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Susan Werner

At a time when so many singers are mining the archives in search of standards to sing, Susan Werner has written her own songbook.

Her latest CD, "I Can’t Be New," recalls the classic tunes of Porter, Gershwin and Mercer. Werner’s songs are new, but they carry an old vibe, with their sharp lyrics and sophisticated melodies.

Werner describes the songs as "one acts." These vignettes are an insightful, entertaining look at modern-day life and relationships told by a woman who wants to break your heart and make you laugh.

JazzReview recently caught up with the singer-songwriter to learn what inspired her to write the songs, how her writing has changed, and what’s in her CD player.

JazzReview: The new CD has been described as being in the songbook-style. How would you describe it?

Susan Werner: The idea was to write songs that you might have thought Cole Porter or George Gershwin wrote, to adhere so closely to those forms that you might have thought these songs were overlooked in the archive somewhere, that these were songs collecting dust on the shelf. I would call these songbook-type songs. But, one difference is there are little hints in every song that let you know this is going on now and not in 1935. For instance, in the song "I Can’t Be New," the woman’s voice, the protagonist, sings, "When you need a laugh, I can be your joker/Cut a loss in half, I can be your broker." There weren’t a lot of women brokers in the 1930s. There are little hints to let you know that this is contemporary.

JazzReview: The CD captures that songbook style, but with a little bit of fresher attitude.

Susan Werner: Someone described it as being at the intersection of Cole Porter and Carole King. It is certainly from a woman’s point of view. I was glad to contribute that because there were very few writers in what you call the canon of the Great American Songbook who were women. You think of lyricists like Carolyn Leigh or Dorothy Fields, but they didn’t write the songs by themselves. I didn’t mean to do it, but somehow these songs speak for women in a way that guys just couldn’t do. The response has been overwhelming, especially to songs like "I Can’t Be New," which every woman over age 35 has been like, "Where has this song been?"

JazzReview: Did you have to get into a particular mindset or mood to write these songs?

Susan Werner: When writing these songs, I had the image in my mind of the couple in the corner booth. They’ve finished their dinner, and they’re on the last glass of wine or even having the cup of decaf. What do they wish they could say to each other? What is one of them about to say? It’s that particular moment in the evening. They’re like little one acts. I think the best songs are that, little monologues from one character to another.

JazzReview: There’s a lot of interest these days in the Great American Songbook. Queen Latifah, Rod Stewart, whoever, seems to be singing standards. What do you think about that?

Susan Werner: It was a point of discussion with my producer about whether we should include a cover. We thought the thing that would set this apart is that these are all new songs. That’s the thing that would make this project different amidst the revival of interest in the Great American Songbook. That turned out to be the right thing to bet on. There are so many people singing the songs now. I’m personally afraid to do it. I think so many great singers have done these songs so well.

JazzReview: One thing that stands out about the new CD is that it is very cohesive. It flows from one song to the next all the way through. Is that continuity something you worked on?

Susan Werner: We had to leave some songs by the side of the road, but it was worth it to have an entire CD that holds together. Ideally, it is its own complete world.

JazzReview: Was there a moment for you when you felt everything come together?

Susan Werner: Yes. It seemed to all come together when my producer, Crit Harmon, said, "Maybe you should call the record, ‘I Can’t Be New.’" It’s not only to point that song, but also to say, "I can’t help myself. I write these old-sounding songs."

JazzReview: Tell us about the title song, "I Can’t Be New."

Susan Werner: I was riding in the car with my road manager. She was driving, and we were talking about all the friends and family we had who were having marital troubles. She looked at me and said, "I wish you would write a song called ‘I Can’t Be New.’" I tried not to act too interested in it, but I instantly thought if nobody has written it, it’s just sitting there on the tee. No one had written it. I couldn’t believe it. I started messing around with it. It came out as a list song much like Cole Porter’s "You’re the Top" or "Let’s Do It." The woman protagonist sings all the things that she can be, but she can’t be new. She really is in the relationship and is in love with him and wants to make it work, but this is the one thing she can’t do anything about. It doesn’t come from such a point of terrible vulnerability. It comes from more acceptance you’re going to do what you’re going to do, honey.

You mentioned the tsunami of CDs with Great American Songbook songs on it in the last five years. One thing is that you have to keep some risk in a performance or in an interpretation. The song or performance has to have the ability to break somebody’s heart or at least put a hairline fracture in it. With these songs, I tried to keep myself or the characters at risk. I feel really strongly that that’s important or this type of music will become museum work. I’m lucky to live in Chicago, where I can go sing Kurt Elling on Wednesday nights or Patricia Barber doing her thing on Mondays at the Green Mill. These are people in their prime, who are totally keeping it out on the edge. I’m happy to see artists who are taking risks. This is what is going to keep it vital. We have to be careful not to put these songs under glass.

JazzReview: That’s what happened for a while. There was a period when no one was hearing the songs.

Susan Werner: I think 9-11 plays into this a little bit. I think American society matured in a certain important way with that event. People are getting older, and they’re looking for something different. To me, it’s like the renewed interest in wine. To me, these are songs that go well with red zin. It’s a taste, I think, that develops with a little experience.

