An Interview with Susan Werner

“I believe that we can be a diverse society of extraordinary creativity and innovation and vitality and freedom, and those things are the best things that we can be.”

Susan Werner, PatriotMy introduction to the music of Susan Werner was in the fall of 1999 when a friend who produced a local acoustic music radio show lent me copies of Time Between Trains and Last of the Good Straight Girls. I was instantly enchanted with the sincerity and wit that Werner brings to her music. Her last album was a thematic collection of songs that sound like they are from the 20s and 30s, but are all orginal and new. Recently, Werner made available for download a song she describes as an alternative national anthem. “This is a song that takes the National Anthem and turns it on his head,” says Werner. “It’s Francis Scott Key meets Arlo Guthrie.” I had the pleasure of speaking with Werner about the song a few weeks ago.

I wanted to start off by talking about “My Strange Nation,” the song that you have posted on your website. What were you thinking about while you were writing this song?

I wrote in January 2005 after wandering around for a month or two after the November election wondering, “What? What just happened? What was that?” I came to the conclusion that the country had become unrecognizable to me. I was walking – a lot of songs show up when I walk to my office and back – the melody came to me that sounded like a trumpet call. The melody sounded like an anthem somehow, with the wide open prairies, the west, Aaron Copland or… think of the theme to Bonanza. [laughter] That type of melody showed up with the words “my strange nation” attached and the rest was pretty evident. This was some kind of anthem that would acknowledge my ambivalent feelings about the country I live in and the country that I love.

Were you nervous about sharing this song with other people?

Yes. I felt nervous about it. Whenever I feel something strongly in a song, so really strongly that it comes from a very personal place, I wonder if anyone else is going to have felt the same thing. Sometimes as a songwriter you have a sense that, “oh, this song is going to belong to more people than me.” I wasn’t completely sure about this song. In the most foolhardy of debuts, I played it in front of 3,000 people at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival hoping it would work but not real sure, but thinking, “Maybe this is the right town.” It turned out to be dead-on. It was a total smash success and let me know that I was not alone and in fact there were 3,000 other people that shared my opinion. That was very encouraging. I could hardly sleep that night.

Have you gotten that kind of a response when you’ve played it elsewhere?

I’ve gotten all kinds of responses, mostly very strong in favor of the song, standing ovations and the rest. There have been a few occasions where someone walked out. A couple got up and walked out in Rockford, Illinois. I’ve seen people turn to each other and shake their heads in disgust. It just doesn’t agree with some people. Some people will sit on their hands at the end of the show.

Your press release emphasizes that the song is different from what the Dixie Chicks or Neil Young have been saying. Do you think that their approach is wrong or too strident?

I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I love that song. You’re more optimistic than I am.” So I know that this is to the center left. This song isn’t situated all the way out there. It’s been surprising to me to discover myself as a moderate. The fact that I communicate feelings of affection for my country – there’s no where else I want to live. I’m not leaving. I love the geography of this country, and the vitality and creativity of this country. I want to stay here and have it be the best thing that it can be instead of yielding to the most fearful things that it can be. In that way, it’s different from some of the general nastiness going on out there right now. I appreciate where that comes from. I think we all do. There’s a sense of exasperation. “How can this have happened? How can this continue to go on?” I appreciate where that comes from. My point of view is somehow more affectionate, and willing to express that openly. One thing I have said before introducing this song is that this song is a love song. In performances it becomes quite apparent that that’s what it is. People laugh at first. They think, “Oh, it’s going to be nasty. She’s going to make smart little remarks.” Then the song turns and expresses deep concern and regret, and in the end, deep affection – even a kind of patriotism. I’m the little kid that put my hand over my heart like they told you in school and pledged allegiance to the flag. I believe that we can be a diverse society of extraordinary creativity and innovation and vitality and freedom, and those things are the best things that we can be. We should live up to that. When we do live up to that, we’re extraordinary.

Do you have any more songs like “My Strange Nation” that are waiting to be written?

