Rosanne Cash talks songwriting

NYU Steinhardt's Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions bring music icons to engage in a conversation about their careers and how to get started.

As the latest guest in Steinhardt’s Songwriters Hall of Fame series, songwriter Rosanne Cash appeared in conversation with NYU Songwriter-in-Residence Phil Galdston last Thursday. The two spoke onstage at the Providence Playhouse discussing Cash’s extensive career and her approach to songwriting.

Cash, a frequent guest songwriting teacher at Steinhardt, has released 15 albums which produced 21 top 40 hits and 11 No.1 singles.  Additionally, she has four Grammys and 11 nominations to her name. Although she is the daughter of renowned country signer Johnny Cash, she seeks to be known for her own merits rather than her father’s legacy.

During the interview, Cash displayed both a quick sense of humor and embarrassment at her past performances. When Galdston played a clip of Cash performing on The Late Show with David Letterman, Cash became flustered.

“What am I wearing? I don’t remember this outfit!” Cash said.

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Cash shared several amusing anecdotes about her interactions with people who were influential in the music industry. She once complained to George Harrison that her performance was not as good as it had been at rehearsal, to which he replied, “It’s never as good as rehearsal.” She also recounted coincidentally sharing a cab with the man who had reviewed her album “Interiors” for Rolling Stone 20 years prior.

Though adamant that she exists as an independent artist from her father, Cash described his indelible impact on her life and career.

“His music was inextricably bound with his fatherhood,” Cash said. “The sight of a back with a guitar slung over, it means daddy to me. That’s what father means.”

When Cash was 18, her father wrote her a list of 100 essential country songs in an effort to expand her musical knowledge. In 2009, six years after her father’s passing, Cash released a cover album of twelve of the songs he had included in the list.

Cash said that she had always wanted to be a songwriter and that she quickly developed a knack for creating songs. She suggested that songwriters draw upon and fictionalize their past experiences when creating new lyrics.

“You can write about the truth without writing about the fact,” Cash said.

In recent years, Cash suffered a polyp on her vocal cords and underwent brain surgery due to a rare condition. She lost her father and stepmother in 2003, and her mother in 2005. These hardships, however, have spawned some of her most popular work.

Cash’s most recent successes include co-writing songs for HBO’s “True Detective” and collaborating on a song with Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson. She attributes her passion for songwriting to her sense of feeling lost without it, especially in the wake of her recent hardships.

“It’s only amateurs who only work when inspired,” Cash said. “Music is a more trustworthy way to God than religion.”

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 13 print edition. Email Abigail Weinberg at [email protected]

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