"Recently," says singer Cosy Sheridan, "I've attempted to look at songwriting sort of as a public service."
This comment doesn't mean that Sheridan's recordings lack an individual perspective; in fact, she's one of music's more distinctive tunesmiths. However, she feels that many of her earliest compositions were little more than attempts to tackle her own crises and concerns--which she's trying to avoid these days. According to her, "You need to be able to say something to your audience for a song to be of any lasting value to anyone other than your therapist." She describes her current writing process as "more like working out my own personal view of the world. I could call it my spiritual belief system, but that might be a little too vague."
Fortunately for Sheridan's listeners, the ways she expresses her philosophies are frequently a hoot. For example, "The Mustang Ranch" (from One Sure Thing, her new release on Waterbug Records) finds the singer making a rather immodest proposal about how to reduce the national debt. In short, she offers to help the country get back on its feet by staying off of hers as an employee of the title institution, a whorehouse that came under the jurisdiction of federal authorities during an Eighties-vintage S&L bailout. Sheridan's sexual innuendos--like "Come out and stick it to the government"--fly so fast and furious that it's difficult to dismiss the number as a mere novelty.
The same can be said of "The True and Terrible Trials of Waldo the Dog," a three-minute tour de farce that opens with the line "Waldo lost his balls today." The ditty delivers a perspective on the spaying-and-neutering debate that The Price Is Right host Bob Barker has likely never considered. Waldo, Sheridan says, is no invention; he's the pet of an acquaintance who lives in Palo Alto, California. "The last time I saw Waldo," she notes, "he had a lampshade around his head so he wouldn't chew out his stitches." She doesn't know how the hound is adapting to his current circumstances, but if he's suffering from psychological duress, she may have discovered a solution. "I just saw something in a Newsweek that somebody sent to me about neuticles, which are these implants for dogs," she divulges. "So that once they've been neutered, they can still feel like they're well-hung."
Clearly, Waldo's tale begged to be told in verse--and it provides a catchy counterpoint to those numbers that Sheridan places in what she calls her "female complaint series." These include One Sure Thing's "The Losing Game," a chunk of lyrical kryptonite hurled at our society's supermodel syndrome, and "Turboyeast," a number from last year's Saturn Return whose content is perhaps best left to the imagination.
So how does a nice New Hampshire native like Sheridan come by her penchant for near profanity? Pretty naturally. After all, her list of influences ranges from Paul Simon and Shawn Colvin to Sixties satirist Tom Lehrer and a Seattle-area obscurity called the Electric Bonsai Band. "I'm fond of people who are really facile with their words," she explains. "That's a big part of what draws me to things--the wordplay."
What's less obvious is what attracted Sheridan to Moab, Utah, where she's lived for the past couple of years. But she insists that her presence in the land of the Mormon Church is not as incongruous as it seems at first blush. "I partly like Utah because you feel fairly safe as a woman walking at night--which I didn't really feel in New England," she points out. "Overall, my own personal belief system doesn't necessarily agree or disagree with theirs. It just sort of happily cohabitates with it. Everybody's belief system is pretty much their own, you know? Whatever it is that makes you feel that there's a reason for being on earth, it's fine with me if it gives you reason to get up in the morning--provided that it doesn't mean somebody else can't get up in the morning."
Moreover, Sheridan says that she deals less often with holy rollers than with big wheels of another type. She sees Utah as the mountain-biking capital of the world--"It seems to me like everybody is wearing their mountain bike," she says. "And they look like they need a shower." She's thus far proven resistant to the trail-riding trend; although she's an avid hiker, she concedes, "I have an ancient ten-speed that no one would steal if I left it outside the grocery store."
By comparison with her two-wheeler, Sheridan's musical skills have attracted a great deal more attention. A few years back she won the prestigious New Folk Contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival, an accomplishment that placed her in the hallowed company of past winners such as Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Michelle Shocked and John Gorka. She believes the award has had a fairly sizable impact on her career in that it opened several industry doors and gave her the confidence to begin touring on a national level for the first time. "It's sort of like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," she affirms. "It says to a lot of concert promoters and club owners, 'Well, this person has passed this standard of excellence, so they're probably okay to hire.'"
So many bookers have been doing so lately that Sheridan is in danger of becoming a role model for modern troubadors. When asked what advice she would offer to anyone wishing to emulate her, she says, "Number one, trust your intuition. That has been one of my stumbling blocks--looking sideways and seeing what other people are doing. And it's taken me a long time to come back and realize that if there's any way the universe talks to people, it's through their guts, you know? If God had a Bat-phone, it would ring somewhere in your belly."
Or, for Waldo, somewhere further south.
Cosy Sheridan, with Karen Capaldi. 8 p.m. Friday, September 13, Swallow Hill Music Hall, 1905 South Pearl Street, $10/$8 members, 777-1003.
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