Susan Cattaneo — Interview
With her latest album All is Quiet, Boston-based Susan Cattaneo traversed pandemic-induced isolation to overcome early lockdown writer’s block, and in the process, helped heal her own fractured spirit. Thanks to the transferable nature of music, that curative creativity is now passed along to listeners who can apply that very same healing to their own individual journeys.
All is Quiet is available April 8.
I recently sat down with Cattaneo to discuss clambakes, the elevation of songs over time, and the thing she is “kiss the ground grateful” for.
Americana Highways: I am Massachusetts born and raised. Good or bad, what is the most Boston thing about you and why?
Susan Cattaneo: Well, I was born and raised in New Jersey, but I have lived in Boston for so long that I feel like I’ve adopted it as my second hometown! The most Boston thing about me is probably the way my husband drives. He is Italian, so you can imagine how he fits right in! I’m also a huge fan of the New England lobster/clambake dinner! It’s one of my favorite all-time meals!
AH: What is your favorite room to play live at, in or around Boston, and how does a space alter the vibe of a live performance in ways that, perhaps, the audience doesn’t think about?
SC: Ooh, I love this question! Because I’m a big fan of good lyrics, I love a “listening room” when it comes to performing my songs. I hate not being able to hear the words when I go see live music. Club Passim and The Backroom at The Burren are the two best clubs in town sound-wise. For vibe, there is NO better venue than the Extended Play Sessions at The Fallout Shelter, which is outside the city in Norwood! It’s got a great sound and a great intimate club atmosphere, good lighting, comfy seating, and they treat their artists like rock stars. I think it’s so important when a club thinks of those small details that can make or break an audience member’s experience of the show.
AH: You are also a professor at Berklee School of Music in Boston. How has instructing others in the matters of music improved your own artistry/songwriting?
SC: I never liked the expression “those who can’t teach, do, those who can’t do, teach.” It is disrespectful to both doers and teachers! Being able to do both at a deep level has been a very unique and rewarding experience for me. When I am in the classroom, my students benefit from my real-life experience as a performer/songwriter. (Up until two years ago, I was playing between 30 and 60 shows a year, on average.) As a singer/songwriter, I am constantly inspired by the talent and artistry of my students. And having analyzed, provided feedback, and worked with my students on over 10,000 of their songs, I have come to a point where I no longer think about the craft aspect of the writing process. I spent so much time working on the tools they are second nature to me now. When I am writing a song, I access them by instinct to say exactly what I want to say, rather than artificially thinking, I should use this rhyme scheme here or put a metaphor there, like I did at the beginning of my career. And I practice what I preach: if I’m going to ask a student to try some tool or technique in their songwriting, I will try it for myself first to see if it works!
AH: Without picking favorites, can you tell right away when someone—a student or peer—has that “it” factor that elevates them to the next level of musicianship/songwriting?
SC: There are definitely times in the classroom and in my life outside of Berklee where I’ll hear a song or see a performance that has that magical undefinable “it” moment for me. I’ve also seen artists develop their craft over time, and so someone who maybe didn’t astound me the first time I heard them will come back with something really amazing at a later point. My favorite times are when I’ve been helping a student or a peer with a song, and they’ve revised it, and I watch the song go from good to a whole new level of wonderful. That’s been one of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced as a teacher.
AH: Your latest album All is Quiet was created during a period of extended silence for the world. Is isolation suffocating to creativity or can it be inspiring in ways that the hustle and bustle of life does not always allow for?
SC: The answer to this question is yes to both actually! I think that isolation and worry can be suffocating to creativity at the beginning. For the first three months of the quarantine, I felt I had nothing to say, and every time I’d start to write a new song, I’d give up halfway through. During those quiet months, I had a lot of time to think about things and to process what I was feeling. And the truth is that yes, I was freaked out and worried that I would never write another song again. But I think having this time of reflection allowed me to really sit with my feelings until I could process them into something outside of myself. It allowed me the necessary down time to get inspired to write again. Once I started writing again, I was “kiss the ground” grateful to have songwriting as a way to communicate my experience.
AH: The record is due April 8. At this point in your career, do you set expectations for a release like this or do you let the universe do with it as it sees fit once it is out of your hands?
SC: Such a great question! Earlier in my career, I was always focused/frustrated/worried about all the things that were out of my control as they related to a record release. Now, it’s not that I don’t care, but I guess I’m invested in different things now. When I wrote All is Quiet, it was such an uncertain time in the world, and I remember wondering if there’d ever be live music again. Even with that uncertainty, I discovered one important and vital thing about myself: I like to make stuff. And this realization lead me to the conclusion that I’m going to make stuff whether people are listening to it or not. Creating art became more about the creative process and less about external validation for my art. Now, I’m not saying I don’t love playing out, and I can’t tell you how much I missed the interaction that I, as a performer, have had with a live audience. Nothing takes the place of that feeling. However, this new perspective about my work has given me a certain freedom so I don’t get caught up in what I can’t control. All I do know is that I’m going to write the songs that feel the most authentic to me and continue to improve my skills as a musician. I’m focused and keeping my head down and just doing the job, and whatever is meant to happen will happen.
