Berklee Prof by Day/ Singer-Songwriter by Night
by Kathy Sands-Boehmer
Susan Cattaneo is not only a Berklee trained musician, but she teaches there as well. Her songwriting classes are highly regarded by the students. Susan helps them to blend their words to the music and vice versa—and to keep the original freshness and integrity of each song so that it’s their own song, not hers – not an easy task.
Susan’s been playing around Boston and environs for a while, sometimes solo and sometimes with stellar players. She rocks with the best of them and also sings ballads so sweetly and lovingly that it can bring tears to the eyes of those listening. Susan is a huge cheerleader of her fellow singer-songwriters in the area and plays with a number of them, including Jenee Halstead, Amy Fairchild, and Jenny Dee. Recently, she took part in the “For the Sake of the Song” tribute to Linda Ronstadt.
Susan has four recordings in her discography, each one better than the next. Her latest, Haunted Heart, is a remarkable recording highlighting Susan’s song-craft as well as a style and poise that isn’t as evident on her earlier albums. Highlights of this record include the Willie-Nelson inspired “Queen of the Dancehall” and the radio friendly “Lorelei,” which would be Susan’s big hit if I ran the radio world.
Susan was gracious enough to answer these questions about her past, present, and future…
Noise: So the story goes that you came from singing around the dinner table with your parents and siblings in suburban New Jersey. What kind of music did you gravitate to and sing back then?
Susan: Yeah, it was pretty funny—we were like the Von Trapp’s of Northern New Jersey! My mother loves musical theater and classic standards, so I was introduced early to the wonderful music of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin, among others. The lyric and melodic complexity of these songs really drew me in. I’m afraid I wasn’t very cool musically. I spent my summers in Arizona so I sang all those country classics around the campfire. Songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were some of my favorites. I gravitated towards female singers and it was a pretty mixed bag. As a kid, I loved Karen Carpenter and Stevie Nicks and Barbra Streisand—how strange is that?!
Noise: Did you ever imagine that music would actually become part of your adult life and a full-time passion?
Susan: It has been a delightful surprise that I have found my way into music full-time. I always loved songs and singing. Early on, I discovered that I loved writing. Combining the two was something I didn’t discover until I was in my early 20s! I’ve always been making music, but it was always this fabulous thing I did “on the side.” I was in bands in college. When I moved to NYC after college, I worked in television, writing, and producing movie trailers, and I sang in this band at night. I started to write songs for the band, but I was ear-trained and always felt like I didn’t speak the musical language. When we moved to Boston, my brother-in-law was going to Berklee, and suddenly I thought: “Hmm, a contemporary music school? I want to be amusician, not just a singer. So I went to Berklee on a vocal scholarship, thinking that I was a singer and that that would be my calling. Then, I discovered they had a whole department devoted to songwriting, and from my first class, I knew that that was what I wanted to do.
Noise: Were you a big radio listener when you were younger? How did you discover the kind of music that touched your heart?
Susan: It’s so funny that you asked this question, because I slept with the radio on growing up. It was on this oldies station, so that’s where I learned all the standards! After school, I had it on the local pop/rock station, and I would sing along to all the music there. Because we would sing in harmony as a family, when I would listen to songs, I would always try and harmony lines to sing. I would spend hours and hours singing harmony along with my favorite singers. In high school, I discovered Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt, but it wasn’t until I was 19 that I had my musical epiphany. My boyfriend at the time gave me a mix tape of Bonnie Raitt, and I literally thought my head would explode. Here was a great singer, a strong, cool woman with a blues/rock/ country sound that I loved AND she could play guitar, too? It was like an out of body experience. I went out and bought all of her albums and memorized all of her songs.
I’ve had similar experiences over the years with other artists including Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen, but I’ll always remember that first musical connection. It spoke to me in a way that clearly defined who I am as a singer/ songwriter.
Noise: You’ve noted that you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan. Is there something more than the Jersey connection that made you such a fan? Do you have a favorite album of his?
Susan: Well, certainly being married to a devout Springsteen fan has helped! I came to Springsteen a little late in my musical life. I remember singing “Hungry Heart” in high school and during my twenties, I, like the rest of the western world, had a copy of Born in the USA, which I played loud and with the windows rolled down as I drove around in my VW Jetta. But it wasn’t until my husband took me to my first Springsteen concert that I finally “got it.” As a performer myself, I was astounded and enthralled by the way he led his audience on a musical journey, the way he controlled the energy and focus of his shows. I think every performing artist should go to a Springsteen show to get schooled and see how to “get the job done.” My favorite Springsteen album isn’t most people’s favorite, but in 2001, I was pregnant with our second child when 911 happened. When I heard The Rising, I couldn’t think of a better musical response to the horrors that I was seeing and the way I was feeling at that time. It just touched me in a way that made the album my all-time favorite of his.
Noise: Do you think it’s easier for people to find “their kind of music” these days? There is so much of it available. I wonder if there’s too much and some of the good stuff gets lost in the shuffle?