I don’t know that they’re going to be political in nature, but the next project looks to be an unusual gospel album in that most gospel albums are monolithic; they are uniformly pious and positive about the church and God and the benevolence of said God. The next album is going to have some bluegrass elements like the Carter family or the Stanley Brothers, but it will express doubt and even deep mistrust of the church and of religion and the state. I describe myself as an evangelical agnostic. This next album will deal with those topics that I think are of unique concern to Americans. I don’t anticipate touring Holland with this record. I think that this will be a uniquely American undertaking – to embrace faith and also express mistrust of it. I think that it’s the prerogative of every American to go to any church for one hour and be able to leave without having to sign up for a committee.

As a liberal person of faith I find that the Church in America is very difficult to be associated with. It’s too black and white.

Yes. Can I ask what flavor of church do you attend?

I grew up United Methodist. My father is a conservative United Methodist pastor. That influenced a lot of my upbringing. Then I went to a Mennonite college and I started looking at their social justice approach to theology, and it has influenced a lot of my personal beliefs. I ended up back at a liberal United Methodist church simply because I just can’t throw off that part of myself. It’s too ingrained into who I am.

This is fascinating, Anna, because this is exactly the kind of conversation I want to be having with my next record. Now I want to buy you coffee and draw you out for a half hour. This is how I want to stir the pot. These are the kinds of things that are fascinating to me. Stories come up like yours where there is this deep feeling of affection for the church but also deep ambivalence about it. I was just out in Kansas and I played this show in Moundridge. There are these Mennonites out there who belong to the Mennonite Church who are socially conscious progressive liberals. They’re horrified at what has happened too their church. They’re like, “This is unrecognizable to me. What has happened to my church? I understood my church to have this tradition of engaging and working for change instead of retreating into the past or some outdated idea of how we ought to be.” Fascinating! This is fascinating! Everything that you just mentioned – yes! Help me! You! You have three songs to write all by yourself, Anna, I’m telling you.

[laugh] Oh, I don’t really have that kind of a talent. I’ve tried. Yeah, the Mennonite Church has been interesting to watch as an outsider. They do have that element of being out there and doing good work, but then there is this part of them that wants to pull back. The ties between the Mennonites and the Amish are very close in their history, and there are some that want to go back to that old school style. “This is the way we believed in 1850, so that should be it.” A church will die if it does that. A faith will die if it can’t move and change with the culture around it.

I agree. What makes America vital is this spirit of free inquiry and critical thinking. When fundamentalist religion enters into the discussion and discourages free inquiry, when fundamentalism comes in and imposes limits on what you can ask questions about, it tamps down the vitality of the nation. A direct example is when you introduce Creationism in schools, you won’t have any kids going into science in college, and then you won’t have any engineers. There won’t be any innovation for those kids because they will have already learned that here is a place where I can’t ask questions. That’s a problem. What religion can do, and what I really honor about it, is that it is a place where you can take time out of your week and say, “How am I living my life? Am I living the best way I can?” I think that habit of asking is a good thing. Religion offers us that in a way that the theater offers that for some people, or reading, or taking a long walk. It’s the habit of asking, “Am I living the best way I can that most benefits other people and for myself?” I think these are good questions and the church in America is still a place where you can take time out to do that. But, we are victims of retreat from engaging with the world. That’s concerning. We’re talking a lot about religion here. What are we supposed to talk about?

This pretty much can go wherever we want it to go, and this is really fascinating to me to hear this, particularly because you consider yourself to be agnostic; to have an insight into the church. I hear so much from people who have been so hurt by the church that they don’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s really wonderful to hear somebody who isn’t personally invested in the church but is willing to take a look at what are the good parts of it. I think that there are many ways that people find what you were talking about – the questions we ask ourselves. I don’t think the church even sees that sometimes.

