A Word With Susan Werner – Bringing New Standards To Jazz

Photos courtesy of the Susan Werner web site and Hayley Murphy (hayleymurphyphotography.com)A Word With Susan Werner
Bringing New Standards To Jazz
by Matthew S. Robinson

In the music world, it is often said that there is nothing new under the sun. From the established practice of sampling other people”s tunes to make new ones to the recent spate of contemporary artists releasing collections of old songs, this saying (itself hearkening back to the Bible) seems to become more and more true each day. That is why singer/songwriter Susan Werner”s new album is so refreshing. Though it is called “I Can”t Be New,” it is actually a collection of very original songs that are honestly and authentically set in the classic American Songbook style.

“The goal of this album was to write “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook” meets Carole King”s “Tapestry,” Werner explains. “I wanted to make use of the musical materials and the more formal language of the Great American Songbook to write contemporary songs that acknowledge the tradition while describing modern scenarios.”

Known for her singular singer/songwriter style, in which she often combines intimate pianistic pieces with raging rock-edged songs, the classically-trained Werner has toured with the likes of Joan Armatrading, Richard Thompson, and Peter, Paul & Mary, with whom she appeared on the 2002 “Lifelines” special on PBS. On previous albums like “New Non Fiction,” she was critically acclaimed not only for her music but also for her insightful social commentary and introspective stories. That is why this new album appears to represent such a departure for Werner. Even so, it sounds like it was one she was ready and willing to make.

“I have been writing songs like this every year since I began my career as a songwriter 10 years ago,” Werner recalls. “The songs did not always have a place on my more guitar-based singer/songwriter releases, so I began to save them up. I didn”t really have a plan for them, but then a few years ago, I realized I had almost enough material for an album. So I sat down and wrote a few more consciously and that is what made the project.”

Produced by local mix-master Crit Harmon (who has also worked with Martin Sexton and many other incredible voices on the music scene), “I Can”t Be New” has already enjoyed great success.

“It was nice to have the album hit #1 on Amazon.com,” Werner says. “That is a nice thing to have happen.” Harmon was among the team that helped Werner select her music and musical inspirations. “One debate was whether we would include actual covers on the album,” Werner recalls. “We knew that many women (and men) were doing that and we didn”t want to do museum pieces. So we decided to they to make our own mark on this style. And I feel that that was the right thing. This is a way for me to make a contribution and to set this music apart. These are contemporary songs with a modern viewpoint and I am proud that I was able to do them.” Though there are no Gershwin, Mercer, or Porter songs, the styles of these great masters are evident throughout.

“The thing I like about the Songbook and about these songs is that they can be very personal without being autobiographical. They can be intimate without being confessional. I like the relationship that creates between the performer and the audience. These songs didn”t come from autobiography at all which was a shift for me a songwriter, because most of my songs come from personal experience, “Werner says. “They were written for a number of people I knew and they are songs that I think can work for many people, even if they are in different situations from me. It has been very satisfying to do songs with more of a craftsman”s eye than that of a memoirist.”

And not only is the music and production amazing, but Werner”s lyrics grab on to listeners” ears (and hearts) and do not let go for most of the album. “Very few women write their own songs like these. In fact, most of these songs have been written by guys. So it was nice to be able to sing from a woman”s point of view. ”

Apparently, the change has been welcome.

“Many women come up to me and ask me about these songs,” Werner says, “especially because so many of them have experienced these things themselves.”

Werner also enjoys the way that she can offer these songs and how that builds rapport with her audience as well. “These types of songs can be sung very softly and you can rely on the audience to lean in to listen,” she says. “I love that because it is a kind of power that music has that sets it apart from the world of commerce and conversation and competition. To be whispered to is very different from being shouted at. These songs whisper, and I am glad to see that come back to music.”

In addition to their soft power, Werner is also enamored with the humor of the Great American Songbook style. “These songs allow for a sense of humor that I think is absent for much popular music today,” she says. “It makes you feel good about experience and it makes you feel that it”s ok to have been around once. That is the hallmark of the Great American Songbook, so tongue-in-cheek is true to the tradition and it is true to how we relate to each other.” For example, Werner”s song “Let”s Regret This In Advance” is about a one-night-stand. “It gets a great response from the audience,” she says, “and that is always fun.”

Writing such songs was not without its challenges, however. “It”s such a concise form, “Werner says. ” You have to say it all in a short period of time. But that is what makes these songs live.” Such “basics of writing” continually challenged and inspired Werner. “This style asks the questions, “Can you get this said in a short space and time and break somebody”s heart?” I love that challenge and am fascinated by it!”

Another one of the classically-inspired contemporary songs – the wry and melancholy “Stay On Your Side of Town” ­ was actually inspired as Werner was sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, watching a game between her beloved Cubs and their cross-town rivals the White Sox.

“I was afraid I would run into someone who rooted for the Sox,” Werner explains, “so I came up with this idea of telling those people to stay on their side of the river.” If you break up, Werner suggests, you do not want to see that person again and you even claim the memories on your side of the city “You do not want to be violated,” she says. “That is what this song is about.”

Along her tour, she has found that such territoriality is not unique to the Windy City. “It”s been funny because so many towns are like that,” she suggests, “and that is why Scullers is nice because it”s right on the river!” As a Cubs fan, Werner feels especially for her Boston fans. In fact, she says, the fate of the two teams helped inspire the new album as well. “When I was making the album, Crit had a red radio to listen to the games on,” she recalls. “When they were losing, we”d record the sad songs.” That is another reason why she is happy to be coming toScullers. “I”m really grateful for the opportunity to be seen in this kind of room,” she says. “It is a real shift for me, because Scullers is known as one of the best Jazz rooms in the country. I am pleased to have an opportunity to m meet that audience in a way. It means that I have cleared the bar with my creativity and with a new genre of music and that is just great!”

Unwilling to deny her musical background, Werner is very excited about the path she has taken with the new album. “To be known as a guitar-based singer/songwriter is one thing,” she says, “but to have this new project be so well received in a different field of music is very satisfying! We stuck our neck out and have been proven right.”