Americanagrams: Susan Cattaneo

Paul Wallen | September 20th, 2013

SusanCattaneoInstaAmericanagrams: snapshots of emerging artists from Nashville during the Americana Music Festival.

Three days before Christmas in 2011, a woman fell down the stairs of Susan Cattaneo’s home in Boston, severely injuring her head and crushing her neck. Cattaneo saved the woman’s life by applying CPR, but she could not easily shake the vivid memory of someone lying near death on her kitchen floor. Cattaneo refused to let the trauma swallow her and instead channeled the lingering darkness into a lush, powerful new album titled Haunted Heart, due for release in January 2014.

We talked to the singer and songwriter–who has also been an Assistant Professor of Songwriting at Berklee College of Music for nearly 14 years–just before she took in a session of the Americana Music Conference featuring Rosanne Cash in the Listening Lounge of the Sheraton in downtown Nashville. She posed for this Instagram photo at nearby Church Street Park.

What is the most important lesson about writing songs that you try to impart to your students at Berklee?

We have a terminology that we use at Berklee called prosody. And prosody means essentially when the music matches the lyric content, like when Garth Brooks sings “I’ve got friends in low places,” where the word “low” is on the lowest note of the song. And because we also work on the lyric part of it, I teach the students lyric structural tools that help the song also lyrically support what they’re trying to say emotionally, through rhyme, rhythm and line length. So that’s the foundational thing that I teach the students, how to have good prosody in their songs. I think when you have a good marriage of music, melody, chords, lyrics and lyric structure, it’s going to make the listener feel what the writers want to say.

You have described songwriting as a craft. Does that mean you believe there’s a certain process to writing a good song?

Definitely. I think there are different kinds of ways that songs can come to you. Some songwriters work internally outwards. Or they’ll say, “The muse just came to me and it flowed.” And that’s awesome and that does happen a lot of the time. But I also really believe that sometimes, what the muse gives you immediately could be a little fine-tuned. I think you can take what the muse gives you and bump it up a little bit. For me, songs are kind of like puzzles. Sometimes they come fully formed, and boy, that’s the best kind of all. But most of the time, they come with a piece or two out of place and I have to figure it out. It really is cool, because as I’m writing, I know all the pieces and I can see them. I try this and it doesn’t fit, I try that and it doesn’t fit. Then there’s the moment when it’s like, “Oh, there it is!” That is the best part of all.

How did the accident in your home a couple years ago affect you personally and as an artist?

It completely informed the new album and who I am. It happened three days before Christmas and I was at home with my kids, it was just terrible. Obviously it ended well. She survived, thank God! But I was left with the very visual things that happened … in my kitchen, it was so surreal. But it introduced in me this idea that death could be around the corner. I remember coming home at one point and my husband was asleep on the couch, on his stomach with his face turned to the side and I was like, “Oh my God, he’s dead!” My children would drop something upstairs and it would scare me. I had this really physical reaction to it all.

Before that happened I had been writing songs really with a keen ear to what the market was doing. There were times when I would make creative substitutions that would fit the style of music that I was writing. You know, country music I would really write in the vernacular of that genre. When this incident happened, I just couldn’t do that anymore. So all these songs poured out of me that are extremely personal. Some of them, you wouldn’t know because I’m a writer and I disguise things in metaphor. But what I love about this album and the experience of making it is that it made me more honest in my songwriting than I’ve ever been. It made me care even more, but about different things. It was all about trying to put the most honest song forward. So I guess it was triumph out of tragedy, in the sense that the six months following the incident were really difficult but I ended up coming out of it knowing myself a little more. And I think celebrating and appreciating the things that make me unique. Before that I would worry about what country music or mainstream music would like. After what happened, I didn’t care about those things. So that’s good.

Sonically, this album sounds a little more roots-inspired than some of your earlier work.

I wanted to make an album that was, I guess, rooted in roots music. But you’ll notice there’s a strong presence of keys and keyboards in there. Going back to the tradition started by The Band and continued by Wilco, I really was kind of referencing those sounds. I was fortunate enough to have these amazing players and one of the key players was the drummer Marco Giovino. In my other projects, the song would kind of start from the lick that I had written. So the guitarist would play the groove, then the drummer and bass player would fill in. This process was so different because it all started with the drummer. Then the bass player would fill in the space and either Kenny White on piano or keys, or Kevin Barry, who was on the acoustic guitar, would fill in on top of that. And Lyle Brewer on the electric guitar would provide the coloring up top. And so the songs, they were differently recorded than anything I’d experienced. It’s almost like they’re based in that deep, dark rhythm foundation. That’s where the songs blossomed from sonically.

