Susan Werner Breaks Down How to Write a Concept Album

Songwriter Susan Werner made her major label debut in 1995 with the BMG/Private Music record Last Of The Good Straight Girls.  She is best known for her concept albums, including 2004’s collection of Great American Songbook styled originals “I Cant Be New,” 2007’s agnostic hymnal “The Gospel Truth,” her 2013 tribute to agriculture “Hayseed,” 2016’s “An American In Havana” and 2019’s “NOLA,” and 2020’s Flyover Country, a return to Werner’s rural roots. 

She is composer/lyricist for Bull Durham, The Musical, based on the MGM film.   During the pandemic she’s livestreaming (#susieonsundays) every Sunday night, 7 pm Eastern, at youtube.com/susanwerneronline.  

Step One: Decide on concept.  This actually counts for, like, ninety two out of a hundred steps, obviously.  Themes for records, for me, are like romances, like affairs; a two year obsession with a genre of music or certain subject matter.  If you find yourself fascinated with something, not just curious but drawn to it over and over, like a cat with a new toy or maybe a Rubik’s cube, that’s a good sign.  And if something about it scares you a little, like, “Can I actually pull this off, musically?” or “Is it possible I might discover something with this that puts me at a bit of emotional risk?” those are REAL GOOD SIGNS.  And if its something of both of those, DING DING DING DING winner winner chicken dinner. 

Step Two: Obsess to the point of neglect of all other things.  I treat each project a bit like a language immersion course, listening to exclusively that genre of music for months on end.  I don’t go out to hear other kinds of music, I go out only to hear music related to the style I’m working on.  Some of my friends think this makes me a bit weird, some of my friends KNOW it makes me a bit weird.  But being thought weird is often the price of admission to artistic expression.  It’s worth it.   

Step Three: Do your homework. Whatever the special musical skill required (stride piano, Cuban son guitar techniques, lap steel, whatever), head to the woodshed (“shedding” in the jazz world means practicing your instrument) and get out your metronome and do any given technique slowly, I mean, half as fast as you might do it in real time.  Then slowly, over the course of an hour, increase speed.  Let your muscle memory take in and master the new skillset.  And do this FOR A MONTH.  If you need to go somewhere to do research, travel to a city or country, go there.  Maybe more than once.  Best if you go alone, then you can have your thoughts to yourself.  And here’s something I think is really important: the first 24 hours in a new place are GOLD.  Write everything down that happens to you in those first 24 hours, sights sounds smells tastes, everything.  Or maybe you need to go to therapy for six months to make emotional room for someone or something in your life.  But do the homework, because what really sets a concept album apart is your investment of time, effort, feeling, risk.  That’s what makes the art worth it, for you and for anyone who might happen upon it. 

Step Four: Write a lot of songs, and don’t judge any of them ‘til you have, say, fifteen or twenty.  Really.  Then keep the ones that belong together, set aside the ones that don’t.  Fail a lot.  Make a lot of mediocre stuff.  Just make a LOT of songs.  In my experience, writer’s block is mostly a problem of judging what we make as we’re making it or before we even make it.  And maybe it’s a strange way of thinking about songwriting but I try to approach it like it’s, what they call in the car business, a “volume dealership.” Sell a LOT of cars, not just one pricey car, but a lot of medium priced cars with the occasional luxury vehicle from time to time.  Write a lot of songs, and some of them will be real good.  Volume.  

Step Five: Engage/hire a creative partner in the endeavor who gets the concept, maybe lives the concept.  For the Havana project I reconnected with a musician I’d met earlier in my career, the percussionist Mayra Casales, born in Havana to a musical family.  She coached the songs and the grooves and set the bar high in terms of excellence and authenticity.  For the New Orleans project I hired a trombonist I saw at Preservation Hall, and kept him close as I worked on and recorded the record.  It’s really helpful to have somebody tell you, “Hey, that thing you’re doing is just such a cliché, please don’t.” Saves you from yourself – something you need someone ELSE to do, obviously. 

Step Six: Record the album on a budget that doesn’t preclude your ability to make the next album.  At this point, my career is made of a string of creative adventures, so why break the bank on any one of them?  There’s another adventure coming next year! I might need to fly to Morocco! Or just Manchester, New Hampshire! But having faith that there’ll be new endeavors ahead kinda takes the pressure off the current one.  It helps me enjoy each project more, need less from it, and make room so me and the other musicians can take chances and maybe even happen upon a few surprises.     

Step Seven: Don’t be mad when you’re not rich or famous.  Bear in mind that a lot of artists who are rich or famous got there by being some version of “themselves” in their 20’s and did concept albums later.  The concept album will NOT get you rich or famous.  But it might make you happy, and make a cohort of other people happy, too.  Don’t tell anybody but i’ll let you in on a little secret: modest success is still success.    

Step Eight: Between projects, enjoy a few weeks and months of being a semi-normal human being.  It’s a happy but temporary state that lasts….until you inevitably fall in love with the next concept.  Which you will. 

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