STORY WRITTEN BY DAVID W. WANNOP
For 21st Century Media
Susan Cattaneo is a performing songwriter with a twist; she is among the few professors of songwriting in the U.S., plying her trade at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She assisted many artists in Nashville by supplying material, she assists students with their music, and she once saved a life of a friend, who fainted in her kitchen and received a serious head wound. Cattaneo grew up in New Jersey but often stayed at a ranch in Arizona during the summers. Her connection between three very different regions may be in part as to why her music lacks a particular regional sway. Although she has several previous recordings, the current release “Haunted Heart” is the first in which all the songs were not just written by her, but solely intended for her without a plan to get the tune recorded by someone else.
We recently communicated via e-mail.
She wrote at length about teaching at Berklee conveying, “I believe that you can’t teach talent, but you can teach skills to develop and nurture that talent. My classes are designed to explore techniques and tools that will help a song have what we call ‘prosody’ which is when the music, melody, and lyric structure support the emotional content of the song. We analyze songs in class to find out what makes them tick. And also have the students incorporate these tools into their own works. Grading is based on attendance, completion of the projects and class participation. I am amazed on a weekly basis by the level of talent at Berklee. My students are crazy good whether it’s in songwriting, performing or producing or all three. It’s a pretty amazing experience witnessing and advising someone as they blossom into their musicianship. I’m very lucky to have the best day job in the business.”
Cattaneo uses the very skills she teaches to find more ways to write so as to avoid writer’s block and other creative difficulties.
Cattaneo describes her musical development by explaining, “When I went to Berklee, I was a totally ear-trained musician who had learned about songwriting from listening to my favorite artists (Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Karla Bonoff, Kim Richey, Guy Clark just to name a few) At Berklee, I met and worked with amazing teachers like Pat Pattison and Henry Gaffney, and they helped me refine my songwriting voice and discover new techniques in my writing. At home musically, I was raised in a world of musical theater and old standards, and I think I learned by listening to greats (like Cole Porter and Rogers and Hammerstein) to how these songs were constructed lyrically and musically. Then, when I was in Arizona, I was introduced to more traditional country music (people like Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson), and that informed me in a more simple musical style,” she offers.
Many artists have odd jobs before making it in music but Cattaneo is a real leader in this department. She said, “I was a counselor on a working ranch in Arizona, but my responsibilities were mainly related to horsemanship tasks. I was involved in rodeos and had one year where I was the rodeo clown. When the bulls would throw off their riders, I was there to distract them from hurting the cowboys with wild gestures and loud noises. My ‘horse’ was a miniature Shetland pony who only had one speed: slow. Needless to say, there were times when I was running faster than my lightning steed away from the bull and its sharp horns!”
It can also be dangerous figuring out which originals and covers to offer to the audience. Cattaneo affirms, “This is a very slippery question, because the songs that I think no one will be interested in (maybe because it’s too personal or too much my story) seem to be the ones that people respond to. And the songs that I feel are ‘radio ready’ sometimes don’t get any attention at all. I don’t know that I know a clear answer to this. I do find it interesting that the more vulnerable I am in my songwriting, the more people can sense that and are drawn to that. And I guess I feel the same way about the songs I cover. If the song has imagery or a story or feeling that really resonates with me, then I will want to cover it.”
Cattaneo clarifies how the new songs were written and selected. “Actually, all of my records are self-penned, in that I wrote all the songs. The difference is that in my first three records I was working through the catalogue of songs I had written for other people. So those songs, even though they all came from a personal inspiration, had an eye to a certain market or a certain artist. This is the first record where every song was written for me, so every song is REALLY personal and it says exactly what I want to say how I want to say it.”
Also, this time, Cattaneo wanted to make an album that was distinctively Boston with its connections. She said, “Records two and three were done in Nashville. Because of how personal this record is, I really wanted to work with local musicians. Lorne Entress has been my producer from the start, and by now he is really a trusted creative partner, so after we discussed my vision for the album, he assembled a band with some of the best roots/rock players from the Boston area. To give you an idea, they have recorded or can be seen live with people like Buddy Miller, Peter Wolf, the J. Geils Band, Ray Lamontagne, Lucinda (Williams), Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash. The bulk of the tracks were cut live in the studio with the core band. Kevin Barry (acoustic guitar) and Richard Gates (bass) all played on my first album Brave and Wild, and they’re so wonderful and ridiculously talented that it was a no brainer to have them on this album. Lyle Brewer (electric guitar) is someone whom I hadn’t worked with before but I loved how he played. We rounded out the band with two “out of towners” who also have deep Boston connections: Kenny White (keyboard, piano) and Marco Giovino (drums, percussion). I’m also lucky to know and call friends, the great players Duke Levine, Stu Kimball and Jimmy Ryan, so they added color and overdubs on a number of tracks.
Even still, the echoes of having to save a friend’s life by calling 911 and doing CPR cast a shadow on Cattaneo. She admits, “After this incident, it felt like death could be around any corner. And writing about that fear helped me heal and helped me come to terms with this event in my life. The title track, Haunted Heart is in fact about this feeling of being darkened by this experience. Initially, I couldn’t write at all. I was just going around afraid of my own shadow. But as time went on, I found the courage to not only write about my feelings about this accident, but also tackle some other subjects in my own life that I’d never written about.”
IF YOU GO
What: Susan Cattaneo, Sarah Herman and Giulia Millanta
When: Performace is at 8 p.m. Nov. 20.
Where: Melodies Cafe, 2 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore.
Admission: Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 day of show.
Info.: Check www.melodiescafe.com or call (610) 645-5269