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Composed doesn’t mark the first time Rosanne Cash has turned her talents to prose instead of songwriting. In 1996, she published a short-story collection called Bodies Of Water, and she largely devoted the succeeding years to writing after a polyp on her vocal cords left her temporarily unable to sing. But this is the first time she’s written at length about herself; she’s approached autobiography obliquely even in her songs. Although she’s been working on the book for a decade, she completed it after undergoing brain surgery for a rare condition in 2007, which naturally put her in a backward-looking frame of mind. Between the deaths of her father and stepmother, Johnny and June Carter Cash, which inspired her 2006 album Black Cadillac, Cash spent much of the last decade contemplating mortality, history, and her place in it. In 2009, she released The List, an album of country and folk standards drawn from a list of essential country songs her father bequeathed her when she was a teenager; he worried that her Southern California upbringing had taken her too far from her musical roots. The album and the memoir share a sense of reverence for the past and reckoning with it, using Cash’s origins to move past it. They’re neither history nor fiction, but somewhere between, self-contained works that reach outward in both directions. From the kitchen of her Manhattan apartment, Cash talked to The A.V. Club about the balance between intuition and discipline, why she hates celebrity tell-alls, and the lifelong process of dealing with her father’s fans.
The A.V. Club: Between Composed and The List, you’ve spent the last couple of years looking back at your past. Is it just a coincidence that those two things happened at the same time?
Rosanne Cash: You know, I didn’t think that objectively about it, but if there is a coincidence, I think it’s just a matter of age. I had a serious health scare. Looking at your mortality makes you start to feel urgent about the things you want to complete. And I started thinking about The List and about finishing the memoir after the brain surgery.
AVC: In your account of the making of your 1990 album Interiors, you mention tacking up a sign over the entrance to the recording studio reading “Abandon All Thought, Ye Who Enter Here.” That sort of intuitive approach seems as if it would be antithetical to the self-analytical process of writing a memoir.
RC: Well, that’s an interesting notion. I think I was more interested in the intuitive approach to recording than I probably was in writing those songs. Because I think it’s equal parts intuitive approach, inspiration, and discipline. Like I called it in the book, that watchmaker’s attention to detail. In some ways, it’s the same thing for prose. It’s not that different of an approach. It’s not as if you change jobs, really; you just change media, from watercolors to oils or something. So I think the balance between those two, being open to the inspiration but having enough refined skills that you can support it, they’re both important.
AVC: How does the process of writing songs and writing prose differ for you?
RC: I guess in songwriting, it happens in more episodic spurts. Like an idea might just be rolling around for a while; you might get a verse, you might get a chorus, you might get a melody, and then it kind of unfolds until you’re ready to sit down and flesh it out. With prose, that doesn’t happen as much; it requires me to sit down and look at the blank page for a while.
AVC: You’ve talked about keeping track of song ideas on your iPhone, recording little bits of melody that pop into your head.
RC: Yeah, and a notepad right by my bed. I have thousands of half-filled notepads scattered around my house.
AVC: So when it comes time to make a new record or write a new song, are you going through those notebooks and looking for specific things?
RC: Oh, I wish I could say I was that organized. But you know, it’s ongoing, it’s like there’s not a clean demarcation between the rest of my life and that, and particularly because I have children and my house is always busy. It’s catch-as-catch-can sometimes, as far as writing time. I mean, certainly I have gone back through my old files and looked at old lyrics to get ideas if I feel kind of dried-up. That’s why I save them.
AVC: You write in the book about going back to a seventh-grade writing project and extracting the line “the lonely road is a bodyguard” for “Sleeping In Paris,” off your 1993 album The Wheel. You end up closing the memoir with that line as well.
RC: Yeah, well, that was a special, special case. Otherwise, I’ve never gone that far back for a line. [Laughs]
AVC: Comparing the accounts of recording sessions in Composed with your entries for the New York Times blog “Measure For Measure,” where you dissect the songwriting process in minute detail—the book isn’t nearly so specific about the process. You describe the circumstances surrounding each record, but rarely go into detail about a specific song.
