Corrections or additions?
This article was prepared by Richard J. Skelly for the March 13,
2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Turning the Pages of the Great American Songbook
Singer-songwriter Susan Werner has crafted a brilliant album with her
recent CD, "I Can’t Be New" [Koch Records]. Upon first or repeated
listening, you’ll find yourself checking the writing credits inside
the CD. Incredibly, all of the songs, written in the style of Tin Pan
Alley/Great American songbook, are Werner’s own.
"This album is different because the material was so different," says
Werner in a phone interview from a tour stop in Connecticut. "Some of
these songs were written five, six, and seven years ago, and they
really don’t belong on a traditional singer-songwriter folkie type
album." Werner, a triple-threat singer-songwriter, guitarist, and
piano player, performs Saturday, March 19, at the Unitarian Church in
In a conversation with her manager, Werner decided to record and
release an entire album of Great American Songbook-styled originals.
The songs on "I Can’t Be New" are jazzier with more of a cabaret
flavor than anything she has written before for her audience, which is
for the most part a folk audience. After spending most of the 1990s in
Philadelphia, Werner moved to Chicago in 2000. Chicago, while not the
jazz capital of the world like New York is, still has a healthy jazz
"The day (the CD) came out, I did an interview for NPR’s `Morning
Edition,’ and it went to No. 1 on Amazon.com later that day," she
says, adding that for a day or so, she actually bumped Norah Jones out
of her top slot. "It wasn’t something we planned, that there would be
this revival of interest in older songs. Some of it had to do with
9/11, and some of it had to do with this wave of baby boomers getting
"I was already beginning to make the record by the time the interest
was revived," she continues, "and I think 9/11 played a role because
people took comfort in familiar things in every way: Krispy Kreme
donuts went through the roof. I’m no sociologist, but I think people
wanted to experience safety, and in a way, wanted to feel safer. They
wanted to take refuge in their homes and in music."
She quickly points out how Norah Jones has found cross-cultural
appeal, and while she doesn’t sing Great American songbook standards
by Gerswhin, Rodgers and others, Werner says Jones "sings in this very
gentle, exciting way, and it makes you lean forward to listen."
Werner was raised the fifth of six children (all of whom went to
college) in a family of farmers in Manchester, Iowa, near Dubuque. She
attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City as a music major. "My dad
is still farming, growing grain. He doesn’t have livestock anymore,
but going back home to them, I realized, there are traditions and ways
of being that go back to the 19th century," she says. "All of my
brothers and sisters can get in front of people and sing. We used to
sing and play a lot of music around the house, and that wasn’t the
case for a lot of farm families."
Werner’s family followed along in the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger
tradition of making music for the fun of it, and while all her
brothers and sisters aren’t virtuoso musicians, they can hold their
own at all sorts of jam sessions, she says.
She took up guitar at age five and her parents brought a piano into
the house when she was 11. She learned to play by ear, and recalls one
of her first professional gigs was strolling around the University of
Iowa football stadium, playing banjo while accompanied by a clarinet
and tuba player. "You would make good money on a Saturday in tips. If
that isn’t middle-brow, I don’t know what is," she says. Shortly after
she arrived in Philadelphia, she dropped her ambitions to become an
opera singer or a classical pianist and found her musical home in the
realm of folk music and jazz.
She became interested in folk music from the guitar-strumming nuns she
grew up with in grade school, and in high school, she became
interested in jazz when her band director began taking small groups of
students to jazz concerts. She met jazz singers like Joe Williams and
Carmen McRae, and saw others like Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan
perform on concert hall stages.
She graduated from Temple University with a master’s degree in voice
and shortly after that, began making a name for herself in
Philadelphia folk clubs. "After I abandoned these high brow ambitions
after I moved to Philadelphia, I took a job at the Pen and Pencil
Club, where the journalists would go after work," she says. "The guy
who ran it wanted a piano playing chanteuse in the corner. Soon, there
were three of us working the corner, because I got a bass player and
It was during her long Friday night residency at the Pen & Pencil Club
that she learned many of the Great American Songbook tunes she now
performs. "It didn’t cross my mind that some of these people might
write about me for the newspapers. I don’t have it, whatever that gene
is. I just liked my boss and his wife. They were so encouraging, and
they paid me well enough to prevent me from taking something else on a
Asked if there was a revelatory moment when she figured she could make
a living as a musician, doing mostly her own material, Werner says it
might have been shortly after she got out of graduate school at
Temple. "I had day jobs for years, office temping and typing and
faxing and I vowed one year to be wedding free by the end of ’93, just
making my living off my own performances, not doing any weddings. Sure
enough, by the end of that year, I was able to make it."
While the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News have
been alternately kind and not so kind in their reviews of Werner’s
recordings, she says, "on this last record, they were really kind to
me, and of course I’m not there in Philadelphia anymore."
Werner’s first big break was the chance to record for Private Music,
one of the last great labels of the 1980s and ’90s. She released "Last
of the Good Straight Girls," her debut for Private Music, which had
international distribution via BMG, in 1995. Numerous other recordings
have followed, including "New Non Fiction" and "Time Between Trains."
In addition to the opportunity to record at Private Music Werner also
considers a 1992 appearance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival as
another of her first big breaks.
"When you get that phone call and you’re going to get that deal on a
national label, I remember calling my parents and saying, ‘This is
really happening, and I’m really thrilled.’ Playing the Philadelphia
Folk Festival main stage in 1992 was also big, because it let me know
there was going to be a community I could belong to and have a home
in," she says. "Folk festival audiences will welcome a new thing. ‘Oh,
you wrote a new song? Let’s hear it!’ Folk audiences were very
welcoming to me, because songwriters are valued there."
Werner points out that the jazz-flavored stylings on "I Can’t Be New"
are more sophisticated and might threaten the folk identity. Songs
like "I Can’t Be New," "I’m Not Sure," "Don’t I Know You," and "No One
Needs To Know" come from everyday phrases, she argues, and she’s made
up little story-ballads behind the phrases, in the Great American
songbook, or "standards," tradition. "The stories have a little
complexity to them," she says, "but they’re not so intimidating that
you can’t get into it."
As a consequence of the critical reception for "I Can’t Be New,"
Werner may find herself working folk and jazz festivals this summer.
"I’m a nostalgist, I can’t help myself," she says, "and these are new
songs written in an old way. The good news is I’m doing something no
one else is doing, and the bad news is, I’m doing something no one
else is doing."
Her March 19 concert will include tunes from "I Can’t Be New," but
also a fair amount of Werner’s older, self-penned folk ballads, as she
accompanies herself on guitar. "What I’ve enjoyed about this project
is I’m able to sing songs that are very personal, without being
autobiographical," she says. "These songs are intimate without being
confessional, without being drawn from my own experience. These songs
rely on their own strength as a story, and it’s been a fantastic thing
to stumble on to."
Crossing, Unitarian Universalist Church, 268 Washington
Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville. $20. 609-406-1424.
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