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Mike Ragogna

Mike Ragogna

Posted: February 25, 2011 12:05 AM

In the U.K., the group Wild Palms' album Until Spring is getting all kinds of critical nods and experiencing some major success. On the band's music, NME said, "Grandiose and melancholic... an expansive, romantic new sound for Wild Palms," "(They) owe more to Disintegration-era Cure and Warp Records than Wire or Gang Of Four," commented Mojo, "Deeply odd and deeply wonderful," added Sunday Times, and Artrocker declared, "Virtually a phone call from Jesus himself."

Here in the U.S., Wild Palms' Until Spring will debut on April 12th, but HuffPost has been given the premiere of the single "To The Lighthouse" presented here, airing for the first time in this territory.

WILD PALMS - "To The Lighthouse"
Wild Palms - To The Lighthouse by One Little Indian Records

2011-02-25-51FJvQpnBmL._SL500_AA300_.jpg

A Conversation with Susan Werner

Mike Ragogna: Hi Susan, how and where are you?

Susan Werner: I'm doing great, I'm in Chicago. It's a cloudy day but not too cold yet.

MR: Oh, it's cold here in Fairfield, Iowa. By the way, your best friend Theo Shier is doing great work here.

SW: Wow, I didn't know that.

MR: Yeah, he came back in August from Song School where you taught a performance class. Now, I have a bone to pick with you from something you mentioned there. My perspective is that an artist should also be about the talk between songs to get really close and tight with the audience. I believe you can't just get there with the music in the singer-songwriter realm. So, I heard that you have a different perspective on that which may be a "shut up and just play already" stance!

SW: Yeah, shut up and sing. Because, look, you can sing on pitch, all day people talk from the time they wake up. They are always talking to somebody. Now, if I sang to you, that would change the conversation. You just add pitch and the whole thing changes. You know, I'm lucky I can sing on pitch, this is a talent that our society happens to overvalue. Well, good for people like me, good for people that can sing. If you can sing, you can bring people something that the rest of their day can't. Get up there and talk? Who are you to talk...unless you're extremely funny. Just let the song do it, you give people something that they don't have the rest of the day. Why do people have this fantasy of their lives being musical?

MR: Sure, some musicians, between songs, just talk and talk and talk, and you just want them to stop it for God's sake. But there are artists whose chatter is as interesting as their songs, especially some folks like Steve Forbert, David Wilcox, Bruce Cockburn...

SW: Yeah, but most artful ones, like Steve Forbert who I've done shows with and David Wilcox who I'm doing shows with in Portland and Seattle in February. Look, Dave Wilcox knows too--don't go up there and say hello, just play your song. Even play two songs in a row and then talk. Don't talk between every Goddamn song. Shut up!

MR: Well, in that context, I'm with you, especially when you've got dramatic tension going from song to song. But take someone like Bruce Springsteen who, beyond the music, is in constant communication with the audience whether it be with banter or body language.

SW: But talking? Everybody can do that. Singing? Not everybody can do that, not everyone can offer that. That's a relief from the rest of their day, the rest of their week, and the rest of their lives. I believe in giving people a musical experience instead of a stand-up routine.

MR: (laughs) Now, on the other hand, as we are talking right now, (sings:) we're using notes. Our conversation is, technically, you and I singing.

SW: When you sung just then, that was my favorite part of the conversation. I like you a lot right now. We should keep doing that for the next few minutes.

MR: (laughs) Okay, let's get to your new album, Kicking The Beehive. One of my favorite songs on it is "Manhattan Kansas." Can you tell us the story behind that?

SW: Here's the true story. I was in the gym watching MSNBC. I will usually go back and forth between MSNBC and Fox.

MR: Really? Do we have to?

SW: (laughs) Well, this keeps me engaged. And the audio in my gym doesn't work. So, my channel changer is on mute, I'm reading the closed captioning of a conversation between Chris Matthews and Pat Buchanan. Chris Matthews says, "So Pat, you believe that doctors who perform abortions should be tried and convicted for murder?" Pat Buchanan says, "That's right." Okay so right there I'm falling off my elliptical machine. Secondly, Chris Matthews says, "And what of the woman?" and Pat Buchanan says, "Well their just unwitting participants." The next three days I walked around thinking this misunderstanding is so huge. And finally, the hook showed, the song title "Manhattan, Kansas," like a Jimmy Webb song, that has a town in the title. There's a town in the title, a character, and a story, and that was the form for the song. And this is one of the songs that is already out for people. This is one of the songs that people come up to me after the show and ask me about.

