Interview: Carmen Cusack of LAY YOUR HANDS ON ME

"I made a little pact with myself that I'm not gonna sit on this any longer. "

By: May. 16, 2023

Interview: Carmen Cusack of LAY YOUR HANDS ON ME

Twice Tony nominated singing actress Carmen Cusack is spreading her wings. She is branching out, she is testing waters, and she is evolving as an artist. On April 25th, Carmen released her new album, her first as a singer-songwriter. The eight song collection (more of an EP than a CD, Cusack says) consists of all original music, some of it that she performed at 54 Below in October of 2021 in a show titled BARING IT ALL (read the review HERE), some written over the years, some written during the pandemic, but all of it highly personal, and right from the heart. With the album LAY YOUR HANDS ON ME, Carmen Cusack is, indeed, baring it all, and doing so beautifully and bravely, as a listen will prove, and as THIS Broadway World review will attest to.

On April 25th (not only the day of the album release but the day of Carmen Cusack's birth) the consummate artist and dedicated storyteller took out some time to take a call from Broadway World Cabaret to discuss the bringing of her art into the light, the absolute joy and abject terror of being an artist, and the best place for a one-time member of Assembly of God to record an album titled LAY YOUR HANDS ON ME.

This interview has been edited for space and content.


Hi, is that Carmen?

Hi, is this Stephen?

How are you today?

I'm good. How are you?

I'm sorry I'm a few minutes late. Grandpa fell asleep on the sofa.

Oh, that is absolutely perfect timing. I just had a catastrophe with a cup of coffee (Laughing) so we're good.

Is anybody burnt?

It was tepid, so there were no burns. (Laughing)

I'm sorry, it's a drag when that stuff happens.

Oh, you know, I love having a bit of coffee, and it's my birthday, so there was a whole birthday cake in bed and presents and coffee, and I should never do that. (Laughing)

It's your birthday today!

It is my birthday. I decided, what better way to celebrate it than to finally put out an original album and remind myself, with every year I get older, time is precious.

Art on your birthday is a beautiful thing.

Yes, I agree.

Well, officially, happy birthday.

Thank you.

So about your album.


How do you feel?

I am excited. It's been a long time, waiting for this - I consider it more of an EP than a full album because several songs, I didn't manage to get on this one. But the good thing is I've got another ten to put together for the next proper full album, which I'm excited about. But this album started before the pandemic.

I remember.

It was in the process before the world turned upside down, so getting back into it after all of that was a bit of a challenge. I felt like a different person, I felt like a different artist, a different musician, in ways. I had been really changed through what we all had to go through - I guess everyone was changed after being quarantined and looking at life differently. But, boy, it hit us all about our heads, and it kind of stopped me. I kind of went into a (as I'm sure a lot of people did) a bit of a depression, a bit of a deeper soul searching, and I came up with a couple of songs during the Pandemic that are on the album. But coming around the other side of it, I think I struggled with getting the excitement back because I told my really good friend, "I feel like a different person, a different artist." It's a lesson learned - with art, once you do it... because I'm such a perfectionist - I don't think it's ready, and I sit on it: I'm not gonna do that anymore. As soon as something moves me to a point of writing about it, I need to get all of my forces in line, and get it out because, as artists, we continue to evolve on a daily basis. To stay excited about something that you wrote 20 years ago is a bit more challenging. I think it's more exciting to stay on top of it and get it out, and (Laughing) I'm seriously contemplating getting a tattoo to remind myself that I can't sit on my art anymore. I can't hide it under a bushel. I need to let it shine.

I think of my tattoos as birthmarks, and when something significant happens, the tattoos sort of bubble to the surface from within, to mark that occasion.

Amen. I hear you.

You said you were writing songs 20 years ago. This is a long time art form for you.

It is. And I've been hiding for many years. I kind of stop, start, stop, start, because I let other projects kind of get in the way; I don't mean get in the way in a negative way. It's just that when I take on a project, I go a hundred percent, all in. I find it difficult to juggle various projects - I wish I were better at that . I'm hoping to get better at that. When someone calls and says, "Hey, can you do my stuff?" and it moves me, I'm like, "Okay!" And, also, there's money attached, and there's going to New York, and I love being there and I love collaborations. I love working with people that I think are smarter and have a lot of interesting things to say. But, then, that overshadows my own stories and my own inspiration. And it's so much easier to hide behind the character and do someone else's stuff, and let that face rejection, than bare my soul in front of people. So this is a brave step for me. And it feels good. It feels due - it feels very due at this point. .

