Susan Werner burst onto the scene in Philadelphia in the early 1990s, and quickly made a name for herself as a triple threat — singer-songwriter/guitarist/pianist with a fantastic voice and great songs. The Philadelphia Folk Festival, where she played on the main stage before an audience of thousands, was one of her first big breaks. Werner’s latest release is a gospel album, “The Gospel Truth.” Late next year, she plans to release her first ever blues album. This, after a critically-acclaimed album of original songs that were written in a Great American songbook, Tin Pan Alley style.
For Werner, it’s just another way to keep challenging herself and her loyal, if somewhat smaller, coffee house and theater audiences. She performs on Saturday, December 8, at the Concerts at the Crossing at the Unitarian Church in Titusville. Guitarist Natalia Zuckerman (daughter of classical violinist Pinchas Zuckerman) will open.
What inspired a gospel album from Werner, an Iowa native and the daughter of two farmers (soybeans and corn)? “The truth of it is, I was at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival a couple of years ago with a Jewish friend,” Werner says in a telephone interview from her home in Chicago, “and me, of course, I’m a lapsed Catholic. She said, ‘This music is phenomenal. How can you get the joy without the Jesus?’ We asked, how do we participate in this, the music is so great and inspirational.”
Werner says she thought to herself, “I guess you’ve really got to convert if you want to get into this big party. I thought, what if I wrote a gospel music project that acknowledged the fact that so many of us are inspired by this music. It’s electrifying and can be of great comfort to us. Gospel music speaks of hope for a better life and also sadness, when someone dies. So how do you look at this message that you have to accept Jesus as your savior and gospel music is very sure of the outcome, that there’s a better life ahead. So how do the rest of us relate to this music?”
“The Gospel Truth” has turned out to be Werner’s most artistically rewarding project to date, she says, and one rewarding part of it is talking to audience members after shows, people like many Americans, who struggle to put faith and doubt side by side in their hearts. “People have faith and doubts about the afterlife at the same time,” she argues, “and what I wanted to do was put songs of doubt next to songs of faith. And I have been surprised at how well that corresponds with many people’s experiences with the church. I’ve found, in talking with my audiences, that it has been a great comfort for many people to learn that they are not alone.”
She says she was raised in a fairly strict, Catholic, conservative household and the youngest girl and the fifth out of six children. The Catholic Church is strict with its rules, she argues, “and for other religions, too, it’s often this all or nothing at all mentality. But as we get older, we realize life isn’t black and white, there are these gray areas we learn to accept. We learn to accept people the way they are and accept ourselves the way we are.”
Everyone loves to stand up and clap, Werner says, and what she’s discovering in touring behind her album, released earlier this year, is that gospel music is the most American of all Americana music, “Gospel communicates immediately and powerfully to Americans in all corners of the country.”
She first got into this music through some recordings by Blind Willie Johnson, a blues singer who also sang gospel, not unlike Rev. Gary Davis did in the 1960s. Of the Blind Willie Johnson recordings that inspired “The Gospel Truth,” she says, “I loved that there was this transcendent component to his recordings. There was something bigger and that really got me to thinking there’s something about spirituality and religion that I want to explore.”
An accomplished guitarist and a superbly talented piano player, Werner is teaching herself how to play good slide guitar blues for her next album. She’s gotten some help from Keb’ Mo,’ she says, but he lives in Los Angeles and she lives in Chicago, when they’re both not on the road. She’s also learning about New Orleans piano from a Dr. John video she has.
Of her forthcoming album of blues tunes, Werner says, “There are a couple of elements of the blues that are eternal. If you look at the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis that’s going on in this country it shows us: it doesn’t matter how rich we get, there’s still never enough money, or we just don’t manage it right.
“The blues has always been so eloquent and funny when it comes to being broke, and it’s a kind of music I’m finding out I can do well.”
On December 8 Werner says she will perform mostly songs from “The Gospel Truth,” but also include some older audience favorites from her other recent album of originals, “I Can’t Be New.”
She says she is also excited to be on the same bill with Natalia Zukerman. “She plays guitar almost like Santana, like someone from another world,” Werner enthuses about her opening act. “She’s a tremendously powerful guitar player, she’s got almost a string player’s approach to guitar. She is a rising star, and she is already rocketing. She’s doing things on guitar that a lot of us have never seen before.”
‘The after-concert conversations have been the most gratifying thing about putting this album together,” she says, “because the letters and E-mails I’m getting all say they want to buy two of them: one for themselves and one for Father Bill or Reverend Frank. It lets me know how many people in the clergy have something they can’t express.”
Our belief — or lack thereof — of any kind of God or higher being or divine one, Werner says, “is what makes us different than animals, the fact that we ask these questions and we can be uncertain. We hope, and we don’t know for sure, and it’s part of what makes us human.”
When I point out to Werner that her website offers up tavern gigs in Chicago on her ‘gigs’ page, she says she’s just as comfortable playing in a drinking establishment as a non-drinking venue. “I’m as comfortable in some tavern as in a really good theater. It’s all about communicating with a group of people and bringing them together for some music. As long as they’re willing to turn off the TV above the bar. I can’t compete with ESPN.”
Susan Werner with Natalia Zukerman, Saturday, December 8, 8 p.m., Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church, Titusville. $23. www.crossingconcerts.com or 609-406-1424.