When I listen to the album now, it sounds different than a lot of the traditional Americana CDs that are out there. And I really liked it. We were kind of like, “Let’s avoid the banjo.” Or, “Let’s avoid the fiddle. At all costs, let’s not have the fiddle in this song.” And I love fiddle playing, I’m not negating that. But it was really nice to do it this way; it felt very honest.

Several of the songs on Haunted Heart have a playful sound in front of very dark lyrics …

Like “Lorelei”? (laughs) 

Yes, that was actually the example I was about to give.

I will not tell the story behind that song! But I will explain that I had a friend who betrayed me. It was this terrible thing that happened two years ago and I really thought I could get over it. But every time I would hear about something related to this person, I was just like, “Oh! Oh my God!” Finally my husband said, “You should write a murder ballad about that.” I couldn’t really write about it, so I had to disguise it in allegory. Because I felt like I was in a sisterhood with this person, it felt right to frame the song as though it was about twin sisters.

So I wrote it. It was in A minor, and it was slow. And my husband once again, who is my biggest critic and supporter, said, “You can’t do that. It can’t be slow. You’ve got to think you’re skipping through the woods until you realize you’re surrounded by landmines.” So I went back to the blackboard and reimagined it as something gleefully maniacal. I totally changed it up, put it in a major key and made it this happy thing. And I have to tell you that it gives me great joy to perform it live. The song has such a “Ha ha ha, I hate you” vibe, which I think is so much more delightful and fun to play with.

Another example might be “Worth the Whiskey,” which is very playful and catchy, yet there’s a ton of defiance behind it.

I was working with a young country singer in Nashville named Jillian Cardarelli. She and I were talking about country songs, and I’m a huge fan of David Allan Coe, Merle Haggard, and Kinky Friedman. I used to spend summers in Arizona, and the music out there was a little irreverent and kind of awesome. When I think of my influences in country music, they’re not Southern, they’re Southwestern. So we were talking about country songs and the standard lyrics, “You cheated on me so now I’m going to get in my truck and da da da.” I said to her, “Jillian, we’re going to write a song that takes that whole thing about drinking in a bar and make it happy. We’re gonna turn it on its head.” I had come up with the phrase “worth the whiskey” on my iPhone, and I was like, “That’s what it’s gonna be.” “Yeah, go on. Enjoy yourself. Go get drunk.” I enjoy the attitude of that song, it’s fun for me that way.”

Are there other songs stand out for you on Haunted Heart?

I had the title for “Abide,” which is the second song on the album. What a weird, old fashioned verb and I just wanted to see what I could do with it. Then there was a blizzard in the northeast and we ended up without heat for five or six days. Initially, it was kind of an awesome Little House on the Prairie experience. I was like, “Kids! Let’s put on all of our clothes and wear them in the house!” Then it got really old really fast. We were worried about the pipes freezing, the plumber kept coming, the heat never came on. I was so angry, because they ordered a part, it was the wrong part … I don’t know. But five days in, I’m sitting in my room with a little space heater, covered in clothes, Googling “blizzards.” I find a lot of inspiration on the internet, but I never really write about that subject. It will be about something that’s going on with me, as it relates to that subject. And I found out that in the Dust Bowl, they were called black blizzards. And I was like, “Yes! That is my frame of mind. I’m in a black blizzard frame of mind!” I found out that the scientists actually told these farmers that if they went out to Texas and Oklahoma and farmed the land, the sheer amount of space would create rain. They had a phrase, “The rain will follow the plow.” So they sent out all these farmers who dug up all the grasslands and planted their wheat. Then there was a terrible drought and it blew up the 16 inches of top soil. And I thought, “I am going to take all of this rage that I’m feeling for the plumber and put it into this song.” (laughs) I think that’s a funny one.

The other song I really enjoy is “Lies Between Lovers.” As a lyricist, I love playing with language. So I love the fact that the front half of the chorus talks about the lies, meaning the things that people say between each other that aren’t true. Then in the end, it’s converted to what lies between lovers, and it’s the children. For me, in my lyric craftiness, I relish the challenge of making the language do things for me.

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