RC: Well, the blog was meant to be more academic. When they asked me to start writing that, that’s how they approached it. I didn’t want my memoir to get too pedantic, you know. It was still part of a larger life. I thought I would lose readers if I got too academic about songwriting.
AVC: It’s not one of those set-the-record-straight memoirs.
RC: No. Which record? That’s the point. There are so many dozens of records. Whose would I have been setting straight?
AVC: It’s not like, “Everyone else has told their story. Now I’m going to tell it.” For example, your divorce from Rodney Crowell happens between chapters. It’s about to happen, and then it’s over. You don’t go into the gory details.
RC: It was out of respect for my children and for Rodney. I’m just not the type of person who likes to dish or settle scores, or that kind of horrible confessional thing that happens where people lose their dignity. It appalls me. I didn’t want to do it, particularly for my children.
AVC: So what are you doing writing a memoir?
RC: Right. Well, I think I wrote a lot about my life, a making-of-an-artist type arc, coming of age, about my family of origin, about my current marriage and kids, about travel, about the things that circumscribed my life. I think I wrote about those in a fairly poetic way without having to write a celebrity tell-all. I had no interest in writing a celebrity tell-all.
AVC: One of your New York Times pieces was called “Don’t Fact-Check The Soul.” Does that apply to autobiography as well?
RC: I thought a lot about that. Would my sisters have these same memories? And when they read the book, would they object? Will they have another truth? It’s interesting. They probably would, to some extent, but that doesn’t make my experience false. You know that saying that children in the same family have different parents? I think that’s true for me. Birth order and all those things make a difference. But I did feel a responsibility to keep it as factual as I recall, as factual as I could. It’s a memoir. It’s implicit that you do have a responsibility to do that.
AVC: Did you realize while writing that some things didn’t match your memory of them?
RC: I’m bad at dates, and in fact there is one date that is wrong in the book. It was about something when I was in Germany, the year I made my first record. I think I got the year wrong. But I did try to check that. It was easy to check on the Internet, like, “Oh, I made that record in this year.” My most reliable fact-checking of my own life was “How old was my child then? Which child was I having? Where was I living?” Those things helped fit the puzzle together.
AVC: Were there things you saw from a different perspective, or reconsidered?
RC: I spent a long time talking to my aunt Sylvia, who was my mother’s sister. A daughter and mother—there’s a lot of things that you maybe assumed or saw through the prism of your own resentment or whatever. So I called my aunt to check some things out. “Was mom like this? What happened then? What did she say about this?” So like I said, I felt a responsibility. But a lot of things I wrote about, I didn’t know what they meant in my life until I wrote about them. And in some cases, I didn’t know what I felt about them until I wrote about them. So that was surprising to me. I would get this well of feeling about something that had been long-buried. It’s good. I guess it happens to everyone when they write a memoir.
AVC: People who aren’t writers often assume that writing is about the process of putting words on paper. But the real work is in figuring out what to say, not how to say it.
RC: Right. And figuring out where the road is taking you. E.L. Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can get all the way home. I found this to be very much like that. I mean, I wrote this piece about the concert at the Oslo prison. I had no idea it was going in the direction of the Lowe’s hardware store. And then I found myself there, and it was very emotional.
AVC: You talk a lot in the book about your relationship with your father, or more precisely, your relationship with other people’s relationship with your father. It’s something that’s hung over you your entire life. How did you negotiate how much of that relationship to put in and how much to leave out? You know some people are going to strip-mine the book for details about him.
RC: Yeah, I’m expecting that.
AVC: But at the same time, he’s your father. You can’t leave him out of your memoir. Did you have to banish self-consciousness as far as writing about him was concerned?
