Songs of Susannah: Music is my first language


I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and have lived all my life in nearby rural Southeastern Indiana, in a little house on a hill in the woods, near a town so small, it doesn't even have a traffic light. The only time I lived anywhere else was when I was in college. Unlike most of my friends, who couldn't wait to get away, I always loved my home, and never wanted to live anywhere else.

Music has always been part of my life. My mom sang well over 100 different songs to us when we were growing up, from a wide range of genres, took us to folk music concerts, museums, parks and the zoo. She took painting lessons and tried to teach herself to play the guitar, and encouraged us in any art form we wanted to try, from ballet to piano to painting to theater workshops.

When I was a toddler, my family noticed that I made up songs all the time. My life was, essentially, a musical, so the first time I saw a musical (The Sound of Music, when I was about 4), I didn't notice anything strange or remarkable about the fact that the characters kept bursting into song; in fact, I related to Maria very much, especially up on the mountain by herself, singing, just like I did all the time in the woods. What I did think was baffling was that the children claimed that they didn't know any songs, and didn't know how to sing. To me, it was as if they said they didn't know how to breathe, or didn't know how to go to sleep.

About 24 years later, I would learn what it was like to not be able to sing, and I would be afraid that my singer/songwriter dreams were over forever.

As a kid, I was in several choirs, including a handbell choir, and, about four years after I started playing by ear, I started taking piano lessons. About a year later, I wrote my first piece of sheet music. During the next few years, I wrote a lot of piano arrangements of songs I knew well, and realized that I could figure out the chords and melody to most songs I knew within a few minutes.

When I was a little girl, our house was the school bus's second stop. During the hour-long bus ride to school, I would watch the strobe light on top of the bus casting shadows on tree branches, and then watch the sunrise, singing all the while.

Although I remember only a few of them, I was constantly making up new songs on the school bus, usually about watching the sunrise, or what was going on in my life. I wrote a song about getting my allergy test results, I wrote a song about the merits of Commodore 64 computers, I wrote a song about rabbits when the bus nearly ran over a bunny, and I also sang songs I already knew. I considered the bus as a good opportunity to sing whatever was in my head.

Needless to say, this did not improve my popularity at school. Several bullies used to interrupt my singing along the way. I stopped riding the school bus in the third grade, so I'd have more time to work on my homework.

When I was about 10 or 11 (about 1990 or 1991), one day, I put my left hand on the piano keyboard and accidentally played the first 6 notes of Watermark by Enya. I immediately recognized it, and before I got up from the piano, I could play the entire piece by ear from memory (albeit with two fewer chord changes than it actually has, which I realized the next time I played the tape and subsequently corrected). It was the first time I had ever done anything like that.

Then, in the Fall of 1993 (my Freshman year of high school), I decided to compose piano arrangements for all the songs of the Simon & Garfunkel album The Sounds of Silence. I initially wrote a joyful version of A Most Peculiar Man, but my piano teacher told me that, even though I like being different and wanted to celebrate that by playing this song, it was actually inappropriate in this context, so I re-wrote my arrangement using almost the same accompaniment in A Most Peculiar Man that I had learned from playing Watermark by ear a couple years prior.

Less than a year later, I also used similar accompaniment when I wrote The Dark Horse. Since then, I've found that variations on this accompaniment recur in the majority of my songs (though it is by no means universal, though probably more than half of them). I suppose I just like arpeggios.

I used to worry that my extensive use of arpeggios made my music sound too uniform. Many people have assured me that it does not. It's just an element of my style, part of what creates my unique sound.

My Sophomore year of high school, I bought a classical guitar and started to teach myself how to play. For decades, I only knew 10 chords, though eventually, I started writing music on the guitar and developed my own style, which actually sounds remarkably similar my piano arpeggios.

By the end of my senior year of high school, I had written enough songs to record two albums. I was just putting it off until I could afford to hire a recording studio. As a college student, I didn't have the money. Five years out of college, I still didn't have enough money to record.

That's when my right vocal cord became completely and permanently paralyzed. I couldn't talk at all for a while. I went to voice therapy for 9 months, but even after that, I couldn't reliably carry a tune, especially in my head voice. I had been a high soprano with a range that went all the way down to contralto. I'd had a strong voice, and never needed lemon juice or a cough drop at Music Camp (when we learned a musical in five days and performed it on the last night, a highlight of my summers for a decade). I was devastated by the loss of my voice. I should have just recorded, even though I couldn't afford it outright. I could have put it on a credit card. I felt like I had put it off too long, and now, it was too late. I couldn't have predicted this bizarre, inexplicable medical problem, and yet, this is what came of waiting for the right time.

But I kept working on my voice. Although I had never liked trained voices, preferring my natural, folk music sound, now I was experimenting with character voices, trying to find a way to sound good enough. If Bob Dylan and Iris DeMent could record with their voices, surely I could find a way. However, everything I tried to do to change my voice just seemed to make it worse, because it didn't sound genuine.

About 10 years later, my tiny hometown opened an art gallery, and they started hosting Song Circles. I went to a Song Circle and played and sang some of my original songs, and when I heard someone whisper, "Wow," when I was performing Half Sick of Shadows, I realized that I finally had a good enough voice to start recording. I went home and wrote my song, Singing in a Damaged Voice, and started making plans to record, at long last.

I suddenly knew that Singing in a Damaged Voice would be the title track for my first album. Back in high school, I had already designed and created the album art for my first cassette (the title song was Backstage, and I'd written out the track list for my second album as well). I realized that, all these many years later, the songs I wrote for those albums are still very good songs, however, they're not representative of who I am today. Who I am, for my first album, is the girl with the damaged voice who is still singing because it is her calling. For a time, I did think of just being a composer of piano music, or finding someone else to sing my songs. I eventually realized that I need to communicate with my own voice. And, though it is not the voice that I was born with, I have worked hard for it, and it truly is my voice.