And when you did the show that I wrote about, the show was called Baring It All.

That's right.

And the album has a different title. What's the story behind the album title?

I guess the big song on this album, "Rebellious Child" was what inspired me - a friend of mine came up to me and said, "You gotta gotta record this stuff. You gotta make an album." It was "Rebellious Child" that he was inspired by, initially, so I thought maybe we should - you know a lot of people like to use a particular song to push their album, and I felt like it needed to be "Rebellious Child" but I didn't want that, necessarily, as the title. I thought that "Lay Your Hands On Me" had a lot of different meanings and feelings, and it wasn't a negative connotation. It was more of a desire to be connected to people, and I felt lost at that during the pandemic.

When you are playing a character, when you are creating something that comes from someone else's words, the experience of telling that story has to be different from the experience that you're getting as an actor, as a performer, telling the story that you, yourself, have written.


Tell me about that duality, as an artist creating from someone else's origin and one creating from your own origin.

There's more fear attached (Laughing) for sure telling my own stories. Cause I hope that it doesn't reveal more than I want it to reveal (Laughing) necessarily. It's more of a shedding of your clothing. It's an incredibly vulnerable place to go to, especially some of the songs that I've written in this album that pertain, very personally, to my relationships in my past. One of the songs (I have to say) I did not write - Joe Jung wrote - and it's "When I Get Over You" - we both share this feeling about our relationship with our career, with being actors... and every time it comes creeping back and asks to hold on and do something else and bare our heart again; if I just could stop that and just get a stable job (Laughing) maybe I'd be richer or book some holidays, and have a life. But it is what we do, and I love what I do - I wouldn't change it for the world. It is my deep, deep love.

I'm interested in something that you just said about the writing; when it's time for you to sit down and write a song, does it take over you, and suddenly you must run and you must write? Or do you set aside time every single day to write how? What's your process?

I'm glad you've asked me this question because it takes me back to a very specific song that I have two titles for, because I envision it two different ways. One is called "Sorry" and the other title of the same song is, "Did the Best I Could." And this particular day, my mom called me and I sat on my little porch outside of Silver Lake, in our little apartment, and she told me some very deep stories of her childhood, when she was 16 and found out she was pregnant, and the two options that she had, the two doors that she opened, that she could have opened... and she went in one particular direction. Then she started apologizing for certain things that had held me down, just being a mom and trying to make things work, make ends meet, being a single mom, making that choice. As soon as I got off the phone with her, I had purged so many tears, and I had to get my joggers on and go running. While I was on that run around The Silver Lake Reservoir, I came up with "Did The Best I Could." I'd just seen the movie, the James Brown movie with Chadwick Boseman, and his mother came to one of his concerts - he'd been estranged from her for all his life, and she basically says, "I did the best that I could." And I ran around the lake and that song came to me instantly, cause it was so poignant. I had waited so many years for her to express herself in this way to me. And "Happy" was while I was in the pandemic, quarantined, feeling incredibly depressed, had lost my happiness, trying to find ways to keep myself intrigued and interested and inspired, and I thought of my first dog that I lost, called Happy, and the two kind of intertwined. I thought, well, that's kind of interesting, so that came to me quite quickly.

"Rebellious Child" came very quickly. I was thinking of various times where I was - I grew up in a highly religious background and, since I could remember, people were laying hands on me to cast demons out of me (Laughing) as a child, even in Bible Powers, girls all got together and needed to lay hands on me because they'd found out that I'd gone on a date and had a glass of wine, (Laughing) cause I was Assembly Of God and you weren't supposed to drink alcohol, and all the various times when I was just trying to live my life and find myself, I was having to have (people) lay hands on me was to cast the demons out of me. I had to stay in this restricted box of rules that I didn't really wanna participate in (Laughing). "Rebellious Child" came from that.

So for each song, it's a kind of case by case thing, where something inspires you and you're off to the races.

And I just can't stop, I have to dive into it until it's finished.

I once heard Carly Simon say there's never a moment where there's not some new song brewing inside of her head. Do you have that same experience?

