Interview by Elyse Wild
Singer-Songwriter Rosanne Cash plays at St. Cecilia Music Center on February 19 for her She Remembers Everything tour. Her most recent album of the same name, is a poetic, lush and soulful collection of songs of personal songwriting and reflection. She Remembers Everything was produced by collaborator and husband John Leventhal and Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Mavis Staples, Neko Case). One of the country’s pre-eminent singer/ songwriters, Rosanne Cash has released 15 albums of extraordinary songs that have earned 4 Grammy Awards and 11 nominations, as well as 21 top 40 hits, including 11 No. 1 singles.
We spoke with Cash about maintaining integrity as an artist, the vulnerability of the stage, and a special moment with George Harrison.
Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: What motivated you to pursue a career in music?
Rosanne Cash: I knew I wanted to pursue a career in songwriting when I was a teenager, but I didn’t want to pursue a career in performing until my early 20s. Those two things were separate in my mind. I thought I could make a life as a songwriter and that’s what I’ve really wanted to do. So performing and recording kind of came after that.
WLM: What changed? That seems like a big shift — songwriting is behind the scenes, and performing is right out front.
RC: I just didn’t feel I needed that much attention, nor did I want it. Part of the change in me was that I decided I wanted to sing my own songs. I thought I would be a good interpreter of my own songs. That was a steep learning curve for me. It took me a while to really embrace it, because, like I said, I didn’t like that kind of attention. I grew into it, though. I love performing now. I see it as a very, very different thing than I did when I started out.
WLM: Perhaps that is what makes for a really authentic performer that people connect with — a natural aversion to that kind of attention, because from what I’ve seen watching you perform is that seems like a very intimate experience, which seems only achievable when you’re not when you don’t particularly desire to have all eyes on you.
RC: I see it as an energy exchange. It’s kind of like a co-creation with the audience that is only going to happen at night. That’s the beauty of life. Performance is so ephemeral — the energy is different every night, depending on what the audience is. They come to give something, they come to receive something and vise versa. I always get something from the audience, even if it’s a lesson in humility.
WLM: The stage must be such an interesting place to experience life because, in the scheme of things, it’s not that typical of the human experience.
RC: I think if it becomes that arena where you work out your life, you work out your problems and you work out your own evolution, it requires discipline to not be seduced by the surface aspect of it.
WLM: As a woman in the music industry, you have succeeded in carving out a distinct path, especially within a genre of which your father is a legend. Can you speak on what has guided you throughout your career? You started in a time in which the music industry was dominated by male characters.
RC: In the beginning, it was dominated by men, and it still is, but they felt a lot more leeway to act abominably in a lot of circumstances. There was just something in me that wanted to be good at what I did, and that kind of informed everything. I felt my own authority, whether that was hubris or not, I just had a sense of my own authority about the music I wanted to create and the songs I wanted to write. Even when I was put in those positions where it was even dangerous and inappropriate and where I was not the one in power, I just steeled myself and moved on. I didn’t let it take me down, and I could have. I’m not saying I blame any woman who it did take down because I know women who could not do this business, who could not make it in this business, because it’s just too hard, it’s too debilitating.
I don’t know what to say about why I am resilient and why I stuck it out. I’m stubborn, and I want what I want. I assumed that I had authority over my own work and that no one else did. I think that helped me.
WLM: Which female singer-songwriters have an impact on you?
RC: Mavis Staples is a great matriarch for all of us to look to because she’s embodied her own sense of authority and who she is for her entire career. She has a social conscience and she’s not afraid to speak her truths and her beliefs. She’s a citizen as well as an artist, and she combines those two things beautifully. And she’s full of love — she has a big heart. That’s really inspiring to me. That’s leadership.
As far as young women, I think Brandi Carlile is fantastic. It’s great to see a young woman who is out and whose voice just so powerful. She really knows who she is as an artist. That’s inspiring. I’m really inspired by a lot of young women who just seem to have so much confidence and know who they are.
WLM: That’s interesting because when you’re a performing artist, you are in a vulnerable place because as you figure out who you are, it is happening in front of other people.