MR: There are songs on ...Beehive that are particularly touching such as "My Different Son."

SW: It's a song from the point of view of a parent who is wrestling with how their child is not like other kids, how their kid posses many challenges. This is another song that people come up to me after a show and ask about. You and I spoke earlier today about talking in a show. There are times when I think the song says what you have to say as a songwriter better than any pros. This is one of those songs where anyone who hears it knows someone, either the child or the parent, or both. This is a song, already, where responses are coming in from people who want to talk about the song, talk about what it means to them and who they see when they're listening to the song.

MR: Let me ask you about your Cavalcade of Stars on this album.

SW: It's so crazy. It was a real gallery of talent that came in through the doors in the studio they're right off music row in Nashville. I was really fortunate that my manager has worked with Rodney Crowell, and he floated a disc full of my songs past Rodney sometime last summer, and Rodney said, "Who is this writer? And where did these songs come from?" The response was so strong and positive, I was knocked sideways by it. And here you have Rodney Crowell, who is a great songwriter and a great artist, saying something you're doing is noteworthy and should be heard by a broader audience, then saying, "Hey, I would like to produce this record." Rodney has produced some great stuff for himself and other people, but for him to bring in his own talents, and his own smarts and humanity...the guy is so funny and so beloved to this project. He brought Steve Marcantonio who is a great engineer, and the thing sounds just lovely. I mean, people don't make records that sound that good in their basement. You just don't.

MR: What was the recording process like?

SW: We did almost the entire record live, right off the floor. And then in comes Vince Gill. "Hey, Rodney." "Hey, Vince. Why don't you play on this thing. What is it? Oh it's this Susan Werner record. Then Vince Gill sits down and plays on one of the tunes. It's great. Against the wall on this song "Red Dress" is Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, and Stewart Smith. This is the pantheon of greats, and they're playing on my song. I had the good fortune last year of doing a string of dates with Keb' Mo who's been so great to me and such a good friend. You think he's a good guy and he really is a good guy, he is who you think he is. He is a fantastic embracing guy, and every night on tour, during sound check, he would say, "Hey, do this like this? You should do it like this...you can do it like that..." Every night, he would give me some little thing, it was fantastic. So, Kevin came in and played on one of my songs. It was a whirlwind two week recording. It was the most intense and possibly most pleasant two weeks of my entire life.

MR: It's like we're there, it's wonderful description.

SW: Actually, on that "Red Dress" track is Trina Hamlin, who is one of the most fabulous harmonica players in the world. She will be doing a lot of the tour with me in 2011. It was fun to go back and forth. She was playing the harmonica and I was playing the honky-tonk piano. Rodney loved this, and Vince Gill loved this.

MR: Are they all going to come with you when you come through Fairfield on your live show?

SW: Don't I wish. I hope I get to play Fairfield.

MR: Susan, let's talk about your life in Iowa. You've been to Fairfield?

SW: Sure. I grew up near Dubuque and I went to the University of Iowa, but I never went to Fairfield until about three months ago. I just had to go. I had to see the Maharishi deal, I had to see how the homes are facing the East, I had to see the school, and I had lunch at the cafeteria and wandered around downtown. I went into some of the funky shops, I drank coffee at Café Paradiso, and it was very good coffee. Everyone was so friendly and kind, it seemed like there was a high literacy rate in that town or something. I went to the Sondheim Theater that looks great, it looks like a very nice facility. I would love to play a show there...I know it's probably just a matter of time till I get to play my own show there. I enjoyed my drive to Fairfield. I like that amidst the cornfields, there's this little haven of funky, progressive, open-minded type of people in a little gem amidst the soy beans.

MR: A little gem amidst the cornfields. Nice. And you can't throw a stone without hitting an artist or a musician here.

SW: I believe that. When I was there, it was still warm out and I took a really nice walk on a trail, and it seemed like a very used trail that goes all around town. So, as I was walking, this gaggle of scientists walked past me and they were discussing some sort of theory. They all seemed sort of happy and interested in what they were talking about--it seemed like they were in the 1950s. It was like contemporary, but also 1950s, with the values of believing, education, and a promising future. I was just thinking, "Where am I."

MR: Hey Susan anything in the news that's got your eye? (note: This interview took place a few weeks ago.)

