Susan Werner: A Musical Chameleon's Chamber Pop 'Classics' Susan Werner has done alternative folk, original American songbook material, and gospel for agnostics. And for her latest effort, she's picked a handful of '60s and '70s pop hits, and arranged string and woodwind backings for them.
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A Musical Chameleon's Chamber Pop 'Classics'

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A Musical Chameleon's Chamber Pop 'Classics'

A Musical Chameleon's Chamber Pop 'Classics'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Composer and performer Susan Werner first appeared on this program in 1999. At the time, she was promoting her CD "Time Between Trains" and played a selection of her songs on guitar and piano. In the ten years since, Susan Werner has become somewhat of a musical shape-shifter. She's released a recording of original songs written in the style of George Gershwin and Cole Porter, "I Can't Be New." And another CD of original songs delivered in the gospel tradition called "The Gospel Truth." Now Susan Werner has taken pop songs by others and given them a chamber music setting. Listen to what she does with this Marvin Gaye tune.

(Soundbite of song, "Mercy, Mercy Me")

Ms. SUSAN WERNER (Musician): (Singing) Oh, mercy, mercy me. Oh, things ain't what they used to be, no, no. What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from a man can she stand? Whoa…

HANSEN: "Mercy, Mercy Me" from Susan Werner's new CD "Classics," and she joins us from WBEZ in Chicago. It's so nice to talk to you again.

Ms. WERNER: Thank you.

HANSEN: I want to paraphrase your words in the liner notes of this CD as it relates to "Mercy, Mercy Me." This song, with a bit of gray at the temples, looks surprisingly distinguished in the tuxedo that is a string quartet. You know, I've always imagined Marvin Gaye in a tuxedo anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WERNER: Well, he did wear a sort of modified tuxedo at one point in his career. He did.

HANSEN: Yeah, but it wasn't the singer, it's the song - your criteria for this arrangement. What was that criteria?

Ms. WERNER: We chose songs that had a certain lyrical elegance to them and a certain structural formality that is most beautifully revealed when you strip it down to its very basic elements. And there's no hiding behind a string quartet. And when you do something with chamber music instruments, the basic materials of the song are revealed. And when it's an astounding song, like this song, in which Marvin Gaye saw it all coming with the environmental crisis, the song has as much power and maybe even a little more power than the original just in that we hear something new in something we already thought we already knew everything about.

HANSEN: You chose songwriters who were serious because you want the music to be taken seriously.

Ms. WERNER: It's so easy when you get near classical music to do something funny. I mean, once you think about the Bugs Bunny cartoons, oh my god, right? You have to very careful not to do something that has everybody in stitches. You think about some songs from the '60s like "Bad Fingers."

(Singing) If you want it, here it is. Come and get it…

Or you think about Gary Puckett's…

(Singing) Young girl, get out of my mind.

I mean, nobody needs to hear these things on a string quartet. So, we had to steer clear of some of the things that had a little more of what you might call the cheese factor and go looking for songs that had a little more heft to them. And we wound up going toward songwriters whose lyrics had some weight and thoughtfulness to them. I mean, we wound up going to Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. And a well-built song is well-built forever.

(Soundbite of song, "Waiting in Vain")

HANSEN: You arranged Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain," and you begin it with a composer that you are actually paying homage to, Eric Satie. I mean, of all the composers, why Satie? Why is he so well-suited to a Bob Marley tune?

Ms. WERNER: This arrangement of the Bob Marley tune is much, much slower than the Marley original. And it has this feeling of waiting, waiting for someone to recognize that you love them. And the Satie melody just sort of flew in the window of my office one day and floated over the top of the whole thing and seemed to amplify the mood in a way that it doesn't even help to talk about it. It's just something - you went to it and feel and when people hear it, they seem to feel something new too.

(Soundbite of song, "Waiting in Vain")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) See, I don't want to wait in vain for your love. I don't want to wait in vain for your love. I don't want to wait in vain for your love, 'cause the summer is here. I'm still waiting there. Winter is here and I'm still waiting there.

HANSEN: Who were you instrumentalists? I mean, there's beautiful cello and violin work on this, clarinet, horns.

Ms. WERNER: Some of them are Boston freelancers, some of them are Boston Pops players, some of them are Boston Symphony players. It was certainly the cream of the crop of Boston's classical community. And it's a thrill to sing with people who are so talented and so brilliant.

HANSEN: What was their reaction when you said, let's take the classical guitarist Rodrigo, for example, and you approach him, you say, I'd like you to work with me on a new arrangement of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."

Ms. WERNER: What I found was that they were leaning in toward their stands waiting to see what was going to happen next. Like, where is this going to go? And I have to say, it's a good feeling to know that you surprised somebody from the Boston Symphony, who's played and seen everything, that they want to know how the story's going to turn out. It means you must be doing something right.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.

HANSEN: It defies expectation. Is that an integral part of your own art to defy expectation?

Ms. WERNER: I think people can sense when one artist is doing something that has the possibility of great excitement and discovery and also may be coming up short. I think you have to put yourself at risk in important ways, and when you do, there's an energy in whatever you produce that is palpable to an audience, whether it's a live audience or an audience that's listening to a recording. When you as an artist put something at risk, everyone can feel that. And that vitality, to me, that's the big turn-on about this line of work.

HANSEN: You can play DJ. What song would you like us to end with and why?

Ms. WERNER: The Paul McCartney song…

HANSEN: "Maybe I'm Amazed."

Ms. WERNER: Yeah. The Paul McCartney song is such a surprise because it reveals that this guy is Britain. This guy could not be from another part of the world. You hear this, this sounds like Purcell, this sounds like Elgar, this sounds like British classical music. Something about the rhythms, the melodies and when you unplug those electric guitars, listen to this thing. And, I mean, there's a powdered wig in there.

(Soundbite of song, "Maybe I'm Amazed")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) Baby, I'm a girl or maybe I'm a lonely girl who's in the middle of something that she doesn't really understand. Baby, I'm a girl and baby, you're the only one who could ever help me. Baby, won't you help me understand?

HANSEN: Susan Werner's new CD "Classics" is on the Sleeve Dog's record label, and she joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you. Good luck with this.

Ms. WERNER: Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of song, "Maybe I'm Amazed")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) Baby, I'm a girl, maybe I'm a lonely girl…

HANSEN: You can hear Susan Werner playing versions of her new songs, both in concert and in the studio at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of song, "Maybe I'm Amazed")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) Baby, I'm a girl, and maybe you're the only one who could ever help me. Baby, won't you help me understand?

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