Music interview: Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash. Picturet: Clay Patrick McBride
Rosanne Cash. Picturet: Clay Patrick McBride
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Daughter of country icon Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash speaks to Duncan Seaman about her new album ahead of her Leeds gig next week.

Rosanne Cash may have quit Nashville, Tennessee two decades ago for a new life in New York City but on a brief return to the spiritual capital of country music it seems she’s feeling quite at home.

“You know it’s a new city now, very different from when I lived here, I really enjoy it,” the singer-songwriter says warmly.

“I went to an art opening last night with my daughter and the food is fantastic and there are tons of young people here and lots of alternative music – it’s a really fun place to come.”

The past year has been momentous for the eldest daughter of country legend Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto Cash Distin. She recently celebrated her 60th birthday and her 13th album, The River and The Thread, gathered plaudits around the world. In the UK she breached the top 20 for the first time and further affirmation came in February when she won three Grammy Awards.

It’s a deeply personal set of songs rooted in the American South and her own family history. “My husband John Leventhal and I started going to the South a lot in a few year period,” she says of her point of embarkation on the album. “One reason was that Arkansas State University had purchased my dad’s boyhood home in Arkansas. They wanted to restore it and make it part of a music heritage site, part of the Delta music trail, as well as being my dad’s home.

“I got involved with fund raising so I was going down to Memphis and Arkansas. At the same time I was going to Alabama to visit my friend Natalie Chanin, and then on another trip we drove straight down Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans.

“On another trip we went to Robert Johnson’s grave and the site of where the great blues musicians were from, so there was a lot of trips to the South and a lot of really inspiring moments – it was kind of hard to avoid the songs.”

Etta’s Tune, the first track she wrote for the album, sprang from conversations with she had with the widow of her father’s old bass player, Marshall Grant.

“Writing that song and then writing The Sunken Lands from being in Arkansas then I had written just the chorus to A Feather’s Not a Bird, with those three things John said, ‘There’s really something here we could write about, we could write a whole album about the South and that’s how it started.”

The thread in the title is both literal and metaphorical, and originated from an expression from Cash’s friend Natalie Chanin, a fashion designer, who was teaching the singer to sew. “She was actually threading my needle when she said, ‘You have to love the thread’, then of course it became a bigger metaphor for me. It was quite beautiful when she said that.”

A pilgrimage to Sun Studio, in Memphis, where her father famously recorded in the 1950s, was emotional, she admits.

“I had been there before a few times since my dad died [in 2003], and several times in my life. What was emotional about it was taking my son for the first time.

“He was 13 years old and he had never been and just to see him sitting in the control room and then there’s this enormous photo of my dad on the wall and Jake just walked over and he picked up this guitar that was hanging there and then he took it off and he was standing playing guitar right in front of the photo of my dad and tears came to my eyes.

“It was so beautiful to think about my dad, who was only 10 years older than Jake was at that moment, recording his first records in that place, it was very emotional.”

To accompany the album, Cash created a place board on the website Pinterest, complete with photographs and song lyrics. “I’ve always loved maps,” she says. “In fact I went to the map room in the New York Public Library, which is a gorgeous space, and I made friends with the keeper of the maps there and he would pull out these spectacularly beautiful 18th and 19th century maps of the South to show me and we pored over them when I was making the album and that in itself was very inspiring.”

The River and The Thread is Cash’s first complete collaboration with her husband. It gave the album a special intimacy, she admits.

“In the beginning I said we should make this as a duo project, we should put both our names on the cover, we should have both our pictures on the cover. He said ‘No, let’s do it together but it’ll be your album’, but there was something special about that.

“It can be very romantic to work with your husband, to do something that’s deeply creative for both of you.

“Of course we do have some arguments,” she laughs, “but we are trying to make the best record we could and you can argue about it.

“Someone said to me after they heard the album, ‘Do you realise how many marriages are in this record?’ and I didn’t. Etta’s Tune, When The Master Calls The Roll, Modern Blue, Night School, there’s a lot of couples show up.”

Of all the songs she’s written over the last three and a half decades, Cash says one from her latest record is closest to her heart.

“When The Master Calls The Roll is really special to me, partly because I wrote it with John and my ex-husband Rodney [Crowell], also because it’s about my own Civil War ancestors.

“I had always wanted to write a song that was in the tradition of those Celtic narrative ballads or Appalachian narrative ballads and I’d never figured out how to crack the code, so to finally get to that it was such an incredible feeling. I just felt so happy and proud. It was really the most satisfying songwriting experience of my life.

“I lived with those characters when I was writing the lyrics with Rodney – I’d wake up thinking about them and go to bed thinking about them, it was a great experience.”

Later this month Cash and Leventhal will tour the UK, playing the album in its entirety. The smallest date on the tour will be at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, which has a capacity of just 400. Cash explains she was so smitten with the venue when she played there last year that she was keen to return. “Absolutely, that’s exactly why we’re coming back because we enjoyed it so much,” she says.

“For one thing I’m used to playing theatres and beautiful halls where people are seated and it’s very elegant and nice, but to play a club again where everyone’s standing and kind of crazy it’s so much fun.”

Rosanne Cash plays at Brudenell Social Club on July 21, doors open at 7.30pm. For details visit www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk

For details of Rosanne Cash’s place board for The River and The Thread visit https://www.pinterest.com/realrosannecash/