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Jacqui Sutton: At the Edge of the Frontier

By Published: December 3, 2012
It just so happens that "Lady of the Harbor" moves me as much as "Freed" does, as much as "Summertime" does. There are songs by the metal band Evanescence that I'd like to cover. Gosh, that woman's voice cuts right through me. So I guess any future cracks or crevices will correlate with what moves me. Lately, I've been learning Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," and some of his hermit songs. I've also had a songwriter send me a country song called "Sweet New Love" that I'm learning because it has such a great hook. Somehow, I wonder if all of my CDs should be subtitled "A Musical Journey."

AAJ: Notes from the Frontier: A Musical Journey presents two compositions by the American "classical" composer Lee Hoiby (1926-2011). What was it about Hoiby's music that warranted including two of his pieces on this recording and what artists might you look to in the future for material?

JS: I partially answered this question earlier, but specifically regarding Lee Hoiby, "Lady of the Harbor" and "Where the Music Comes From," have this magnificence—a sense of yearning and striving. Hoiby was such a beautiful composer, and he knew how the voice worked, and what lines a vocalist would want to sing. They are technically difficult, but make absolute sense musically. I've never lost my place in a Hoiby piece.

I've spoken of Samuel Barber. But I'm also internalizing a medley of "Danny Boy" and "Peggy Gordon," as both songs have a similar sense of chord changes and mood. And there's a bubbly jazz tune called "Summer Sun" that I want to try my hand at. See? It's all over the map.

AAJ: Rumors are that you are working on a project of entirely original material. Considering the tight focus of your last two projects, can you comment on this new project?

JS: Yes, I'm collaborating with composer Danny Ashkenasi (he wrote "Mississippi Song" and "Keeper of Your Love" from Billie & Dolly). I approached Danny a year ago about the possibility of collaborating. He's cast me in several of his musicals, so he knows my voice. He's a wonderful composer so I thought that it would be interesting for us to create something together. He was completely open to it.

The working title of the CD is American Anthem. It's intended to be a CD of anthemic odes to segments of our society who have not necessarily felt included, or felt that their story or song has been told sufficiently. While the "Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful" are considered songs for the whole country, there are times when I've felt left out of that equation, culturally, politically, and emotionally.

What really sparked my desire to write these "separate" anthems—not so much to balkanize American experience, but to tease out the ingredients and let our taste buds experience them as discrete, but part of the whole—was the constant accusations that President Obama was not American. I began asking myself "Who gets to define what it is to be American then?" I also was reacting to a lot of right-wing insinuations that if you are liberal you are not patriotic. Who gets to decide that?

So I started writing sketches of different stories. The process so far is that I write the basic melody and song (sometimes it's only a motif), and then Danny and I work together to fully shape the songs compositionally.

One example is a song I wrote called "Grass Dolls," which is based on a story my aunt told me about growing up poor in Florida (this would be the early 1940s). They literally lived in a shack, and literally had no toys to play with. So the girls would go out to this field of long grass; they'd claim a patch, and sit in the grass braiding it as if it was doll's hair. The effect was to render the earth underneath as the scalp of the doll, which was this huge female earthen doll. This story spoke volumes to me about the power of imagination to lift you out of your environment to create something beautiful.

I was also deeply saddened by the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia a couple of years ago. Those are some hard-working people, working in dangerous conditions. (Our vets and first responders do the same, but they are celebrated more). I kept hearing a melodic trumpet motif that sounded like a Siren song, except that it keeps echoing down in the caverns of the earth. Mariners are drawn to the sea by a watery siren; it seems to me coal miners are drawn deep into the belly of the earth by a different kind of siren. It takes a special kind of person to do that work. So I call this song "Holler: Siren Song of the Coal Miner." Another song has a heavy driving bass motif with a big band feel, which is called "De-Life"; it's a celebration of patriotic LGBT Americans.

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