Writing helps Rosanne Cash stay focused

Writing has helped keep Rosanne Cash, songwriter and now memoirist, focused

Staff writerAugust 13, 2010 

Rosanne Cash says she won't sing at her reading tonight in Raleigh.

COURTESY OF ABBY ROSS

  • Who: Rosanne Cash reading from "Composed"

    When: 7:30 tonight

    Where: Jones Auditorium at Meredith College, 3800 Hillsborough St., Raleigh

    Cost: $5, or free with purchase of "Composed" from Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh

    Details: 828-1588 or quailridgebooks.com

It's fitting that Rosanne Cash's new memoir is titled "Composed." Cash is a superlative composer, whether she's writing songs or prose. But the more salient point is that, whatever the subject or medium, she exudes a sense of composed dignity.

Getting there wasn't easy. Growing up with Johnny Cash for a father would be a challenge for anybody, especially someone who followed him into music. But she has managed both quite well, earning hit records as well as accolades despite plenty of heartache and health problems.

Through it all, that composure has served Cash well and enabled her to keep focused on moving ahead. "A road is a lonely bodyguard," she writes in "Composed," a metaphor she first came up with as a young girl. It's one she frequently turns to in conversation.

"E.L. Doctorow said it very succinctly," Cash said in a recent phone call from her home in New York in advance of her reading tonight in Raleigh. "Writing is like driving at night in that you can only see as far as the headlights, but that can get you all the way home.

"You're not sure where you're going, and I was surprised at where this book took me. Delighted and sometimes shocked, too. You have to put yourself in the zone, that space where you're sitting before the paper. Just trust it and go there."

Q: Will you sing at your reading in Raleigh?

No, I don't think so. They're absolutely different things, which my manager and I talk about all the time. Putting this book tour together, I keep getting people asking, "Why not just get up and sing, too?" As if it's no big deal. But you wouldn't just ask an actor to do a couple of soliloquies from "Hamlet." It requires preparation, work, a level of artistry. It's not just something you can walk in and out of.

Q: So what do you do to prepare before a concert?

I'm not gonna tell you that! That's my secret thing. But there's some breathing exercises, warming up the voice, getting myself together and in the right frame of mind. It's a lot of energy to try to process and get ready for. Your nervous system definitely takes a jolt onstage.

Q: Your 2006 album "Black Cadillac" closes with a track called "0:71," which is 71 seconds of silence. Is that a tribute to your parents, who both died in 2003?

Yes. They both died at age 71, so it's one second for each year. A lot of people thought that whole record was a tribute, but it's not that at all. That is actually the only tribute track on it. It's like a little prayer or send-off, a meditation on respect. It only seems like a tribute because they were famous and people know the back story. If you didn't know that, you'd think it was about a woman traversing a map of her experiences of grief, mourning, anger, liberation, loss and death. But it's not specifically about them, no.

Q: When you're writing songs, do you tend to sit with a piece of paper? Or do they emerge when you're playing an instrument?

There are a lot of times where songs start by themselves when I'm nowhere near an instrument. Many times, I've written the lyrics to an entire song before any of the melody comes. And sometimes it happens when I'm playing around on guitar or piano. If there was a simple formulaic way it happened, I'd just do that all the time. But there is no formula other than what Somerset Maugham said when asked if he wrote every day or just when inspiration struck. "I only write when inspiration strikes," he said. "Fortunately, it strikes at 9 a.m. every day." Meaning, that's when he sat down in his chair to write.

Q: What will your next album be?

I'm doing one with Joe Henry and Billy Bragg. We became close doing a show together in Germany, and there was great chemistry. We got on so well that we decided to make an album together. For my own next album, I'm basically covering myself - revisiting older songs where the production of the original recording is dated. There are some songs from [1981's] "Seven Year Ache" that I wrote at 24 and would like to reinvent at 55. I like the idea of a covers record of my own songs, so I'm gonna try that.

Q: How about your next book?

At some point, I'd like to do volume two of the memoir. I've lived 55 years and "Composed" is just a 240-page book, so I left a few things out. I'm also hoping a few other things will still happen. I don't know what form a second volume would take. I'd like to take M.F.K. Fisher as a template. She did volumes and volumes of books, writing about her life by writing about food. I'd like to write about my life by writing about songs. There are a lot I didn't cover in this one.

david.menconi@newsobserver.com, blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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