SW: Well, of course "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is big and signifies important change. It feels like one of those things that goes forward that can't go too far back. It feels like a hard line is drawn. I think that's encouraging for people. I think the missed opportunity for the dream act is important and sad, and I worry a lot about the divide between the haves and the have-nots of this country. Educational opportunity, upward mobility, the whole Horatio Alger thing. For people my age in mid-life, that part of the American character is that we are all going to have something to say to each other. Maybe we're not all in this together, and I worry with a lot of other people about that.

MR: Well, you know, it seems like you need a world crisis for people to forget about the stupidity. The thing that upsets me in Iowa is that we got rid of our Democratic governor because people were punishing the democrats, plus they didn't like the guy persoanlly. But what happened was Iowans reinstalled the old Republican governor who used as one of his campaign pledges that he would overturn our equal marriage act. And, of course, we got rid of all three judges that approved the law.

SW: Iowa can be Wisconsin or Illinois on one day and then there's this inner Oklahoma that emerges. It's a state that's not red or blue, it's purple. Every Iowan is political at heart. If you grow up in Iowa, presidents are coming even twelve years before they run. I remember meeting Joe Biden in like 1988, and now he's vice president. Iowans are born political creatures, they're discerning. I think every Iowan has strong opinions about politics, even if they grow up and move far away--I live in Chicago now. In terms of Branstad versus Culver, all I can say is at the Hamberg Inn in Iowa City, they have the coffee bean voting. You take a coffee bean and you put it in the jar for you candidate of choice. I put my coffee bean in for Chet, but we will see what Branstad brings to the capitol in Des Moines. It's a good looking Capital, it's a good looking building. If you look at other state capitals that's a pretty good looking building. We will see what Branstad has. I'm groaning and saying yes.

MR: And then there's still Sarah Palin and her Iowa visits, obviously working the starte for a presidential run. This lady, who exploits fear and is the poster child for championing ignorance, might actually be making an impact, especially with the self-proclaimed Tea Partiers. I once said on my show--and I said it very poorly--that she was stupid. What I meant to say was she's stupid as a fox.

SW: Yeah, sly like a fox. I don't think she is so dumb like a fox. I think she saw an opportunity for herself and then took it. I also think that should political circumstances be right, someone like her could win the White House. I don't think that political circumstances would turn so far to the right that she would be an appealing candidate. I don't think that would happen in this country. But if you've read Philip Roth's Plot Against America, which followed out the idea that Limburg could have been the president in the '30s, that scenario seems a little more plausible than I want to think about. I don't really think that she'll win the White House, I don't really think she will win the nomination. But she's there in case circumstances move that far right. You and I earlier today talked about this song called, "My Different Son." Alright, look, however nasty we get about Sarah Palin, she has a child with down syndrome. There are things we all have in common, no matter how far somebody's political beliefs are from our own, so let's not forget that we are all Americans and we do want better lives for our kids. So, there's my one very slim thread of commonality with someone like Sarah Palin.

MR: It's really hard to believe anyone except the über-ambitious have anything in common with Sarah Palin, but you're right.

SW: She doesn't come a lot through Fairfield. She's not going to win a lot of votes in Fairfield, Iowa.

MR: (laughs) No, I don't think so. She does come through Iowa a lot though. It sure looks like she wants to be president.

SW: I don't know, I think that government can be an opportunity for celebrity. Who said, "Politics is show business for the not so beautiful?" I mean she saw an opportunity, what are you going to do? You're given a chance to make millions of dollars, and as a parent, you want to give your kid every opportunity in life. How far is your governor's salary going to go in Alaska?

MR: Alright, enough about Palin. When you look at your appearance at the original Lilith Fair and you look at where you are now, what do you think are the major changes in your life?

SW: The big one, as an artist, was to move away from record deals and to hold on to your own records. Once you determine that you don't want that relationship anymore, you're free to write whatever songs you want. I could never have done a project like The Gospel Truth, which has been described by one writer as the world's first agnostic gospel album. No label would have wanted to touch me with a ten foot pole. Either you're doing rock music or you're doing Christian music. "What is this? Something critical of the church? Do you think anybody would be interested in this?" Well, it was my best selling record so far, it's the best thing I've ever done, and it's the record I'm most proud of. It felt very much like my record to make, so there's a great deal of independence form making your own records for your own label. I recommend that independence as soon as you can do it. As soon as you can handle it, do the thing that is yours to do because that's where the big satisfaction is. What I've seen from colleagues of mine who've had great success, who have had great people cover their songs, they all stay in it and want to do shows under their own name. Everyone wants the satisfaction that they did something that was uniquely theirs. Everyone wants that. No amount of money can buy you that.

