For Susannah Cutler, music has always been a private thing. She grew up in New York as the daughter of two musicians—her father a blues guitarist and her mother a country singer—but in the way that all kids find ways to have mini-rebellions against their parents, turned against the family trade and decided to study to become a visual artist. “I probably would have tried to take music more seriously a lot earlier on if I wasn’t raised by musicians,” she says over email. “I always felt really different than them, because I am.”
Instead it was an interest she pursued in quiet, shirking guitar lessons that her dad offered in favor of learning her favorite songs—by dreamily emotive acts like the Cure, Moldy Peaches, and Rilo Kiley—in her room by herself. Even as an adult, for a long time, she lived in New York with a group of friends as the sole “artist” in a group of “musicians” and pursued her songwriting humbly, even as she was surrounded by a flurry of activity. Her solo project Yours Are the Only Ears only became an official thing, she says, when she had the thought, “Maybe I should have a name for my songs too.” That was around five years ago, and early on it was slow going, in part due to Cutler’s intense stage fright. “For a long time I didn’t have the confidence to take anything that I did all that seriously.”
But even from the beginning, Cutler’s had a knack for perceptive writing set to whispered folk miniatures. I can’t recall exactly when I saw her play first, but it must have been early on. She has the kind of presence, despite her discomfort, that causes people to shut up and strain toward her. An early track called “Fire in My Eyes,” which appears in refurbished form on her upcoming debut LP Knock Hard (due May 11 on Team Love) shows how her voice was basically fully formed from the start, writing with birds-eye perspective about toxic relationships, turmoil, and violence, questioning herself along the way. “I imagine my body on the ground,” she sings. “Am I a good person?”
After starting the project, Cutler went back to school for textile design, realizing along the way that music, despite being this thing she did mostly for herself, was where her true passions lied. “I don’t mind being in a commercial field for art, as long as I can keep my music separate from that and more sacred,” she says. But as she’s been busy with school over the last couple of years, especially as she was forced to turn down shows due to her schedule, she’s felt Knock Hard build up inside of her. “I knew I needed to make a record or I was going to explode,” she says.
So she did, collecting older songs like “Fire in My Eyes, ” but also newer ones like “You and Bobby,” premiering here, all of which demonstrate her unique knack for writing folk songs with a deep empathy for her subjects. “Sometimes I feel like I see too many perspectives all at once,” she says. “I’m always in awe of songwriters who can channel anger in their music. It feels as though my angst kind of depletes when I’m writing a song. It makes me feel soft and gentler than I’d sometimes like to feel.”
It isn’t only softness that comes across the songs, but a deep and abiding understanding, a processing of memory and the way time changes us. “You and Bobby” specifically channels Cutler’s memories of living on a farm in rural Georgia—”I used to think I was going to become a farmer, but I was just depressed,” she says—and one of the people she met there. She won’t go into the story specifically, out of respect for the person, but she says that the central theme revolves around suicide and the choice to continue living.
“She was depressed too,” Cutler says. “She lent me her diary, which I thought was strange yet intriguing. I guess it’s not that different than asking someone to listen to your song, or maybe it is. She told me that once I got to the page that was painted black she had decided she was going to live.”
The song is full of that complicated hope, told in small details like the seeing of “naked branches” in the middle of winter, knowing that somewhere there’s a “sacred creek in Georgia” with warm water that can lap at your legs. Cutler sounds tired, but optimistic over a loping acoustic guitar line and a synthesizer line that twirls around it, creating a small oasis in an exhausting world.
At its best, that’s what all of Knock Hard does, so until it comes out May 11, you’ll want to listen to “You and Bobby” up above. Take the peace where you can get it.
Yours Are the Only Ears tour dates:
May 25 – Brooklyn, NY – Alphaville w/ L1L1TH & Boosegumps
June 7 – Washington, DC – Comet Ping Pong w/ Julian & Romantic States
June 8 – Philadelphia, PA – All Night Diner w/ Tall Friend, Addie Pray & Slow Ref
June 9 – New Paltz, NY – Commissary w/ Guilt Mountain & The Spookfish
June 10 – Boston, MA – TBA w/ Bedbug
June 11 – Montréal, QC – Brasserie Beaubien w/ Fog Lake & Inland Island
June 12 – Toronto, ON – Burdock w/ Liam Betson
Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey and is on Twitter.