RC: Exactly, and that causes a lot of anxiety. That is one reason I wasn’t drawn to the life of a performer because I saw that every mistake you make in public is there forever. People never forget. I read something recently in which a woman attacked me for something I said on a television show over 30 years ago. I looked back and I said, “Yeah, that was an idiotic thing I said, but I was a kid, relatively speaking.” You’re pinned to the mat for everything you’ve ever done. Nobody’s allowed to make mistakes and recover, particularly now in this climate. You’re not allowed to make any mistakes.
“Don’t let people talk you into being or doing something that feels wrong to you. And if you feel insulted or disregarded, just keep your head down and keep showing up for work. Try to be good and not famous.”
WLM: That has to feel pretty scary. If our expectations were more gracious of people who are in the public spotlight, what a great and beautiful thing it would be to get to share in watching someone’s humanity develop through the good and the bad and be forgiving and be reflective. And it seems like it could be such a beautiful thing, but often it’s not. It’s more fun to read or watch something to watch someone get torn down.
RC: Remember a couple of years ago when everybody was attacking Lindsay Lohan? She was a kid who was a drug addict, and people just tore her apart. I said something about that publicly, like, “This is basically a child you’re talking about who is suffering.” The sense that we have now that you have to be defensive about everything and go on the attack about everything, it really depletes our humanity.
This is a business full of rejection in the best possible sense, and the added kind of modern vilification cycle is just too much, really too much.
WLM: You’ve had quite a long career — you have put out 15 albums, collaborated with some of the greatest musicians to ever have lived. Last night I watched your appearance on Carl Perkins and Friends in 1985, with Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr and George Harrison. And you were quite young, in your 20s, I believe. Can you tell me what that experience was like?
RC: It was a little scary (speaking of a woman’s experience in this business) when I was asked to be on the show, I was told outright, “We need you to be the token woman.” I said, “I don’t care. I want to do it. I really want to do this.” So, you know, you could insult me all you want to, but I was going to do it. Everybody on the show was so great. I went to George Harrison’s house for dinner after rehearsal. It was an incredible experience.
WLM: You looked like you were having a lot of fun. That’s what struck me when I was watching it. I thought, “She looks like she’s really enjoying this moment right now.”
RC: I was at the end. At the beginning, before I went on, I was so nervous. George Harrison was standing backstage, and I was standing with him before he was about to go on, and he was really nervous. It touched me so much that George Harrison was so nervous about going on stage. It made me feel better. It was so sweet.
WLM: Your work has been honored quite a lot. You’ve won Grammys. You’ve been nominated almost a dozen times. You have a great fan base and your work is also very respected by your peers. What are some personal moments from your career that mean a lot to you?
RC: There have been a lot. One thing that comes to mind is performing at The Levitt Shell in Memphis, which is just this little outdoor park. I was born in Memphis the and The Levitt Shell is where my dad had his first show when he started. That was a really moving experience for me, and the crowd felt it, too. It was a really incredible day.
I did four shows in San Francisco with Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. It was just the three of us, and John Leventhal played guitar with us. I never get to do things like that with my friends that I’ve known for decades and just perform. When we came offstage first night, Emmylou just looked at me, and she kind of put her hand to her chest and she said, “That was for me.” And that’s how I felt. That one was for me.
Another one that comes to mind is playing in Germany because I made my first album in Germany in the early 70s. The producer I worked with who I didn’t like and with whom I’d gotten into fights in the studio, he came to my show — this was some 35 years later — and we hugged. It was just this moment that fixed the past.
WLM: Can you tell me about the creative process of making your latest album? Do you have a distinct destination in mind that you worked toward, or did things take shape more organically?
RC: Both. I knew that I wanted to record these personal songs. The last couple of albums were really conceptual, and I knew I wanted to return to really personal songwriting. I felt this urgency about it. Women my age still have plenty to say and less time to say it. I felt urgent about it, with what was going on in the world and my own sense of mortality and the important things that still had to be said. I knew I wanted to work with Tucker Martine for the album. I knew I wanted write with Sam Phillips. The pieces all started falling together.
WLM: Do you have a favorite song on the album?
RC: I think “Everyone but Me,” is kind of a deep statement. John and I made together. That song means a lot to me.
WLM: What advice would you give to other women who want to make a career in music? Is there anything that you wish someone would have told you when you were starting out?
RC: I know it sounds like a cliche, but not to doubt your own instincts. Don’t let people talk you into being or doing something that feels wrong to you. And if you feel insulted or disregarded, just keep your head down and keep showing up for work. Try to be good and not famous.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.