Susan Werner, |
An interview by Jen Kopf
She has a glorious voice, but Susan Werner realized while she was a graduate student at Temple University "that I was not going to be the next Frederica Von Stade."
It was the Met's loss, and folk music's gain.
"I began to cultivate other talents," Werner says, and what she has harvested are intimate, clear-eyed, humorous, angry songs about love and life and loss.
Her segue from opera into folk music has led to Last of the Good Straight Girls, Werner's first major label release, and a flood of attention.
To listen to Susan Werner live, accompanied just by the guitar slung over her shoulder, is to feel a jolt of recognition at the stories that dance from the stage. Years of performance have given her stage charisma, and her sense of wry humor has mercifully rescued her from pretentiousness.
She uses words like "kazing" and "kaboom" and "holy cow" in interviews, her words rushing out as she explains how she loves the work of songwriting and performing. It's a repertoire that ranges from satire to tears, with some Edith Piaf and Paul Simon tossed in the mix. But it's her own songs that allow Werner to make her mark.
They're a long way from what she says was her first attempt at writing, a "terribly adolescent" song penned when she was 16.
Sometimes, like with "Yes to You (Tappan Zee)," the key phrase will catch her by surprise. It's something like the zing of unexpected love she sings about in the song, a chance encounter that turns the most careful plan inside out.
"Well it was all mapped out from here to Oklahoma," she sings, "all mapped out across the Tappan Zee / All laid out like dresses at the tailor's / Someone's groom and someone's bride to be."
Sometimes, it's just hard labor.
"How do you know when you've 'hit it?' You fish in the dark," Werner says. "I describe songwriting like that a lot. You do it every day, and you eventually learn how to catch fish and where to find them." For an example, check out "Much at All," a song with Gershwin-esque flow that comes at the end of Good Straight Girls. Werner calls it "an intimate little song."
"The lyrics are really specific, like the New Yorker line ("I seem to get along without the New Yorker / I guess that I don't miss you much at all"). I mean, how many people can that apply to? Same with "St. Mary's of Regret,"' which lines up a cemetery of relationships that 'we visit ... in mourning in December and in May.'"
"It's rare that a song comes up and just 'kazings' you like that, but when it does...."
Werner, 29, grew up as a hog farmer's daughter in Iowa. She has credited her dad for her interest in other people and the choices they've made. She moved to Philadelphia in the late 1980s and earned her master's degree in classical voice from Temple University, but she never broke into the opera world. Then she went to a Nanci Griffith concert, and the light bulb went on. "I thought, 'hell, I might want to do this,'" Werner said. "She's a girl from Texas. She sings songs. But this is respectable. This is not art written small. This is art with a capital A. This counts."
A nice little accompaniment gig at the Pen & Pencil club, a journalists' hangout in Philly, followed, and an independent release, Midwestern Saturday Night, came out in 1993. Her second release, Live at Tin Angel, eventually led to her Private Label debut.
The best part of moving up in the music business is "you get to dream a little bit," Werner says. "You get to build your dream team for a record." For Good Straight Girls, that includes Marshall Crenshaw on the title cut, Mitchell Froom, zydeco talent Zachary Richard and producer Frederico Saunders, who's played with Lou Reed.
"Putting a national record out really changes things for you," Werner says. "It gives you a national platform to speak from. It's kind of like going from a seat on city council to becoming a senator -- Holy cow, kaboom! That was stunning."
It also allowed her to put a new spin on some of her more established songs.
"With the title track on Good Straight Girls, it really hung in there and said its piece. It's angry, and it's raw," she said. The song chronicles a woman's jolt from naivete into wariness.
"Songwriting itself is a whole other love. You get to write your own arias, so to speak, you get to create your own one-acts instead of being trotted in on someone else's brainchild. ... Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist, said anyone can get the prize. The best thing is that moment of discovery, the great 'a ha.' No audience can give you that."
Writing songs that you fall in love with, she said, is like falling in love with a person.
"You can meet a million people, date a million people, but maybe you meet three people in your life where you think, 'Hmm, there's something here, the timing's right.' Often, it's more like, 'Well, this has been a nice dinner, but I don't have any desire to make it anything more.'"
[ by Jen Kopf ]