By David DeRocco
When it comes to describing music, there’s a funny thing about applying labels; they’re so very easy to defy. Take Rosanne Cash, for example, an artist many people would be quick to label a country artist. That would be a truly narrow definition of the broad musical style exhibited by Johnny’s eldest daughter over a career that has produced an extraordinary catalogue of powerful and diverse songs.
There’s no doubt Rosanne the singer/songwriter has had an impact in country music circles, where she racked up a good portion of her 21 Top 40 hits – including 11 that reached number one. However, over the course of 15 albums Cash has managed to mine much deeper threads of gold every time she’s stepped outside the often fluid boundaries of contemporary country music. In fact, Cash’s last big project was the critically acclaimed album, The River and the Thread, a brilliant slice of Americana polished by collaborator (and husband) John Leventhal that took listeners on an emotional examination of the historic landscape of the American south.
What truly defines Cash beyond the labels is her versatility as both a songwriter and a vocalist. In the early years of her career Cash could release a song like “Seven Year Ache” and find herself racing up both the pop and country charts. As she settled into the more exploratory periods of her artistry the 62-year-old Tennessee-born singer could deliver folk, gospel and blues with equally impressive results. Given the full scope of her creativity, it’s no wonder Cash was awarded the 2014 Smithsonian Ingenuity Award in the Performing Arts.
In the midst of a swing through Ontario that brings her to FirstOntario PAC February 28th, Cash took the time to chat with GoBeWeekly about her
GOBE: You’re touring Ontario in the midst of a Canadian winter. Every consider firing your tour manager?
ROSANNE: (Laughing) No, but I’ve thought about firing my agent. I’ve actually done this before, toured Ontario in the winter. It was a lot colder than it is right now. We’ve been lucky.
GOBE: It’s been over three years since you last released an album. What’s the drive that’s got you back on the road? Is it restlessness or just in your DNA as a performer?
ROSANNE: Well I do love an audience and I love connecting with an audience. I can’t say I love the travel grind very much anymore. It’s always a joy and interesting and I’m curious about audiences and who you’re going to connect with and how they’re going to receive things. And I love doing these songs live. I’m trying out a few new songs because we’re in the middle of making a new album that will be out at the end of October. I’ve been writing the lyrics to a musical with John Levanthal writing the music. We’re doing a song or two from that. It’s not just the old things we’re doing. (laughs). Well, let’s not say old.
GOBE: What would be the better scenario for you; playing to an audience of fans who knew all the music, or playing to a crowd that’s never seen you live that you have to win over.
ROSANNE: How about a mix of both, so the people who know everything and are the deep fans can encourage the newbies along.
GOBE: When you were a newbie making that conscious choice to pursue a career in music you must have had some plan or blueprint on how you wanted it all to unfold. Looking back on your 40 year career how does it compare?
ROSANNE: You know what, I was never good at that. I never did five year plans or blueprints. I just wasn’t that calculating and I mean that in a good way, or forward thinking. I just wanted to be a better songwriter, to sing better. I wanted to make great records. I wanted to be a better performer. And I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and pretty soon I did get better. I’m tenacious, and almost 40 years went by and now I’m thinking about a blueprint. It’s a little late!
GOBE: Speaking of songwriting, how much of a personal validation was it when you were inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2015?
ROSANNE: That was the ultimate. That was something when I was 18 years old I would dream about. If I had had a blueprint at all it would have been ‘how do I get from here to the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.’ That was one of those nights where I really took everything in. It was the ultimate.
GOBE: Do you remember where your mind or heart went when you received the award? What is your most profound memory of that evening?
ROSANNE: We were taking pictures and I was standing with the other honourees and holding the award, just taking pictures and everything. And somebody, I can’t remember who, just kind of said to me casually, ‘you and your dad are the only father-daughter in the Hall of Fame.’ And it just hit me. It was just such a beautiful moment. It was a powerful connection that I wish my dad could have know about.
GOBE: As a songwriter, do you find you write better when in a state of emotional upheaval, or do you write best when you’re in a content and emotionally stable state of mind?
ROSANNE: Well it’s an interesting question. If I’m depressed I can’t write, so that puts a line through that myth. I think my optimum place as a songwriter is being really focused but able to access a lot of memories and feelings, a kind of more expansive sense of my life more than the day to day. If I can access those things then I’m in a good writing place.
GOBE: You’ve been in a good writing place as an author too, including your 2010 best seller Composed: A Memoir. Given your experience with both book publishers and record labels, which would you suggest is the one to watch out for when signing a contract
ROSANNE: (laughing) Oh my god, record companies by far. With book publishers, it can be a little chaotic but they’re just more civilized.
GOBE: You’ve had great success as an artist when stepping outside the fluid boundaries of contemporary country music. What’s your wheelhouse these days? What style of music do you find most inspiring when writing these days?
ROSANNE: I’m reaching for Leonard Cohen. I don’t think I’ll ever get there but that’s what I’m reaching for. I loved his last record. As for my wheelhouse right now, I’m exploring lyrics for the musical I mentioned, and writing this new record. A lot of my new records have a feminist bent in the lyrics. That’s in the Zeitgeist certainly right now, that resonates deep in my heart as the mother of four daughters. That tends to be some of the subject matter right now.
GOBE: Is it difficult to put that subject matter into a song lyric?
ROSANNE: No, it feels empowering. It feels rich and sensitive and it feels truthful.
GOBE: With your last album The River and The Thread, you scored three Grammy Awards. How gratifying was that recognition given you’re four decades into your career?
ROSANNE: It was more humbling than if I had gotten it earlier in my career. It was very moving to me because most of all it felt like an acknowledgement. That I had been tenacious in my work, that I had just kept showing up for work. It was a really good record and I’m really proud of me and John for what we did there. I felt it in a bigger way, as if people were acknowledging that I hadn’t given up, I hadn’t been sidetracked.
GOBE: I started my career in country radio and of all your songs, I think I like “A Feather’s Not A Bird” more than any other song you’re recorded.
ROSANNE: Wow, thanks for that. Thanks for sticking by me.
GOBE: Final question. For fans who may not have seen you in a while, or have never seen you live, what can they expect at your show in ST. Catharines?
ROSANNE: It’s me and John. We’re doing this duo show and we do it a lot. We love it. We’re creative with each other, there’s a lot of give and take. That doesn’t mean it’s wimpy, you know? We’re doing a lot of songs from Rivers and Threads, some older songs, a few new things. And we still love doing it. I’m not burnt out in the slightest. I think people can expect that we’ll show up and bring our full selves for them.