JazzReview: You mentioned living in Chicago. I think "Stay On Your Side Of Town" is a Chicago song.

Susan Werner: It is, but it doesn’t have to be. The idea for the song came to me while sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. I’m a Cubs fan. The ex is a Sox fan. It was a Cubs-Sox game. I was afraid I was going to run into him. I thought we should just divide this town up then these things won’t happen. The title of the song, again I thought somebody has to have done this. This is obvious. Did anybody do this? No. That’s been the fun of these songs, to find something simple that carries a lot of water.

Ideally, these songs have some humor in them. There’s something wry about "Let’s Regret This In Advance," which always gets a rise out of the audience. Humor, to me, is one of the hallmarks of the best songs by Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Think about "All the hours spent with Schopenhauer." That’s funny. No one has actually read Schopenhauer, but Gershwin wrote it anyway. Cole Porter is very funny. Humor, it seems to me, is necessary to be true to this tradition. These songwriters didn’t take themselves entirely seriously. They didn’t mind if it was light-hearted at times. In fact, I think it gives a song the ability to break your heart even a little more.

JazzReview: "I Can’t Be New" and "Stay On Your Side Of Town" are good examples of some the songs on the CD. Any others that have a story behind them?

Susan Werner: "Don’t I Know You" was written after listening to a lot of Billy Strayhorn. He wrote those beautiful long melodies like "Chelsea Bridge" and "Lush Life." I wanted to write something with that kind of sweep to it, something where the emphasis is on the melody. Again, it’s a song that’s a little story. Who’s talking? You discover the people talking are a married couple. They are trying to reconnect after the kids arrive. You don’t know that at first. It sounds like two strangers who meet on the street.

JazzReview: You were recently on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. What was that like?

Susan Werner: That was really fun. I did a song called "Give Me Chicago Any Day." It’s a takeoff on "I’ll Take Manhattan." When you live in Chicago, you are sick of hearing songs about New York. At the end of the song, sometimes I riff on different cities and rhyme on their names like "The thought of Tulsa is just repulsa." I said something about Duluth. I never really rhymed Duluth. Marian said, "vermouth." We went on and on, rhyming all these towns. She’s funny. To me, she is a standard-bearer for that sense of wit like Dorothy Parker. There’s a sense of fun. A woman who can turn a phrase. I love that.

JazzReview: What did you learn from her?

Susan Werner: When you do the show, you sit right next to her. One thing I noticed was how she would tell a story, her concentration was so complete from the beginning of the tune to the end of the tune. There was a narrative thread through the entire song. It made me think of Tony Bennett. His concentration is so absolute from the beginning of the song to the end. It’s like they are tracing a line. It’s like they are drawing in front of you and you see the drawing as they draw it, but they don’t pick up the pen from the paper. It’s one complete thought from start to finish. That kind of absolute concentration is so beautiful and so moving. It’s what music can give us.

JazzReview: You mentioned Patricia Barber. She’s another one when it comes to concentration.

Susan Werner: Her concentration is absolutely exceptional. It’s fantastic. It’s another reason people are drawn to music, live music. Everyone is working at the computer and has the phones going. It’s all about information and communicating information. Music is a retreat. It’s almost a healthy practice.

JazzReview: Speaking of music as a retreat, what’s in your CD player?

Susan Werner: One thing that I’ve been listening to is a 13-part radio series on Leonard Bernstein. I love that. I love learning about him and how he tried to balance life as a conductor and a composer, to be a writer and a performer. And, how fun he managed to keep all of it. That’s fascinating to me.

I’m also listening to Albita, a Cuban singer. I’m also going through a gospel-bluegrass phase. I don’t know what it is and what it will lead to, but there’s something going on with gospel-bluegrass. On the contemporary front, I’m still driving around with Jill Scott.

JazzReview: Jill Scott hasn’t had anything too recently has she?

Susan Werner: That first one just keeps giving. The writing is amazing. The production is amazing. That sets the bar so high.

JazzReview: "I Can’t Be New" is your fourth CD. How have you evolved since the first recording?

Susan Werner: My writing has grown less autobiographical. I’ve learned that autobiography doesn’t guarantee excellence. I think it’s a myth that because the artist is so personally invested in a song that it’s going to be successful. I’m not so sure about that. I think the best things happen as a combination of deep feeling and craftsmanship. It’s where the two meet, something balanced on a pin I said to Marian McPartland in the interview that I think it was Einstein who said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." It’s a way to stay interested in creating new things. If a song or creative project relies too much on your own personal experience, you might have to wait 20 years for the next thing. But, if you can imagine other people’s lives, every day provides plenty of material to think about.

JazzReview: What’s next for you? A tour?

Susan Werner: Yes. Upcoming dates include Wolf Trap in Washington, D.C., Joe’s Pub in New York, Triple Door in Seattle, the Portland Jazz Festival. It’s kind of a way of life for performing songwriters. You are out there all the time. The tour is sort of a lifetime tour. I like it that way.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Susan Werner
  • Interview Date: 12/1/2005
  • Subtitle: Giving New Songs an Old Vibe
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