Susan: Unfortunately, I’m sure that some of the good stuff is getting lost in this huge universe of music we have at our fingertips. There is just so much music available, and people’s lives are so fractured that there doesn’t seem to be time to “listen” to music the way one used to. The good thing about the current state of music though is that the lines between genres are blurring, and I think this is leading to people being exposed to and embracing lots of different kinds of music. In the past, the borders between musical genres were clearly defined, and if you listened to rock, you didn’t listen to rap or country. Now, our melting pot culture has led to a melting pot of music, and I think that’s pretty interesting.
Noise: How do you personally define the kind of music that you write?
Susan: First and foremost, I like to think that I’m a songwriters’ songwriter in the sense that I appreciate craft in a song and always try and put craft into my own work. Genre-wise, I don’t like to be tied to one specific category. Since my music reflects the different influences from my life, my songs have elements of country, folk, blues, and rock in them. The words are key for me, and I tend to use descriptive, image-based lyrics in my songs. Oh, how I love a good metaphor! I like to paint pictures with the words I use. I write story songs and emotion-based songs, but I find that even if my song is based around an emotion, I will try and find a visual image to support the feeling.
Noise: How did you find yourself as a Nashville songwriter? How does that work? Do you have to sell yourself to a board of head honchos or do you get recommended by other people in the biz?
Susan: Hah! No, there’s no board of head honchos who decide your fate, though I love that idea and wonder who would be on the board? To quote the Beatles, I got by in Nashville “with a little help from my friends.” When we moved to Boston, I quit my television job and went back to school to Berklee for a degree in songwriting. After Berklee, we decided to start a family, and suddenly, that limited my ability to play out at night and also do any form of touring. Nashville was the perfect place where I could be a songwriter and still have a family. Friends I’d made at Berklee who were working down there helped me make the initial introductions to songwriters and publishers, and that’s where it all started for me. Once I met other songwriters, I started to collaborate with different people and develop a network of artists, writers, and producers that I still work with today. Nashville is a big town, but it has a small town feel, so there’s this wonderful sense of community that you develop as you meet and start working with different people in the industry.
Noise: Do you end up with a lot of songs that aren’t necessarily representative of who you are as an artist and you wish them well and send them along to other artists who may have a stronger connection to them than you do?
Susan: Sure, when you’re writing with and for other people, there are definitely times when you write a line that isn’t necessarily “your truth” but might really fit what that artist wants to say. But it still can be incredibly rewarding even if the song isn’t something you would put on your own album. No matter what—when I’m writing for someone else, I’ll always try and find some personal connection to the theme or the relationship in the song.
Noise: Your biography talked about a traumatic event in your life when you helped resuscitate someone who was visiting your home. Your quick work helped prevent brain damage and also led to your re-evaluation of your art. Why do you think that event changed your attitude and your music so much?
Susan: Saving someone’s life, while incredibly rewarding in the long run, was incredibly difficult in the short run. The experience was graphic and horrifying to me, and I spent about six months working through some PTSD. I think being up close and personal exposure to death like that changes you. I certainly was more aware of my own mortality and that of my loved ones, and it made me really want to write something with personal meaning. It didn’t mean that everything I wrote was sad, but I certainly started to examine the dark corners of my life more closely that I had in the past. I discovered there was a great deal of really interesting song material there!
Noise: You’ve been teaching songwriting at Berklee College of Music for over a decade now. Do you find it fulfilling when your students “get it” and truly understand the skills that you are teaching them?
Susan: It is one of the most wonderful experiences as a teacher when one of your students has that “aha!” moment. Teaching songwriting is difficult at times because a song is a personal expression from that songwriter, and a great deal of what I do involves revision. That can be tricky when ego and personal expression are involved. Yes, some songs come quickly and feel like a magical process was at work in their creation. But most songs require work and revision to become all they can be. My job isn’t to judge whether a song is good or bad. My job is to show a student how different lyric and melodic tools can help or support the meaning of their song. It takes courage to revise your song. You need to be able to set your ego aside sometimes and try something new. When a student is willing to try that in their work, and they learn or master a tool, it is incredibly rewarding.
Noise: What is your proudest moment as a Berklee instructor?
Susan: I love seeing when a present or former student will record a song that we worked on in class. I’ve had the unique opportunity to see the song in its infancy and watch as it grew and became something wonderful. That’s pretty cool. Of course, I love following my former students on social media. Seeing them blossom into these amazing artists once they graduate and knowing that I had a tiny hand in helping them on their journey is incredibly rewarding. Here is a funny story: my husband recently went to see Parker Millsap, and he really liked the guy opening for him. He went to buy the record, and as they talked, my husband mentioned me, and it turns out the artist was a former student of mine and the title track of the record was actually written in my class. The artist’s name by the way is Joe Holt.
Noise: And what’s your most thrilling moment as an artist?
Susan: Can I tell you my top five?
5. Opening for Huey Lewis & the News at the Boston Pavilion and being on the Jumbotron was pretty awesome.
4. Meeting my hero, Bonnie Raitt, not once but three times and discovering that she’s as gracious and kind in real life was inspiring.
3. Touring in Italy, and having fans singing along to my songs.
2. Committing to the guitar as my primary instrument, and learning all the wonderful intricacies of the instrument.
And number one of all!
1. Working with great players—they provide me with the most thrilling moments on stage, and I’m so proud and honored to be collaborating with such talented people!