In the years since we met Rosanne Cash, we have grown from giddy fans, to dedicated admirers, to proud and honored friends. It is no secret how much we are inspired by Rosanne—as a supporter, an artist, and a beautiful person. We’ve done our best to express our admiration whenever the opportunity arises. We are still awestruck that we know someone so talented, so prolific, and so wise.
It has been a joy to see Rosanne and her singular creativity be acknowledged by so many, lately. Her album, The River and the Thread, which will always hold a special place in our hearts, won 3 Grammy Awards in February 2015, sweeping all categories for which it was nominated: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song, and Best American Roots Performance, for “A Feather’s Not a Bird”.
She has recently held a three-night residency at the Library of Congress, received the 2014 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for the Performing Arts, and curated a “Perspectives” series for Carnegie Hall that highlighted the best in Americana and roots music. (Among the artists included were Alabama Chanin favorites and Alabama natives, St. Paul and the Broken Bones.) Earlier this year, Rose was named the Country Music Hall of Fame’s 2015 Artist in Residence, which culminated in three concerts, including one instantly legendary evening of music by Rosanne, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris.
In October, Rosanne was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honor she was thrilled to receive. “This is the award I wanted. I started as a songwriter. I still consider myself, first and foremost, a songwriter, and dreamed that one day I would get this honor.” She and her father Johnny Cash are the only father/daughter members.
Rosanne seems to be always searching her own depths and looking for new sources of inspiration. She has recorded 15 albums and writes prolifically—everything from essays and fiction (in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Oxford American—among others) to her moving memoir, Composed. On top of all that, she also wrote three songs for season two of HBO’s True Detective and collaborated with Elvis Costello and Kris Kristofferson on a song released alongside Costello’s brand new memoir.
It is only natural that we would look to someone like Rosanne as part of our exploration of the creative process. We know that her method and her products are substantive, and we trusted that she would be completely, brutally honest with us. I recently read a quote of hers that I could relate to completely: “It’s only amateurs who only work when inspired. Music is a more trustworthy way to God than religion.” It is with this in mind that we consider Rosanne’s responses to our questions on creativity.
Alabama Chanin: Do you have any creative rituals?
Rosanne Cash: Before performances I have several things I do—stretching, breathing, feeling my feet on the ground, mentally clearing the space around me, a few words I always say to myself. In writing—no rituals, although I do have devices to break the constraints. Sometimes just a cup of tea will set things right.
AC: What makes you curious?
RC: Singularity makes me very curious. If someone is the foremost expert on wooden boats in the world, or knows everything about a certain brain tumor or a rare butterfly or deeply understands something that I only vaguely comprehend, like quantum physics or Mormonism, then I am riveted. I want to inhale everything they can tell me. And I’m curious about the personality that lives for one thing.
Dilettantes bore me.
My curiosity is also aroused by artists I love, but I don’t want to know about their artistic process. If I am moved by someone’s work, I want to know what they like to eat for breakfast, how much sleep they get, what their rituals are, if they watch television, their beverage of choice… I would KILL to know what Shakespeare did for amusement, who he slept with, and what his favorite food was.
AC: What do you daydream about?
RC: I daydream about color, water, silence, and nature.
Sometimes I daydream about how I would re-upholster my furniture.
AC: How important is education to your creative process?
RC: It’s important. I would use ‘discipline’ and ‘education’ together. It drives me crazy when people think what I do comes ‘naturally’ and that I don’t have to put effort into writing or performing or recording, or that songs happen because you get hit by a thunderbolt of inspiration and that’s all there is to it.
There are a lot of musicians and songwriters more talented than me. 85% of my success is because I’m tenacious and I show up for work.
AC: Do you have processes or tricks to spur creativity?
RC: Listening to music and looking at art inspires me. If I’m really stuck, I put on certain records to jiggle the door open, or go to a museum. If I hear a really good song, my competitive side might get triggered and I want to write something better.
AC: Do you have to be in a certain mood in order to create?
RC: That’s what amateurs do. If I only worked when I was in the mood, this would be a hobby, not my profession.
AC: Nature or nurture? Do you imagine creativity is part of human nature or must it be learned?
RC: Creativity is part of human nature. Mastery of creative work must be learned by doing.
AC: Creativity for me is_____.
RC: the reason I’m on the planet.
AC: How do you define success?
RC: Doing what you love and making a living at it.
AC: What parts of your work seem the “heaviest” and the “lightest”?
RC: The travel for performance is the ‘heaviest’. I get really, really tired of it. I love travel, in theory, but touring is brutal.
The ‘lightest’ is when I finish writing a song that I know is good.
AC: Does spirituality play a role in your creativity?
RC: Creativity IS spirituality.
AC: What makes you nervous?
RC: Doing things outside my wheelhouse. I’m about to perform with Wynton Marsalis for the first time. That makes me a little nervous. Those kinds of things.
AC: In what ways would you want to change your imaginative spirit?
RC: I’d want to make it bigger.
AC: Is there something that can halt your creativity? Distractions, fears, etc.? Have you found a way to avoid those pitfalls?
RC: Anxiety over my kids stops the whole circus.
AC: Have you ever censored your imagination or creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone? If so, how?
RC: No. There were things I didn’t put in my memoir because I didn’t want to hurt someone, but that’s different.
AC: If you had to start over, would you choose a different path in your career?
AC: If you were no longer able to use the medium that you are now working in, how else would you express your creativity?
RC: I’d love to paint.
AC: Do you critique your own work?
AC: Has rejection ever affected your creative process?
RC: It made me try harder. I’ve been depressed and felt insecure about certain failures and rejections, but it never made me give up.
AC: Who do you define as a visionary?
RC: Someone who marries two very disparate ideas to create something entirely new, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical ‘Hamilton’.
AC: What last made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!”
RC: The musical ‘Hamilton’.
AC: If you were to become a professor, what classes would you teach?
AC: What are your favorite things to do? What do you distinctly NOT like to do?
RC: I don’t like to unload the dishwasher.
I don’t like taking makeup off.
I don’t like to spend the day doing email.
I love reading.
I love putting the kettle on and anticipating tea time.
I love to sew with my girlfriends.
AC: Is there one single act that can open your imaginary mind?
RC: I wish I knew.
AC: Are there parts of your life that you always make a priority? That you struggle to make a priority?
RC: I always make my kids a priority.
I struggle to make doing nothing a priority.
(This project is made possible in-part by a fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts)
Photos courtesy of Clay Patrick McBride, Abraham Rowe, and Robert Rausch.