25 May Susan Cattaneo’s New Album ‘All is Quiet’ Awakens Listeners to a Lush Soundscape
By Marisa Torrieri Bloom
The culmination of two years of “quieter” times for many artists is bearing fruit this spring, with new music that showcases some of best songwriting I’ve heard in years. One of my favorite new releases comes from Boston-based musician and Berklee College of Music professor Susan Cattaneo. While the singer-songwriter mom has spent a lifetime writing sonic stunners, her latest record is a breath of fresh air and a gorgeous production from the first track to the last.
What’s more amazing is that the entire nine-song record was recorded remotely.
The title track “All is Quiet” is such a masterpiece in execution — I hadn’t heard so many gorgeous guitar textures (and vocal textures) that I had to listen several times to really let the song sink in. And there are others I love, too, like “Borrowed Blue.”
We recently caught up with Cattaneo to talk about this reflective, intimate folk record.
Rockmommy: All is Quiet is such a stunning musical work of art. Can you talk about how the last two years inspired — or brought you to — this record?
Susan Cattaneo: Thank you so much for the kind words! These days, it is such a gift to have people listen to your music — I’m SO grateful for that…which is actually the perfect segue to talking about this record! Going through the pandemic gave me new insight into what making art is all about and how to value what I do as an artist. When the world shut down in March of 2020, I shut down as well. I’ve always been a pretty prolific songwriter and writer in general, and for the first time in my life, I felt silenced creatively.
After spending three months watching the “Great British Baking Show” and taking long walks with my dog, I realized that not writing songs made me even sadder. I had an epiphany of sorts that what I really enjoy is the actual creative process (even in a vacuum where no one might never hear it). The act of making something has value in and of itself. This idea led to the song “Follow,” which is about what it means to follow your intuition and is the last track on All is Quiet. After that first song, it felt like whatever was blocking me came unblocked, and I started to lean into the idea of creating for creation’s sake.
Rockmommy: Who are your musical inspirations?
Susan Cattaneo: I’m very lyric-driven in my songs, so I’m a fan all the big name lyric storyteller/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Guy Clark, and Tom Waits to name a few. I was raised in a musical family where we all used to sing and harmonize so I also love bands that feature lots of harmonies like Crosby, Stills and Nash and Fleetwood Mac. When I was 19, I was introduced to the music of Bonnie Raitt, and I have to say that having her as my musical hero changed my life. I love the blues as well and that combination of rock, folk, country, and blues really fit my aesthetic as well. More current influences are Jason Isbell, Roseanne Cash, Kim Richey, Sara Jarosz, and pop artists like Billie Eilish. If the lyric is good, I’m in.
Rockmommy: The song ‘Borrowed Blue’ sounds deeply personal. I love the line “I’ll be damned if I make her carry more than she has to.” Can you tell us about this song?
Susan Cattaneo: I wrote this as a love song to my daughter. When she was applying to college, she was so full of insecurities about herself. As her mom, it was painful for me to watch this person whom I thought was so amazing and wonderful not value herself. And it made me think about what we inherit and pass on as women. What stories do we tell ourselves about our worth in the world? And is there healing in recognizing the pattern and trying to stop it? When I played it for her, we both had a good cry, and I’m grateful that a song that meant so much to me personally is also resonating with other mothers and daughters who hear it.
Rockmommy: I think what the Boston Globe said, that this record is “hauntingly beautiful,” could not be more accurate. How is ‘All is Quiet’ different from your other original work?
Susan Cattaneo: I love writing a record, because it’s a beautiful snapshot of who you are musically and lyrically at that time. All is Quiet is my sixth album and if you listen to my catalogue, I think you can hear my evolution as a writer and artist. My earlier work referenced my love of storytelling and had more of a pop country feel.
All is Quiet was written from a place of extreme vulnerability, and I think it embraces my love of folk music. From a textural standpoint, since I was alone in my little room when I was writing this album, the songs took on a quieter dynamic than in my earlier records, with lots of harmonies since that is my primary instrument. I worried less about getting things perfect and more about going for “feel” and delivering the right emotion.
Rockmommy: When you write music, do the songs come to you in bits or pieces? Does a lyric come first or does a melody?
Susan Cattaneo: I’m very lyric driven so normally my songs start with some lyric idea or hook. Once I have that idea, I usually start vocalizing the line and also pick up an instrument to try and get a sense of the tempo and groove of the song. I usually write the chorus first and then work outwards from there. I’ve written songs where I just had the lyric first and other ones where I started with the music, but I find the songs that feel the most “right” to me are ones in which it’s this combination of melody, words and chords all happening at the same time.
Rockmommy: Now that life is returning to an altered state of “normalcy” post Covid, is it harder to find time to write? Was there beauty in the slowdown that allowed for music/songs to slow-roast before they were produced?
Susan Cattaneo: I try to write every day no matter what. So even though we were in a pandemic, that part of my routine hasn’t and didn’t change during this odd time. Songwriting and writing in general are the ways that I cope and understand the world around me. When I put into words and melody what I’m feeling, there’s this beautiful sense of release, of letting go. It’s a healing thing for me.
Rockmommy: Knowing that we’re all different in our approaches to songwriting, what is your best advice for those who are new to writing songs?
Susan Cattaneo: If you’re new to writing songs, I think that the best thing you can do is create some form of daily practice that makes it so that when the muse strikes, you’re ready! That means doing some form of daily writing whether it’s in the style of a stream of consciousness writing a la the Morning Pages (Julia Cameron’s The Writer’s Way) or a more specific image-based writing a la Object Writing (Pat Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics). I personally love object writing and use that every day!
This kind of writing has to be a judgement free zone. You’re just “warming up” in the same way a runner would do stretches. You also need to pick up some sort of chordal instrument or a DAW (digital audio workstation like Logic, GarageBand or Ableton) that will enable you to make music to go with your words. Practice that instrument every day.
Watch YouTube videos and learn to play your favorite covers, Practice your scales. Use a metronome so that you’re in time. Collaborate and cowrite with others. The key is to try and make yourself a more balanced musician, so I would say that if you’re more lyric-driven, try and expand your musical abilities as well and vice versa…And most important of all: Remember to have fun!!! I always try to remember that the verb is “to play” music, not to self-loathe or judge music!!!
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.