Intensity is the word that comes to mind as Rosanne Cash fixes you with a stare. Her dark eyes tell the story of her life: They are the eyes of her father, country legend Johnny Cash, and the unadulterated passion that wells in them plainly reflects her emotionally naked songwriting. ”Rebirth, inspiration, solitude, salvation — and I don’t mean that in the religious sense — those are my obsessive themes,” Cash explains, sipping tea in a bistro down the block from her Greenwich Village home. ”That’s how life is, right? Nothing is neat.”
That uncompromising spirit informs Cash’s new album, 10 Song Demo, both in the confessional lyrics and in the radically stripped-down production: Little more than guitar and piano accompanies her singing, a welcome change from the sonic lushness that nearly overpowered her last album, 1993’s The Wheel. According to Cash, joining the ranks of the unplugged wasn’t her idea. ”I sent the demos to Capitol, thinking these are the songs I’m going to record later in the year,” she recalls, ”and [label president] Gary Gersh said, ‘I want to release them like this.’ I was a little surprised — I had delusions of grandeur about these songs!” Inspired by the raw vitality of a do-it-yourself masterpiece like Springsteen’s Nebraska, Cash gradually came around. ”It was also part of shaking off this other career,” she adds. ”I just don’t want to be ‘Rosanne Cash’ anymore.”
For many, ”Rosanne Cash” represented a Grammy-winning queen of the country charts whose crown, Cash says, never felt comfortable. That persona reached its apex with 1987’s King’s Record Shop, a rootsy collection that spawned a record-setting four No. 1 singles. Yet with her next album, 1990’s Grammy-nominated Interiors, Cash split decisively from her country career, experimenting instead with folk-rock textures to great critical acclaim.
Today, Cash sees Interiors — a painfully frank chronicle of her split from her ex-husband and collaborator, producer-songwriter Rodney Crowell — as the start of a new life. ”10 Song Demo is an even more adult version of Interiors,” she says. ”I had a lot going on last year: I turned 40, I left Sony [her former record label], and I got married [to Demo producer John Leventhal]. I jettisoned a lot of stuff; this record is reflective of that.” As is the surprisingly accomplished Bodies of Water, a recently published collection of Cash’s short stories that she sees as a ”bookend” to the new album. ”I’ve wanted to write since I was 9,” she explains. ”To be a singer was predictable destiny, to write books wasn’t. [It’s about throwing off] my shackles — Johnny Cash’s daughter, Rodney Crowell’s wife, country-pop princess. At this point, I don’t feel I’m under anyone’s shadow.”