Susan Werner is one of the most amazingly versatile talents working today. Although nominally a folk performer, she has a regular stint at the Bradstan, so I’ll designate her an honorary cabaret performer. Not only is she as funny as a stand-up performer in her concerts, but she accompanies herself on piano and guitar. She’s also a great writer and has an amazing CD called I Can’t Be New with an accompanying songbook that is a must for the cabaret library. Locally Terri Allen has the song Much at All in her repertoire which has also been recorded by Lee Lessack. Her latest CD is called The Gospel Truth and tackles issues of religion — from the point of view of a self-described “evangelical agnostic.” And lucky us, she’ll be appearing at the Barns of WolfTrap on November 1st.
I’ve modified the “5 Questions” slightly for her. Here they are:
1. Please describe a “perfect” performance experience that you’ve had.
“perfect” almost always seems to happen as a result of a duet with somebody else – either singing a beatles ballad with lucy kaplansky, a song she and i hardly know, we just scribble out the words on paper with sharpie, and wing it… and i sing harmony, then she does…and we wind up someplace really lovely and vulnerable. or with vance gilbert when i sing louie armstrong and he sings billie holiday, and we don’t know how or when we’re going to end the song, we just follow each other around singing, and the audience is in pieces laughing. and there was one night with the harp (not harmonica, i mean the big stringed thing) player dee carstensen, and i, in boston. we played something… an instrumental duet.. i was playing a grand piano. and it was just – like we found our way to eachother – while we just happened to be in front of 1,000 people. it was, well, kinda transcendent like. i think the perfect moment has to meander through about ten other moments when the audience doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and neither do the performers. that’s the stuff i love more than anything else about performing. really.
2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
i started a song the other day, and realized pretty soon into it that it wasn’t exactly me talking – and it came to me that it was a bad girl of some kind – a girl who likes trouble – or found herself in it, anyway – and i realized it could be the voice of bonnie parker, of bonnie and clyde, the criminal duo from 1930′s texas… i’m still wrestling with it, because i have to make sure these words sound like words bonnie would use. not me. her grammar, her vocabulary, has to be that of somebody who never went to college, somebody who maybe never even finished high school. and someone from texas (and i’m, well, not). this is a great challenge – writing as someone else – who speaks differently – and have i won yet? nope. but bonnie might say “nope”, too. so, there’s hope.
3. There are times when you accompany yourself and other times you work with (what I assume) is a pick up band. How much rehearsal do you do? What are the steps you take to get everyone quickly on the same page?
actually, i don’t work with pick up bands. i have a longtime bass player in boston that i fly around the country as i need him. there’s also a great harmonica player out of new york, trina hamlin, who’s been coming around doing shows with me recently. but i’ve just accepted that, for me, it’s too crazy to try to get all these details nailed down in one afternoon, with musicians you meet on the spot. when i start working with a new ensemble, i’m in the habit of doing pseudonym gigs to start a string of dates. i do concerts on odd nights in little rooms under a made up name – and let the info leak out to a few friends and fans – just so maybe ten people show up to create some live feeling in the room. and then me and the band do a show, allowing ourselves to make mistakes – but in the context of feeling what the songs are about, in the context of actually expressing something. i just hate rehearsals. hate em. i had a great voice teacher who said there’s no such thing as practice… he insisted that you never just do scales or just “run thru” something. you gotta be emotionally connected with every performance, no matter what the setting. and i’ve found that to be pretty good advice.
4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?
now that’s a good question. i like that question a lot. when singing songs from I Can’t Be New, the songbooky songs record, i often see a couple in a corner booth, at a restaurant.. it’s late, like, 10:30… their wine glasses are empty, they’re drinking coffee now. and she’s leaning in.. and she has something important to tell him… and she’s going to say it with a quiet voice. and that’s an image that often helps me with those type of songs. i have little triggers in my head for most songs – but i don’t wanna give em all away.
5. What is the most pressing need the folk world has today?
funny, but i just saw ani difranco play to 3,000 screaming people at the Auditorium theater and i don’t know that the folk world looks like it needs much of anything, seen from that perspective. and she had tables for planned parenthood out in the lobby, along with amnesty international… i mean, her politics were as real as her business is successful. i also think the myspace/itunes landscape of the music business actually favors those of us who say controversial things, those of us who create unconventional music. we can get it out there. this’ll sound strange but – this awful war has been really rather good for folk music. people realized they needed vehicles to express their anger, their outrage… and we songwriters have been here for them. folk music gets tougher when things are easier, to tell the truth.
+1 You are one of the most amazingly versatile talents I’ve ever seen, as a singer, performer, musician, writer (in many genres)… How do you know what direction to go in at any given time?
well, thank you for that compliment. i don’t know that i ever know what direction to take… but a pattern that seems to have emerged over the years is that i get fascinated with a certain kind of music… a new style i can play myself on piano, or guitar, or both. and somehow while learning that new style – over the years it’s been great american songbook songs, ragtime piano, bluegrass gospel…the best songs seem to show up. once i’ve mastered it, the fun’s out of it. the best songs always show up before i have the whole thing figured out. that’s how it works for me anyway… probably better for business if i’d stick with one thing. but, hell, what are you gonna do?