RC: I don’t know if it’s possible to banish it completely, but I had to make the decision that I was jumping off the cliff. And I’m certainly going to get some flak back. There are some people that have these intense projections on my father and want to protect those projections against anyone, including his own family. It’s so odd. But I’m used to people trying to look through me to see my father, or to glean something about my life so they can feel closer to my father, or have a reaction to me so they can own my father. It’s kind of endless. And if I spent time thinking about all that, that’s all I would do.
AVC: You were in a similar position with regard to The List. In many cases, you’re reinterpreting songs whose original versions are the bedrock of country music. You don’t get much more iconic than Patsy Cline doing “She’s Got You.” What is it like to get up close and personal to such monumental songs?
RC: Well, I felt very close to these songs, obviously, or I wouldn’t have done them. Some, I had a more authentic kind of ownership than others, like the Carter Family song [“Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow”]. Someone actually said to me, “How could you even think about doing that? Wasn’t that frightening?” That’s the one I felt probably most comfortable doing, because I had learned it at the age of 18 from Helen Carter, a way that was saying, “Take ownership of this.”
AVC: And the Carters come from the folk tradition of passing songs down from person to person. They’re meant to be reinterpreted, even rewritten.
RC: Yes, absolutely. And actually, all the songs I felt to be in that tradition, because my father had exactly done that, as it if it were like a martial-arts secret: “Here, take this. This embodied us. This is part of your DNA.” So a couple of them were intimidating: “Girl From The North Country,” just because it was a very iconic version that my dad did with Bob [Dylan], and “She’s Got You,” because of the Patsy Cline thing. But the rest of them—there was kind of beauty and, I don’t know, fulfillment, like a very long circle had been completed. “Long Black Veil” was the one where I really felt closest to my dad. I just went, “Oh my God, if Dad heard me sing this he just wouldn’t believe it.”
AVC: One of the overlooked virtues of country and folk songs is how well-constructed they are. A song like “Long Black Veil” is a perfect narrative in miniature, progressing flawlessly with every verse.
RC: Well, that’s an art. That’s what made the first impact on me when I got the list when I was 18 years old, is examining these songs and seeing how well-constructed they were, and why they were on the list, why they were great songs. There’s a very subtle art to doing exactly what you just said: evoking this cinematic quality like in “Long Black Veil,” and this narrative that is so taut, and in three verses, it tells you everything that’s happened. That’s very difficult.
AVC: Often, when people talk about country music, they don’t even know what they mean, let alone what it actually means.
RC: When I talk about it, I’m talking about it in the folk tradition, something that comes from Appalachian and Southern blues and delta and Southern gospel and folk and early protest songs and all of those theaters that go into it, which is very different from what’s on the radio right now.
AVC: It’s also different musically from the “hot country” sound you were doing when you started out. You’ve talked a lot about the Southern California influence coming into your music.
RC: Well, I grew up in Southern California. It couldn’t help but come in. I was a huge fan of Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills And Nash, Janis Joplin and Big Brother And The Holding Company, all of the stuff that was around—Joni Mitchell. That singer-songwriter tradition was enormously influential on me.
AVC: There’s even a poppy side in some of your early songs.
RC: Well, huge Beatles fan.
AVC: You’ve covered The Beatles several times as well, speaking of intimidating original versions.
RC: If you reinvent them enough, you can take part of the intimidation factor away.
AVC: You and your husband and producer, John Leventhal, have an ironclad rule about cover versions, which is that you have to stick to the original.
RC: The way John and I both feel is, you don’t change someone’s lyrics, and you don’t change their intrinsic melody. You can change the chord changes, but not the intrinsic melody.
AVC: You write in Composed about how you think of your songs as “postcards from the future.” It’s striking to realize that when you wrote “Seven Year Ache,” you’d barely been married six months.
RC: I’ll tell you exactly where it was coming from. I was living in Southern California. Rickie Lee Jones’ first record came out. I was just blown away by this record. Remember “Chuck E.’s In Love” and all of that? I kept thinking about that there wasn’t a street song in country music that I could think of. No song about street life in downtown, and being on the street. So I started writing this very long poem, pages and pages about that, and then I distilled it down to “Seven Year Ache.”