Born c. 1965, in Manchester, Iowa; grew up on a hog farm. Education: University of Iowa, bachelor's degree in voice; Temple University, master's degree in voice. Addresses: Management--Lawrence M. Goldfarb, Golden Guru Entertainment, 765 Farnum Rd., Media, PA 19063. Website--Susan Werner Official Website: http://www.susanwerner.com.
"A concert is like going on a date," singer/songwriter Susan Werner told Daniel Gewertz of the Boston Herald. "You want to be honest about who you are. You can't just show up in a chiffon dress and expect a limousine to show up. You have to introduce yourself to an audience, take them by the hand." A concert date with the always feisty and perceptive Susan Werner is an eventful ride, with stops in folk, pop-rock, and classic jazz styles. Since making a name for herself in the crowded folk scene of the early 1990s, Werner has kept audiences guessing with new ideas and approaches.
Born around 1965 in Manchester, Iowa, Werner grew up on her family's hog farm. But she took to singing rather than farming. When she was three, she grabbed attention at a family party with her rendition of a beer commercial jingle. "That was it. My life direction was fixed," Werner told Paul McKay of the Ottawa Citizen. At five she was accompanying herself on guitar at a local Catholic church, and she picked up the saxophone a year later. Werner also took up the piano, and she got a taste of classic jazz while playing in her high school band.
Werner attended the University of Iowa, graduating with a voice degree. With her eye on big things, she moved to Philadelphia in 1987 to study opera singing at Temple University. She received her master's degree from Temple, making ends meet by playing jazz piano in nightclubs and restaurants. Later on, Werner made light of her opera experiences, telling the Ottawa Citizen that "you have to have the almighty ego to pull off opera---and hit the high notes packed inside a tin bra." But she was actually experiencing a period of deep creative frustration.
A concert by Texas singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith unleashed Werner's own creativity. "She was singing---her own songs about her home, Texas," Werner told the Boston Herald. "I realized it was as noble, as honorable as classical singing. And I thought I could do this!" She began appearing at coffeehouses around Philadelphia and New York, and in 1993 she recorded an album, Midwestern Saturday Night, on her own label. A follow-up, Live at Tin Angel, featured just Werner's singing, a guitar, and a large group of original songs. The power of Werner's classically trained voice caught the attention of reviewers like the Washington Post's Geoffrey Himes, who praised her "strong, pristine voice like Joan Baez's." Her unusual songs, like the contraceptive oriented "Rubber Glove Blues," stirred talk among folk audiences.
With several successful concerts at large venues under her belt, Werner was signed to the Private Music label, and reaped the benefits from its distribution deal with the giant BMG conglomerate. Her full-band album Last of the Good Straight Girls (1995) featured guest appearances by the wryly romantic alternative-rock songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, country chanteuse k.d. lang, and keyboardist Mitchell Froom. Werner's songs, with their tart, acute observations of relationships, garnered substantial airplay on radio stations with adult alternative formats. She also ventured beyond romance in "Some Other Town," which took on the American racial divide: "My heart is left, my head is right/My uniform suburban white/And I'll be driving home tonight/Right by some other town." Werner got additional exposure as an opening act on tours by British folk giants Joan Armatrading and Richard Thompson.
This flirtation with stardom ended when Werner's new label fell victim to music industry merger mania in 1997, leaving Last of the Good Straight Girls out of print. Werner signed with the small Velvel label and bounced back with Time Between Trains (1998), produced by country multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott. That album, like all of her others, featured mostly Werner originals. Werner explained to the Ottawa Citizen that being prolific involved leaving a lot of musical material in the trash. "You have to be willing to write out bad songs, to get them out of the way, so the next one can come," she said. "Or even six or seven bad songs in a row."
Prior to the release of 2001's New Non-Fiction, Werner moved from Philadelphia to Chicago. New Non-Fiction featured Werner on guitar and had more of a folk-rock edge than her previous recording. Her next project, she confidently told the San Diego Union-Tribune, was "an entire record of jazz standards. And they're standards that I have written." The result of that seemingly paradoxical effort was the album I Can't Be New, released in 2004. The album opened up new audiences for Werner, and some critics, according to Breanne L. Heldman of the New York Daily News, expected that her new compositions "eventually will join the great American songbook."
Werner's timing was good, as music flavored by jazz was enjoying the resurgence that had taken the young Indian-American vocalist Norah Jones to the top of the charts. "Since Sept. 11, people are more open to that calmer, quieter sound," Werner pointed out to Heldman. "People like Norah Jones make people lean in physically to hear her. We forget that music can make us do that." The challenge of singing in classic jazz and pop styles also brought out new dimensions in Werner's music, as she reined in her powerhouse voice. "It was Crit [Boston-based producer Crit Harmon] who said, 'You don't need to belt. You can do less with more effect. Let the songs do the talking,'" Werner told the Boston Herald.
And it was the songs on I Can't Be New that broke new ground. Some of them, such as the title track in which Werner placed herself in the role of a woman observing her romantic partner's wandering eye, followed in the mold of one of Werner's songwriting idols, Cole Porter. But in spite of all the classic moves, there was an unmistakably contemporary edge to Werner's compositions---one that was up front about female sexuality, for example, or that closely dissected marital relationships on the downslide. Werner didn't intend I Can't Be New as a nostalgia recording. "The purists want old songs done in a new way," she explained on her website. "These are all new songs done in an old way."
I Can't Be New brought Werner a wide range of exposure. After an appearance on National Public Radio's Morning Edition in 2004, she became the emcee of the 4,500-seat, two-night Ann Arbor Folk Festival early in 2005. With performances at Danny's Skylight Room in New York City among other places that year, Susan Werner was building a strong core audience for whatever new musical enterprise she might think of next.
by James M. Manheim
Susan Werner's Career
Performed folk and jazz music in Philadelphia coffeehouses, early 1990s; released Midwestern Saturday Night on own label, 1993; signed to Private Music label; released Last of the Good Straight Girls, 1995; Time Between Trains, 1998; New Non-Fiction, 2001; began performing on piano in addition to guitar, and recorded album of songs in classic jazz style, I Can't Be New, 2004.
- Selected discography
- Midwestern Saturday Night Susan Werner, 1993.
- Live at the Tin Angel Susan Werner, 1994.
- Last of the Good Straight Girls Private Music, 1995.
- Time Between Trains Velvel, 1998.
- New Non-Fiction Susan Werner, 2001.
- I Can't Be New Koch, 2004.
- Boston Herald, January 27, 1994, p. 47; October 16, 1998, p. S22; April 2, 2004, p. E8.
- Daily News (New York, NY), January 7, 2005, p. 64.
- Ottawa Citizen (Canada), April 15, 2002, p. B1.
- San Diego Union Tribune, March 8, 2001, Night & Day section, p. 12.
- Washington Post, March 25, 1994, p. N14.
- "Susan Werner," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 27, 2005).
- Susan Werner Official Website, http://www.susanwerner.com (March 27, 2005).