photo: Daniel Dorsa
The music of Yours Are the Only Ears is some of the most direct and vulnerable you'll hear. Those most tender and heartbreaking of emotions brought to life with a soft, unshakeable force. The musical project of Susannah Cutler is one that has consistently dazzled us, including on their latest single "Fire In My Eyes". Before the May 11 drop of their album Knock Hard we spoke with Cutler about her music, personal life, and more.
The Grey Estates: I know "Seeds" was written several years ago, but what about the rest of the album? When did you first begin writing and do you still relate to what you wrote now?
Yours Are the Only Ears (Susannah Cutler): The oldest song on the album, "Hole Again" was written 8 years ago, but it had several iterations. The rest of the songs aren't nearly as old as "Hole Again," but the majority of them, including "Hole Again" are about one relationship that started 9 years ago. I suppose that's the thread. I still relate to the songs, but I also feel like I'm reading an old diary towards some of them. Those ones make me wish I could go back in time and tell myself what I know now.
Growing up in a musical family, how did that influence your future? Did your parents have any influence on your sound? And did your family ever know that you wanted to be a singer?
I didn't see myself as a musician for a long time because I couldn't relate to their relationship with music. My dad and brother are both studio musicians who practice their craft daily, and my mom is a professional singer. In comparison to them, I didn't see myself as a musician, so I likened myself to a "Music Listener." Also, it was hard for me to reconcile at first that I could like music that they didn't like. For example, when I bought my first Velvet Underground CD, I told my dad searching for his approval. He said something along the lines of, "That band is pretentious." I see his point, but I felt confused. When I first started writing lyrics and melodies it felt natural to me. I knew enough chords from teaching myself covers to flesh out a song, so I became comfortable with the idea of calling myself a "Songwriter." It took a while for me to become comfortable experimenting with instruments and calling myself a "Musician," finally. I think that I stunted my own growth as a musician by comparing myself to them, but my parents always encouraged me to pursue music, and I feel very lucky for that.
Your bio notes your struggle with anxiety/depression. Did that experience shape your material or you as a musician in any way? How do you handle such heavy emotions with still completing your work? I ask because as someone who has anxiety/depression there are days when I can't leave bed.
Thanks for sharing that with me, and I'm very sorry you struggle with that too. It definitely has shaped a lot for me. I think I'd have more accomplished if I had learned to accept that part of myself sooner. It was hard to make art or music even if I knew that it would make me feel better because the idea of making art can feel completely trivialized by depression in an instant. I spent a long time in denial about it or embarrassed because of the stigma around mental health issues. I'm hoping by sharing I can relieve some of that. Finding the right medication truly changed my life. I didn't think I would ever feel emotionally stable, but I finally do. I still have bad days, but it's a lot more manageable, and I hope any one reading this who is struggling knows it's possible to feel better and to always advocate for yourself.
What would the theme of this album be and what does some of the material explore? What was one of the first songs you wrote? And do you have a memorable moment from the process or a track that's really struck you?
The theme of this album is definitely finding independence and inner strength. I think that I became co-dependent very easily in my younger years, but I'm actually quite an independent person. I enjoy being alone a lot, probably too much. However, it took a long time for me to relearn that. I feel like this album documents that progress and occasional lack thereof. The first song I ever wrote is called "Ghosts." One of the lyrics in it is, "We are two ghosts holding hands to feel close," which I wrote for a friend who was experiencing an onset of depression at the same time as me. I think we both felt alone and scared in our own minds. I imagined that when we held hands it was our anchor to the material world and each other. A memorable moment from recording was when I recorded the rain for "You & Bobby." It probably sounds a little cliché, but the sound of rain upstate gives me so much comfort. I hope it translates. I just realized that you were probably asking about a song on the album, not a song in general, whoops!
You taught yourself to record and play instruments. What was that process like? And do you feel that being self taught has influenced or inspired your material?
It definitely has inspired me. I felt completely overwhelmed and intimidated by the idea of recording until I realized that all it is is recording the sounds that you like in the way that sounds best to you. I believe there are ways to be really excellent at recording, but I also think that it's not as complicated as some make it seem. You don't need a lot of expensive stuff (of course that helps), and once you know the basics I think it's all about trusting your gut. I tried recording with several different people, but I always walked away feeling like I didn't have a say in what was going on because I was unfamiliar with the process. Therefore, I decided to figure it out on my own.
You designed the cover. So what does that art symbolize and how does it represent your album?
I think that the art symbolizes a desire to maintain a strong relationship with nature and stay on a true path that is right for me, not looking at other people's paths and comparing mine to theirs. I think the songs touch on these concepts as well.
Did you collaborate or work with anyone on this release? Did you have anyone who helped you with the process or encouraged you through recording?
Yes, absolutely, my partner Dave, who plays as Trace Mountains, helped me a tremendous amount. I don't think I could have done it without him. I think I could now, but he helped show me what I'm capable of. Also, he also lent me all of his gear to make the record, and he was always there even though we learned early on that recording together is a disaster for our relationship. Also, my friend Dan, who plays music as The Spookfish, is one of the most supportive friends I've ever had. Dan and Dave both play in the live band and on the record too. The folks at Team Love Records are so amazing, and Eloy who is doing press is amazing. I feel really lucky to have such a wonderful team.
What was one of the first songs you learned to cover or play? And what artists/art/music/etc. inspired this album?
One of the first songs I can remember learning to cover is "All I Want," by Joni Mitchell... simplified. Also, "Secret Tongues" by the Moldy Peaches. It's hard to pin point exact influences, I feel inspired by everything I've ever loved all at once, but I definitely try to keep it original. As original as anything can be. I'm really inspired by Joanna Newsom, but I know the album doesn't sound like it.
Now what are you working on and what can fans expect next?
I have so many new songs that I can't wait to share, I'll definitely be playing them live, as well as writing more. Fans can except me to be on the road, because I'll finally be done with school, and I'm hoping to play out a lot!