I can go to sleep with a song brewing, I can wake up with a song brewing inside of my head. I can be shopping and hear a song in the background, and it will take me down another route, possibly with the same rhythm, possibly with the same formula. My phone is full of tidbits and soundbites of ideas and lyrics. I'm finally putting my studio together and learning how to do Pro Logics on my computer, trying the best I can figure it all out. I am very technically challenged, so it's a slow process, still having to resolve to other producers and other other people to help me record. But I'm trying to figure it out for myself, to get these ideas into a good safe place. (Laughing)

I feel like you're a very collaborative person.

I enjoy collaborating. Absolutely, yes.

But being a songwriter can actually be a really lonely place to be.


And then you have to bring these children that you create into a room with lots of other artists. How does it feel as a parent to turn these compositions over to other musicians and arrangers?

I have to begin with a chord structure of some sort. I have the chord structure, but in my head, I hear so many things that I can't necessarily articulate to other musicians. I do my best by colors, by putting together colors and saying, "It's this, it's that, it's a blue here and it's an orange there, which I know is strange to some people, and some musicians look at me with the tilt of their head, like, 'What?' (Laughing) But also I have to tell a story and I have to speak to them as if they're an actor playing a role, to get certain feelings from an instrument, but because I can't play all the instruments, that's very frustrating for me. I feel like a director in ways that you feel like, "Oh my god, they just pulled something out of that that I didn't hear."

I feel very lucky that I had Joe Jung along with me for this ride. He was incredibly helpful and encouraging and supportive. I wanted it to continue to be an intimate experience, this music, because it is very intimate to me. I didn't want a huge lot of instruments - I wanted a small group of people that could give it that intimate space. And Joe, his ex-brother-in-law had a church that he'd just purchased in a little small place called Greenville, Michigan. He said, "He's remodeling it to be a studio." And "Rebellious Child" - I've always heard this song in a small church with wood and stomping feet and clapping hands, kind of an acoustic vibe. And he said, "I think I've got the venue for that." So we went and recorded "Rebellious Child" and I was like, "I really like this sound that's coming from this studio," so we just continued to record more from there.

It sort of brings you full circle, having grown up in such a religious background, to have recorded the album in a church.

It was a perfect full circle for me. And I still look back to those times, and I certainly don't put judgment on anyone's religion. I consider myself a spiritual person, but a lot of the restraints that held me back from speaking my own voice had to do with the restraints of the religion that I grew up in as a kid. And the breaking free from that has been a lifetime of re-imagining and kind of reprogramming my head and my feelings about putting my stuff out there, that it's not boasting, it's not that I've got a big head and I always have to talk about myself, it's about actually sharing my art with the world. And I've always kind of struggled with shouting, "Hey, I'm over here. And I've got some stories too." (Laughing) I'm still figuring that out.

I remember your show. Your songs are wonderful and you were so open and generous in your quest to share them with your audience. I think that it's such a beautiful thing that you're doing.

I really appreciate that. And it does feel good, and it feels right. It feels like the time, for sure. I made a little pact with myself that I'm not gonna sit on this any longer. I've got a lot more in the Pocketbook to share.

I'm happy that you're doing it. Every time that a singer releases an album, they have to play out. Will you be playing out with your original material?

Absolutely. I can't wait for the gigs to start opening up. I'm hoping that with this little tidbit of an album that I can say this is kind of where I'm at and this is the ilk, but that ilk has evolved so much. I guess, from my roots, it was folk, it was Americana, but I'm kind of branching out in a lot of interesting different ways. I'm excited to explore.

You just called it a tidbit of an album, but I have to tell you to write and record and produce eight songs. That's not nothing.

Thank you! I'm trying to remind myself that it is a big deal. I have to celebrate it. And I am excited. All my friends around me are like, "Come on, this is exciting!" (Laughing) I can't wait for the next one!"

It's all about the frame that you put the story in.

I want to put a little blog out. It's my birthday, I want to sit down in some quiet space and put something out to the sense of - I lost my father this October and he was a musician his whole life. And I wished I hadn't sat on this as long as I did cause I wish that he could have been alive to hear it. It's a pledge to myself and a testament to any other artist out there that's sitting on things. It's not perfect. It doesn't have to be: nothing is perfect. Art isn't perfect. That's the beauty of it. I have to start really embracing that and living it, living my imperfections,

It's all about the humanity.


I can't tell you how grateful I am that you took time out to talk with me on your birthday.

I appreciate you taking the time to have this time with me.

LAY YOUR HANDS ON ME is on Spotify HERE and can be found on all digital platforms.

Follow Carmen Cusack on Instagram HERE and Twitter HERE and Facebook HERE.


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