A Conversation With Rosanne Cash
Mike Ragogna: Your new autobiography Composed: A Memoir doesn't follow the typical, linear format.
Rosanne Cash: It's not a straight chronology as an autobiography normally would be. It doesn't start, "I was born on a Tuesday," blah, blah, blah. I wasn't really interested in doing that. It's more circular and themes keep reappearing in my present life that throw me back into the past or the future. It covers, pretty much, my whole life up until 2007 or 2008. But you can't write a book or a memoir without mentioning your family, so it's a lot about my childhood and my family. In some ways, the overarching narrative of it is it's the making of a songwriter, of a writer.
MR: And this is not your first book. Your work Bodies of Water was published back in 1997.
RC: That was my first book, but also I have a little cottage industry of writing essays for various publications. I wrote for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Oxford American, and many, many others. About 10 years ago, I wrote this essay called "The Ties That Bind" about music and family, and it was chosen for this compilation called Best Music Writing 2000. My editor at Viking read it and said to me, "That's the beginning of a memoir," and I said, "Well, I think I'm too young to write a memoir." He said, "Think about several volumes." So, I started and it took me a decade, but I finally finished this book.
MR: So, you went to Vanderbilt University and studied under its esteemed English Professor, Walter Sullivan.
RC: Right. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, and was at Vanderbilt for 40 something years. He knew Robert Penn Warren and all of those great literary guys who were around at that time. He kept saying write what you know, write what you know, and he took me seriously even though, at the time, I was a very bad writer. I think it gave me courage.
MR: Speaking of courage, you've had some life challenges in the last few years.
RC: Yeah, I have. I guess you are referring to the fact that I had brain surgery in 2007. It was a good hard look at my mortality, which was very motivating.
MR: Like you said before, your approach to writing is not exactly linear, and you have these sweet eulogies towards the end.
RC: Interesting you would bring that up. This was the one thing in the book that I was really ambivalent about including, and I kept saying to my editor even a week before we went to galleys, "Are you sure we should put these in?" They were just so personal and something that I had written in great mourning and delivered privately. He said, "They are beautiful, and I think they belong in there." So, I went with what he said.
MR: Are there any stories from the book that involve your father Johnny Cash that you feel comfortable sharing in this interview?
RC: Well, I didn't write about him as this iconic figure, I wrote about him as my father. There is this moment that was kind of revealing of the kind of parent he was which is he never gave advice unless you asked for it. He was very respectful, even to children that way. I wanted to go off and live in London when I was 20 years old, so he kind of underwrote the whole experience and paid for the rent and paid for me to go. He never interfered. So, I just did this and learned so much, and it was a real coming-of-age experience for me. But I came back for a visit six months later and he said, "Okay, that's it. You have to come home now." I asked why, and he said, "You have to come home now." It wasn't until much later when he told me that he was so afraid that I would loose touch with my family forever and become an expatriate and never return to the family fold. He reinserted his parenting right then. It was a very loving thing to do because he was right. I would have probably separated myself.
MR: This book is clearly the journey of Rosanne Cash, not a back door glimpse into the life of Johnny Cash. Others in your position might not have been so elegant.
RC: Yeah, of course, how can you write a memoir about another person? I mean, I'm sure you can, but I just couldn't do that. As most people you know, I am mostly absorbed in my own life. My insights have been about my own character and my own experiences. You know, I have had a lot of unusual experiences in my life. But the way I've experienced them has not been unusual. There are these stories of coming-of-age, loss, crises of faith, travel, motherhood, serious health crises, you know. These are very universal experiences.
MR: And I believe that Rosanne Cash fans feel a deep connection with you because you've been such a real person to them.
RC: Well, I would hope so, and that's a great compliment if it's true. I do find--and it's kind of cliché--that the more personal, universal...there was this record I did, Black Cadillac, that was about loss. Several members of my family died in a short period of time, and I wrote this record that was kind of a map of grieving. It wasn't just sad, as there are a lot of elements to losing people; you get angry, you get liberated. There are crises of all kinds. These songs had a lot of documentary detail to them, and I got nervous about that. It seemed too revealing, and the path that I had always used was poetic license in songwriting. But there is this one song that was particularly full of documentary-type details called "House On the Lake." The first time I performed it, I was so nervous that I was revealing too much, and a guy came up to me afterward and said, "You know, everybody's got their house on the lake." Then I thought, "Okay, I'm over the hump."
MR: "Black Cadillac" was a very personal, almost mournful song.
RC: It's fair to say mournful. It's just that mourning isn't just one single thing. People think mourning is sad. Well, it's more than just sad, it's a lot of things. And it's also reestablishing relationships with the people that died because I found that they do go on. With your parents, you are free to relate to the best parts of them which is nice. Yeah, that record "Black Cadillac" was probably the most personal I've done.
