Dueling Emotions And Songwriting: An Interview With Susan Cattaneo

Many folks around New England might argue that when you mention songwriting in the local community you would remiss to not at least think of Susan Cattaneo. The singer-songwriter has been a songwriting teacher at Berklee for well over a decade and co-written with the likes of Jenee Halstead, Steve Mayone and Dennis Brennan. Her accolades for writing are a mile long and the respect she garners from her peers is a testament to that. And thats just the start of her community driven efforts. 

Her project “Sisters of A Different Skin” united 26 women from all genres, ethnicity and ages in the Boston music community to record an a-cappella song and video whose proceeds are benefiting Girls Who Code. With her own solo dates, shows with her band The Boxcar Lilies and undertaking these projects and collaborations with other artists its almost unbelievable that she has had the time to record and release her most ambitious and collaborative project to date. “The Heart & The Hammer” is a community effort in many ways, taking a large majority of the artists that Susan has worked with over the past 3 or so years and showcasing them across a double album of Cattaneo’s songs. Cherry-picking some of the most talented local artists (her band, Tony Savarino, Jenee Halstead, Dennis Brennan, Mark Erelli, Jennifer Kimball to name a few) and national level acts like the Bottle Rockets, Davey Knowles and Bill Kirchen, she has essentially woven together two records, while sonically a bit polarizing and opposing in some ways, the common thread of her words and voice truly ties it all together as one flowing collection of songs.

In support of that record, which will be out later this year, Cattaneo is performing two shows as a sort of “CD preview” with Bill Kirchen. On June 14 they will be at the Iron Horse in Northampton and on June 15 they will be at Thunder road in Somerville. Kirchen will perform a solo set and sit in with Susan for some songs during her set. On June 15 Bill is also doing a telecaster master class that afternoon at Subblebine Lutherie.

We caught up with Susan to talk a bit about ‘The Heart & The Hammer“, songwriting as a craft and what community has done for her as a performer and artist. 



RLR: You know me fairly well and a big part of this whole “thing” is because of the need for community. It seems with this latest record you really tried to hammer that home and brought in a whole slew of artist friends to help bring your songs to life. Dino tells me 40 in total! Thats insane! Why was it important for you to tap the talent of your peers and pals to make this thing happen?

SC: What a great question and thank you for the “hammer” reference!  In these uncertain times where the very fabric of the music business seems to be fraying, I have felt the need to reach out and create a sense of stability both for my own well-being and for the wonderful community of musicians that I’m a part of. In the past three years, I have discovered the joy of making music with a bunch of different people in different scenarios and bands, and I thought it would be really fun to see if I could capture that feeling in an album.  If the industry is going to be so precarious, the only certainty I have is how I choose to experience the music. And I choose to love it and have a wonderful time making sound with creative people!

Last fall, I tried a “single” version of this experiment when I wrote and produced a track about womens’ rights called “Sisters of a Different Skin”.  I invited every female artist I know from different musical genres and communities to come and record it with me.  And most of them said “yes” and we had a blast! There was this wonderful sense of camaraderie.  This experience gave me the confidence that I was on to something important both creatively and musically.

RLR: Likewise, I would imagine a lot of input in studio happened as a result of such a collaborative project. Are there any stand out moments that kind of happened off the cuff in studio during a session that was unplanned but ended up adding a great deal to the whole process and final product?

SC: There were so many incredible experiences that were standouts, it’s frankly hard to choose one!!  Certainly recording duets with Bill Kirchen (When Love Goes Right) and Dennis Brennan (Dry) was amazing, because frankly, they’re both masters at interpreting a song. Their phrasing was so wonderful (and different than mine), and I was mesmerized by little changes they made to the melody that really helped them “own” the song. 

Funnily one of the unexpected moments came in the session I did with my regular live band. We used to play Ten Kids of Trouble live as a straight fast song. After a couple of passes, we decided to try it more swampy, like Little Feat would do it just for fun. And it sounded so great that we ended up keeping that arrangement.

Instrumentally, many magical moments happened in the studio especially on the four covers that are on this project.  For example, finding a unique way to sing Everybody Cryin’ Mercy wouldn’t have been possible without the musicians (Jesse Williams and Marco Giovino) creating a cool structure in which I could try different things.  We experimented with bass and drum sounds and grooves until we came up with something that I believe gives the song a unique vibe. It’s like they built a really cool house, and their handiwork made it easy and fun for me to furnish it!

Last but certainly not least, so many amazing, spontaneous and explosive wonders happened when I recorded the two songs with The Bottle Rockets.  They had never recorded anything with an outside artist before, and to prepare for the session, I listened obsessively to all their albums,  so that I could reference specific songs when I was talking about the sound that I was looking for.  Then, I just stepped out of the way and let them have fun!

I think that was my big takeaway lesson as a producer.  I learned that there are times when you need to “step forward” and tweak a certain song if it’s going in a direction that’s not working for you, but it’s equally important to know when to “step back” and allow the talented musicians you’re surrounded by have the freedom to create.

RLR: When you first set out to make this record what direction (sonically speaking) were you looking to head into? In the past you have worked in Nashville and been branded kind of a “country” act, but that has not so much evolved, as seeped into a more all encompassing, singer-songwriter/folk/rock/blues/bluegrass…Americana as they call it for the umbrella term. Were you all pedal steels and tele twang to start the record off or did you have a fairly good idea of how you wanted arrangements and songs to sound. There is quite a good deal of variety contained within the two albums. Did that evolve over the course of recording?

