Rosanne Cash: Songwriting Interiors

By April Anderson It was a fascinating evening featuring the songwriting process-laid-bare at NYU Steinhardt's Provincetown Playhouse on October 8, for the latest in the series of Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions at NYU. After a spirited introduction by Dr. Ron Sadoff (Associate Professor, Director & Chair of the Department of Music & Performing Arts Professions) and Phil Galdston (NYU Faculty Songwriter-in-Residence and Master Teacher in Songwriting), Rosanne Cash was enthusiastically welcomed to the stage. Galdston proceeded to lead the conversation, first drawing on Cash’s early memories of her father, the late Johnny Cash, and how a “man with a guitar on his back represented daddy.” About Johnny’s wife, June Carter Cash, she said “she didn’t give birth to me, but she helped me give birth to my future.” She spoke of how she had “apprenticed” on her father’s tour bus the day after graduating from High School, and how surprised he had been at her lack of knowledge of “great songs” at that time. She said he took out a notepad and wrote a list of the “100 essential country songs” which she began examining and deconstructing to determine the elements of what exactly makes a song great. In 1976, her father recorded her composition “Love Has Lost Again” on his album One Piece At A Time. It was her first professionally recorded work as a songwriter. At the age of twenty, Cash made a demo and went to Germany where she recorded her first self-titled album. She said she had a “pretty refined song sense” at that age, but never had the desire to be a performer, having witnessed the toll it took on the lives of her family. Yet it seemed she was drawn into it almost unwillingly. She said she hadn’t wanted the attention, and proceeded to “sabotage” herself as she felt like a “fraud as a performer.” She just wanted to be a songwriter. Almost in spite of herself, in 1981, she had her first breakthrough hit with “Seven Year Ache.” Cash said there have been times in her life where she has taken breaks from recording to raise a family and deal with several health issues, including vocal polyps that would periodically prohibit her from singing. But she continued to write. She said the album that meant the most to her when she wrote it was the introspective 1990 Interiors, documenting the breakup of her marriage to singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell. “Radio didn’t want the songs, but I felt it was the best work of my life.” Speaking pragmatically, she said she has always “just kept putting one foot in front of the other.” It was undeniably clear that her first love has always been songwriting, and she dreamed of using her creations to “send depth charges out into the world.” Cash has certainly succeeded, as she has released 15 albums thus far in her career that have earned her four GRAMMY Awards and nominations for eleven more, as well as twenty-one top-40 hits, including eleven number 1 singles, along with many other accolades. Her latest release, The River and the Thread, a collaboration with husband/co-writer/producer and arranger John Leventhal, attained the highest debut in the Billboard charts of any of her previous albums, receiving three GRAMMY Awards earlier this year. This particular Master Session was a showcase of extraordinary intimacy, highlighting how truly vulnerable and “human” some of our most successful songwriters are. This seems to actually play into the source of their brilliance as writers. Examining the depth and breadth of Rosanne Cash’s lyrics is a study of life, love and true stories of the human spirit. As a last word directed to the enthralled audience and particularly to the students in attendance, in referring to her own habits of constantly writing, she said “it’s amateurs who only work when they’re inspired.” In attendance that evening was Songwriters Hall of Fame Board Member and Education Committee Chair Karen Sherry, along with SHOF Senior Vice President/BMI President & CEO Mike O'Neill, SHOF Board member John Titta, and SHOF Counsel Robert Epstein. The Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions program at NYU is a major component of the SHOF educational outreach. Stay tuned to for news of the next Master Session coming soon!