MR: Is it fair to say that a lot of your fans came in on the single "Seven Year Ache"?
RC: That's true, yes. "Seven Year Ache" was a very successful and popular record. Do you know that was 30 years ago? It's hard for me to believe, but it's about the age my youngest daughter is now when I wrote and recorded that record.
MR: You have also recorded John Hiatt's music over the years.
RC: Yes, I love John Hiatt. I really resonate with his writing. I am a huge fan of his, and I have always felt comfortable interpreting his songs. I can't say that about everybody. I was very selective as an interpreter as I preferred being a songwriter myself. John was always one I was drawn too.
MR: Can you talk about The List for a moment because it was such an important album to so many people?
RC: Sure. I went on the road with my Dad when I was 18, and I was a huge Beatles fan. I grew up in Southern California infused with the pop and rock of the '60s and early '70s. So, after High School, I went on the road with my Dad, and we were talking about songs. He mentioned a song and I said, "I don't know that one." He mentioned another, and I said, "I don't know that one either, Dad," and he grew very alarmed. He thought I was missing half of the knowledge I needed. He knew I wanted to be a songwriter, and so he spent the afternoon making this list of songs, and at the end, he said, "This is your education." It was an education, my God. It's a great archive for me now.
MR: The songs on that album are so wonderful. My personal favorites are "Motherless Children," Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," and the Hank Snow number "I'm Moving On."
RC: Yeah, those are just great American songs. It's such a rich treasure trove of who we are as Americans, as Appalachian music, early country music, Delta blues, Southern Gospel, folk songs. You know, my dad recorded "Girl From the North Country" with Dylan in 1969. To think about doing it, I had this iconic version in my head that I had to get away from. So, we listened to Bob's original version from 1963, and it's very much like an old Elizabethan folk song. It's just such a beautiful part of the canon.
MR: In 2007, Michael Streissguth wrote Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List, and the Spirit of Southern Music.
RC: Right. He followed me around for a few months and came to the studio when we were recording The List. He wrote this book about my Dad, and did this film on Folsom, and he was so intrigued by this list and this idea of musical legacy which has kind of consumed me as well, stepping into this musical legacy.
MR: At times, it seemed almost as if it were your voice and perspective.
RC: Yeah, although the way he wrote about the recording process, I don't know that I would have documented it like that or that I could. Having his objective observation was a nice thing to have for that book.
MR: When I'm interviewing an artist with a new album, I sometimes ask which songs are personal favorites. Do you have a favorite chapter in this book?
RC: That is a hard one. There are certain scenes and stories that I think are really good and rich in detail. There is a certain story I told about Oslo Prison. I went to Oslo, Norway, shortly after my Dad died, and there were these Norwegian artists who did a concert in Oslo Prison of my Dad's music as a kind of tribute to him. He had just died three months before. They invited me to come to Oslo to see this concert, and it was one of the most moving events of my life. So, I wrote about the concert in Oslo, yet somehow, I didn't know that it was going to connect this scene that occurs about three years before my Dad died, when I took him to a hardware store. As I said, there is this sense of themes reappearing and time being mutable that shows up, and in that piece in a really clear and lovely way, I think.
MR: I have to be a fan now and tell you how much I loved your album The Wheel.
RC: The Wheel is the record I made with my husband, and that's the record we fell in love to when making it. So, that has a special place in my heart too.
MR: Will we be hearing any new music from you soon?
RC: You will. That is something I am going to start wrapping my head around in the fall.
MR: Is there anything in the paper right now that's interesting you?
RC: I've been following the spill in the Gulf pretty closely. It's very troubling. I follow the Tea Party machinations with great fear and trepidation.
MR: What do you think of the whole Sarah Palin thing?
RC: Actually, I wrote a piece and The Huffington Post published it called "Why I Would Be A Better Vice President Than Sarah Palin." It was very snarky and kind of funny; but the truth is, I am just appalled that we don't want the smartest people in the room to be the leaders of our country. It makes no sense to me.
MR: If you were to give advice to new artists, what would that be?
RC: Learn an instrument. So many don't play instruments these days. Also, it's something I say in the book--refine your skills to support your instincts. Sometimes, we have these instincts and passions towards doing something really creative, but if you don't have the skill set to support it, it's just kind of wasted. I'm one of those who thinks it's half inspiration, half perspiration. So, I would say keep your head down and work hard.
(transcribed by Erika Richards)
A Conversation with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin
Mike Ragogna: Before we get into the album, you guys are on tour right now, right?
