For Suzzy Roche, music is a prayer

Suzzy and Maggie Roche perform at Club Helsinki on Friday, June 28

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 27, 2002) – Suzzy Roche always knew that some day she wanted to set people’s personal prayers to original music, but she never had any idea how to go about doing it.

So when she received a random invitation in the mail one day to take part in a seminar at Harvard University’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue about prayer – to join a community of artists and people from everyday walks of life to explore their thoughts and feelings about prayer -- she literally began to shake, she says, at the realization that she had found the way in to her long-elusive project.

The seminar, which was the brainchild of playwright, author and actress Anna Deavere Smith, brought Roche and her sister Maggie – who will be at Club Helsinki (528-3394) on Friday night, June 28, at 8:30 – to a community that was non-judgmental, non-sectarian, and open to deeply personal exploration of prayer and spirituality.

The result of their collaboration can be heard on “Zero Church” (Red House), Suzzy and Maggie Roche’s latest album, which includes 17 prayers, written variously by a Vietnam veteran, a freed Sudanese slave, a woman with AIDS, and one, “New York City,” written by Suzzy Roche herself, a prayer for her hometown written in the wake of September 11th.

“I feel like this is what I’ve been making music for all my life, in order to do this,” said Suzzy Roche in a recent phone interview from her apartment in lower Manhattan. “It was such a profound exchange and so useful to so many people. It felt like such a freedom from the whole idea of the music business, which I never felt I was in but sort of hanging on the end of.

“But in terms of the material and why I was interested in the first place, I think it’s taken me twenty-five years to have the knowledge and sensitivity to work in this way.”

For most of those 25 years, Roche was in a trio with Maggie and their sister Terre, recording and performing as The Roches, the quirky, bohemian, folk-pop outfit noted for their witty lyrics about urban angst, their heavenly, sophisticated harmonies, and their thrift-shop clothes and leg warmers. Albums by the Roches included “Nurds,” “Speak,” “A Dove” and “ Can We Go Home Now?” They performed and recorded with Paul Simon, Philip Glass and the Indigo Girls, and even enjoyed a brief spell as animated characters in the Steven Spielberg series, “Tiny Toons.”

The sisters stopped performing together as a trio in the late 1990s. Suzzy has made two solo albums since then, “Holy Smokes” and “Songs from an Unmarried Housewife and Mother, Greenwich Village, U.S.A.” Terre, who passed up the opportunity to join her sisters for the “Zero Church” project, issued her own solo album, “ The Sound of a Tree Falling,” in 1998.

Suzzy Roche sees “Zero Church” as a culmination of her work in many ways.

“I’ve always felt my work was a kind of prayer,” she said. “The Pope even said that every song is a prayer. I think there’s something to that.

“The place where songs come from is maybe a similar place to where prayer comes from. Because it has to be a cleared-out place. And usually there’s a little bit of despair in there too. Or you have to be lost in order to find a song.

While Roche doesn’t consider herself a religious person, and doesn’t pray in the conventional sense, she has always been fascinated by those who pray religiously.

“I’ve always been attracted to people who have faith in something,” she said. “I’m very touched by hearing them talk about it. I guess I have a natural attraction to that. If I had had more of it in myself, I wouldn’t have been as compelled to go outside myself and find it.”

In the liner notes to “ Zero Church,” Roche refers to the process of working with the community at the institute as a “life changing experience.”

“It made a profound dent in me,” she said. “In some ways it was just a natural place where I was already heading, a place where I can’t go back from.

“It’s hard to figure out. It’s hard to stay interested in making art that doesn’t relate to the world in that kind of a way.

“For so long I’ve been writing from my own perspective. I can always write songs, and I have my own point of view. But I am particularly interested in the idea of collaborating with people, whatever it is. Especially this subject -- it’s so huge and it belongs to everyone. Even though it’s a very intimate exchange it somehow has a universal relevance.”

Roche recognizes that audiences still want to hear songs from the repertoire of the Roches and her solo albums, so her live shows consist mostly of that material and are only peppered with a few prayers from “ Zero Church.”

“We do some of them, but I feel very protective of the project,” she said. “A lot of people have big resistance to hearing that word -- prayer. So we’re very careful how we use them.”

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 28, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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