"Susan Duffy –Songwriter"
(Interviewed by C.K. Simmons.)
How did you get interested in music-how old were you when you wrote your first song?
I grew upin a small river town where local bands used to play at the fall festivals, like most small towns, I guess. Even before I was old enough to go to the dances, I'd sneak up to hear bands play in the parking lots. They were usually doing covers of current popular songs, but every now and then, they'd throw in some blues. The Delta Queen used to stop at our town along its way to New Orleans, and we, local folks, could go walk on the boat for awhile. There were always unique acoustic players on the boat in different areas. I can still remember that, vividly, along with the calliope which would interrupt every so often. I remember how fascinated I was by the different sounds and, especially, how different everything sounded when you were on the boat rather than on shore.
My folks put me in piano lessons when I was around eight, but my teacher was a rigid disciplinarian when it came to playing things as the composer intended, and I was NOT a good piano student. I liked to play my way-hold this note a little longer, forte here, decrescendo there. She was not amused, and most often I was relegated to the chair by the window where I would have to do notation while her more faithful students sat at the piano. My teacher would often say to me, “Johann (Bach) would not be happy.” (But, he was a Lutheran, so I seriously doubt whether he was very happy anyway.) I'm sure she dreaded Thursdays when I'd show up for my lessons.
I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was about 10, an old Silvertone, but I played too hard, and my strings never lasted long. I'd go for long stretches of time on the only strings that were left. I'd restring it the best I could and keep playing. I remember tinkering with the tuning keys, experimenting. I guess that’s when I first played with a D-tuning, of sorts, unknown to me. I knew nothing about getting and keeping the guitar in tune, so it sat in the corner on and off for quite awhile. I finally picked it up again, seriously, when I was in college after somebody told me I needed to tune the thing and start playing again. By that time, I had been writing songs for several years but still never played or sang in front of anyone, really. I had taught myself to play guitar like piano-the wrong way. I adapted some fingerings to suit myself, and just did my own thing. I only learned one cover tune, “It Don’t Come Easy,” that one of my brother’s friends had taught me. Everything else I played was stuff I had written.
Later on, during college, I would always go listen to any live music I could find. It was most often blues or rock bands in the area, but I had grown up with many styles at home. My mother was a music major, and we always had lots of different kinds of music around our house. We had quite a collection of different styles. I remember a Los Indios Tabajaras album of my dad's that had old tunes like St. Louis Blues, Marta, and a bunch of others. There was the Mills Brothers, old Dixieland Jazz, Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins, and several classical albums belonging to my mother. I guess I had a pretty broad exposure to different genres.
I had an appreciation for many types of music, but when I heard the blues, that was it. I remember hearing Etta James sing “At Last,” and I thought I finally understood what true artists really were. That music was something you could feel not just hear. It took you to another place inside. Genre wasn’t as important as the emotion that the song evoked. I loved anything that made me “feel” something: Clifton Chenier, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Aretha, Arthur Crudup, The Allman Brothers, Bob Seger, and later, Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth. I would always find at least one song that just knocked me out, and I’d play it over and over just listening. I did that with some instrumentals too. I had a 20 minute loop of “Sleepwalk” which used to annoy the neighbors in my Nashville apartment to a great degree, I’m sure. I can still listen to "Into the Mystic" for hours. Certain songs just affected me that way. "Main Street" by Bob Seger is another one. They don't belong to just one genre of music-they're just great songs.
When did you first get into bluegrass?
At one time I was a teacher in Western Kentucky. I was saving up my salary to pay for demos in a little studio in Paducah. I had a small apartment above a lady's house with a couch provided so I could save any other dollars and make regular trips to Nashville to check out the songwriting scene whenever I could. Somehow, the custodian at our school found out about the music interest, and he and his wife invited me to their church. It was a very small congregation located across the river close to Shawneetown, Illinois. He told me they had a little family band that played gospel there and invited me to bring my guitar. I had always loved the Sunday bluegrass gospel radio show that came out of Owensboro, but I never really thought about doing it myself. Anyway, I went and loved it. I sang one of my old gospel tunes. I think it was "Jesus Is Calling You Home." There was a time period when I was really writing in that direction. The musical integrity and raw talent of that genre still amazes me. I just kept shoving those songs into boxes of notebooks until many years later. They finally resurfaced about fifteen years later when the group WILD HARE took an interest in my writing. It was great to hear some of those old tunes again and hear some of my others done in that band's unique style. I told Mac about many of my inspirations for some of those songs, and he thought they would make a great album. I don't think that has been done before-using only one writer's work for an entire project. I was thrilled and very proud that they wanted to do those songs. I also did the graphics on that CD, so it was personal for me, even though I'm not really on it as a player or singer.
How about performing? Was that something you’ve always wanted to do?
I never really wanted to be a singer/performer. The writing part was always what I wanted to do. I never really craved the performance part of the whole thing like a lot of writers do. I had to learn to sing for people only because I had to “show” the song in some way. I never thought of myself as a singer, but I wanted to write songs for people who were. People who understood that words, melody, and the soul all have to work together. Only the greatest singers can do that. Many people can do one or two of those, but to do all three? Those are rare artists-in any genre.
