Spend enough time riding the rails in New York City’s subways and you’ll stumble across scores of guitarists and vocalists, drummers and flutists, violinists and saxophonists. Some better (or much better) than others, they head underground to make their living or just to play – often both. Every once in a great while you catch a busker whose songs and singing are clearly better than the subway, who-whether they know it or not yet – is about to catch the ear of an unsuspecting record exec, and be hoisted out of the gritty underworld and dropped into a recording studio.
Susan Cagle is one such performer. Yet, Susan wasn’t unsuspecting. If anything, she has long resisted her eventual ascent to the proverbial next level – but more on that later. For the past few years, the singer/songwriter/guitarist has been on the cusp of a breakout and her transition from subway platform to stage and studio begins with The Subway Recordings, an impossibly hooky full-length CD which marks Susan’s debut release for Lefthook/Columbia. With songs assembled from two distinct live performances–one in NYC’s famed Times Square station and the other in the subway beneath Grand Central–the rootsy, heartfelt disc showcases Susan’s voice in its purest form.
We interview Susan Cagle.
HIP: How is life?
Susan Cagle: Very cool. Very exciting.
Was this always what you wanted? To get signed?
As far as a career?
Yes, was the goal ultimately to be a professional musician?
Growing up I came from this independent and alternative lifestyle and mentality. I always knew I wanted to be successful and big, but growing up I was programmed to think that it was a bad idea to have a record deal and you have to stay independent and outside of the system. But when I left and started my career I was independent and working for myself but the long term goal wasn’t really a streamlined thought. As time went by I had a lot of people coming to me from labels and I stayed with the “I want to do it myself” mentality. I was selling a lot of albums on my own, but I started to wonder what was so wrong with having a record deal. And then I realized it was a wonderful thing.
The recording was done in the subway—was there a lot of takes?
We did do a lot of takes actually. The first tracks we did were interesting. We did back to back and came back two or three days and did four sets of twelve songs. And then we picked the set that was the best. But for the Grand Central stuff we went there and set up and did two sets in one day and either one of those sets is the one. When we came in we thought we’d have to do so much more than we did.
I was curious because there is cool ambient noise but there are always those jackasses that want to say something to hear themselves on a record.
There is an interesting thing in “Shakespeare” where the audience is starting to clap and then they stop and there was this guy who was inciting everyone to start clapping so I was looking at him angrily and he was like “What?” and he stopped and everyone died down. But it really had the potential to ruin that take.
Did the crowd know you were recording? I mean, there had to be equipment somewhere.
There was but I told them. There was a song I recording that isn’t on The Subway Recording where we repeated the song over and over and I told them we were recording a song. But for the most part no one really knew.
Producer Jay Levine decided to record in the subway—but did you hesitate because it was your chance to get out of the subway and into a recording studio.
I talked about it with some musician friends of mine and it was something a lot of people wanted to do. It was sort of the marking of the end of an era so I was cool with it. I’m still in the studio as well—but it’s a parallel thing that I’m doing.
Can you make a living playing in the subway?
It’s definitely how I made a living. A lot of people do it and make their money. I had jobs but it’s definitely very effective if you want to continue with your career and focus on it when you don’t have a lot of different outlets.
When you said record label people approached you previously was it when you were still against the idea of signing a deal?
I wasn’t completely against it, but I was skeptical about it. I had that solo Lone Ranger mentality but I realized I had to take it to the next level and wanted to make that jump.
How did you finally feel comfortable signing the deal? Did you hire a lawyer?
It’s interesting because it’s a story of my growth and the people I met along the way. My lawyer is a good friend of mine and helped me out before I got signed. I used to get help from him for free. He helped me make the right decisions. He would advise me as a friend for a while. He was the person who really boosted me up. I came from a different mentality and couldn’t fathom what it would take to get a record deal. Jay Levine was down there on my level and was down to take the time and make it happen. There are people who want to take you but don’t want to take the time and go the extra mile.
When did you decide to go to New York?
I didn’t even know what I was going to do in New York. I didn’t know if I was going to do music—just the fact that a few weeks after I get here 9/11 happened and it was a traumatic thing for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to do something with music. Growing up people told me I was going to be a musician and people were touched by it and that is what I knew how to do. I needed to find a way to express myself after 9/11 happened. I knew how to play music because I played with my parents but I wondered if I was going to be a trashy, bummy person. I wanted to be professional. Starting from scratch was scary and didn’t know if I could do it.
Do you ever get used to playing in the subway? I mean some people don’t even want to go down there and you are there playing music.
You never get used to it. I had a goal in mind and my goal was to build a fanbase and sell CDs. I was meeting people every day and getting a nice response. I figured that once I couldn’t do it anymore I’d get a job and take a break. I stuck it out and I think I made the right decision. I think waiting all this time it brought me to a place where I’m really ready to do it now.
Did you have any creepy admirers?
I had quite a few. I had this one guy that would bring me these letters he’d write that were five pages long and how we would get married. He put talcum powder in it.
That is creepy.
It really scared me. There was a couple other things but nothing life threatening.
+ Charlie Craine