By Jim Sullivan
It’s an early afternoon. Susan Cattaneo is at a restaurant just outside of Boston, sipping water – straight up – musing about her life in country music. We are here to discuss her upcoming album, Haunted Heart. “There aren’t many Susans in country music,” she says, with a laugh. “And there’s definitely no Cattaneos.” Her hometown stomping ground was not the Deep South, Nashville, Texas or Bakersfield. It was suburban New Jersey. She grew up singing around the family dinner table with her parents and three siblings. “We were like the von Trapps of New Jersey,” she says. “But I never thought I could do music as a real job.”
Well, that she has done and is doing. Cattaneo has been a songwriting professor at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music for 13 years. She’s written songs covered by numerous artists in Nashville, and her tunes helped launch the careers of Jillian Cardarelli and Erica Nicole. Cattaneo, the singer-songwriter, has released three albums of mostly upbeat, catchy pop-country music, “Brave and Wild,” in 2009, “Heaven to Heartache” in 2011 and “Little Big Sky” in 2012. You’ll hear a blend of country, rock and soul with sparkles of blues and folk – music that would slide into the comfort zone for fans of Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter or Sheryl Crow.
Cattaneo knows how to craft a lyric and pen a hook, to marry lyric and melody. On her albums, she says, “I did mainstream country songs I originally wrote for others, and I found myself a mainstream country artist. The single ‘Girls Night Out’ from ‘Heaven to Heartache’ charted. Some people wanted another single like that. And I wondered, ‘Is that really me?’” The answer she came up with: Not quite. The music she’s pursuing now is going down a darker, more brooding path. Cattaneo has finished a new batch of songs, she began the recording process in March and will put out an album in the January of 2014. If she had to pick a genre, she’d call it Americana, in the broadest definition of the term: music that encompasses all the genres of the great American tradition: country, blues and folk. This is her first album where she wrote every song with herself in mind, not with the idea that another artists would sing it.
The shift in direction – the catalyst – was inspired by a shocking event. A few years ago right around Christmas time “someone fainted in my kitchen and nearly died,” Cattaneo says. “I did CPR and saved her life.’ As they were taking her away, the police told me she wasn’t going to make it. But she survived. I went to the hospital and sang Christmas songs by her bed. I was told because I was there at the time of the accident and the emergency vehicles came so quickly, there was no brain damage. She’s lost her vocal chords, she can’t work, but she’s alive.” “This experience tattooed me, marked me,” Cattaneo continues. “And I started perceiving the world in a different way. I had post-traumatic stress disorder for about six months. I had this impression that death could be around the corner. I started writing these darker songs that were more intimate and personal. I could relate to writing for someone, but this experience made me say, ‘Screw it, I want to write music that means something more to me personally, not just music geared toward the ‘market.’
“As that was going on, I had to cut the album ‘Little Big Sky,’ my third album. So, I went to Nashville, did some songs that were not part of this darker catalog. They’re fun songs. I love the energy of Bruce Springsteen, and those songs have that aspect to them; upbeat and country. But as I wrapped up the album, I thought, is this who I am as an artist? The answer was, no. Not that I don’t believe in it. I enjoy writing mainstream country, but it’s not where my heart is right now. The last song I wrote for Little Big Sky was called ‘Better Day” and it was inspired by the accident.” In that melancholic, piano-based song, Cattaneo muses, “You never know how life can change you.”
“It really changed me as a person,” Cattaneo says. “I’m not sad, but it made me re-evaluate the kind of music I wanted to make. I love writing in Nashville. If I have a hooky thing, I’ll go down and write it with somebody, but it may have nothing to do with me, so I will not make it part of my artist repertoire. The songs that are really personal I keep with me. I’m a little afraid of that, but I have to respond to where my heart is and I want to be honest as a performing artist. I think I’m coming own into my own as an artist. Now, as a songwriter, I need to find the light as well as the shadow. I’ve got the shadow covered. That medical accident was so graphic in nature, it was difficult to wade through the visual to get to the facts of that event. I saved someone’s life. Well, that should be joyous. But I was pretty traumatized by the physicality of it. “
The songs on Haunted Heart, they’re sharply detailed, quiet, slow-to-mid tempo, imbued with grace and sadness. There’s an elegy to abolitionist John Brown. In “Ingenue,” we find a dead soldier and his living girlfriend, the narrator singing, “God took him early, sorrow took her heart/They waltz together but apart.” “Done Better” highlights a relationship dashed on the rocks, the woman singing, “Your echo washes over me/A ghost among your wreckage.”
“I’m a huge fan of Willie Nelson,” says Cattaneo, “and I wrote a girl version of ‘Red-Headed Stranger’ called ‘Queen of the Dance Hall.’” That queen is one tough lady. She’ll dance and drink with the cowboys who court her, but she’s keeping her distance, too. We find she sports a facial scar from her ex and she seems to have lost a daughter, with Cattaneo singing, “She longs to forget a life of regret/And the endless blue eyes of her daughter.” “Lies Between Lovers” uses “lies” in two ways: “Lies between lovers/Tangled truths that pull us together/Words as careless as a lipstick’s red/Temper flaring like a cigarette/And the little ones between us taking cover/That’s what lies between lovers.”