You’re right. I think that there will be more people talking like this. I think there is a moment that the American left will begin to make use of. The American left will begin to talk more openly of its values, its religious values, and where those values come from in the religious tradition. I think that this is coming. If you heard it from me first, well, I’m not the first and I think you’ll be hearing it more. One thing I do wonder about is if I’m the first person to put out a record like this. It’s so monochromatic. Either you’re a church hater or you’re in the club doing Christian praise rock. Where’s the both? Where’s in between? That’s where I think America is really at. I think America is both and that gives us some of our energy and makes us fascinating in ways that I’ve really come to appreciate and love. That’s what “My Strange Nation” is about; loving my country despite its contradictions, and maybe even because of its contradictions. It’s a country of great personality. We’re charming. At the dinner table of the world, we’re sparkling conversationalists.

I think it’s somewhat risky to put out an album that isn’t one way or the other. That’s one of the things that the Republican Party has shown. If you are really strident in one area, you’re going to get people flocking to you because everything becomes black and white. Grey is difficult to manage.

I don’t know what the commercial potential of this project is, but it happened without me thinking those thoughts. It happened before I could get those thoughts around the project. Either that’s foolhardy or it’s brilliant. I don’t know yet. We’ll see when it comes out what kind of reception it gets. I suspect that there is people like you and me who will be delighted that somebody came out and said that America is both pious and suspicious, and that any time of day, any day of the week, you can feel either one of those.

“My Strange Nation” has gotten a good reception, so that’s hopeful.

It’s wonderful that the song means so much for people, and to get emails from folks that say, “Thank God you wrote this song this way. Thank God you can acknowledge both feelings of deep love and deep mistrust of your nation and its government.” It’s been really satisfying to do this project. I think down the road what’s tricky as a writer is to know how far to involve yourself personally. I want to maintain the ability to do a purely musical project where I do interpretations of pop classics, for instance, and you don’t need to know anything about me or agree with my politics or my particular viewpoint in order to be moved by the music. That’s the tricky thing about writing a political song or taking on religion in America. It gets very specific and concrete, and almost journalistic, in a way.

And then you get pegged with that.

It’s almost like an actor who comes out and says something about their politics and then you have trouble believing them as an actor in a role anymore because you know too much about them. How much dare I say? As a musician I want to be able to get up and sing songs from almost any point of view. I love that about being a singer. If people know too much about you specifically or personally, it limits what you can do as an interpreter. So that’s what’s interesting about this project. I feel like the walls are closing in a little bit, and I think that after I do this religion project I might wander back out into the world of jazz and just be a musician’s musician if I can be because I enjoy that, too. It’s a tricky balance to strike as a creative person.

I wanted to talk to you about the style of music you’ve been doing and how it’s shifted over time. It seems to be, at this point, fluctuating back and forth between straight up folk to more jazz and vocal based. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador bringing together fans of both to appreciate the music in general?

I think that a good song makes its own argument. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great American songbook type song, or if it’s a folk ballad or a tweak on a traditional sounding tune like a Ralph Stanley a cappella tune. It doesn’t matter what the materials are as long as the concept holds up. As long as the thing is well executed and is a self-contained world, it will work for three minutes and thirty seconds. It doesn’t matter what the musical materials are. I think it’s more about writing good songs in what ever medium you choose. I do think that until this last project (the great American type songbook project), until I took on a project where I wrote everything of a certain style, I think that I experimented a lot. It’s almost like painters who paint all kinds of things in their school years and then they stumble on this thing that becomes part of their signature. I feel like now I’m getting to where I can do a themed project; from start to finish it’s going to be made of these materials, this concept, and this argument. Now I feel like these are coming together in groups of ten or twelve. I’m happy about that because I think that it allows you to dig in deeper into any particular subject matter and any style of music. You become a complete student of it. It’s almost like language emersion camp. I’m listening now to bluegrass and spirituals and church music. That’s all I’m listening to. I’ll listen to that until the project is done, and then I’ll start to listen to something else. Serial monogamy, maybe. Any project is like falling in love. When you’re in love with a style, when you’re in love with what this does to you, how you feel when you listen to it, what it makes you think about… it’s an obsession. It’s gonna last about two or three years. So, you can have a very stable personal life. You can kind of whore around, musically. Creatively, you can be a bit of a tramp.

