Highway's Song

Susan Werner Lets Her Heart Do the Talking

Susan Werner


Werner in performance.

More often than not, the decision to make a life from music is a choice rooted in the heart rather than the head. The calling to do so pretty much demands that one forego the comforts of a predictable schedule, workplace, and income. The pressures of creating not just art, but also a demand for it requires a skill set that goes beyond punching a time clock and reporting to a work station. Marketing and networking are just as important as artistic ability. It’s not enough to compose, record, and perform something worthwhile. One must create awareness of it as well as avenues for people to access it. Yet there are many compelling reasons to choose such a path. Artists experience a great deal of freedom in what they do. Ideally, the resulting work is the product of passion that is expressed through a combination of artistic skill and personal experience, both of which would be in a constant state of growth. When it is shared with an appreciative audience, the reward is like no other. In its purest form it can be intoxicating.

Susan Werner is an artist who can lay claim to practically the entire spectrum of experiences that can be encountered in a music career. Born into a hog farming family in Manchester, Iowa, she soon discovered a love for music and honed her abilities at a young age. During those years she picked up the guitar so she could accompany herself at church services, and soon thereafter was also playing the saxophone and piano. It was in high school band where she was exposed to classic jazz, an important influence that has informed her music through the years. Werner then went to the University of Iowa where she earned a degree in voice. Subsequently, she moved to Philadelphia in 1987 to attend Temple University to obtain a master’s degree with the intent of pursuing a career in opera. This training imbued her naturally appealing voice with a strength and stamina that would serve her well throughout her robust career. On at least one occasion she has been known to break into an impromptu operatic performance with tongue firmly in cheek, much to the delight of her audience. She even persuaded an audience member to join her in song! A career turning point occurred when she witnessed a concert by Texas singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith. The artistic authenticity Werner witnessed demonstrated that there were other avenues for musical self-expression that were equally as valid as a career singing the classics.

From humble coffeehouse beginnings to major label support, she has performed and recorded a wide range of musical styles in venues big and small, while maintaining a singular voice and vision. Her strong, confident personality has engaged audiences across America with direct honesty, whimsical humor, and unvarnished emotion. There is no pretense or artifice in her presentation; one gets the sense that the boundary between the individual and the stage act is almost nonexistent. An audience at one of her concerts gets the opportunity to know Susan Werner, the person. When asked to characterize her listeners, she describes them as “people who like to be shown a good time…people who appreciate the craft of songwriting, putting words and ideas and musical materials in order. People who appreciate good lyric writing, a good metaphor, a well-turned phrase, a good punch line. Also, I’ve learned that a lot of the members of my audience are musicians themselves. They sing in a choir, they play guitar or piano themselves, maybe they have written songs. They’re music lovers and often they turn out to be music makers, amateur and professional.”

There is a deep subtext in the songs themselves. Werner’s humanistic world view is plain to see in her lyrics and in the characters she creates for songs. At times she can even get wryly political, as in the song “My Strange Nation.” It’s important to note that not everything she writes about is from personal experience. She once stated in an interview that “autobiography doesn’t guarantee excellence,” considering “deep feeling and craftsmanship” to be much more useful tools for the songwriter. The song “I Can’t Be New” from the album of the same name is told from the perspective of a woman whose man has a wandering eye. She wistfully sings of all the things she can be, but sadly “new” is not one of them. There is a melancholy to the words which, coupled with the comforting sweetness of the melody, packs a bittersweet emotional punch. Werner’s 2011 release, “Kicking the Beehive” contains many poignant stories borne from her imagination. “The Last Words of Bonnie Parker” puts a human face on the legendary better half of the notorious crime duo Bonnie and Clyde. She regards it as “probably the most gorgeous piece of music I’ve ever recorded.” “Manhattan, Kansas” portrays a woman facing a critical point in her young life. All are universal situations and themes that everyone can relate to.

Curiously, when asked to speak about any truths she hopes to impart to her listeners, she is almost dismissive. “Truths to impart? I don’t aspire to all that and I’m pretty sure I can’t deliver on it, either. But I try to bear this in mind every night: every person in the audience has a lot going on in their lives right now, not all of it pleasant. Maybe they need a few hours of a vacation from that. Maybe they’d welcome a song. Not a conversation, not a discussion on the phone, but a song, where life can be complicated and sadnesses are inevitable. That’s what I hope people can take with them: a refreshed version of themselves. I also don’t mind if their mascara runs down their cheeks because they’re crying and laughing at a song about someone kissing their dog on the mouth. Or a song about cosmetic surgery gone wrong.” A live performance by Susan Werner is all these things and more, and through it all there is a powerful message in her art that celebrates what it is to be human and alive.

