‘New familiar song’
Singer/songwriter Susan Werner brings classic style to Laxson
Singer/songwriter (and guitarist/piano player) Susan Werner has gone from singing and playing “a piece-of-shit piano” for about four years in the corner of the smoky Pen and Pencil Club in Philadelphia (which she loved) to recording a segment for Marian McPartland’s well-known NPR show Piano Jazz, due to air the first week of December. And she is receiving much praise these days for her work.
Speaking on the phone from her Chicago home, Werner explained in a slightly gravelly voice how her current (and seventh) CD, I Can’t Be New, is “written in the style of The Great American Songbook,” inspired by the styles of such songwriting greats from the 1930s and ‘40s as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Billy Strayhorn. No less than The New Yorker applauded Werner for “bring[ing] literacy and wit back to popular song.”
“As a songwriter,” said Werner, explaining how she sees her craft, “you’re a kind of journalist, or a playwright. … [The songs on I Can’t Be New] are meant to sound like Cole Porter could’ve written them, or George Gershwin. The image I had was ‘the couple in the corner booth,’ what one or the other was thinking, or wishing they could say. They’re little one-acts, really.”
"'No One Needs To Know’ is modeled very closely on Cole Porter’s ‘Easy to Love.’ There’s a little heartbreak tucked into it three-quarters of the way through, a signature Cole Porter move. ‘If you’re still in love with someone that you loved years ago,’ Werner sang-talked the lyrics, “'well, no one, no one needs to know'.
“I love that ‘wishing they could say’ as a song concept,” Werner reflected. “I could write like that for the rest of my life. When I see an individual looking in a shop window, looking at toy trains, I wonder: Did he used to have one? Did his father have one? Is he retreating from now? Did his daughter just tell him that her marriage is ending? That is interesting: imagining what someone is thinking. You know, Einstein, I think it was, said that imagination is more important than knowledge. I really like that.
“Your own story is only gonna get you so far,” Werner acknowledged with a practical realism, “and as you get older, it gets kind of shorter as you get your life together. OK, I made coffee again. Well, so what? I made coffee again.”
Werner is opening for her friend Keb’ Mo', the popular, multiple-Grammy-winning, blues-pop singer-songwriter/guitarist, at Laxson on Oct. 25, and she talked about how the two of them met several years ago.
“We were introduced by mutual friends at a party in Los Angeles, and we played our guitars together. Since then, we’ve done a couple of festivals together. We’ve become pals.”
“Kevin [Keb’ Mo’s real name is Kevin Moore] and I wanted to do some things together for a while,” Werner continued. “I was looking at my calendar recently and noticed I had an open week, so I called Kevin and said, ‘What are you doing this week?’ and he said, ‘I’m working. Why don’t you come out?'” Which explains how Werner is opening for Keb’ Mo’ for the California leg of his current tour.
“Kevin takes the blues tradition and does something contemporary with it but true to the tradition,” Werner summed up. “It’s the same for me: The music is old, but the lyrics are new. We both do that ‘new familiar song.'”