Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
I first listened to Rosanne Cash with both ears when her self-produced Interiors record came out in 1990. I was not alone—a lot of people got turned on to her writing (and performing) as a result of that record—but she’s been writing great lyrics a lot longer than that; in the ’80s she had 11 number one songs.
Interiors was a bold step in that it broke away from what most business insiders would call a winning formula. That recording was a turning point for her as a writer and it introduced her to an audience who didn’t always listen to country stations. It “crossed over.” Lucky for us. It’s brave and honest writing of the sort one doesn’t hear much in a universe where most popular music seems contrived or calculated. Her new recording The Wheel continues in this direction. The best songs communicate without artifice—although the performance and musicianship are uniformly strong, they become invisible—it’s the songs themselves that speak to us.
I met Rosanne at a songwriter’s forum at the Bottom Line where four of us: Lou Reed, Luka Bloom, Rosanne and myself, performed solo acoustic versions of songs—our own and others. Needless to say, our writing is real different, hers and mine. I suppose I’m inspired, intimidated, and in awe of someone who seems to be able to tap into and communicate things in songs that sometimes seem to be missing in my own work.
David Byrne Do you think the instrument that you play affects the kind of writing you do? I’m not talking about the brand name …
Rosanne Cash … yeah, the guitar.
DB Guitar? I tried writing songs on the piano for a while, but they came out real different.
RC Same here. 94 percent of the songs I’ve written have been on guitar, 95 … 96. But the ones I’ve written on piano have been completely different. The melody structure and the chord sequences tend to be a little more melancholic too.
DB Could that be technical? Because the notes on piano chords are closer together?
RC There’s something about going into a one to two minor. Those little ascending and descending things. Yeah, I wrote one song called Paralyzed on piano, and it was brutal, emotionally.
DB Would you say that the sound of the instrument, the sound of the chords have an effect on the content of the song as well as the melody?
RC I think so. But I am not a great guitar player so sometimes I get frustrated by how limited I am. And when I get frustrated I tend to fall back into folksy sweetness which makes me even more frustrated. I want to try to break through that. But, you know, the limitations are as much a part of the style as anything else.
DB When we did that forum at the Bottom Line I felt that you and Lou and I were somewhat limited in our guitar playing. And then Luka Bloom starts playing and I looked over at him, my jaw dropped, I felt like: “I’m never going to catch up!”
RC (laughter) I know! I felt the same way! Every time he played it was so discouraging.
DB It just sounded so huge and beautiful and I thought, I’ve been working so hard to learn some new chords and improve my playing a little bit in hopes that it would open up my writing some. So to compensate, I said to myself, maybe when people are writing, limitations can be an asset.
RC There comes a point where it becomes moot. My boyfriend is a brilliant musician. Listening to him play the other night, I said, “I really wish I could play like you.” And he said, “Well, you could. You just have to commit that you want to do that” I said, “I don’t think so. It’s too late.” Even if I committed, it’s like a lifetime thing. He learned that when he had all the free time in the world, and I don’t have that anymore.
DB So he would practice five hours a day, and play in …
RC … And play in 20 bands and spend his whole entire youth playing guitar. I don’t have that to do anymore. Steuart Smith who has played guitar for me a lot and is a fucking brilliant musician, would drink a pot of coffee every day, and play eight hours, every day. I just can’t drink that much coffee, I’m never going to be that good!
DB Have you written a lot in New York?
RC Yeah, a lot. Even before I moved here.
DB People ask me if my writing reflects New York, or they assume that it does. I am really suspicious of that. I think that wherever you are, you’re going to write the same thing. You carry it inside you. Although the musicians who interpret it might be different …
RC I’m not sure about that. I know a writer who takes excursions to inspire himself to write. He’ll go to Paris and park in a hotel room for a month so he can soak up Paris and write. It definitely affects me, where I am. I’ve written in hotel rooms on the road. I think it’s both, you carry it around with you, and you can be stimulated by your environment. Just the idea of going to Paris made me write Sleeping in Paris.
DB (laughter) I thought that was from being on the road.
DB Yeah. That’s the way I took it. Are you teaching a songwriting seminar?
DB I don’t know how to make this a question.
RC What? How do you teach something that can’t be taught?