Not content to rely upon a formula or a sound, Werner’s evolution as an artist demands that she follow her muse and explore the genres of music that speak to her. “While I was lucky to get a major label record deal with BMG, the sound they were crafting with me—and mostly for me—was a guitar-based folk rock kinda thing. And while there was a moment for that, that sound, that style, I’m fortunate to be able to play many kinds of music on guitar and piano and now I’m more known as a songwriter  than as a ‘sound.’ That leaves me a lot of freedom to keep creating. It also gives me a lot of freedom in terms of subject matter.  And there were not a lot of funny folk rockers in the 1990s. I can write with a sense of humor—and that makes live shows a blast.”

An ever-evolving artist, her catalog defies categorization. While ostensibly regarded as a folk musician, her reach goes well beyond the boundaries of the genre. Each of her albums is a unique reflection of Werner’s state of mind at the time of its creation. Starting with her 1993 recorded debut Midwestern Saturday Night, she has released 13 albums, the most recent of which is 2017’s An American in Havana. Her first few releases were rooted in the folk rock genre, but with 2004’s I Can’t Be New, she tried her hand at composing in the style of jazz standards. Drawing inspiration from such noted composers as Cole Porter and George Gershwin, the album received critical acclaim and drew new listeners to Werner’s music. She has stated, “The purists want old songs done in a new way. These are new songs done in an old way.” The songs on this album could certainly find a home in the Great American Songbook.

Also noteworthy is her 2007 album The Gospel Truth, the concept of which gained traction when she attended the Chicago Gospel Music Festival. Raised Catholic, she considers herself an agnostic who can still acknowledge the power of faith. “This album celebrates much of what the church inspires people to do.” To gain perspective and inspiration, she attended different kinds of church services across the nation to experience the effects of gospel music firsthand and came away with new insights into the emotions it stirs in its listeners. “A lot of us want to get that feeling.” Far from being a protest album, The Gospel Truth examines the religious experience from both secular and faith-based perspectives and comes away with a balanced view. She once declared, “This is not an album that bashes the Bible or its firmest believers. Those people are welcome in the country club of my heaven.” If the end result is that people come together to help one another, then the mission is a successful one.

In 2009 she recorded Classics, a collection of famous pop tunes from the ’60s and ’70s that are arranged in classical style, featuring very able accompaniment by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The diverse range of artists covered include America, Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Bob Marley, and Brian Wilson. The result is quite eye-opening, as the new arrangements lend a freshness to songs that are familiar fixtures in our collective memories. These stripped down versions bring to light many lyrical and melodic features that may not have been quite so prominent in the original iterations. Unobscured by the lush studio production of the originals, there is a new immediacy to the well-chosen songs. Occasional classical snippets by Vivaldi, Satie, Bach, and Rodrigo are cleverly sprinkled throughout the album and make for delightful surprises. As Werner explains, “I hope to make classical a little less scary for people.”

Her latest release, An American in Havana, came about as a result of a 2015 visit to Cuba. Drawing inspiration from the sights, sounds, and culture of that once again hard-to-reach island, she has created a tapestry of sounds, images, and emotions that give listeners a glimpse of the experience as viewed through her discerning eyes. Color and romance come to life in the songs “Cuba Is,” “1955 Chevy Bel Air,” and “Havana Moon.” The darker themes of “Stray Dogs” are made even more stark by their juxtaposition with its lively Cuban feel. Werner gives Cuban-American percussionist Mayra Casales credit for bringing an added authenticity to the project. Casales listened to demos and provided valuable insights into how Cuban rhythms are constructed. The end result is an album that reads like a diary of Werner’s Cuban adventure.

Despite having created such an impressive body of recorded work, she primarily regards herself as a live performer, whether as a soloist or with accompanists. “Whenever there’s enough money to hire a sideman/ woman, I do. It’s called ‘playing’ music. Somebody else on the team keeps the play in the work. What a sideman does is keep the spontaneity in the show; something I aspire to whether I have a sideman or not. A surprise in a show, whether it’s the power going out or somebody in the audience knowing one of my songs, I drag them up onstage to sing it—the surprise makes the show!” Interestingly, she declares, “I’ve learned over the years that the United States is plenty big enough for a touring career. I mean, when’s the last time I got to San Diego? By the way, I want to thank Joe Rathburn for the call and the invitation and the opportunity to come back to San Diego!” While digital technology has transformed the music marketplace to a point where listeners have many options to consume new music while artists see little to no remuneration, she says, “For those of us lucky enough to be able to tour and deliver a lively show for people, the business is much as it’s always been. I’m really a performer who occasionally records, not the other way around. And that’s enabled me to survive and even kinda thrive in the new music business landscape. I feel really fortunate.”

Susan Werner will perform at Folkey Monkey on Thursday, November 7, located at Vision, 4780 Mission Gorge Pl., Suite H. Please visit www.folkeymonkey.com for tickets.

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