Interview: Rosanne Cash
The preeminent lyricist and musician is back with a collection of songs enriched by her life experience and unique voice
Rosanne Cash recently returned with her first new album in nearly five years. The songs on She Remembers Everything, all written or co-written by Cash, directly and deliberately come from a uniquely female perspective and address issues from the personal to the political. Production duties were shared between husband John Leventhal and Tucker Martine and further help came from recognisable names such as T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips and Kris Kristofferson.
It’s yet another strong creative statement from Cash in a career which started back in 1978 with her self-titled debut album. Her many highlights along the way include Seven Year Ache, Interiors, Black Cadillac and The River & The Thread. These records tackled themes such as divorce and death and revealed her ability to remain authentic in different genres, such as new wave and roots – she’s not just a country artist. We recently had the chance to chat with Cash about her new album and songwriting career…
Are you still compelled to write songs on a regular basis or do you have set aside time?
“I would say my compulsion, if that’s what you want to call it, is still very strong. It’s funny, I can’t really separate that from my life. It’s like asking, ‘Do you still have a compulsion to breathe?’ Writing songs is at the centre of who I am. It’s not something that’s outside of my life which I have to set aside time for, it’s something that is so woven into my life.”
How do you know when the time is right to record and release a new album?
“Well, that’s funny because I wanted to put out this album sooner than I actually did but I realised that I didn’t have all the songs in place so I wrote a couple more. Those last couple of songs, Everyone But Me and Crossing To Jerusalem, John [Leventhal] and I wrote while we were recording the other songs; he wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. So those were very late entries to the process.
As well as John, you also worked with Sam Phillips, T-Bone Burnett, Lera Lynn and others on the album. How does that collaborative process tend to work?
“Well, it’s different every time. With Sam, I asked if she wanted to write a song with me and she said yes and that she was more comfortable writing the music. That was great because I prefer to write the lyrics. I wrote the lyrics, finished them, edited them, got them how I wanted them and then emailed them over to her. In a couple of months, she emailed me back with her singing my lyrics to the music that she’d written and I was thrilled. I thought it worked perfectly.
“With T-Bone, he was music director on the television show True Detectives and asked me to write some lyrics for it. He gave me a theme and I wrote the lyrics to both The Only Thing Worth Fighting For and My Least Favourite Life.”
What’s the key to having a successful relationship with another – is it more important to be tactful or brutally honest?
“Well, you have to be honest. I’ve written songs with people when it just didn’t work and I’ve had to say something. A couple of times it’s been awkward but I don’t want to just throw my name on something. It’s different with John, he and I have worked together for so long and know each other so well that we can say things to each other. He might say, ‘That’s too many syllables for that line, I can’t make it work,’ or I’ll say, ‘I don’t really like that melody.’”
Can the closeness you have with John cause issues when it comes to your writing – is it hard to write about your relationship if he’s producing you?
“As long as we’ve been together, I can still feel a little shy. I wrote a song about him not many months ago and I felt a bit shy about playing it for him and didn’t want to ask him to produce it. So I asked Tucker [Martine] to produce it and it turned out great. Then John ended up hearing the finished track and I said, ‘Will you put your Telecaster on it?’ because of all the references through the song.”
Not Many Miles To Go feels like a song which could only be written by someone who has lived a life and been in a relationship for a long time. Do you feel that you gain more breadth and depth as a writer the more experienced you get?
“Absolutely, I mean if you stay open and aren’t shutting yourself down year on year then you have more experiences to share and there’s more subtlety to those experiences. There’s less judgement and less need to please people. There’s also more poignancy. You can only write that song if you’ve been in a relationship for a long time and I had the realisation that one of us is inevitably going to leave the other and that’s so incredibly sad. I started thinking about all the little touchstones of our life together and the artefacts of our lives… the Telecaster, his glass of bourbon at the end of the day and the Empire State Building, which we can see outside of our bedroom.
“I wanted to litter this song with all of those things which have resonance in our lives, all those little things that will actually survive us and are going to be around long after we’re gone. There’s some comfort in that – we enjoyed those things, those were part of us, but can now be passed on.”
You’re talking about things which are very specific to your relationship but they seem to take on a universal meaning…
“I think so, because even if it’s not a Telecaster or the Empire State Building, there are specific things to other people’s lives that have resonance for them and that’s the part that’s conveyed. Everyone has those artefacts that will outlast us and will still carry a piece of us –whether it was your mother’s china or the diamond earrings that you give to your daughter. So I think that’s what becomes universal.”
We live in a world which seems increasingly obsessed with youth and therefore not everyone has the chance to mature as an artist, yet the things we’re talking about couldn’t have been written by someone new…
“You know, one reason why I think that I’m able to do this is that I believe in my own legitimacy. I don’t think that because something is new and fresh it’s more important. I’m not pretending to be 25, I don’t want to be 25. I think that people my age, middle-aged people, start to get insecure. Like, ‘Wow we’re out of 21 the race, we no longer matter,’ and that’s so not true and I’m just planting a flag in the ground for that.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell