There’s a moment in nearly every artist’s career when they become less enamored with “the deal” and getting caught up in the record-company machine.
Susan Werner reached her Epiphany while piecing together her fifth album, “New Non-Fiction,” released Feb. 5. Once she realized she didn’t need a deal to validate her artistry, she took the D.I.Y. route. She went one step further and created a label in her own name: Susan Werner Records.
“We had some deal offers in, but my manager and I felt we could locate my audience without the assistance of a label,” Werner said recently, “and this has proved true, because previous publicity campaigns have created awareness of what I do. We felt we could do better financially if we kept the record ourselves. We did the math, and we figured it out – if we were patient, the profits would come to us instead of someone else.
“As an artist, you grow up and begin to use the machinery of the business to bring people to what you are doing artistically because you know it’s good. You don’t need the industry’s kiss on the forehead. And you may even come out ahead on the profit-and-loss statement, too. I’m really glad we chose to do this record this way. I had some fears about it, but now I know I’m on my own path, that’s the bolder step, and that creates its own energy.”
That energy is quite apparent on “New Non-Fiction,” an album ripe with Werner’s typically strong, witty writing style and a newfound freedom to experiment. Dabbling in folk, pop and jazz, Werner exudes a spontaneity that was made possible, she says, by the absence of “adult supervision,” namely record executives.
Werner says “New Non-Fiction,” produced by longtime Bruce Cockburn collaborator Colin Linden, is admittedly more upbeat than her last two albums, “Time Between Trains” (1998) and “Last of the Good Straight Girls” (1995). But she can’t pinpoint exactly what inspired them.
“As the great Greek philosopher Oprah said, insanity is doing the same thing over again and hoping for different results – or was that Sophocles?” Werner said. “It’s pretty clear I started doing some different things, or thinking about the same things differently.”
Of specific songs, Werner says:
“Stationary” – “One day last spring, the hook started happening. I sat down and wrote it pretty quickly, and I was happy because this one had some beat and some jangle rock to it. I’m not famous for this kind of song, and I think it adds a lot to the record.”
“Shade of Grey” – “I did some shows with my friend Ellis Paul, who’s a tremendous songwriter. I remember thinking how complex his forms were, how his songs could be real harmonic adventures, traveling all over the place in three minutes. This song is completely music-driven, and for me usually the words come first so this was again a different kind of song for me to write. It’s the audience favorite so far.”
“Blue Guitar” – “Think Picasso’s blue period. See earlier Oprah wisdom. Discuss.”
“Little Yellow House” – “I had never written a bluegrass song. Now I have.”
“Misery and Happiness” – “I was at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest in Lyons, Colo., talking a walk around the track at the high school there in town. I began toying with the idea of Misery and Happiness both coming on to a woman in a bar, and the words came flying in. This was so fun to write.”
“Barbed Wire Boys” – “I grew up on a working farm in Iowa, and as farming disappears from the landscape, so do the farmers. I felt a lot while writing this song, and although it’s not about me, it feels very personal somehow.”
“May I Suggest” – “Dylan said ‘When in doubt, write a hymn.’ Put this one in the hymnal. I wrote it last spring, but since 9/11 this song has taken on added importance.”
Werner also boldly takes on “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Fred Neil classic made famous by Harry Nilsson for the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy.”
“I heard it on the radio, on a – gasp! – oldies station,” Werner said. “Of course, I’d heard the song so many times before, but the lyrics really gripped me and I began to think about turning the song on its side somehow. The Harry Nilsson version kind of zips along, and leaves room for a different interpretation. Here you have the results. Although I had worked out this version before Fred Neil died (last year), I have had two of his close friends since come up to me at shows and say Fred would have loved to hear this song done this way. That means a lot to me.”
So far, Werner’s indie approach is paying off. “New Non-Fiction” has been selected for Borders listening stations from Feb. 15 to April 15.
“I’ve had good fortune in the past with critics, and this record’s even stronger than my previous ones,” Werner said, “so I feel optimistic about its reception in the press. But ‘New Non-Fiction’ already did what I personally hoped it would do: capture my live energy on a recording, show the whole musical range of my songwriting and represent the best of what I can do in this arena of the touring songwriter.
“And that leaves me free to explore other directions musically. The next project is well under way; I don’t wanna tip my hand, but you can expect something quite different, quite, from the next CD.”
SUSAN WERNER ON THE WEB: www.susanwerner.com.
BWF (before we forget): The Susan Werner album discography – “Midwestern Saturday Night” (1991); “Live at the Tin Angel” (1993); “Last of the Good Straight Girls” (Private Music, 1995); “Time Between Trains” (Bottom Line, 1998); “New Non-Fiction” (Susan Werner, 2002).