“I love analyzing songs and finding out what makes them tick and what makes them wonderful.”
By Blake Maddux
Susan Cattaneo enrolled at the Berklee College of Music at age 30 in 1995. Having been singing and writing in some way, shape, or form for most of her life, she found herself ineluctably drawn to songwriting classes.
Prior to becoming a music student, she had worked for several years as a television writer and producer in New York City and at an ad agency in Boston. While working in the Big Apple, she received a New York Emmy Award nomination in what she calls the “unsexy” category of Outstanding Promotional Announcement. (She lost to Geraldo Rivera.)
Cattaneo describes herself as “the Marlon Brando of country music,” i.e., she “coulda been a contender.” Nevertheless, she has made an admirably successful career as a musician in Boston. In addition to teaching at Berklee since 2000, she has released three albums and one EP in the past six years and performed approximately 50 shows in 2015 alone.
Not bad for someone who insists that she, before going to Berklee, “didn’t know that it was possible to make a living doing music.”
She spoke with The Arts Fuse ahead of the third show, at which she will be joined by folk singer Vance Gilbert.
The Arts Fuse: How did you end up becoming a student and then a professor at Berklee given that you already had a BA in English and a job in advertising?
Susan Cattaneo: This is actually a true story. I’ll never forget. I was walking down Prospect Street in Cambridge trying to decide what to do with my life. Do I quit being a writer/producer to go back to school? And I’m walking around, and I’m not religious, but I was like, “Oh please, give me a sign of what I should do with my life!” And I looked down, and between the slabs of concrete was something shiny. I reached down and picked it up and it was a single silver treble clef earring. And I was like, “Thank you!”
I ended up going back to Berklee as a 30-year old student. I discovered the songwriting classes, and I started talking in class. And students kind of approached me outside of class and asked me if I would help them with their songs. Then Pat Pattison, who is my mentor and who actually hired me there, said that he thought I’d be a really great teacher. I said that I was going to Nashville. So we [her husband/manager Dino Cattaneo] moved to Nashville, it didn’t work out, and we moved back after six months. So I called up Pat, and I was like, “Hey, remember that job offer?” I started teaching in 2000.
When I discovered songwriting, it seemed like, “Oh, well of course! This is the answer,” because it was this combination of two things that I loved so much, which were singing music and writing. I took every single songwriting thing that I could at Berklee. It was a really natural fit for me to start teaching it, because I love looking at songs. I love analyzing them and finding out what makes them tick and what makes them wonderful.
AF: When did you first begin performing your own material in front of audiences?
Cattaneo: When I was in New York, I had a gig with a band at night, so I was writing songs for that band. We were kind of like a funk-folk band, which is very weird. We had two lead singers. I was one of the singers and there was a guy, and we shared that role. We had a big following. We packed The Bitter End and the Speakeasy.
AF: Has you Tuesday night residency at Lizard Lounge included performances of new songs that you have not yet recorded?
Cattaneo: Yes! I just wrote a song with the wonderful and fabulous Bill Kirchen. He was in Commander Cody, and he is a fabulous Telecaster player. He’s famous for a song called “Hot Rod Lincoln.” He and I wrote a song together that I’ve been performing this month. It’s called “In the Grooves,” and it’s all about loving records; loving vinyl. And then I have a few other songs that I haven’t recorded yet that are probably going to be part of the next album.
AF: When will your next album be released and what can people expect from it?
Cattaneo: I think it will probably be released in 2017. The way that I would describe it is, it’s going to be about having fun with my friends. That’s all I’m going to say. I’m very interested right now in collaboration and what collaboration brings. I think it’s going to be an album that has a lot of my friends on it and involved in it. I feel very grateful to be a part of the community that I’m a part of and I kind of want to celebrate that.
AF: If you could record an album’s worth of another artist’s songs as a tribute to him or her, whom would you choose?
Cattaneo: Bonnie Raitt. I was 17 when I first heard her music and—having been raised on musical theater and standards—I was blown away by that. That for me was just exactly the kind of music that I wanted to make, and I know all of her albums back and forth. I can do them in my sleep. And I’d choose deep covers that other people probably wouldn’t know.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who also contributes to The Somerville Times, DigBoston, Lynn Happens, and various Wicked Local publications on the North Shore. In 2013, he received an MLA from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Thesis in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.