Susan Cagle's folk pop is underground — quite literally

Inside Bay Area/July 7, 2006
By Tom Lanham

In her manager's Manhattan office, Susan Cagle kicks off her Birkenstocks, stretches out on a leather couch and takes a deep breath. She's just spent the better part of the day lost in composition, perfecting songs such as "Dear Oprah" and "It's There All the Time," which will adorn her sophomore album, set for an early'07 release.

She fingers the metal "S" pendant that dangles from her neck. Smiling, she says, "It's my S, for Susan. Or an S for strength. It's whatever I feel like."

It would stand for strength, most likely. Because, after the arduous artistic trek this 26-year-old has endured, she must be bristling with power.

Cagle didn't dub her Lefthook-Columbia debut "The Subway Recordings" for fun; the subway stations of New York were literally where the disc was taped, tracks 1-6 at Times Square station during rush hour, tracks 7-10 at a late-night Grand Central.

You can actually hear the trains rumbling in, commuters chatting past as Cagle trills ardent folk-pop originals such as "Shakespeare," "Manhattan Cowboy" and "Happiness is Overrated."

She's backed by her sister Caroline and brothers Jesse and John on bass, guitar and drums, respectively.

Certainly, playing underground is a difficult task. But harder still was Cagle's childhood, traveling the world with her music-performing parents, who'd consigned their brood to the fringe religious sect once known as the Children of God (now, the Family).

From the outside, it may have looked like a good-time family band, Cagle says. But inside, it felt more like indentured servitude. The organization came under investigation in the'80s for strange practices like "flirty fishing" — using sex as a recruitment lure — but Cagle says she never saw the Children's tawdier side. "I'm not going to go into details about what their beliefs are, because I'm not a specialist. But I just know what I experienced was a very controlling environment, where you're not allowed to do a lot of things and it's very strict and regimented. And it's not someplace you could just leave when you wanted to."

How did the Cagle clan get involved with what was essentially a cult?

One of 10 siblings, daughter Susan isn't sure. She only knows her father came from a wealthy family, was studying to be a biochemist when he joined the Children of God, and turned out to be "almost too crazy for the group. My parents were so crazy that I didn't experience a lot of the stuff that other people did. They were always traveling everywhere, so most of the time I was on the road with'em."

By her teens, she repeatedly tried to escape the sect. For seven years, every attempt was foiled, and she was shanghaied right back again.

"But I didn't give up," says Cagle, who lived in France, Greece, Italy, England, Scotland, Ireland, Venezuela, even Communist-era Czechoslovakia.

"Finally, in 2001, there was a situation where we were in Germany, and I was like 'OK, I'm going to go visit friends in New York and then I'll come back.' So I came here and I never went back."

And everyone lived happily ever after?

Not exactly, she admits.

Newly emancipated, the singer swore off music. Compounding the decision was 9/11, which shook the metropolis to its foundation shortly after her arrival. At first, she says she saw the disaster through religious eyes, interpreted it as some kind of personal punishment: "I thought, 'Oh my God — I'm not supposed to be here, maybe I shouldn't have come! Now what should I do?' When you're in a situation where it's a battle every day, just to be your own person, it takes awhile to get rid of a lot of that stuff. And I'm still going through the process of just finding myself."

Cagle tried her hand at hostessing, secretarial work, anything to help shake her past. But the past caught up to her in two ways. First, she chose to supplement her income by playing guitar (electric) for New York transit patrons, which introduced her to the city-sponsored program Music Under New York.

The subway-busker setup worked like this, explains Cagle: "You get a permit, and then you get a daily spot, and the spot is three hours long, like from 3-6 or 6-9. And you also get a location where you're supposed to play. And I've done morning rush hour, where you wake up at five in the morning and get there at six. I've done the whole gamut of options for subway performances."

Initially, Cagle crooned covers. Soon, she was penning her own subterranean sonnets, like "Shakespeare" and "Manhattan Cowboy," which celebrates the firemen and policemen who lost their lives in the World Trade Center.

She found salvation in the form of manager-producer Jay Levine, who happened upon Cagle one fortuitous afternoon at 34th Street station, on the N/R lines.

That's when she caught her second prophetic wind. Levine inked her to a Lefthook deal, just as her parents returned to New York and her brothers and sister broke free from the Children as her new backup band.

There's no denying it. Their closeness as a unit gives "The Subway Sessions" its warm familial glow.

Will the Cagles stay together for some real studio time? Susan doesn't know. "I want them to make that choice for themselves. If they want to go to school and get away from music for awhile, I want them to do that. But my offer's always open."

And so are the subways, even though ace craftsman Cagle no longer really needs them. She's had scary experiences beneath New York, like the psycho who planned out their picket-fence marriage in uncomfortable handwritten letters. Or the psychotic homeless woman who nearly stabbed her with an ice pick.

Not to mention the riff-raff who repeatedly tried to steal tips from her guitar case. Her longest shift was a day-and-a-half, almost straight, to procure first and last for an apartment she needed for herself, her sister and brothers.

She's also met a few prospective beaus underground, she adds. Although none, to date, has worked out long-term.

Cagle says that she penned her new "Dear Oprah" number as an open letter to the popular talk-show host. "I'm putting a little bit of my story in there and just saying 'What advice would you give to someone who's been through this kind of thing?' But the main thing I want to do now is make an album that I'm really passionate about, and I want people to hear the music and like it. I want to get my music out there, and I want it to be good. And what I've learned from all this is that you just have to kind of walk through the doors that open, and be open to what comes your way."

With Levine in tow, Cagle strolls through the office door, watches her manager lock up. "Damn! I'm late and I've I've gotta catch the F-train!" Levine panics, looking at his watch.

"C'mon, I'll show you where to catch it!" beckons Cagle. And she heads down a nearby flight of stairs and disappears into the familiar turf of New York's vast subway system.

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