BY DEIRDRE KELLY
Rosanne Cash, the first-born child of the late great U.S. musician Johnny Cash, grew up watching, listening and thinking music, eventually choosing it as her own path in life.
Her legendary father inspired her and influenced her. But he also posed an obstacle to her early attempts at creativity. Upset about always being compared to him, early on she moved to Europe in hopes that a degree of anonymity would enable her to grow as an artist. Almost immediately, Rosanne produced a string of hit records of her own, in addition to a Grammy award, proof that the fruit doesn’t far fall from the tree.But music wasn’t her only calling. An accomplished author, Rosanne has published short stories and a memoir, Composed, in which she details her 2008 brain surgery and recovery that made her feel music more keenly than before. That renewed connection to her father’s artistic legacy – she no longer minds being known as the Man in Black’s daughter – has inspired a new album, scheduled out in the new year, and increased touring dates.
She’s coming to to the Luminato Festival in Toronto this month and to the Flato Markham Theatre in Markham, Ont., next February. At 58, Rosanne is creating still. She’s even rediscovered sewing, as revealed in the following interview, conducted recently from her home in New York, touching on life with and without Johnny, and the romance of keeping music all in the family.
You are an abundantly creative person: musician, songwriter and author. You’ve also studied acting. What is creativity to you and how and why do you create?
I would feel dead if I didn’t create. I would feel kind of small and dark and stiff and disconnected from life and the entire universe. But it could be any kind of creativity. If you are an accountant, you are creative, or a bank teller, and you approach it creatively. If you are a chef. I don’t think it is just restricted to artists or musicians or writers. There is a creative way to approach life, I think, to reach out and find raw material making something out of nothing and moulding energy. … It’s also what I really believe is God, and that source of art and music and creativity is what I define as God. And it’s not just writing and music, too. You know I sew?
No I didn’t know that; tell me about it.
I have a sewing circle, with several girlfriends and it seems kind of silly to talk about it.
No I don’t think so. I was thinking of starting one myself.
Oh, it’s so great. It’s giggles and love, creatively speaking. We sit and we talk and we sew it’s just so great to have that. It’s like being part of a tribe.
Is that in New York?
And how many women are in your group?
Five, sometimes not everyone can come.
Is it something you learned as a girl?
Well, I did learn it in Home Ec., and then as a teenager I did embroidery and then I gave it up. Forever. You know, for 40 years. And I just started doing it again, a couple of years ago, because I made a friend, Natalie, who owns this company, Alabama Chanin, and [she makes] hand-stitched clothes, beautiful hand-stitched, hand-beaded clothes, and she gave me a sewing lesson and I started sewing one of her kits, to make her skirts and tops. I am kind of obsessed with her and her clothes, and then I made these other friends who are also obsessed and that’s what we do together.
Well, you know what? We can bring this right back to our theme, because I know from my research on you that you started out doing wardrobe for your father, Johnny Cash. Is that not true?
Well (laughs) it’s kind of been in the press all these years and, truthfully, it was just me and my stepsister washing my dad’s pants and shorts in a bath tub after a show.
I know. And he would put us down in his tax file as laundresses, and write us off.
Yeah, the truth is now out.
Yeah, Globe and Mail exclusive. Okay so moving right along. Is the fountainhead of creativity the same for each category of the arts to which you are connected?
Oh absolutely. I do. I think it’s the same source. It’s kind of a connection point with something that’s greater and mystical and I think whatever our skills are as writers or seamstresses, whatever the skills are, you can tap into the creativity. I have friends who are really different from me, who are painters and one is a graphic artist and another designs pottery and they all are touching the same source. When you talk about your work, it tends to be the same language. Inspiration process. Editing, refinement. Mastery. It’s the same language no matter what the art.
In your case artistry is in the blood. Do you feel you inherited an artistic gene?
For a particular thing, maybe so – sensitivity to music. Maybe one day they’ll find a gene where people are sensitive to rhythm or have a love of language and of rhyme schemes, or maybe it goes back generations, that there were singers in my past and musicians and that kind of formed part of our DNA. I kind of think that, actually.
Tell us about the influence your father Johnny Cash had on your development as an artist. I know, a book-sized question! But how did he shape you, creatively?
