A Songwriter's View from the Pew Susan Werner's musical path has taken her from opera to pop, jazz and classic American songs. In her latest album, The Gospel Truth, this singer-songwriter journeys to America's spiritual side.
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A Songwriter's View from the Pew

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A Songwriter's View from the Pew


Music Reviews

A Songwriter's View from the Pew

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Now, of course singers don't need blogs, at least as much as bloggers do. You can take singer and songwriter Susan Werner, who puts her thoughts into her music. She's a hip, wry, gifted performer and can sing opera when she wants to, or folk or pop or anything else her fans in Chicago, where she's based, or around the country where she tours, want to hear. Susan Werner takes a new musical path on her latest album. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg explains.

SUSAN STAMBERG: She goes to church. Well, sort of. Sometimes Susan Werner at least gets to the front door in this album. Sometimes she slams the church door or finds the door slamming on her. The CD is called "The Gospel Truth." And that's what Werner is trying to navigate in these songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Our Father")

Ms. SUSAN WERNER (Singer): (Singing) Thy kingdom come to every nation. Thy will be done in everything we do. Lord lead us not into temptation but deliver us from those who think they're you.

STAMBERG: This is a big switch for you, isn't it, because I remember your last album. It was a collection of what were really great American songbook style songs - love songs, wistful ones, ballads, a whole range of it. And now here you're doing gospel. What happened?

Ms. WERNER: Well, as a songwriter the challenge is the same, which is to try to craft interesting, compelling songs. And in this case I just used the materials of church music, the B3 organ, the choirs, tambourines, to explore maybe a little different subject matter, in this case religion and the church, in fact.

(Soundbite of song, "Forgiveness")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) How do you love those who never will love you, who are so frightened of you they are calling for war? How do you not hate those who have loaded their bibles and armed their disciples? Because I don't know anymore.

STAMBERG: What's your own religious background? Do you mind talking about it, by the way?

Ms. WERNER: No. I grew up in a big Catholic family in rural Iowa. So like many Americans, church-going was part of my childhood. As an adult, I don't go to church, but what I can say is that if you grew up in the church and if you were a little baby in your mamma's arms in the church, that was the first music you heard. You're tuned, I think, like a violin. And church music is always going to have an effect on you. And this album was a way of bringing my adult secular life together with those musical experiences and memories.

STAMBERG: Well, your song "Sunday Morning," you're writing about memories growing up, going to church with your family, a mother choosing what to wear, a father combing his jet black hair. And the things that they pray for.

(Soundbite of song, "Sunday Morning")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) Daddy prays because the money's tight. Momma prays she'll raise her children right. And my brother prays he'll change so he won't feel so very strangely out of tune.

STAMBERG: There is the sense in listening to this that you're kind of taking yourself and then the rest of us on some sort of a spiritual journey, that you were looking in your heart for where your own faith is.

Ms. WERNER: I think I came to a point where I was happy with so many parts of my life and wanted to - or maybe was ready to look for a larger sense of purpose, a larger sense of being of service. And the church, for many of us, is the default setting for that. If you grew up in the church, then this would be a time you'd go back to the church and embrace those traditions that would help you live a larger kind of life. But to go back to the church, for me, and for many people, seems to be, well, a mixed blessing, right? There's what the church inspires you to do that's good and what the church seems to inspire some people to do that is not so good. So...

STAMBERG: Or maybe you mean not so embracing.

Ms. WERNER: Yeah, not quite so open, right.

(Soundbite of song, "Heaven so Small")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) Well, I know (unintelligible) if you could, but my friend that's simply not your call. If God is great and God is good, why is your heaven so small?

(Speaking) It seems to me as if in the last few years in America it's been, with regards to the church it's been an all or nothing proposition. That either you're a literalist Christian or you're not really welcome at the party. And I think that that's changing now. I think that there is a religious left that is stepping up and into the fore and has a real case to make for making this country a better place. And evidently in the Gospels there are thousands of lines that Jesus says about being of service to the poor. That was his number one message. Number one message - be of service. That everything else dwindles in comparison. And Katrina was a big moment. We all witnessed something there that was shocking and made us wonder about ourselves.

(Soundbite of song, "Help Somebody")

Ms. WERNER: I got plenty and then some, what do I do now? I got out and help somebody get plenty and then some too.

(Speaking) Let me say one more thing about that, if I may.


Ms. WERNER: I went to - it was two weekends after Katrina and I was going to go sit with the Quakers on the south side in Hyde Park, and Lakeshore Drive was under construction so I was detoured through a rather impoverished black neighborhood in Chicago. And I realized I was going to be late for the Quaker meeting so I was about to turn around and I happened to pass a church at 42nd Street and MLK, and there were two guys standing out front - two African American guys in nice looking suits and they were smiling. And I'm like, you know what, I'm going to go in. So I went in. And I think there was one other white person and there were 300 black people. And there we are, and there were Katrina refugees there who had been taken in by the church. They stood and they spoke.

And we were all moved by it, of course. And the preacher gets up into the pulpit and he says, I'm telling you today something good will come of this, because we will see that we need to care for one another. Wow. To find something hopeful in the middle of all of that. And that's what gospel music really does have, that everyone can have. Whether you have Jesus or you don't, you can have great hope, a feeling of larger purpose, a desire to be of service. I think that belongs to everybody, no matter what your religious tradition is.

(Soundbite of song, "Help Somebody")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) I got supper on the table, what do I do? I got supper on the table, what do I do? I got supper on the table, what do I do? I go out and help somebody get supper on the table too. That's what I do. Because I've got to forgive. I've got to forgive. And when you got enough to give away, well it's the only way to live.

STAMBERG: Thank you very much. Susan Werner's new album is called "The Gospel Truth." It's a musical, lyrical examination of personal, social and political faith in America. I'm Susan Stamberg.

(Soundbite of song, "Together")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) There must be a time. There must be a place when everyone will finally come together. If there is a God with a human face, I'm sure he'd want us all to come together.

SIMON: Susan Werner singing "Together" from her new album "The Gospel Truth." You can hear more songs from that CD at npr.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of song "Together")

Ms. WERNER: (Singing) Get beyond this way of settling scores, because the score is never even. And if I have a word, then I'd make the case that everyone has...

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