DB Yeah, how do you teach something that can’t be taught? Do you feel you’ve learned from friends and family or from song books or lessons?
RC I had the benefit, when I was starting out as a writer, of being in a group of writers. It was very intense, we’d trade songs all the time, and examine other people’s songs, and talk about what worked and what didn’t. That was the most beneficial thing: You put 16 writers in a group and start examining each others’ songs, what’s powerful, what’s focused. That in itself is an amazing experience, intimate and really deep. The first thing that I say in my workshop is that I can’t teach them how to write. I can give them some of the tools that I’ve learned to connect with my own inner voice and to disengage the internal critic so that something can come through. (A banging of doors, footsteps … John Leventhal enters.)
John Leventhal Hi!
RC What’s up?
JL My shrink bugged out. (laughter)
RC Isn’t it supposed to be the reverse?
JL I know. Well, actually, she was just arriving. We had a brief argument. She won, obviously, I’m back here. (laughter)
RC Anyway, what happens to people in the workshop is that they cultivate this deep listening to each other and to themselves. And that is the most powerful thing of all.
DB So they learn pretty quickly not to expect little tricks.
RC Right. There are no tricks. I taught this all—women’s group, and gave them a simple A\B A\B rhyme scheme and said they had to write two verses. The subject was sleep, but they couldn’t use the word “sleep” in the verses. I was blown away by what they came up with. It was so descriptive and moving, and deep, and dark, and, oh man, it was wild. So what happens is that I end up learning more than anyone else. That’s why I do it. Have you ever done anything like that?
DB Not formally like that. But with friends. I have a few friends who are songwriters.
RC And you guys sit around and trade?
DB This guy, Terry Allen. He lives in Santa Fe. I play him stuff when I’m working on it and we visit once in a while. Play stuff in progress.
RC I do that with my friend, John Stewart. We talk on the phone all the time and stage ideas. It’s so good.
DB Sometimes nothing ever comes of it, but it allows me to open up or expose what I’m doing in some way. It’s not part of the recording process, I’m not playing it to an engineer or producer.
RC Exposing it gives it respect automatically. If it’s just an internal thing, you tend to doubt it.
DB Do you think about who the audience is?
RC I try not to. I find that very … it undermines what I do.
DB But in a closer sense, are there friends or family whose acceptance means a lot to you?
RC Yeah, yeah. John Stewart being one of them since I respect him as a writer. And John Leventhal. I think about how they would react sometimes.
DB Do you think you do unconsciously … ?
RC I find myself singing to a sort of faceless person, it’s probably an amalgamation of people I respect. I had a dream once about confronting art, personified, as a human being, and him telling me that he didn’t respect dilettantes. This dream was about eight years ago and it changed my life. I knew that I had to strengthen my concentration and really focus on what I was doing and commit to this work in a really deep way or else give it up. There’s no in-between. That presence is still with me. I want to please him. It’s off the wall, but it was really powerful.
DB Do you ever think about what the function of songs, in this case popular songs, is to people’s lives? I don’t mean just yours.
RC I actually think about that a lot.
DB An awfully broad question.
RC Well, I think of it in even broader terms. I think about what art is meant to do in people’s lives. Partly it’s to express feelings that people have trouble getting in touch with or concepts they can’t quite put together in their mind.
DB Do you think that it’s a replacement or substitute for mythology or religion, which isn’t as strong for some people as it was in the past?
RC There seems to be a lot more intensity and passion infused in art and music. Because there’s very few places for ritual or for the sacred to be manifested. Or for something outside of yourself that speaks about transformation, human progress, those things. The church doesn’t really fulfill that role anymore. So you’re probably right. Art and music take a huge part of that. It’s a tremendous healing force. More healing than religion.
DB Does that seem like an impossible burden to put on popular songs?
RC Yes. It is an impossible burden. But don’t you think that’s why people become obsessed with the people that make the music?
DB Absolutely. It’s a balancing act. Because if it’s popular, it’s just a commodity that goes into the record stores and marketplace. And it gets marketed and prostituted in every kind of way. And yet, this commodity really has deep meaning for people. In our economic system, culture and soul is bought and sold. And we often see something that means a lot in our lives, changed, bent out of shape, and prostituted as it is marketed, advertised and promoted, and that can really hurt us.