It’s one of the things that I really enjoy about musicians who are able to do that. Where they take little bits of here and there and combine it all into something that you wouldn’t have expected and a really well blended influence of styles. It makes it more interesting, rather than just putting out the same album every year.

I believe in it. I think you have to do something you can’t do, like learn a new instrument. I’m learning trumpet now, and I’m terrible at it. Just awful. I pity anyone who has to overhear me doing my scales. It’s awful. Now I’m taking tap lessons. I’m really terrible, but you have to be willing to dispense with the thing that you mastered to get somewhere new. My favorite quote is from Miles Davis who when asked, “Why don’t you just do those ballads again?” He said, “Well, ’cause I already did that, man.” [laughter] Once you figure it out, you know?

Where’s the challenge?

Where’s the challenge? I mean, are you making paintings to hang over people’s sofas? Then you just do the same things over and over. Then you get a brand. Are you willing to put your brand at risk? That’s what makes it interesting for me. Anywhere the word brand shows up it gets almost creepy. Once you start to take steps to guarantee your position in the marketplace, I think it limits what you can choose from in making the next thing. Then again, if I wanted more commercial success, maybe I could think about a few of those things. Now I have a very nice touring career all around the country and I enjoy it. There are people who have made different choices and they’re more of a presence on radio and television. You have to weight out what’s important to you, what’s the most rewarding for you.

For me as a creative person, there’s nothing quite like coming up with it in the office. The big “a-ha!” moment. The big “oh my God that song is gonna work!” Going back to “My Strange Nation,” I remember exactly where I was when that concept came to me. I was walking across the Columbus Avenue bridge on my way home. It was a sunny day in January, and I remember singing, “My strange nation…” That was it. There it was. It was both patriotic and musical. It had everything in it. That was the “a-ha” moment. This is going to write itself because it has everything in it, like the DNA. The melody has the DNA for the whole song in it. It’s the figuring that out that jazzes me more than fame or whatever slight amount of fame I might have. That’s not it. The big motivator is figuring it out. I still get a kick out of that.

I was thinking about what you were saying about the decisions people make in their career as to what kind of a success they want to have, or what they consider to be success. When you started off in music, where did you think you would be now? Have you achieved what you thought you wanted to achieve?

I don’t know that I had a vision of it other than I enjoyed it as a kid. I’ve played guitar since I was five. I enjoyed it as a kid. It was fun. It was interesting, challenging, and totally engaging, and it remains exactly that. I think that’s success. I wanted to be totally absorbed by it and I remain totally absorbed by it. I think it’s a wonderful way to spend your life. I remember a bass player friend of mine said, “It’s a great way to spend your life – totally unconscious.” [laughter] You just played your whole life. You just were having fun, unselfconscious like a kid in the sandbox. That’s a great way to live your life. That’s a very fortunate way to live your life. I feel very lucky with that. So, I think I did get what I wanted.

Going back to the blog thing, a touring songwriter is almost like a blog, other than that you sing it. It’s a song blog, really. Whatever you’re thinking, you write a song and you play it in front of people. It’s kind of Amish blogging. Being a performing songwriter is Amish blogging, because you write it and then you have to go travel and play it in front of people. It doesn’t get out two seconds after you write it, it gets out that night, or two days later in St. Louis or Billings or Seattle. It’s a kind of blogging.

The way music is distributed is changing, so you could blog your music, in a way. Like what you did with “My Strange Nation” by making it available on your website. There is a musician named Jonathan Coulton who writes really witty, funny songs that are very well put together. He has this podcast called Thing a Week where he makes a new song available every week for free, and you can buy it from his website if you want to support the music. I think that there are multiple ways of getting your music out there now that don’t necessarily require having to tour.

But if you enjoy touring and the effect it has on people…

Oh, yeah, of course!