Well, part of that is going back almost to a question about DNA. You are exposed to something so much from early childhood on, and it forms the way you think. Exposed to his music, and his guitars and rhythms and the look of his outline on a stage – all of that went in from such an early stage that it feels like home, you know? So that in way, nature nurture: It’s all the same. But then as I got older and seeing his work ethic, that was a huge influence on me, too. He showed up for work and he worked really, really, really hard. And I took on some of that as well. I have a pretty strong work ethic. But also the way he saw the world was through the lens of poetry and rhythm.
What role did your late mother, Vivian Cash, play? Did she name you?
I think that was mutual. Mom and dad naming me. I don’t if they liked both names and put them together. My mom was very discipline, very organized. Super organized, and I didn’t get her organization. I am kind of disorganized, but I am disciplined. And I take a sense of comfort out of rituals and rules, keeping myself contained. That’s what my mom gave me. And she was also creative. She had millions of domestic arts. She painted and sewed and crocheted and gardened. She was president of her garden club. So her creativity was just a way of life for her.
What about your stepmother, June Carter Cash? How did she inspire you?
She had a very large sense of life that was really inspirational and she was really natural on stage. She could be having a conversation with you and walk on the stage. She just didn’t change. She was just herself, and she was kind of a large personality and that was inspiring to me. Like, oh, you don’t have to change your whole life to be a performer. You can incorporate it naturally into your life. And also she had refined tastes … jewellery and clothing and in decor, and all of that was inspirational.
I understand that your forthcoming release, due out in January I believe, is based on a quest to discover your roots.
Well, I don’t know. That sounds like a television movie. What is more about is, I started going back to where I was born and these songs started arriving in me. My heart got expanded to the South, to the people I had known, to the people I met, and then going to Alabama to meet Natalie, and sew with her, and going Memphis, and seeing my cousin who I hadn’t seen in ages. But it started by going to Arkansas, to my dad’s boyhood home, and teaming up with the Arkansas State University who had purchased his home to restore it and being part of that restoration process and raising the funds for it and everything and touching base again with Marshall Grant who was my dad’s original bass player in the Tennessee Two and we had always stayed in touch. He was like a surrogate dad to me and he died while I was down there. All these things started happening to feel a deeper layer of the South than I had ever experienced and I went down to the Delta, to all of the places where the great Blues musicians are from. And we went to [author William] Faulkner’s house and Oxford, Miss., and just the richness of the Delta in particular started bringing songs to us. We started finding these stories, these great stories, and melodies, that went with these experiences.
Do you have a title for it?
Well, I think it’s going to be called The River and The Thread.
You have written in your memoir, Composed, about your brain surgery. How did the process of recovery alter or deepen you as an artist?
A lot. I mean, just the simple getting a good hard look at your own mortality is sobering. … I spent a lot of time after it, thinking, what do I want to do? It made me feel like I didn’t have that much time left on this Earth, and that there as no more game playing and I really had to do what I wanted to do, most of all, and that was music and writing, and I couldn’t waste any more time and also, on a purely physiological level, I think that being in chronic pain for a long time, it kinda numbed my senses, my sensitivities, to music and art, and to life in general. And being relieved of pain? I mean, wow. A whole world opens up back to you. And there might even be something deeper than that, some neural pathway that made me more sensitive to music. But it certainly feels that way. When I was recovering I got out my elementary school piano books, and I retaught myself the pieces to kind of pump my brain and it was really helpful.
How long ago was that?
It’s five years now.
And your health is good now?
Yeah, I’m good.
Excellent. Will audiences get an understanding of that transformative experience when you play in Toronto at the Luminato Festival?
Well, if I said yes, I would set myself up, right? Well, we’ll see what happens. I’m really, really, really looking forward to it. It’s one of the most prestigious festivals in the world, probably, and I’m just thrilled to perform at it. I looked at the artists and I couldn’t believe how diverse it was, how ecumenical. So I’m delighted. I really look forward to it.
Is there anyone you want to see while you are here?
Yes, some of the world music. I can’t remember everyone who’s on it, and Rufus. I love Rufus.
You have collaborated with Rufus Wainwright before, have you not?
Yes, he sang on my record.
What is the next stop on your creative journey?
This record’s kinda got me absorbed right now, because we’re working on deadline, so we have to deliver it in about two weeks so that that’s what’s going on now, and more touring. I just changed agencies and that’s very exciting. There’s a U.S. postage stamp of my dad coming out June 5 and I’m doing press for that, and writing.
Well, thank you for that.
I’ve enjoyed talking with you.
See you in Toronto.