RC There’s a piece from The New Yorker that I carried around in my purse for many years. It talked about what was happening with art now. In ancient Greece, someone would bring their piece into the marketplace, and people would come and see it and be inspired by it, and they’d go home and their lives would be changed. And now, people first look to the marketplace to see what’s out there, copy it, and take it back to the marketplace. So that all people see is their own reflections over and over and over again while this great unexamined world just drifts by. And sometimes it seems the shallower the reflection, the greater the obsession. Like with these mega-pop stars. There’s not much substance or dimension there, but there’s a tremendous obsession with them.
DB I guess that when there’s shallowness, there’s more room to project your own …
RC … Right, to fit your self into the picture.
DB Yeah, to fit yourself into the picture because all of the pieces of the puzzle aren’t there …
RC It’s not complex.
DB Yeah. And there’s usually more ritual present. Whether it’s the rave scene, or a Metal concert or whatever, there’s more mass ritual that can be real cathartic. What I don’t understand is that those situations seem real cathartic but they also seem borderline fascism. The concerts seem like fascist rallies, but obviously it’s a real release for people as well.
RC But many times it’s not channeled in a very positive way. It’s like all of this energy is provided but not in a very constructive way. I mean managing group energy is …
DB Really tricky.
RC Yeah. Very tricky.
DB Do you get inspiration from other art forms?
RC I go to the opera, I go to museums. All art forms. I did love the opera, but it was a challenge.
DB I’ve never gone to a traditional opera. I’ve gone to some of the contemporary ones.
RC You should go. We went to see La Boheme.
DB I want to see one of the ones with lots of catchy tunes and lots of scenery.
RC Just going to the Met in itself is remarkable. I get inspiration from all of it. Do you paint or anything like that?
DB I take pictures, photos. I have for a long time and I’m just trying to figure out what to do with them. What about you?
RC I paint.
DB When you paint, is it a way of doing things you can’t in a song?
RC There are things that don’t have language attached to them. It’s really satisfying to free myself of language and just work in color or shape. I found once I started painting, my writing got deeper, better. Just accessing the same energy at a different place can open a lot of new doors. It’s extraordinary. But, I also find it equally as frustrating.
DB Do you think of your painting as private? Or, living here in New York surrounded by galleries, do you think, well, should I show these?
RC That becomes a career. I have shown. I was in a group show, and a small other show, but not in the city. I let them out in little bits. Maybe I would if I gave up writing for a year and was just painting, painting, painting. The first time I showed my work, I was so vulnerable. Much more vulnerable than writing. I couldn’t believe how scary it was. Have you shown your photos?
DB Sort of in the same way. In dribs and drabs. Group shows and things like that. There’s just an awful lot of stuff piling up. As you said, I feel really vulnerable about it. I do it without thinking about what it’s for, where it’s going to end up.
RC That’s really freedom though. That’s great. I’m also writing prose. I really love that.
DB With a typewriter or computer, or tape recorder?
RC Well, I write it long-hand …
DB None of the above.
RC And then transfer it to my computer. I’m not quite fast enough to write it out on the computer. But it’s a book. I’m writing these short pieces, and I’ve got a publisher.
DB Is it wholly made-up?
RC No, but I pretend it is.
DB Writing is, in a way, like divination or an oracle, at least when it’s really successful, you feel like you’ve foretold the future.
RC Yes! I feel that all the time! That’s one of the most remarkable things about writing. That it is many times, my subconscious leaving messages for me about the future, and after some time I go, “Oh, man, this is what it’s about!” Sometimes it’s just a few weeks lapse, sometimes it’s a few years. Sometimes I feel like I’m just taking dictation. Some of it you really work and bring all of your skill to it and all of your stuff; and sometimes it’s just dictation. I’m not saying that to sound lofty, it’s not like I have anything special. Every other writer I know …
DB (laughter) I’m just thinking of songs being written in shorthand.
RC Yeah, well some of them are that too. People in the workshops think it’s such a great deal to say, “Oh, I wrote it in five minutes, it just came through me.” I say, “Yeah, but if you don’t bring any skill to it, then, so what? It came in five minutes, but it’s still garbage.” But this thing about divination, and alchemizing your own life with your writing. I love that idea.
David Byrne is a musician and filmmaker who lives and works in New York.
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