We don’t know about you, but we think it’s rather interesting how mellow Rosanne Cash has gotten. Even two years ago we couldn’t have imagined her even speaking to her ex-husband Rodney Crowell, let alone be in geographic proximity to him. But now the fiery redhead has posted on her Twitter account that she is recording with him.
No, we’re not talking reconciliation—they weren’t there a deux, Cash’s current husband and Grammy winning producer John Leventhal was there—who fans and Twitter lurkers know as her beloved Mr. L. Also on hand were Mary Karr and Dev Milburn. As for what she was doing there? This is what the brainy, talented chanteuse told us: It isn't for her new album, but instead she's guesting on Crowell's new album:
"This is Rodney's project - all songs written with the writer Mary Karr, all guest vocalists. I'm a guest on a beautiful song. Not sure when it's coming out. John is playing guitar on the session."
We recently spoke to Cash, who resembles nothing so much as Neko Case’s deliciously wicked (slightly) older sister, all unexpected curves, wild untamed red hair—so at odds with her public persona—perfectly modulated voice and the smart blogs she pens for The New York Times. But a friend of a certain age reminded me that she has always been the thinking man’s sex symbol.
She is the first to tell you that she’s long hidden her light under the proverbial bushel. “I do hide,” she admits a little sheepishly, twisting her green tourmaline ring around her finger and crossing and re-crossing her slender ankles over her well-loved black Prada ballet slippers, still at war with her eccentric good looks. “I’ve just always relied on my brains,” she says simply.
Not classically stunning in the Vogue magazine sense, she has an arresting eccentric beauty like a lost Bronte sister or a heroine in a gothic novel that believes she has more good sense than good looks, but always ends up capturing the titled-but-tortured aristocrat in the end. Of course in this story Cash is the titled aristocrat—the eldest daughter of country music royalty Johnny Cash, and stepdaughter of June Carter Cash. And like any good errant princess, she eschewed those roots and was staunchly determined not to follow in the family business, taking acting classes, writing short stories while still in high school, and devouring The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, and second wave British Invasion acts like Traffic and Blind Faith.
Even after a three-year stint touring with her father and June—first as the tour laundress then as a backup singer with two of her sisters—she was still determined to find her own path. Upon listening to her recently released The Essential Rosanne Cash, it’s clear she did.
Tracing her 33-year career you can hear her developing her own voice over the span of the decades, gaining confidence, wit, and nuance in her singing, while the songs took on details of her own biography, becoming richer and contextualized as fact enticingly mingled with fiction. What stands out is the continuity of family—from the snatches of her father’s voice and her childish response that begins “The Good Intent” followed by her version of “500 Miles,” from 2009’s List which features her daughter singing harmony.
Listening to this collection it’s clear Cash is not only supremely talented, but her greatest gift may be her fearlessness and unstinting honesty.
You’ve taught classes in songwriting. What do you tell your students about writing?
To suppress the critic is really important. And also to put what I called furniture in your songs, instead of writing about themes. Nobody loves songs about themes. You don’t write about loss, you write about the coffee cup that he threw across the room and how it shattered against the wall, and the rain that was dripping in the window behind it. Those are the things that make people feel.
You always say you see yourself as a writer first.
I know. I lost my voice for two years several years ago and I thought to myself, if I ever get it back I’m really going to have fun with it. I’m going to appreciate it.
How did you lose it?
I had polyps for two years. But after the brain surgery also, for some reason it seemed to improve my voice. I mean I’ll have to ask my neurosurgeon. I could be totally off the wall but it seemed to help my voice. Who knows? There’s so much we don’t know. I mean even my neurosurgeon was saying a large part of this is mystery.
But I’ve become a bit of a favorite with a lot of the neuroscientists who specialized in music since my brain surgery. A musician who had brain surgery, they just love me. So Dan Levitton, who wrote This Is Your Brain On Music and The World in Six Songs asked me to do an event with him at the New York Academy of Sciences. He interviewed me and we’d sing songs. And he talks about the brain. It’s so funny for all of these kind of neuro eggheads. There were Nobel Prize winners there, it was so much fun.
So anyway that went over so well that they’ve asked us to come do it at the Boston Academy of Sciences in October, so we’re doing that. And then this other neuroscientist Joseph Ladue has a band called the Amygdaloids. So I sang on the Amygdaloids record! I’m running with a strange crowd now. It’s insane, they keep contacting me, too.
You said in interviews that you didn’t know how you would have managed without releasing Black Cadillac a few years back, after the death of your parents. Do all your records fill that kind of need or function of transporting you to the next place? I mean do they mark emotional time that way?
I hate to say that, but yes. I mean I certainly don’t like songs or make records out of a frivolous or narcissistic theme. There is a deep need in me, or else what’s the point? And yes, they do mark, if not emotional time, some kind of, what’s the right word? Nonlinear time.
You called your last record a map, and this one’s a list. Are you looking for the system or do you already have one?
I’m such a structured person in some ways that I like, I love maps and I love lists. So this fulfills a deep psychological need in me to do these things that are very kind of self-soothers and very rich and layered and clear, and guide me.
Are you a neatfreak?
Crazy neat? No. I have so many kids, so there’s chaos, and I take time where I can find a peaceful time to write. Like this morning at 7:30, it’s quiet. Start writing. Yeah. And then when it starts to get noisy at 9:30, I stop.
Is there one rule you live by?
No. There are a lot of rules I live by. Don’t wear shorts on an airplane. Don’t wear flip-flops through airport security. Don’t chew gum after the age of 12. No. I guess if I had to come up with an overriding rule to live by it would be don’t blame others.
You are really very open about your personal life. You tweet, you put lists of what you’re reading, thinking, listening to on your website, are there a few things we still don’t know about Rosanne Cash?
I observe tea time every day. I just hand-carried so much tea back from Stockholm. Oh, my God, I found this tea shop in the old quarter. They had this tea that was their special blend and then they had a French breakfast tea. It was fantastic. I subscribe to Neurology Now.
Do you think self-discovery is one of the byproducts from the act of creation?
I can’t say that’s a generality, because if it were, Jackson Pollack wouldn’t have killed himself. I think that’s so individual. And self-discovery is kind of oo-ey anyway. More than self-discovery, which I think is a little bit naval-gazing, it’s about connecting with those things seen and unseen, and people past, present, future, and whatever God is, and just tapping into that energy that just underpins the entire world. That’s what it is to me. It’s everything. It’s everything. Art and music are everything. It’s out there, you just have to have your catcher’s mitt on.
A piece in the New York Times a few years back said that you inherited a certain sense of gravity from your father. Do you think that’s accurate?
What did you inherit from your mom?
Fierce loyalty, fierce mothering, structure, discipline. Good manners. I write thank-you notes.