Steve Berlin: Yeah we are. Actually I'm on my way to Santa Barbara. We basically started our American tour opening for Steve Miller.
MR: Have you ever opened for him before?
SB: Never. I've never met the man, never opened for him.
MR: Your new album Tin Can Trust seems quite relevant considering what's going on with our economy. Can you go into the song and how its title sets up the theme of the album?
SB: Well, part of it came from the fact that we were recording for the first time, really, since the '90s. Basically, the records we did in the '90s were done with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake at The Sound Factory in Hollywood. From '99 on, we built a studio at Cesar's house in a town called Diamond Barb, which is like forty-five miles east of East L.A. It worked great for us. I'm really proud of the records we made, but it was a garage that was retrofitted into a recording studio, and we made it work but it wasn't configured in a way that allowed us to play live. More often than not, it would be two guys playing at once, and then we would build on that, but never more than that. It just wasn't big enough. There were never enough headphones or mic inputs for the band to play as a band, all together, live. For this record, Cesar had moved to a new place, and we just decided we wanted to find a place where we could all play live again. So, we found a studio in East L.A., really, within yards of where the guys grew up. It's kind of down-trodden--I don't know what the popular perception of East L.A. is--it's really just a neighborhood. It's a pretty typical place during the day, and then it sort of changes a little bit.
We sort of found ourselves right in the middle of the economy in '10, where people are struggling and you see it graphically every day going to work. I think it informed the record in that exact regard. We were forced to really observe what's going on around us in a way that we hadn't. Not that you could ignore it, certainly, in this day and age, but it was even more apparent...that we would come every day to work on the record, and see what this economy has done to neighborhoods, families, and businesses. It was very graphic, and certainly such that you couldn't ignore it. So, I think "Tin Can Trust" and some of the other songs on the record like "On Main Street" kind of speak to that immediacy, and sort of being in it every day in a way we hadn't really subjected ourselves to for the better part of ten years.
MR: There's a blues-y mood to this album, with that simpler, almost "live" sound of your older records.
SB: I agree. It's something that we found once we got there. I don't think we ever really plan, discuss, or strategize anything we do, to be perfectly honest. So, it wasn't like we said beforehand, "Hey, we'll go to this funky old studio, and we'll sound like '84 again." But that's what happened, more or less. We sort of found ourselves in this place, and the studio had this old school vibe. They had no outboard gear to speak of; very few bells and whistles on any level. Our lounge was a ping-pong table that we set up in the hall. Not that we didn't love it, but it was very much a down and dirty, workman-like environment, and it sort of came across in the music as well. Just the fact that it was only us, the guitars, and the amps, there really wasn't anything like going back to Kiko or Colossal Head where we just had a mountain of gear; and we were fooling around with effects pedals, weird mic-ing, and just bizarreness before we'd start a track. This was just like, "Plug the guitar in and let's go." There was almost nothing between the hands and the tape, more or less.
MR: Both Tin Can Trust and Will The Wolf Survive lack self-consciousness, and songwriting and musicianship are the focus. That's usually the secret behind the longevity of the more classic acts. Actually, at this point, most people do categorize you as that, and know how smart and influential you've been.
SB: Well, thank you. That's very high praise. I guess when you play live as much as we have, and then you find yourself in a recording environment that lends itself to that, it isn't really that hard. It's just what we do, and it comes out like that. But that's very nice of you to say.
MR: Has the band reached that point where you're mainly intuiting each other's creative moves? Your recordings always have sounded spontaneous, but Tin Can Trust especially seems that way, like it's mostly original takes.
SB: That is very true. There are a number of songs on this that were first takes, "Tin Can Trust" being one of them. I think "West L.A. Fade Away" was a second take because we screwed-up something, but yeah we lucked out as far as that is concerned. We got a lot of great first takes. "Jupiter Of The Moon" was another one that was a first take. There's something special about those first takes. If you manage to catch it just right, it's like a perfect wave, it just works. You know from the minute you start it that it might be as good as it ever gets. So, we got very lucky a couple of times.
MR: Who is singing harmony with you on the chorus of "I'll Burn It Down"?
SB: That's Susan Tedeschi.
MR: She's got a billion dollar voice.
SB: Yeah. She did it in, like, the one hour she had off between her tours. It was very, very gracious of her to do it. I don't know if any of us would have done it with the schedule she was working with, but she did it, and we're wildly appreciative. We think the world of her and Derek (Trucks). They're the two coolest people in the world, basically.
MR: She and Lucinda Williams are like the hardest working women in rock right now.
SB: Yep, they really are.
MR: Though "I'll Burn It Down" suggests a more overt solution to solving problems, it seems more like a positive song about creating change. Am I wrong about that?
