But for a papal decree, singer-songwriter Susan Werner might not be who she came to be.
“I owe my entire career to Pope John XXIII,” Werner says, “because Pope John XXIII gave the nuns permission to play guitars.”
The effect was somewhat indirect. “I grew up in a big Catholic family on a farm in eastern Iowa,” Werner says. “I went to a Catholic elementary school and Sister Marie Claire taught guitar lessons at St. Mary’s Catholic School. She taught my big brother to play guitar, and he brought a guitar home when I was five years old. He taught me three chords — three chords that changed my life.”
Werner built upon that three-chord introduction to create a decades-long career, one that will bring her to the First Encounter Coffee House in Eastham on Sunday afternoon.
Though she began that career as an introspective folk artist, midway through her journey she began looking outward, recording a series of concept albums, each exploring a different musical genre. The collection includes cabaret, country, gospel, and Cuban. Nola, the most recent, is a musical love letter to the Crescent City.
“I’ve really enjoyed working on concept albums,” Werner says, “maybe because there comes a time when you feel — at least I did — that a lot of my internal life got worked out one way or another. So it wasn’t so much going down into the well anymore but going out into the world. And that’s been the fuel that’s powered me, powered the muse for many, many years. And I don’t know if it’s ever going to run out. There’s so much good music to explore.”
While immersing herself in her albums’ various styles, Werner always remains true to her own essence. Nowhere is that more evident than in the 2013 album Hayseed, a recording that brings her back to her Iowa roots.
“Even though I graduated from a school for music and all that, at some point you realize that where you’re from and the people you really know and the richness of the experience you had with them are your wealth,” Werner says. “My father, my mother, my uncles, my aunts, and my grandparents were all farmers, and at some point I figured out that someone should capture their humor, the things they love, and how they speak. Someone should capture that in music. And then I thought, maybe it should be me.”
Werner’s inspiration for Nola was two educational videos made by the great New Orleans pianist Dr. John back in 1980.
“I’d totally forgotten about them,” she says. “But I found them in my music library, and I put one on and thought, God, this is the whole thing. This is the whole packet.”
Making several trips to New Orleans, Werner observed and absorbed the sights, the sound, and the scents of the city, its culture and its cuisine, its past and its present. She put them all together in a piano-driven collection of songs, played in the tradition of — and in appreciation of — the city’s legendary pianists, such as Professor Longhair, James Booker, Fats Domino, and Dr. John.
“That was a challenge that I set for myself: to throw down piano as well as I could in that style,” Werner says. “It’s been a delight to bring that to people, because New Orleans piano music is a one-person party. Right away it sounds like a good time, because it is a good time.”
The album looks at New Orleans from many angles. One song, “A Moment,” tells of the slave trade and the last living witnesses to this abomination.
“A couple of years ago, [the city’s then-] mayor Mitch Landrieu erected a plaque, a historical marker on the site of the largest slave market in the United States,” Werner says. “To come upon that is sobering, and it should be. There are trees that tower over that marker. I looked at them and thought these must be 200 years old. And it came to me what witnesses they would be to this history.”
On a lighter note, “The Night I Ate New Orleans,” pays tribute to the city’s reputation as a mecca for gourmets.
“That’s because eating is a huge part of the New Orleans experience — one of the great delights,” Werner says. “I know people who book a 5:30 and an 8:30 dinner reservation on the same night.”
Then there’s “What He Said in Jackson Square,” the “he” being an unnamed speaker from the afterlife.
“New Orleans is known for its ghosts,” Werner says. “Some people say it’s because people are buried above ground, because New Orleans is below sea level. There’s much talk of the afterlife in New Orleans.”
As to who the speaker in the song is, Werner leaves that up to the listener.
“Hopefully, I’ve written the song broadly enough that many people can find someone they love who would speak to them in this way from the other side,” Werner says. “As for myself, I was thinking of my late, great brother [David Werner], who was a comedian and a tremendously gifted man. He died by suicide in 2013. I probably wrote ten different songs on the subject, but none of them quite made sense until this one.”
A Woman of Catholic Tastes
The event: Susan Werner in concert
The time: Sunday, Jan. 19, at 4:30 p.m.
The place: First Encounter Coffee House, Chapel in the Pines, 220 Samoset Road in Eastham.
The cost: $25 at the door