MR: Susan, you know that this station, KRUU-FM, is solar powered. What do you think about that, huh? The sun, dude!

SW: We all got to go there.

MR: (laughs)

SW: It's the only thing that's not going to cause wars. We're not going to fight over the sun, there's always going to be enough sun.

MR: Oh my God, what a great line. Oh, let me throw in that we're low powered and community based. Now what have you got to say?

SW: Every low powered station allows for an individual point of view, even a controversial point of view. If all media is controlled by one broadcasting entity, that's how many view points you're going to get. Every little pocket of "Low Power FM" is the last batch of individual personality on the air. I hope that there's much more Low Power. I hope that there will be many more like that.

MR: And, of course, they passed the bill recently that would allow its proliferation.

SW: That's how you hope that it happens. There are all these new low power stations popping up all over the country. It's also great you have individual champions for music. You don't have to play what comes down from the promotion people, you play your own music. You express your own point of view through music as well.

MR: What's interesting is that we have a musical identity that's more akin to a KCRW in California, but the diversity is wider and we have a broader palate of programming.

SW: And KCRW means a great deal to Los Angeles. That's an impassioned group.

MR: They sure are. What advice do you have for new artists?

SW: Put yourself at risk. The old poet Robert Frost said, "Make the poem save you." Go so far out on a limb that you're not sure you can get back. Say something that makes you a little bit uncomfortable, makes your audience uncomfortable. Sing what people cannot say out-loud, that's what songs are supposed to do.

MR: And at Song School, this is what you said to Theo?

SW: (laughs) I probably did say that. I also probably said never say from the stage that you have a CD for sale. I hate that more than anything. Oh my god, shut up! Honestly, anyone born after 1990 knows what a CD is. Everyone knows you're going to have a recording in the back. What is this relationship about? Is this about commerce? Why don't you just sell shoes. Just go to Nordstrom's and sell shoes. That's nice if you have something to sell. But why are you getting up there, are you trying to move me? Are you engaging with me? Or are you just selling me shoes. I feel so strongly about it. If Theo heard me go on a rant, that was probably a big part of my rant. This is not about commerce. You as an artist in front of the microphone, sing and shut up. Now you and I just talked for 45 minutes, I should have just sang for you.

MR: (laughs) Susan, this was all music to my ears, you're terrific. So, when are you coming through Fairfield again?

SW: I'm actually playing in my hometown of Manchester, Iowa. The high school has an amazing new performing arts facility. I'm playing on April 2nd, and my parents will be in the audience, I mean this is the worst. Any other part of the country, I mean Berkley, California, couldn't be more radical. I go home to Iowa and I'm sweating bullets up there. Put yourself at risk, play your own hometown.

MR: Okay, what does the future bring for Susan Werner?

SW: I will be busy for the first half of the year with this new record. I won't be home a lot. I will be in planes, rental cars, vans, and this and that. After that, I'm actually working on a Broadway musical.

MR: Spider-Man II?

SW: Thank God it's not Spider-Man. By the way, it's called a musical. So, when I studied music at the University Of Iowa, we didn't have a class in acrobatics. We didn't have to wear a harness.

MR: When I heard Julie Taymor say she wanted people to have the experience they had when they went to the movies. I thought, "Julie, babe, those are movies."

SW: And by the way, Spider-Man doesn't sing. It's a comic book.

MR: Au contraire, Spider-Man sings--Spider-Man: Rock Reflections Of A Superhero, circa 1976, check it. But yeah, got the point.

SW: This is a guy that the less he says, the more power he has. I think the point of this conversation has been "don't talk." (laughs) Do you agree Mike?

MR: (laughs) Very much so, except you're a great conversationalist and excellent sparring partner, Susan. I'm so glad you spoke your mind here today, thanks so much, and make it through here at some point, okay?

SW: I definitely will.

Tracks:
1. Kicking The Beehive
2. Doctor Doctor
3. My Different Son
4. I Know What I Want
5. The Last Words of Bonnie Parker
6. Manhattan Kansas
7. Red Dress
8. Botanical Greenery Blues
9. Sleeping on a Train
10. Irrelevance
11. On The Other Side

 
 
 

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