SB: No, I think it is. You get to a place where it's just time to burn it down and start again. I think it is, ultimately, a positive song, and I think it's also about following your art as well. I didn't write the lyrics, but if I could take the liberty of interpreting, I think what Louie is getting at there is that people have told us to do this or do that as a band and personally as well. We've only ever succeeded by ignoring virtually everything anybody ever said to us. So, if I'm not mistaken, I think that's what the song's about. The collective wisdom of the band members is what wins out at the end of the day, and we tend to ignore almost anything anybody has ever told us as far as career advice.
MR: And that collective wisdom musically most likely is what's kept you guys vital and relevant throughout the years. So, where is your Tin Can Trust tour taking you?
SB: Earth, mostly. It starts in Santa Barbara, and then we sort of, stereotypically for us, bounce all over the place. We'll be in the Midwest, the East Coast, and we'll be in New York the day it comes out. I think we're pretty much everywhere. By the end of September, there probably won't be a part of North America that we haven't reached in some way.
MR: Will you be mixing it up with new songs from this record along with some of your classics?
SB: Yeah. We really haven't even begun to rehearse the new songs yet, that process starts next week. We'll start integrating them into the set and see what works. Just speaking for myself, I'm certainly ready for a new bunch of songs to play. It seems like we've been doing the ones we've been playing for an awfully long time now. So, I'm very much looking forward to getting some new ones in there and trying them out.
MR: What's in the news right now that's got your attention?
SB: Wow. Well, that's such a good question. I would say, musically at least, there are a couple of new cloud-based models that show promise. I just got back from Europe where there's a company called Stratify. I don't know if you're familiar with any of their stuff, but it's sort of like drawing your music from the clouds instead of storing it on your iPod or having it live on your computer someplace. You can have, effectively speaking, unlimited access to everything recorded, all the time. Apple is actually moving towards a model like that. Rather than selling track by track it would be more of a subscription model--kind of an all you can eat thing.
So, that's certainly something that's got me thinking because we've got this problem of music being largely downloaded for free, and people like us not really being compensated for it. I understand, but I'm not going to sit there and pretend it's not a problem. Obviously, the consumer's voice is the loudest voice, and the music business has to come to terms with them and has to figure out a way to get stuff to people at a price point that makes it so stealing doesn't make sense. If you can get something at a low enough price point and everybody gets paid, then why steal?
MR: I guess getting there is the hardest part because royalty rates and all that would have to be re-negotiated for any major reworking of music delivery. But a Stratify-like model sounds like it's where we're heading.
SB: Well, they have it in Europe, and it's working, so it's not like it can't be done. I feel like, for the most part, the people that run the music businesses and publishing businesses have yet to really come to terms with what's going on, and obviously they have to. No force is going to turn back the clock to '92 which is where they want us to be, desperately. They have to figure out how to do it, and all of us, I think, have to bring pressure to try to figure out a solution that works for everybody.
Unfortunately, we're alienating the people we should be guarding. That is, a young music consumer, at this point, feels like, "Why should I pay for anything? It's all out there for free, so you'd be an idiot to pay for it." We've lost, in my opinion, four or five generations to that exact sentiment just because it was either hard to get the stuff they want or it's way too expensive. I think, frankly, records are way too expensive. Every other business in the world has brought their prices down, especially businesses that are digitize-able like books, T.V., and movies. All the other businesses that are digitized have brought their prices down in line with the lower costs of distribution, but in the record business, the prices go up. I think that's insane. I think people see that and feel that these companies are just greedy. "What do I want to give them my money for?" That's obviously a whole other conversation.
MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?
SB: Be born rich, I guess, would be my first advice (laughs). You start there, and you're probably in much better shape. Really, what it's about now is--in addition to finding your voice as a musician and a songwriter--you really have to develop your social networking skills. The bands that I see succeeding the most are the ones that have really figured out how to communicate to their fans on a one-to-one basis, and their fans feel like they're friends and confidants. They have a really close relationship with their friends through all the social networking tools that are out there. So, if it isn't you, find somebody that understands it and knows how to use it, and do it. I think it's really important, from the word "go," to connect with your fans, and utilize every form of conveyance there is. I think it's really important that that is part of the package. You can't just be a brilliant singer, brilliant musician, or a brilliant songwriter. You need to find out how to use that stuff or find somebody who knows how to use that stuff if you want to be successful in the future, I think.
1. Burn It Down
2. On Main Street
3. Yo Canto
4. Tin Can Trust
5. Jupiter of the Moon
6. Do the Murray
7. All My Bridges Burning
8. West L.A. Fadeaway
9. The Lady and the Rose
10. Mujer Ingrata
11. 27 Spanishes
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)