Five years ago, Jennifer Cutting had the world at her feet--which put her in the worst possible spot for the earthquake that followed.
She had spent 10 years as the leader of the New St. George, a Takoma Park-based band playing English-style folk-rock. Although the genre has never been particularly fashionable or lucrative, it's had an avid following worldwide for some 30 years. The British bands Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, each fronted by a powerful female singer (Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior, respectively), created the sound, which marries rock arrangements to traditional music or traditional-sounding arrangements to newly composed songs. The New St. George, which featured the rich alto of Lisa Moscatiello in the Denny/Prior slot, was a favorite of Fairport and Steeleye fans and appealed as well to a broader audience, first locally and then internationally.
Cutting played various kinds of accordions and keyboards; she brought a dynamic presence to the stage and also to the band's life behind the scenes as arranger and composer--the "architect" of the band's sound, as she puts it. The New St. George reached its critical and popular zenith in 1994, with the release of High Tea. By 1995, with high-profile gigs on the calendar and a second album in the works, the band seemed poised for greater successes. So it seemed entirely surprising when, in the spring of 1996, the New St. George announced its breakup.
The phrase "artistic differences" barely skirts the depths of the anger, frustration, and exhaustion that led Cutting to call it quits.
"I was writing what I feel was the best material of my career--material that could take the band to the next level: a better record contract, more airplay, more critical respect," Cutting recalls. "But this leap to being a national act is a critical juncture. It takes work to take the sound and presentation up to that level, and that is the crucible that either makes or breaks the band. The members hadn't all signed up to be working at that level of professionalism. Nor had they signed up to play anything but traditional English folk music, with the odd cover thrown in."
In particular, Cutting believed the band wasn't supporting her original material, which she describes as "a bit darker, more left-of-center, and much more adventuresome than what we had been doing."
"It's difficult to maintain creativity while you're struggling with the mundane details of running a touring band--while maintaining a day gig," says Mary Cliff, producer and host of WETA-FM's Traditions. (Cutting's "day gig" is as a reference specialist at the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture.) Cliff has known Cutting since Cutting first arrived in Washington 16 years ago, following her ethnomusicology studies at the University of London. "It didn't surprise me when, after the band quit working, she continued to write," says Cliff.
Cutting, now 40, didn't start writing songs until she was in her 30s. The first song she ever wrote, "All the Tea in India," serves as the centerpiece of High Tea. The atmospheric portrait of an enslaved farm worker shows the care that Cutting lavishes not only on composition, but on every element of a recording's sound.
"I love bringing Western art-music techniques to traditional music and electric folk," she says. "Whenever there's an ensemble of people playing my charts, they're playing written charts, in the same way a symphony orchestra is playing from music. It's a very premeditated art form. It's just so rare in folk and rock. Of course, you do have your exceptions. Bill Whelan is a composer within Celtic folk, and in rock you've got people like Frank Zappa, whose charts were so difficult that he had a hard time finding musicians to stay in his band. So I'm bringing an art-music sensibility into it."
The New St. George's last recording was a demo of a Cutting composition, a song called "Forgiveness." She began writing the song during the New St. George's death throes: "While I was writing this song, 'Forgiveness,' I was really engaged in this titanic struggle to actually forgive someone. Several people. So you had at one level this struggle to eke this song out, and on another level you had this great spiritual struggle going on, because I knew, in the deepest part of myself, that I needed to learn to let go and to forgive or it would be the cause of so much unhappiness for myself and others that it would literally kill me."
Cutting laughingly admits that, despite years of spiritual work, including studying philosophers from Thich Nhat Hanh to Jean Houston, she's not "the forgiveness poster child," but she says she's made enormous progress. The combination of self-discipline and artist's insight that has helped her in her personal struggles also gave rise to the pristine, hymnlike "Forgiveness."
"Knowing that it took Jennifer so long to complete the song, and looking at the words, it's obvious to me that she edited herself severely," says Cliff. "A lot of writers don't have the discipline to write 'less.' Of course, there's a time to ramble and a time to be precise. She knows the difference."
After the death of the New St. George, Cutting struggled out of her grief far enough to submit "Forgiveness" to the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, part of the Merle Watson Memorial Festival in North Carolina (aka MerleFest, a mecca for roots musicians). The result was a personal and professional triumph: She took first prize.
Cutting devoted a good part of the next four years to satisfying her vision of "Forgiveness." She no longer had a band to create the sound, which meant she found herself with the need--and the freedom--to choose musicians for the recording.
Cutting's roots in both traditional music and art-rock composition drew her naturally to Prior, the reigning queen of the English folk-rock world. Cutting had met Prior when Prior's band and the New St. George shared festival stages. "It took years to work it out," Cutting says, "but she wanted to sing ['Forgiveness'], and I wanted her to sing that song, and looking back I think perhaps I wrote that song for that voice. It was such a good fit. I had in mind something very majestic. And look up 'majestic' in the dictionary--it'll say 'Maddy Prior'!"
Prior was in England, not planning to come to America anytime soon. So Cutting decided to go to England. She called a local friend, guitarist John Jennings, to see whether he could recommend a guitarist for the British session, and was surprised and delighted when Jennings suggested that he go himself. He also brought in another legendary figure from the British folk-rock scene: ex-Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks, who had worked with Jennings in Mary Chapin Carpenter's band.
With Jennings and members of SunSign Productions, the company she formed to produce her compositions, Cutting headed to Chipping Norton Recording Studios in Oxfordshire last August. (Her New St. George bandmate Rico Petruccelli missed the party; he recorded his "Forgiveness" bass part later, at Bias Recording Studios in Springfield, Va.) The recording session took place Aug. 11 last year--the day of a total solar eclipse.
"The country was a madhouse!" Cutting recalls. "People were swarming the countryside with cameras and microphones. And there we were, in the very private, secluded grounds of Chipping Norton Recording Studios. We shut down, went outside to watch the eclipse through our special little glasses."
Cutting is immensely pleased with the result of her international collaboration: "The joy we took in making music together translated directly onto the recording." Prior described "Forgiveness" in a letter to Cutting as "a song of great subtlety and depth with a gloriously emotive melody."
Mattacks, who has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Joan Armatrading, says, "I enjoyed the sessions. The combination of Jennifer Cutting's writing and direction plus John Jennings' and [my] intuitiveness towards the music--and Maddy's great vocal--got a nice result, I think."
Park Records in the U.K. will release "Forgiveness" as a track on a future Prior album. Cutting plans for it to be the final track of a SunSign-produced album involving musicians from both sides of the Atlantic. "Right now," she says, "running a fixed-lineup performing group doesn't advance my long-term goals of recording the most fully realized possible versions of my work."
Cutting won't rule out a return to performing ("She's a wonderful stage presence," Cliff says, "but that's not what's motivating her right now"); she says she values the time she spent with the New St. George. And her former lead singer admires her latest creation. "I always enjoyed singing 'Forgiveness,'" says Moscatiello, "and I think it suits Maddy's voice perfectly." CP
"Forgiveness," by the Jennifer Cutting All-Stars, is available as a CD single from SunSign Productions (www.kinesiscd.com/jennifercutting) and from the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park. To order, call (301) 270-9090.