buy it from his website if you want to support the music. I think that there are multiple ways of getting your music out there now that don't necessarily require having to tour.

But if you enjoy touring and the effect it has on people…

Oh, yeah, of course!

There's a musical theater element to being a songwriter who plays in front of people. It's a little show. I really do enjoy hearing people react to it. I like hearing what people have to say about it when they talk back to you from the audience, or when they sing along. That's something you cannot experience from sitting in front of your laptop. You won't hear them sing along.

Your song has entered into how they see the world – how wonderful is that! It's not a sick little power trip, it's more, "Wow! I feel really useful!" I get a kick out of that. That's a motivator for me. That's the difference between the world of the Internet and being a performing songwriter. Yeah, it is kind of like Amish blogging.

I like that.

I think it came from our conversation about Mennonites.

[laughter] I wanted to ask you, have you seen an impact on your existing catalog sales by having them available as digital downloads through iTunes and such?

We've seen a spike. I wouldn't say it's overwhelming. We've seen a lift in the numbers, but not a tsunami of purchases. I think it has something to do with the fact that my music is so thematic. The last project was songs that sound like they're from the 20s and 30s, and there wasn't political content in that. I think I would see more of that if "My Strange Nation" was indicative of all of my music. What it has done is introduced more political minded people who otherwise wouldn't know of me. It has brought them to my shows. We know that. That was my greatest hope for this song in commercial terms, that it might introduce me to a new audience.

[At this point, the conversation shifted and Werner became the interviewer for a moment. I won't bore you with the details, but instead cut back into where it got interesting again.]

You've lived in Kentucky, Virginia, and Washington, so you certainly have an appreciation of the geographic and demographic range of the United States, so maybe this song spoke to you in some way.

Oh, yeah, it did very much. In the song you say, no I’m not going to move to France. For me it's, no I'm not going to move to a big city just so that I can be around people who think like me. I love living in rural America. I love living in a small town. I love living near the mountains. I loved living in Kentucky and Virginia, and these are not places where people like me usually live. It's difficult because there's this push because "you're not one of us, so why don't you just go somewhere else." I don't want to. That part of your song really spoke to me.

I think that's an interesting interpretation of the song, and I admire you for having that viewpoint. I've had friends who say, "I'm not going to a red state. I'm not going to play in a red state." And I think, what are you talking about? Like my show in Kansas. I enjoyed it so much. I go to Texas and I always enjoy it. I've described it as missionary work. Go out and bring your viewpoint. It takes guts to live outside of the urban megalopolises, which you do. You're doing missionary work by living your every day life and saying I'm not moving. That takes great courage, and I think that folks like you are quite possibly making the biggest difference out there. Good for you!

Thank you. We would appreciate all the help we can get. I would say to those people who say they don't want to play in the red states that those are the places that need you. There are people there who need to hear you, who need to have somebody come in who shares their viewpoint when they are otherwise a minority.

I couldn't agree more. That's what Kansas was about. I played in Manhattan and Moundridge. There were two people who were just disgusted. They were really upset about this song. What can you do? There were about a hundred other people there who really wanted to hear it and were happy to hear it. You have to be willing to tolerate some dissent to say what it is you have to say.

What's your upcoming schedule like? Are you traveling a lot or are you taking a bit of a break?

I'm a performer who tours constantly and records occasionally. When the songs all belong together, then I'll make a record. I'm gone from home quite a bit. That's a way of life you have to get used to if you want to do this. The up side is that you really do see the whole country and come to appreciate the charm of all different kinds of landscapes and people. I think that being a performing songwriter enabled me to write this song and make it believable and effective because it's a viewpoint you have to adopt to be a touring songwriter.

I see musicians who insulate themselves from the rest of the world and you have to wonder how they know what's going on to write about it.

Maybe their curiosity is focused more inward.

Yes, and there is validity to that, too. It's when they try to look outward that it concerns me.

I know what you mean by that turn of phrase there. I think there is a kind of affectionate curiosity that is a good friend to a traveling musician. To be curious about the places you are, to be interested in seeing what they are made of, and to strike up conversations with total strangers. That kind of curiosity is your traveling companion.

Thank you very much for all of your time. I really appreciate it. It's been wonderful talking to you.

See Susan Werner live at a show near you!

Date Venue City, State/Province
6/16/2006 Boulton Center for the Performing Arts (w/ Vance Gilbert and Guy Davis) Bay Shore, NY
6/18/2006 Bradstan Country Hotel White Lake, NY
7/7/2006 – 7/9/2006 Mariposa Folk Festival Orillia, ON
7/14/2006 College Hill Arts Festival Cedar Falls, IA
7/15/2006 Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt Chicago, IL
7/21/2006 – 7/23/2006 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Hillsdale, NY
7/29/2006 Flint Folk Festival Flint, MI
8/3/2006 Midtown Scholar Bookstore Harrisburg, PA
8/4/2006 The Frick Art and Historical Center Pittsburgh, PA
8/20/2006 The Attic Theatre Ann Arbor, MI
8/27/2006 – 9/1/2006 Acoustic Alaska Guitar Camp Wasilaa, AK

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