How did Cattaneo end up landing in Boston’s music scene?
She graduated Pomona College in California with a degree in English literature and creative writing. In the early ’90s, she went into advertising at New York TV station WPIX. “For me, going into advertising was natural,” Cattaneo says. “I used to critique commercials as a kid. I did on-air promotion at the station. I was responsible for writing the script, doing the graphics, editing the music, and in charge of final product. I worked on tv commercials for TNT, TBS, NBC and A&E. I was nominated for an Emmy and won a New York state broadcasters award. I was leading a kind of double life. Television producer by day, and musician by night. I don’t think I slept a lot during this time!”
“I used to sing in the Blackfish Band from 10:30 to around 2 A.M. Mike Errico, a great NY performer, was in the band with me. We played the Bitter End and Kenny’s Castaways. And that’s when I started songwriting. But I couldn’t communicate musically. I was totally ear-trained.”
She and husband moved to Boston. “I got this job as a senior writer-producer at this fabulous company, SMASH Advertising,” Cattaneo says. She worked for them about a year, and then the prestigious Berklee College of Music offered her a vocal scholarship. Cattaneo decided to roll the dice. “I was terrified to make that change from cash flow-positive to student at Berklee. Walking down Prospect Avenue in Cambridge, I said, ‘God give me a sign, what should I do?’ I looked down and there’s this shiny thing in pavement, and it’s a treble clef earring. This was all the sign I needed. So I quit my job and went back to school.”
At Berklee, she found herself, earned a songwriting degree., and was asked to join the faculty after graduation. “I’m a songwriting geek,” she says. “I like the inner workings of similes and lyrics. I’ve always been a writer and a singer, but never thought to connect those two ‘til I went to Berklee. I got into lyric writing and I just blossomed and became a songwriter. I learned how to be a musician, to read music, write lead sheets, play piano and guitar – badly, but well enough to write with. Right after that, we had kids and I couldn’t tour. That’s why Nashville and the songwriting system down there was so appealing. I could go there, be a songwriter and gig every five months
What’s the writing process like?
“For me,” she says, “what happens is I get the hook first. I sing the melody of the hook, then craft the chorus, melodically and lyrically at the same time and I write the lyrics around the chorus. Or I’ll get a really cool melody and try to fit a hook around it. There are many different approaches, but for me the best songs come when melody and lyrics happen at the exact same time.”
“I feel that there is the undertone of an emotion that I am trying to capture in these new songs. That feeling of, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there, experienced that” For example, one of the songs in Haunted Heart, ‘Barn Burning’ uses those two words as a metaphor for the decay of a marriage, and how it turns the very heart of a family to ash. The visual images maybe aren’t ones people have experienced personally, but they set the scene viscerally and hopefully, you’re drawn in to relate that situation to something you’ve felt in your life. The pictures draw you into the emotional landscape. My early songwriting, a lot of it, was projections with little bits of me in it. These new songs I’ve done, I believe and sing them honestly. This new album will not be autobiographical, but there will be more of my DNA in these songs than there ever has been. The genetic makeup is more honest, more intimate.”
How does Susan know if she’s hit the mark?
“When the song feels right in my heart, my soul and my head, it’s done. All three have to have been thoroughly engaged before I’m ready to let a song go. While in the thick of the writing process, I’m all about re-examining it to make sure that it’s crafted to the best of my ability. Some songs need less revision than others, but I’m constantly refining lines for melody, rhyme, rhythm while re-harmonizing chords to make sure they support the song as a whole. I’m not afraid to change the feel, tempo or theme of a song to make sure it’s sitting in the best place possible.”
As a performer, Cattaneo is equally at home in an acoustic setting or with a full band. “I’ve been playing some of the new songs at gigs,” she says. “I have all the tracks written, but now, I’m exploring ways to produce them so they each have their own musical identity. I like rock music. I love having a full band, but I also really like gentle acoustic guitar folk music. When I started out I did not want to be the wussy folk girl with the acoustic guitar from Cambridge. My women are not ashamed to rock and not ashamed to cry.”
Cattaneo’s life is a mixture of teaching, writing and recording in Nashville, gigging around Boston, occasional touring, and raising a family in Medford, just north of Boston. “I’m a mom,” she says, “and that’s an important part of my life. Family is hugely important. I have a boy, 13, and a girl, 11. My husband works in digital marketing and is my manager.”
When she ponders her life in the country music world, Cattaneo says, “I think country music needs to swing back into traditional country, not to cheating/drinking/lying songs, but sonically. I write strong-women songs. I think I tell the female perspective very well. I’m proud of it I’m anxious to publish Haunted Heart and share these new songs with the world. Judge me on the songs. I want to throw the cards out there.