5 QUESTIONS: Susan Werner on going long, Texas tuneage, and the art of the song

For more on Susan Werner’s music, visit susanwerner.com | PHOTOGRAPH copyright susan werner

Interview by Douglas John Imbrogno | april2.2024

NOTE: This is a reprint of an article that initially ran in my sister publication, WestVirginiaVille.com

When one of America’s most esteemed magazines of literary writing and cultural coverage likes your work, you can be sure you’ve made an impression. As a New Yorker writer put it: “Susan Werner, a clever songwriter and an engaging performer, brings literacy and wit back to popular song.” For folks who know the upper echelons of songwriting, ‘No Depression’ magazine once had even higher praise: “When it comes to crafting a song, Ms. Werner’s only peers are Jimmy Webb and Paul Simon.” See for yourself when she appears in a Woody Hawley Concert series show on the Clay Center main stage in Charleston, W.Va., in an evening that begins 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 6. Kicking the evening off will be Blue Twisted Steel, out of Lewisburg, W.Va., a band whose Facebook page self-describes itself as a “post-americana band with genre-blending arrangements and undertones of psychedelia.”

So, it should be an engaging night, indeed, given the headliner’s hard-to-pigeonhole range of moods, tones and instruments. (Susan is a killer piano player as well as an acoustic and electric guitarist). Her songs range from some of the funniest in the contemporary American songbook (don’t be offended if you, too, kiss your “Dog”); to “Our Father” from “the world’s first agnostic gospel album”; to the thousands of dollars of therapy found in “May I Suggest.”). GET TICKETS: $25 at this link. PS: The interview below was conducted via e-mail. View my in-person interview and music video with her on a musical cruise to Havana, Cuba, in 2019.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ryan Bennett


WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What compels you to do themed or concept albums, such as your new ‘Texas’-themed recording “Halfway to Houston,” not to mention ones that hover around Florida, Cuba, New Orleans and such? In this age of single-song downloads and withering CD sales, it’s as old-school as the Who’s ‘Tommy’— ranging around an album’s worth of a theme. Is it that your curiosity, Muses and songwriter chops need time and a broad feast of a subject to fully explore?
SUSAN WERNER: Forgive the sports metaphor, but some of us are sprinters, high jumpers, and one-event specialists and some of us are decathletes. I guess I’m an old school/decathlete and that I don’t mind the obscurity of the category when it comes to putting out a full album. I like the challenge, and I like that it offers the artist the opportunity to present a range of perspectives on a topic. The government of Texas, for instance, takes some extreme stances when compared to the rest of the country: guns, treatment of undocumented immigrants, reproductive rights. And I think it’s dishonest to overlook all that, especially if you find some of it abhorrent. And I do.  But I love my Texas family and friends, and they are welcoming and hilarious, and they live in some beautiful places (Wimberly, anyone?). And it’s dishonest to toss everybody in the same bowl of stereotypes. And sometimes it takes you ten songs to cover all the angles — it certainly did with the enormous state that is Texas.  Florida only got five songs, by the way. Interpret that however you like.  

PHOTO CREDIT: Ryan Bennett


WVVILLE: On your website, you have a preemptive screed about why you did “Halfway to Houston,” anticipating, perhaps, progressives’ horror at the primeval cruelty of that state’s current government. YOU WRITE: ‘And I know some of you are thinking, “You did a record about Texas? WHY? I’d like to remind you of a few things: Chili. Ruby Red Grapefruit. The Johnson Space Center. Molly Ivins. Patrick Swayze. Dell Computers (even though I’m an Apple devotee). Beyonce. Buddy Holly. Janis Joplin. Willie Nelson. Yes, OF COURSE Texas’ government is terrible. You think I’d overlook all that? Check out ‘Welcome To Texas!’ … But you’ll find plenty of love in these songs, too.’ So, my question is: What do you see the role of the artist/singer/performer to be in dire political moments? Or is that writing about the other wonderful things that stir your passions in Texas is itself an editorial response — a sort of harmonic op-ed that there is more to a place than its breaking news? You maybe accomplished the same thing with “An American in Havana”?
SUSAN WERNER: There’s an old saying: People don’t care what you think ’til they know you care.  And if you really don’t care about a place, why spend a year writing about it, right? I have family (including toddlers growing up) in Houston and Corpus, and they deserve a safe, beautiful, nurturing environment.  And I wish them all the great things about Texas, where the stars at night really are big and bright, especially out west.  


Click to view my interview and profile of Susan Werner — my first on the high seas — from a musical trip to Havana, Cuba, in February 2019. RELATED STORY HERE.


WVVILLE: Whenever I werner-evangelize, to get people to your concerts or seek out your recordings and who don’t know you from Adam or Eve, I wrestle with my descriptors. ‘She’s a great singer-songwriter … a sort of contemporary cabaret singer … She’s a short-story writer who sings her stories … She’s a ‘chanteuse’ … She’s a …’  Well, how would you finish that sentence?
SUSAN WERNER: How about something like, “She’s real good at what she does, and 99% of people who see her show absolutely LOVE it”? And we’ll let the rest of it work itself out.  

Susan Werner at the 2007 NewSong Festival, Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, W.Va. | Douglas John Imbrogno colorized photo


WVVILLE: Who were/are your god-level performers and songwriters growing up, either slightly contemporary or from before you were born? Who inspired you to want to do what they did?
SUSAN WERNER: Short list, not in any order: Joni Mitchell; Tom Lehrer; Jacques Brel; Stephen Sondheim; Tom Waits; Marlene Dietrich; Indigo Girls; Cole Porter. Plus, ‘Order’ and ‘Porter’ almost rhyme, so maybe this is a complete list.  

PHOTOGRAPH copyright susan werner


WVVILLE: Concept-album wise, what’s on your Bucket List of future themed recordings?
Honestly, I’m waiting for the next concept to arrive. But, until then, I’m finishing up the score (music and lyrics) for “Bull Durham, The Musical,” which will go up in a post-pandemic reboot at Duke University in Durham from September 11 to 22.  The score to a musical is the ultimate concept album, really, and this one’s kept me busy for years.  And, as I still have time to tweak and tighten it, I can’t help but tweak and tighten it right up ’til Opening Night.  

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