Susan Alcorn has taken the pedal steel guitar far beyond its traditional role in country music. Having first paid her dues in Texas country & western bands, she began to combine the traditions of pedal steel with her own extended techniques to form a personal style influenced by free jazz, avant-garde classical music, Indian ragas, Indigenous traditions, and various folk musics of the world.
Susan's groundbreaking album Pedernal was recently honored in both the 2020 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll and with the #1 slot on critic Francis Davis's top 10 list.
Susan has worked with many Audeze artists, including David Breskin, Ron Saint Germain, Mary Halvorson (all of whom worked on Pedernal), and Ingrid Laubrock.
Here's our chat with Susan:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
My new quintet release:Pedernal
Two solo albums:
And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar
A duo: Prism Mirror Lens (with Phillip Greenlief)
A trio: Invitation to a Dream (with Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark)
A quartet: Columbia Icefield (Nate Wooley’s Columbia Icefield)
And an Octet: Away With You (Mary Halvorson Octet)
What's the best place for those new to your work to become familiar with what you do?
I think the best place, for my music or anyone's, would be to come to a live performance or to buy a record, and of course there are a lot of videos on YouTube.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?
For the projects I work on, I am either working as part of an ensemble or solo in performance and recording. Sometimes I am also involved in the mix. I also record in my home studio.
How did you get started in music? Do you play any instruments other than the main one you're known for?
I’ve been involved in music in some way or another ever since I was a child. In elementary school I played the viola and then the cornet, and then guitar when I was about twelve. I began playing slide instruments soon after and have been playing the pedal steel guitar since I was about twenty or twenty-one years old. In addition to the pedal steel, I also play, poorly, the guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin, viola, charango, and the oud.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
Life always has its frustrations and obstacles, and music is full of them. I have had, and continue to have, problems getting a good sound on recordings, getting rid of line noise and hum, learning music, rehearsing new music, and writing music. I think when I overcome them (these are problems that in one way or another always return in different forms) best is when I am able to quiet myself, be calm, then take it from the beginning and go slowly and steadily with patience, remembering my goals.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project?
When working on a recording project, at home I use a Royer ribbon mic and a Shure SM57 because those are the mics I have - then I go through an AES preamp to a Metric Halo ULN-2 interface and then into Pro Tools. Also, at home and in the studio, I use Audeze LCD-X open-backed headphones because with them I can hear detail and accuracy that is not there in any other headphone I’ve used. For me its the most important reference.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?
Well, I’m not sure how far along in my career I am, but my advice is always to concentrate on your art. Concentrate on your music. Somehow find your own authentic voice (that maybe the hardest part, but also the most necessary), be open to everything, and develop a strong work ethic. Throughout your work, always be a student - be open to new developments, and be open to what’s going on in the world outside our practice room, stage, or recording studio. With your instrument, be a partner rather than a master (the instrument should not be your slave - let it breathe and sing). And if your instrument is the recording studio, treat it as you would a friend or a loved one. I think your music will thank you.
How long have you been working with headphones, and what inspired you to start including them in your workflow?
I first started working with headphones with recording when I lived in an apartment and had to keep quiet at certain times of the day and most of the night, so headphones were necessary both for recording and for mixing.
Do you have any other comments to share?
These LCD-Xs are the best-sounding pair of cans I have ever worn - I can hear every little detail in the sound and exactly where it is panned in the mix. The EQ in these headphones is spot on with no part of the sound spectrum emphasized. I can wear them for hours without discomfort. I use these constantly in my home studio, and I now take them to every session I play on. After decades of headphone challenges and improvements, I think Audeze got it right.