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

Titusville.

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

club scene.

"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

older.

"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

drummer."

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

Friday night."

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."

Susan Werner, Saturday, March 19, 8 p.m., Concerts at the

Crossing, Unitarian Universalist Church, 268 Washington

Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville. $20. 609-406-1424.


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