There’s a musical theater element to being a songwriter who plays in front of people. It’s a little show. I really do enjoy hearing people react to it. I like hearing what people have to say about it when they talk back to you from the audience, or when they sing along. That’s something you cannot experience from sitting in front of your laptop. You won’t hear them sing along. Your song has entered into how they see the world – how wonderful is that! It’s not a sick little power trip, it’s more, “Wow! I feel really useful!” I get a kick out of that. That’s a motivator for me. That’s the difference between the world of the Internet and being a performing songwriter. Yeah, it is kind of like Amish blogging.

I like that.

I think it came from our conversation about Mennonites.

[laughter] I wanted to ask you, have you seen an impact on your existing catalog sales by having them available as digital downloads through iTunes and such?

We’ve seen a spike. I wouldn’t say it’s overwhelming. We’ve seen a lift in the numbers, but not a tsunami of purchases. I think it has something to do with the fact that my music is so thematic. The last project was songs that sound like they’re from the 20s and 30s, and there wasn’t political content in that. I think I would see more of that if “My Strange Nation” was indicative of all of my music. What it has done is introduced more political minded people who otherwise wouldn’t know of me. It has brought them to my shows. We know that. That was my greatest hope for this song in commercial terms, that it might introduce me to a new audience.

(At this point, the conversation shifted and Werner became the interviewer for a moment. I won’t bore you with the details, but instead cut back into where it got interesting again.)

You’ve lived in Kentucky, Virginia, and Washington, so you certainly have an appreciation of the geographic and demographic range of the United States, so maybe this song spoke to you in some way.

Oh, yeah, it did very much. In the song you say, no I’m not going to move to France. For me it’s, no I’m not going to move to a big city just so that I can be around people who think like me. I love living in rural America. I love living in a small town. I love living near the mountains. I loved living in Kentucky and Virginia, and these are not places where people like me usually live. It’s difficult because there’s this push because “you’re not one of us, so why don’t you just go somewhere else.” I don’t want to. That part of your song really spoke to me.

I think that’s an interesting interpretation of the song, and I admire you for having that viewpoint. I’ve had friends who say, “I’m not going to a red state. I’m not going to play in a red state.” And I think, what are you talking about? Like my show in Kansas. I enjoyed it so much. I go to Texas and I always enjoy it. I’ve described it as missionary work. Go out and bring your viewpoint. It takes guts to live outside of the urban megalopolises, which you do. You’re doing missionary work by living your every day life and saying I’m not moving. That takes great courage, and I think that folks like you are quite possibly making the biggest difference out there. Good for you!

Thank you. We would appreciate all the help we can get. I would say to those people who say they don’t want to play in the red states that those are the places that need you. There are people there who need to hear you, who need to have somebody come in who shares their viewpoint when they are otherwise a minority.

I couldn’t agree more. That’s what Kansas was about. I played in Manhattan and Moundridge. There were two people who were just disgusted. They were really upset about this song. What can you do? There were about a hundred other people there who really wanted to hear it and were happy to hear it. You have to be willing to tolerate some dissent to say what it is you have to say.

What’s your upcoming schedule like? Are you traveling a lot or are you taking a bit of a break?

I’m a performer who tours constantly and records occasionally. When the songs all belong together, then I’ll make a record. I’m gone from home quite a bit. That’s a way of life you have to get used to if you want to do this. The up side is that you really do see the whole country and come to appreciate the charm of all different kinds of landscapes and people. I think that being a performing songwriter enabled me to write this song and make it believable and effective because it’s a viewpoint you have to adopt to be a touring songwriter.

I see musicians who insulate themselves from the rest of the world and you have to wonder how they know what’s going on to write about it.

Maybe their curiosity is focused more inward.

Yes, and there is validity to that, too. It’s when they try to look outward that it concerns me.

I know what you mean by that turn of phrase there. I think there is a kind of affectionate curiosity that is a good friend to a traveling musician. To be curious about the places you are, to be interested in seeing what they are made of, and to strike up conversations with total strangers. That kind of curiosity is your traveling companion.

Thank you very much for all of your time. I really appreciate it. It’s been wonderful talking to you.

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