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Interview With Susan Werner

Susan Werner Talks About The Gospel Truth

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Susan Werner Live in Seattle

Susan Werner Live in Seattle

© Kim Ruehl, licensed to About.com
Chicago-based singer/songwriter Susan Werner has long been a staple among many critics’ and fans’ lists of great contemporary singer/songwriters. Her musical catalog contains as many songs of love and longing as it does protest songs and honest narrative tunes with snarky titles like "Last of the Good Straight Girls." Werner’s own musical history spans from classical to folk-pop. Her last project, I Can’t Be New (Koch, 2004), explored the Cole Porter school of American song, as Werner wrote new tunes in the style of the golden age of American music.

"The Joy Without the Jesus"

She was considering approaching her next album in a similar "songbook" style. Then, finding herself at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, Werner’s mental wheels got cranking, she says, when her "Jewish friend Kenny Feinberg asked, 'How can you get the joy without the Jesus?'"

Werner’s own Catholic upbringing, which led to an adulthood of agnostic faith-questioning, rushed into view. She set out on a mission, though not in the traditional church-based sense. She hit up church services from Alabama to Nevada, and beyond, to discover what it was about gospel music that makes people feel so good. "A lot of us want to get that feeling," she says. "[We want to] get into the club without signing up for the whole program."

Entering churches and sitting through sermons was eye-opening for Werner, as it is for anyone who, at some point, became disillusioned with some of the teachings and expectations of the church. "If I didn’t care about the church," she told me, "I wouldn’t have written this project. I’m inspired by what the church can do with and through people. This album celebrates much of what the church inspires people to do."

Still, in the tradition of agnosticism, The Gospel Truth raises important questions with which people on both sides of the gate can likely relate. During her experience traveling around to churches, she discovered how many individuals ascribe to some aspects of the church, while silently defying others. She says, "It’s very American to improvise, and we do it in our spiritual lives, as well. It’s interesting [to me] to see how people piece their lives together and [how] they fit religion in."

Not a Protest Record

Werner is careful to clarify that The Gospel Truth is not a protest record. While songs like "Probably Not," taken out of the context of the rest of the disc, may appear as if she is mocking the church, the overarching sentiment here is that symbolists and literalists alike can agree that coming together to help one another is the most important thing.

In fact, Werner spends as much time defending different facets of the church as she does exploring why it doesn’t work in some people’s lives. In one song, she blatantly calls for "women in the Catholic priesthood." "That’s a place of disjointedness that strikes a cord," she says, citing the intense reaction that line always garners during her live performances. "It’s a mismatch, another fault line" between the church and its followers.

The bottom line is that The Gospel Truth is, as she says, "Gospel for the Left." With the farthest right wing of Christianity often dominating any discussion on faith in America, Werner simply took the opportunity to comment from the other end of the spectrum. This is not an album that bashes the Bible or its firmest believers. "Those people are welcome in the country club of my heaven," she quips. "This idea of exclusive membership [in heaven] is interesting to me. It’s a point of difference with the gospel of the left."

What's Next for Susan Werner

The Gospel Truth is likely to incite an entire spectrum of response, and Werner is enjoying the discussion her little group of songs has scared up. In the meantime, she’ll be "touring constant and crazy until the middle of May." She likely won’t do another gospel album, she quotes Miles Davis, because she "already did that, man." Instead, she’s working on scoring a musical for the stage, as well as updating and seriously reworking hits from the 70s and 80s. She’d love to do a blues project on guitar at some point. There’s the possibility of a foreign language project.

"Discovery is really important to me," she says. "The Zen tradition calls it Beginner’s Mind—when the floor is pulled out from under you, there’s a great energy in what happens next."

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