That said, I hope everyone reading this article will feel compelled to go listen to the album and maybe buy a download, it would make me really happy…
AH: What would someone learn about you in sitting down to listen to All is Quiet front to back?
SC: Hmm, what would they learn other than the obvious fact that my mental health was not so great during the pandemic? Hopefully when they listen closer, they would realize that writing and recording these songs is what helped me regain and hold on to my sanity during the pandemic. All is Quiet covers themes of sadness, isolation, worry on one hand and redemption, patience and the strength of family on the other, so listeners will experience my emotional journey from uncertainty and darkness into light and hope. If even one person were to find comfort in listening to these songs, then it would all be worth it. From a more technical standpoint, this album sonically is radically different from anything else I did before. I really felt the need to embrace the vulnerability that I was feeling so acutely in 2020. Without my even realizing it, I wrote and sang the songs in much higher keys, so I think another surprise would be people hearing my voice in a higher register. The songs are also fully acoustic, so I’ve really leaned into the folk aspects of my songwriting on this record. Finally, singing harmony has always been really important to me. All my records have harmonies, but because of the leaner instrumentation, listeners will find that the harmonies play a much bigger role in the overall orchestration and arrangement of the songs.
AH: The art of the album is something that I feel is missing from today’s music. In the age of streams and spontaneous single releases, it is not easy to find that front to back journey, but I feel like you have that here tenfold with All is Quiet. How important is it to you to give individual albums their own identity and is it something that comes about naturally through the songwriting/mindset at the time?
SC: It’s so interesting, because I’ve felt like some of my albums have had clear narrative and some haven’t. Some projects I’ve had to finish recording completely, before I was able to think about that album’s title, let alone what order the songs should be in. This record was not like that for me. First of all, after the big sound of my double album, The Hammer and The Heart, I knew I wanted this one to be fully acoustic. I also knew that I wanted to call it All is Quiet. I was also just as certain about the song listing. It HAD to start with the title track, and it HAD to finish with the song “Follow.” The first song sets up the idea that something important is ending. It could mean an end to an innocent time in the world or in my case, an end to what I wanted for myself musically, but it doesn’t end, does it? In my case, the end is the beginning. Creativity lives on, and the album ends with inspiration that can only be found if you “Follow” your intuition.
AH: You co-produced the album with Lorne Entress. When wearing multiple hats in the studio, how do you ensure that both musician Susan and producer Susan achieve their individual goals?
SC: Everything about this album was so different from my prior recording experiences, I was able to sidestep some of the normal issues that happen in the studio when you’re both the producer and the artist. In a normal situation, the recording process happens in the same studio space. In this case, because of the quarantine, Lorne and I were never in the same place! In fact, other than over Zoom and over the phone, I haven’t physically seen him since 2019! (How bizarre and strange is that?) This process had its pros and cons. Because of the remote nature of this recording, I couldn’t feed off the energy of the other players in the room, but this made the producing side easier, because I could separate out the listening work I needed to do as a producer from my work as the artist on the song.
AH: You have a full catalog/body of music. Would the Susan who first picked up a guitar be surprised by her journey in music —including nurturing younger musicians at Berklee—and if so, why?
SC: I think the Susan who first picked up a guitar would be delightfully surprised that I’ve had a whole life and career in music. I come from a musical family, but I don’t think I ever thought it was possible (or a good idea, financially) to try and pursue a full-time music career. (And in fact, the financial thing might still have been a bad decision! Ha!) Every day, I am thankful and appreciate the career I have been able to have, and the fact that my songwriting is at the core of each of the many jobs I have: solo artist, co-writer and professor at Berklee for the past twenty years?! I am so grateful that I’ve had the chance to work with young artists at a crucial time in their musical development. You hear people say they’re “living the dream,” but few actually get to do that. I’m glad I’m one of them!
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
SC: This is a funny question, because if you asked me this in 2020, I would probably have had a very different answer for you. In the past, when I was feeling discouraged about my career, I would start looking into nursing programs, because I thought that was a job I could have done instead of music. (For most of 2020, the nursing program tabs were open on my computer!) But now, it’s two years later, and I’m feeling very optimistic about the world and my place in it musically. I am proudly embracing the fact that I am not in my 20s. While I understand that certain career opportunities are no longer available to me, I refuse to be invisible, and this period of time has given me a new perspective. I’m proud of the songs on this album. I’m proud that my life and experience has led me to write this body of work and (fingers crossed that the pandemic is truly behind us), I believe that good things are to come. I heard Vince Gill say that his advice to young artists right now is not to measure their work by the results. It’s not an easy lesson to internalize when you are younger and at the beginning of your career, but 20 years into this journey, I have learned how much pleasure and fulfillment I get out of the process of creating, so it is hard for me to think of any other road to take. I can’t wait to see what the future will bring!
For more information on Susan Cattaneo, visit www.susancattaneo.com.