When she moved to Philadelphia to gain a master’s degree in classical music at Temple University, Iowa farm girl Susan Werner had visions of becoming the next Leontyne Price. Seeing Nanci Griffith in concert quickly altered those plans.
“I was sitting there thinking, ‘Listen to her. Here’s this square girl from Squaresville. She’s singing songs she’s written and it’s having plenty of affect on people,’ and there were about 400 people there to see her,” Werner said recently. “Earlier, it became apparent that I didn’t have the world-class talent that would allow me to have a career in classical music; I would’ve probably ended up with some chorus job at some opera house in Germany. That was the furthest I was going to get with it. It didn’t seem quite far enough.
“I thought, to use a Yiddishism, ‘Why am I draining myself over this?’ ‘This, what Nanci was doing, was a viable alternative to what I’ve been working on all these years and I bet I can do that. I can already play guitar, I’m already halfway there.’ ”
Werner took her guitar and batch of fresh, witty songs and landed club shows, eventually released three albums, including “Last of the Good Straight Girls” on Private Music in 1995, and opened national tours for Richard Thompson and Joan Armatrading. Then came another career crossroad.
“There was a murky darkness after Private Music dissolved,” Werner said. “Yanni took his hair and left for Virgin; he can do whatever he wants, but a number of us were left high and dry by that, stranded. There was a moment where ‘Oh, my god, I’ve worked so hard, what happened?’ Then you just sit, you write your songs and you hope you find a new home. Then we finally found a good place at Bottom Line.”
All is well again for Werner, whose fourth album, “Time Between Trains” (released Sept. 15 on the BMG-distributed Bottom Line Record Co.), has an infectiously amiable spirit, marked by her wry sense of humor, best evidenced on the cuts “Old Mistake,” “Sorry About Jesus” and the title track.
“One thing we were trying to do with this record,” Werner said, “a lot of the tracks were done live. We didn’t do a lot of fixing up. It’s much more like a jazz record; in fact, I played Cassandra Wilson’s ‘Bluelight Till Dawn’ record for my producer (Darrell Scott) before we did the project and said, ‘This is kind of the feeling we’re shooting for, taking a picture over four minutes and do a little airbrushing if possible, all of us will play at the same time and we’ll keep most of it.’ It was much more interactive and spontaneous.”
The album’s quiet, reflective simplicity reflects Werner’s unpretentious smarts.
“I’m just another girl with a guitar,” she said. “I think the one difference is that I claim Jacques Brel as a hero and model. Not a whole lot of people are jumping up and down over Jacques these days. In fact, nobody’s thinking about Jacques at all.
“There’s no American equivalent for him; the closest thing might be Cole Porter, who would write a beautiful love song and then in the middle of it is a knife twist or lemon juice in the eye. Jacques Brel knew how to combine sentimentality with heavy irony. He was so funny. He would make people do what French call ‘Yellow laugh,’ you laugh but you go ‘Eww.’ Laughter with content. I love the yellow laugh and I don’t think anybody’s doing that over here.”