Is it difficult to get your music heard?
When it comes to performing artists searching for new material, I've found that they respond to hearing me do the songs live much better than getting "pitched" a song by some A&R representative. I do perform at venues that are more listener-oriented now so there's always access to my material, and we can communicate directly, rather that through a third party, which is always nice. Sometimes, if I hear an artist perform live or on Mountain Stage, Austin City Limits, or somewhere and have material suitable for them, I'll just take it to them, personally. I try to hear them live and get a broad picture of them as an artist before I just submit something for them to consider. Sometimes the artist will hear me performing and request material. Because my writing style is so diverse, they're often surprised that my catalogue is so multi-faceted with regard to styles and subjects.
In the past, I performed at acoustic venues as well as clubs like Margaritaville and even some blues bars. Folks seem to really respond in the smaller, more intimate venues. When it comes to performing for those types of audiences, they are always receptive and involved. If they're interested in doing so, they can get my CDs there, at the shows, or by mail or Internet, if they wish.
Many songwriters and musicians have another “life” outside of music in which they have ordinary jobs-was music a career path you considered early on or did you think it would be an “extra” part of your life?
I always knew I would write whether I decided to be a writer or not. But, I spent my whole life hearing about the Great Depression from my parents, so I knew college was imperative, but I never wanted to study music. Maybe because I was around that so much. I don't know. I do know that some of the most interesting and moving musicians I have ever heard are also some of the least formally trained. Music, to me, is sort of like life-sometimes, happy accidents yield the most memorable results. Some of the greatest stuff in the studio is heard on that first, on-the-fly take. You can get so skilled that the feel is gone, and once that happens, what’s the point? I thought music, as a major for me, was not a great idea, although, later I wished I had a better understanding of some technical skills when working in the studio. I would certainly never discourage anyone from pursuing it as a degree major. It just wasn’t for me. To sum it up, when all was said and done, I had two Bachelor degrees and a desire to write for a living. That’s how I ended up in Nashville. I just went.
You were in Nashville for a time, working as a songwriter for a major publishing company. What was that experience like?
I had been visiting semi-regularly for several years just observing writer’s shows and meeting some people. After I moved there, I met an engineer named Lynn Peterzell (who was engineering for James Stroud at the time) at a studio during a session break. He offered lots of advice about the business-the kind you really need to know, but nobody will ever tell you. He listened to some of my work, and asked if he could give the tape to Jeff Carlton at Willin’David Music, a relatively small publishing company that belonged to David Briggs and Will Jennings. I met with Jeff, and he was encouraging. He asked Will to come out and hear me one night at a place called the Cockeyed Camel.
At the time I didn’t realize who Will Jennings was or the magnitude of his work. I found that out later. They were great folks to work for. That’s where I did my very first studio work-with Jeff and David Briggs. I think Brent Rowan was there also, among others. I also met Fred Foster, who had an office next to our studio. I remember he had me sing an old Tom Jones song called "I Know." That was one of the rangiest songs I had ever heard. I had only been in town a couple of months and knew nothing about what I was doing yet. I hadn't found my voice at that point in time. I realized, later, what that experience was really worth. Fred shared some stories about Dolly (Parton), Kris (Kristofferson), and Roy Orbison. It was quite fascinating. Although, at the time, I don't know if I realized how unique that situation was for a new writer. After that, I was hired by one of the largest publishing companies in town where I wrote for about four years. That was a completely different vibe.
But, even so, I learned a lot, did some wonderful sessions with the multi-talented David Pomeroy and with many other astoundingly talented musicians and worked with some inspiring writers. I also developed some contacts with MGM studios (and some others, as well) in L.A. who responded quite positively to my work. It was a great learning experience in many ways. But, it also confirmed in my mind the suspicion that I was not a writer, in the Nashville sense. The more I was encouraged to write commercial material, the unhappier I became. There were definitely creative differences. I wanted to be creative, and they didn’t want me to be. They even encouraged me to co-write which became a perfunctory assignment. And, although I did meet some unbelievably talented individuals, it became evident that I was basically a writer that did my own thing.
I recall one writing appointment with a very “experienced” writer who wanted to know who I had been listening to lately. I named a few including Arthur Crudup. He looked at me disapprovingly and said, “Arthur ain’t been gettin' many cuts lately.” And that was the mindset there.
It was obvious that it was time for a sabbatical leave, of sorts. I took it, and it was the right thing to do. I moved to Mississippi and began living a real life again, meeting real people with real emotions in the real world. I had also lost both my parents and grandmother, the heart of my existence, and many priorities had to be re-evaluated on a grand scale. It was about eight years before I performed again. But, it was through these events that I, eventually, began to remember what I loved about writing in the first place-how the smallest things and events are sometimes the most evocative. When those forgotten memories finally do come back, they’re in Technicolor.
