Susan Werner: It's Okay To Feel Good

by Jan Vanderhorst

February 2003

The adage is almost as old as show business itself: If you're feeling a bit of stage fright before appearing before an audience, the prevailing advice is to imagine the gathering in front of you isn't wearing any clothing. But what are you to do, if they're already naked? To help us with this conundrum, we turn to singer-songwriter Susan Werner who once faced such a throng at a music festival which was held at a nudist resort.

Okay, Susan, how does one deal with such a prospect?

"It certainly puts them in a different space", she mused, "and puts you in a different space. It takes you a while to recover from the absurdity of the thing. But my concert was at night, so I had less of a shock than some of the afternoon performers."

But how do you handle (although that might not be the right word in this situation) autograph seekers?

"You would try to look them in the eye and thank them."

Susan's latest CD, "New Non-Fiction," is a collaboration with Canadian producer Colin Linden.

"I saw Colin for the first time at the Winnipeg Folk Festival", she explains, "and I knew he was Bruce Cockburn's producer. I saw him on stage and he was having such a great time performing and I thought, 'Yeah, this is the kind of record I want to make'. I said before we went into the studio that I wanted to make this record quick and Colin said, 'Great, cause that's the kind of record I can make'.

"Colin keeps the whole studio experience light-hearted and so spontaneous and open to experiments and the happy accidents that make good records what they are."

An example of Colin's experimenting is Susan's version of "Everybody's Talkin'," which Susan had recorded onto a cassette with just her voice and guitar.

"This was late in the recording session", she explains, "and the musicians hadn't learned this tune yet. So I said 'I'll pick up the barbeque'. We're in Nashville and two things about Nashville are adequate parking and good barbeque! I came back and Colin said, 'Well, I hope you like this'. He pressed the play button and there were the guys playing along with the cassette track! Wow, it was otherworldly. It was pain-free and effort-free on my part and it had this Daniel Lanois-esque atmosphere and we decided to go with it. It's an old trick to run a lo-fi vocal track, but in this song it does something new to the tune."

While based in Chicago, Susan grew up in rural Iowa, giving her songwriting a hands-in-the-dirt honesty to go along with her urban sophistication.

"Barbed Wire Boys" illuminates the delicate boundaries some men in the rural communities must deal with; in wanting to express a wider range of emotions and experiences, but knowing there are definite consequences should they stray too far from the "tried and true".

"The song is a distillation of a lot of experiences and feelings about the family I grew up in and the people I knew", Susan explains, "the reason it strikes a chord with so many people who haven't ever met a real live farmer, is because the song is in part about the struggle to strike a
balance between a person's obligations to others and a person's desire to express their own experiences and their desire to pursue their own dreams."

'Cause their wildest dreams were all fenced in
by the weight of family, by the feeling of sin
that'll prick your skin at the slightest touch
if you reach too far, if you feel too much
so their deepest hopes were never expressed
just beating like birds' wings in the cage of their chests
all the restless longings
all the secret joys
that were never set free
in the barbed wire boys

"The song is surprisingly well received all across the country", Susan says, "because the larger message of the song is the attempt to work out that equation and the struggle to be a deeply good person who also has deeply cherished dreams."

The internal conflicts some people wrestle with are further explored, along with some good advice, in the songs "It's OK To Feel Good" and "Epilogue: May I Suggest".

Of the former, Susan says "it was inspired by a friend who I saw struggle with this himself, I've observed it in other people, and it's come up in myself. The song was a desire to say 'Hey, you deserve to enjoy your life. Don't be so reluctant to step out into the sun. Don't be so afraid to have a good time. Life's short.'"

All you have to say is yes
to a little tenderness
and your heart and soul are just wishing that you would
cause the night's still plenty young
and it's okay to need someone
baby it's okay to feel good

When it comes to writing her songs, Susan has an interesting method of working. Most days, she'll unplug the telephone to concentrate on her writing. Once she talks to someone, Susan stops writing.

"I just find that if my writing is my talking", she explains, "then I write better. Once I pick up the phone and speak to somebody else, that's it, I'm in a different brain space. I have a shorter attention span. I find it difficult to re-enter the spacey space that allows for poetry. If I
leave the phone unplugged and I don't speak to anybody, then it's more likely something good will transpire."

This sentiment of letting the good come out brings us to the final song on "New Non-Fiction" entitled 'Epilogue: May I Suggest'.

There is a world
that's been addressed to you
addressed to you intended only for your eyes
a secret world
like a treasure chest to you
of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerize
a tender lover's smile, a tiny baby's hands
the million stars that fill the turning sky at night
o i suggest
yes i suggest to you
o i suggest this is the best part of your life

For more information about Susan Werner check out her website at:

Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at: