Susan Werner bringing her multiple talents back to The Ark
photo by Asia Kepka
That’s Susan Werner, speaking about her latest disc, a rousing, tuneful live album titled “Live at the Center for Arts in Natick,” and released in September.
“It’s a complete view of my best songs, all on one record, and the performance was just electric,” she says. “Trina and Gail Ann had every base covered."
She’s referring to Trina Hamlin (percussion / backing vocals / harmonica ) and Gail Ann Dorsey (bass, harmony vocals), who were in her band for that live show. And although it was just the three of them, Hamlin and Edwards are such crack musicians and talented singers that the music sounds much fuller, as though it’s being played and sung by a larger band.
“It was such a treat for me, because generally, when I do live shows, it’s just me, or sometimes me and one other musician.”
When she comes to The Ark on Saturday, she’ll have Hamlin on board, though, so expect some of the same energy and chemistry they displayed on the live disc.
“Live” is also an ambitious effort: It’s a 2-CD affair, featuring 29 songs, including a couple of seemingly unlikely covers—“Laughter in the Rain” and “Blue Bayou”—that the trio reinterpret in unique fashion.
Over the years, Werner has demonstrated that she's an amazingly versatile artist. She studied opera in college; she has a multi-octave vocal range; she’s a skilled and intuitive interpreter of jazz standards and Broadway tunes; and is also adept at folk, gospel, country and blues styles.And on the live disc, she took advantage of her recent, deeper immersion in blues and country music. (In 2010, she embarked on “blues pilgrimage” that started in Memphis, took her through the Mississippi Delta—with a side trip to the hallowed blues ground of Clarksdale, Mississippi—and carried her down to New Orleans.)
She took what she soaked up on that trip and channeled it into her studio album “Kicking the Beehive,” which was released about a year ago. Those influences also made their way into the performances on “Live.”
“Once you do a project like that, the feeling of the Delta blues sneaks into everything you do,” says Werner by phone from her home in Chicago. “It had a profound effect on my musicianship. It was as if someone surgically relocated my sense of rhythm.
“And when you have that much talent on stage with you ..Well, we found ourselves experimenting endlessly with the songs, and reinterpreting them, especially vocally. We really enjoyed stacking the harmonies in a different way. When you have musicians and singers of that caliber with you, you gravitate toward what thrills you the most.”
Looking forward, Werner already has about 20 songs written as she prepares for her next studio album.
“I’d say I have 10 good ones and 10 bad ones, so there’s more work to do,” she says wryly. As for the theme / subject matter, Werner observes that “I’ve felt myself being pulled toward writing about rural life, and farming, and food—including the politics of food.
“How we consume food, and how we think about food, and our interest in eating food that is more organic, and caring more about how the animals are treated—all of that has really has become political, and has become a new religion.”
The inspiration for these rural / agricultural songs is twofold. First, Werner grew up on a farm in Iowa, where her parents still farm the land—“corn and beans,” she says. Plus, her trip through the fertile soil of the Delta is still fresh in her mind.
“If you’re a musician, you really do need to take that trip, through the Delta,” she says. “You have to go down that blues highway from Memphis to Clarksdale—it will take all the varnish off of whatever you think the blues is. And when you see those flat, open fields of the Delta, it really will make you more patriotic. It’s just so quintessentially American."
As previously noted, Werner also delved into country styles on “Beehive,” but she wasn’t much interested in the Nashville major-label brand of cookie-cutter country-pop. Instead, she was drawn to the Texas style of country and country-rock, due in part to the influence of producer Rodney Crowell, the venerable singer-songwriter-producer who's been making great, rootsy, country-folk-rock for 30 years.
“Yeah, I wasn’t much interested in concrete, I wanted it to be all dirt and gravel,” Werner says.
Given how deeply she was affected by her blues sojourn, and by digging deep into two of America’s most down-home musical styles, she expects her upcoming “food / agriculture” album to have a similarly organic sound.
Werner is also very politically minded, and is a staunch progressive who has no love for the Republican Party, and especially not for the far right. And on stage, she’s not shy about sharing her views, often in wisecracking, sardonically funny fashion.
“Since this is an election year, and campaign season, I’ll definitely want to discuss a few things at the show,” she says with a sly laugh. “I’ll definitely be talking about things like Mitt Romney, and Citizens United,” she says, referring to the 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court that removed all limits on political campaign contributions by corporations and unions. The ruling drew much criticism from progressives, but also from many conservatives. Werner takes a dim view of that ruling.
“Oh, what day is the Michigan primary?,” she then asks. (This interview took place on Feb. 20.)
When told that it’s next Tuesday, just three days after her Ark show, she cackles gleefully and exclaims, “Oh, perfect! Then I’ll be talking about Romney even more than I’d planned. This should be fun.”
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.