SC: I think that the real transition point for me as an artist actually happened with Haunted Heart. Prior to going back to performing in 2009, I spent 6 years writing for Nashville. I had a couple of cuts with independent artists, but I stopped doing it full time when I decided to go out on my own as a performing artist. In my first 3 records, I primarily worked my way through my catalog of these country songs. And because they were written with Nashville in mind, they skewed a little bit towards mainstream country songs. I am proud of that catalog, but at the same time, the songs were written with the idea that someone else would sing them. At some point, it really didn’t feel that that was really me.

Haunted Heart was the first record where every song was written for me, and it felt really true to myself, and that is where my music started incorporating more elements closer to folk and Americana, while retaining my love for classic country.

In this project I consciously decided to stay clear of the country stuff on this project. I had written one country-style song with a terrific songwriter named Jim Gaudet, and I even recorded it (with Bill Kirchen and Duke Levine on guitar!!), but it just didn’t fit with the other songs.  I think the reason why there isn’t a twang on this album is because I’ve started to move away from that style of songwriting.  I’m not saying I don’t love to sing and write country music. After all, some of my most formative sonic heroes are country artists like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.  And I certainly still write country songs with (and for) other artists! But for this album, I think that I was referencing my other musical influences in rock and americana.  Artists like Springsteen, Bowie, Bonnie Raitt for the Hammer side and artists like Joni Mitchell, Kim Richey and Gillian Welch for The Heart side inspired me. 

RLR: OK. Songwriting. Give me a quick overview of what you think makes a “good song”.

SC: I heard someone say, “ a great song helps us understand our world”. So a great song is first and foremost a song that connects with you and gives you a new insight into your feelings or into something going on around you.

More specifically, you can find great songs in any genre, but I think you have to understand what a song’s main directive is.  For example, if a song’s job is to get you up and dancing, then a strong melody with a great “hook” and one that uses repetition and cool rhythms is going to be a “good” song.  In this kind of song, the lyrics are important, but not as important as the feel and groove of the song. 

If a song’s job is to make you think and reflect on some important theme, then I believe a song is “better” if it uses visual imagery and/or language that is fresh and interesting rather than cliché type lyrics that don’t really resonate.

And of course, a good song is only as good as its singer!  I think the difference between a good song and a GREAT song can sometimes be in the singer’s delivery of the lyrics…

RLR: How you do think you have developed personally as a writer since the release of your last record “Haunted Heart”? Do you think that your work with other artists contributes back to your own writing and influences you?

SC: Haunted Heart was the first album where I wrote all the songs for myself.  There’s something incredibly freeing about that process. But the album also went to some dark places and explored some very personal areas of my life in song.  Haunted Heart is a deep album, and I’m glad I got a chance to express those themes and ideas in music.  But that’s not everything I am as an artist.  That’s only one side of my musicality. Forgive me for digressing for a moment, but I want to reference The Boss again. My husband turned me on to a really interesting HBO special on Springsteen’s making of The River.  In the documentary, Bruce talks about coming out of writing “Darkness on the Edge of Town” which was a dark album that he wrote while going through a battle with his record label, and that when he started working on “The River”, he wanted to try and capture what his band sounded like live – both the up-tempo rockers and the slower heart-wrenching ballads.  He felt it was his recovery album, a collection of songs that reflected not only the darkness but the light.

After writing and performing (and letting all my skeletons out of the closet) in Haunted Heart, I had a similar moment where I thought, now I’m free to do something that incorporates both the rocking and the acoustic songs that better reflect the feel and tone of my live shows. My goal was to create an album that reflects both sides of my musical personality and hopefully, The Hammer and The Heart does that!

RLR: The Hammer & The Heart is just…wow, super poetic and really “hits” you…get it? Yeah, that was a bad joke. But really, where does that name stem from for you? As a two record compilation it could take on many meanings be it within the words or the general sonic tone of each collection. I am curious to get your take and the moment that this title really struck you.

SC: When I was working on this album, I wanted to write a song that was the “manifesto” of how I felt.  And the song that came out was “Work Hard, Love Harder”.  Initially, that was going to be the title of the album, but when I started to think of how that would look visually, I couldn’t come up with anything that I liked. (Imagine terribly corny images of me dressed as a musical Rosie the Riveter!) I didn’t know what to do.  As in all great partnerships, I would not have taken many of the musical chances that I have in my career if it weren’t for my husband, Dino, and I owe his brilliance to the title of the album. He was the one who suggested I create a visual representation of that song title.  He said I could have a hammer which would signify the working part and a heart for the love part.  And Bam! That was it!!  He was talking visually, but when he said those two words together, the title just fell into place for me!  What I love about it is how the words work metaphorically in both ways.  Sure, a rocking song can be a hammer, but also a song that moves you to tears can be a hammer.  And a ballad can be a heart, but also a happy song that makes you smile can be a heart.  It also supports the duality of my musical tastes. I just love it!

You can pre-order the record RIGHT HERE and be sure to keep an eye out for Susan on the road this summer with her band or The Boxcar Lilies!

photo credit Justin Knight