Susanna Van Tassel – A voice made for country
When Susanna Van Tassel moved to Central Texas from the Bay Area in 1995, she was greeted by Austin musicians the same way most every talented young artist who arrives in town is: with open arms. Not long after arriving in the Texas capital, she was sharing stages with the likes of Dale Watson, Don Walser, Alvin Crow and High Noon. What they saw in Van Tassel was a young woman with a voice that’s sweet and clear, perfectly made to sing country music.
“I love music from 40 or 50 years ago,” Van Tassel says. “It started with an Elvis record. I fell in love with Elvis. I really got into it and I have no idea why. I became obsessed with singers, different voices, mostly female singers — Edith Piaf to Billie Holiday to Patsy Cline. I had to hear it. I had to know about it. It had to be a part of my life.
“I really liked rockabilly, so I found Wanda Jackson, but she did some country. Then there was Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins and they did some country stuff. I regret that I can’t sing like Laverne Baker, but what seemed natural to me with my voice was to sing country.”
Yet Van Tassel is more than just a voice, as is made obvious by her second CD, My Little Star (released in November by the Austin indie Music Room). She composed eleven of the disc’s twelve songs, and there’s not a clinker in the bunch. It’s her second record, following 2000’s self-released debut The Heart I Wear.
Van Tassel’s brand of country sounds somewhat like the songs she prefers from 40 or 50 years ago. While her music has a honky-tonk side, it’s made fresh with no-nonsense, finely wrought lyrics that are concerned with traditional themes of home and family.
“Pretty much I write what I feel strongly about,” she says. “I had fun watching these songs come to life because I felt it was going to be an interesting record. It wasn’t just about heartache and heartbreak and honky-tonk stuff. It’s about what is interesting to me right now.” As an example, she explains that the album’s title track, which most closely resembles a lullaby with its dreamy mood, was written after watching her 3-year-old son, Frank, sleep in the moonlight.
“I think it’s in the country tradition, and even if it wasn’t, nobody’s telling me, ‘You can’t write that,’ except me,” she says, adding with a grin, “and I wasn’t telling myself that that day.”
One of the most impressive aspects of My Little Star is the range of supporting players who Van Tassel and producer/guitarist Jim Stringer (Roger Wallace, Ted Roddy, Karen Poston) wrangled into playing on the album. It’s an amazing cross-section featuring some of the best musicians in Austin, from Meat Purveyors mandolinist Pete Stiles to High Noon bassist Kevin Smith to all-star picker Cindy Cashdollar on dobro. And then there’s Roger Wallace and the husband-wife team of Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, who add harmony vocals.
“Jim and I put a wish list of people that we wanted to play on the record,” Van Tassel recalls. “Then we went and asked them and they all said yes. One of the things I love about this record is that it took on a different personality than I ever dreamed for it. It had so many different spokes. There were so many wonderful, different people giving their input, just by showing up and playing great.”