How do you write a song? Lyrics then music? Or music then lyrics? How does your personal songwriting process work?
That can happen in a multitude of ways. Sometimes you just get an idea, and then you work on it. That could take place in an afternoon. Sometimes you have to let it cook for awhile, maybe years. And then, one day, it’s just there. It can also come into your soul and out on the paper as fast as you can write it. “One Tree Standing” was like that. Other times, you find a groove, musically, and you use that to inspire the lyric. Sometimes there’s nothing there with no hope in sight of anything coming. So, you just write about that. Sometimes that leads to what you’re looking for. “Edge of An Angel’s Wing” was one of those. It happens in all sorts of mysterious, humbling, and exciting ways-little adventures.
Are your songs autobiographical usually? Or do you take some of your life, some of someone else’s and your imagination? What inspires you? What are your songs most often about?
© 2006 susan duffy all rights reserved
Some are autobiographical like “Alabama Rain,” “Harlan Smiled Today," and “Brokenhearted Baby," for example. Some are biographical like “Lester.” Emotion inspires me-all emotions-the full spectrum. That’s the one thing we all have in common whether we all show it or not. It’s there. Sometimes way down deep in the dark-sometimes right there on the surface wearing a great big grin. Sometimes it’s a mixture of the human experience, some from me, some from other people. But wherever it’s from, whatever it ends up being, it should make you want to laugh, cry, dance, fight, or find a better use of your time. But you should feel something.
Do you see your own work belonging to a particular musical genre or many?
I see it as “genreless." It is what it is. I have done some of the same sets in a listening room that I may do in a blues bar. I may change it up a bit, but for the most part I just do my thing. They either get it or they don’t. Most often they do. Only among the industry hierarchy did I have a problem with this issue. They have a real need to label and compare writers, and especially, singers. I never could subscribe to that philosophy. Is red a dark color or a bright color? Well, both, and neither, but I sure like it regardless of what you call it. I’ve learned there’s only one real market-the listener. If they hear it and like it, they’ll buy it no matter what you call it. The problems start when the gatekeepers label it and then restrict the formats on which it could be played. It’s like a new vegetable. Unless you get to try it, how would you know?
Images of New Orleans and Louisiana often appear in your music. What is it about that area that makes it feel like home to you?
For a long time, I couldn’t have answered that. But, a few years ago, things began to make sense in that regard. I met someone from my past-my natural mother, who had given me up as a newborn, and I am forever grateful because I had the most wonderful (adoptive) parents. What a gift to be able to give and get. I always say the best part of me is all of them-the bad stuff I got on my own.
I had the best (adoptive) family anyone could ever want. My dad's family was a hard-working, hard-playing Irish, coal-mining bunch. There was a story for everything, and I remember most of them. Every Saturday night at my grandma and grandpa's house a good time was had by all. While most of my cousins were off somewhere else entertaining themselves, I would be listening to the stories my grandpa would tell. Later on, my father repeated many of these along with others, and I never tired of hearing them. When the WILD HARE James Hemenway CD was released, I sent my aunts and uncles copies. They were so thrilled that there was a tribute to grandpa, their father, and to my dad, also. They were, and always will be a very big part of my creative spirit.
Anyway, years later, when I learned of my biological family's genealogy, so many things began to make sense of some small mysteries in my life. I had always felt so at home in Louisiana. It always felt strangely familiar, even the first time I went there. I have some friends down there, and they said that New Orleans just had that effect on people. But this was not just a familiarity thing. I'd be out driving down to Grand Isle and Houma or by the cane fields down around New Iberia and on up to Lafayette and Breaux Bridge, and it just seemed comfortable. What a beautiful, peaceful place.
Later on, I discovered that my biological grandmother’s side of the family was Acadian-from Nova Scotia: Bourque, Melanson, Surette, Pothier, Belliveau-all the way back to Murat in France. I am still learning the historical details about the exiled ancestors in our family. But I do know that many of my distant relatives are there (in Louisiana). Everyone looks familiar. It has a settling effect on me there. What a wonderful place and inspiring heritage. There is something tragically beautiful about it all, even my small chapter of the story. What a treasure.
Do you have favorites among your songs and are those songs most often the favorites of your listeners?
Well, they are much like friends. There are different favorites for different occasions. Some are ones to share with a lot of people. Some are meant to be enjoyed alone with great soul-searching and commiseration. It all depends on the audience member’s state of mind. My favorites are not always what the audience responds to the most, but sometimes they are. That’s the beauty of song and the handicap of video. It is something different to everyone and yet the same thing.
Has your music changed over the years as far as style or the way you write?
I hope so. I hope it has grown with me not in spite of me. I think it is more representative of me as a writer by being non-categorized. You can put it wherever it fits in your opinion, but don’t expect me to do that. I have a lot of influences; blues, bluegrass, rock, some traditional folk music, classical, and even big band sounds of the forties. It’s all great, and it’s all part of the recipe.
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