Acclaimed singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash has released thirteen studio albums. She scored eleven #1 country hit singles, twenty-one Top 40 singles, and two gold records. That success has earned her four grammys, one in 1985 and three in 2015 for Best Americana Album (The River & the Thread), Best American Roots Song with John Leventhal (her husband), and Best American Roots Performance (A Feather’s Not A Bird). On October 11, 2015, Rosanne was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The daughter of Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto, she was born in Memphis, Tennessee, while her father was recording his very first tracks.
Let’s begin by telling us where your mother’s family was from in Sicily and when they emigrated to the United States.
The Libertos were from Cefalu (northern coast of Sicily). They came to the United States in the late 1800s. I went to the New York Public Library once to look up the ship manifests, and it was a thrill to see their names—Angelina and Frank Liberto were the first. They were my mother’s grandparents. Waves of Libertos came in the late 1800s. Some went to Baltimore, and some to Texas.
The Libertos in your direct line settled in Texas. Why did they choose to go south? What was their trade?
My great-grandparents opened a store in New Orleans. They sold Italian specialties. That continues today with my second cousins in Texas, who sell Rico’s peanuts and other products. The next generation moved to San Antonio because it was dryer and better for their health.
Your mother was a great beauty. Can you describe her, what you miss about her, and what you yearn to recreate from her life in your own?
She was a great beauty— very exotic looking, with a sweet face. She was small—5’4” and about one hundred pounds. She had great taste. I remember running my hands over her clothes in her long closet when I was a pre-teen: the capri pants and chic blouses and the dresses. I remember a particular dress: a sleeveless party dress with a gold lame top and white chiffon skirt that was like a petticoat, but softer.
You have a beautiful home. The kitchen table is the center of Italian life. Your kitchen is my favorite room in your home, and it’s the one you renovated first. Is there an Italian dish you like to make? (And you love your French influences, so pull them in! )
My son loves my pasta Bolognese and I’ve made it probably eight hundred times in his life! Carmelized onions in the sauce are my secret weapon. I also make a good roast chicken with a ‘mash’ that includes white potatoes, yams and onion. My mother made a great lasagna, and I make a pretty good one with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan. I love my kitchen. I do most of my writing in my kitchen because it feels like the heart of the house, and I like being in the heart.
Could you tell us about your Sicilian grandmother? You’ve told me a couple stories, she sounds like a pistol.
My mother’s mother was not Sicilian—my mother’s father was. My grandmother was a Robinson, with some Italian in her line. So I have both Italian and Sicilian, which makes me emotional and fiercely loyal to family! My grandmother was a character. She wore matched pantsuits every single day and purple was her favorite color. She always wore a silk scarf tied rakishly at her neck. My favorite picture of her is from the early 1970s on a Pan Am flight, sitting with a cocktail on her tray, a cigarette in hand and a scarf around her neck. I got a little heart tattoo on my ankle when I was eighteen years old, and I came home with it and my mother freaked out. My grandmother was there, looking on implacably, and I turned to her and said, “Grandma, if you were my age, would you have gotten a tattoo?” She said, “Hell yes, honey.” My mother was furious.
What aspects of the Sicilian character do you see in yourself? What aspects do you see in your children?
We are family-centric. We are fierce about protecting each other. We never hang up the phone without saying ‘I love you’ to each other—me with my kids, my kids with each other, me with my siblings and with our spouses.
Food is very important. Family recipes are passed down generation to generation, and we make cookbooks for each other. My mother and grandmother made cookbooks for me, and my daughter Carrie made her own cookbook for all the women in the family. (The men cook, but they are a little more limited in their range.) We are emotional. Dramatic, even. That comes from my mother. Her father, the full Sicilian, was a prize-winning rose gardener, an amateur magician who was hired to perform at parties, and a champion gin rummy player, who taught me how to play cards. They were also devoted Catholics. I left the Catholic Church when I was sixteen, and it almost killed my mother. Poor thing.
Have you noticed that your mother and father’s people came from islands, and that you live on one? What is it about the sea, and the notion of water, tides, and their pull that has informed your work and made you who you are?
Oh I could never live in the middle of the country, away from the sea. The sea is everything to me—like a religion. I take all my darkest problems to the sea. The sea is like breath and life to me. I suppose that is in my DNA.
You’re an artist who writes prose (Bodies of Water) and memoir (Composed) and lyrics and music, and you perform your own creations. This comprehensive approach to creativity is very Italian. In essence, you own your own shop and run it your way. Very different from those that came before you and let the audience determine what they would create. Where did you find the clarity and strength to live your artistic life on your own terms?
I don’t know. I suppose because both my parents were so strong, stubborn, self-directed and passionate. It seemed natural to not bend to the will of others.
If you could choose one Italian artist, from any time in history, to have lunch with, who would it be and why?
Caravaggio. I feel I can go inside his paintings. His use of light is otherworldly. Miraculous. I would want to get inside the mind of someone with that genius. Of course, I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to talk with Leonardo or Michelangelo either!
Where is your favorite spot in Italy? One you would return to if you could, time and again?
I love Ravello, Sienna, Montepulciano, Pienza, Florence. I want to spend more time in Italy. I’ve only been a few times. Ravello is so special—the view of the sea, the food, the quiet magnificence. I spent the first night of my honeymoon in Ravello, and it will always be dear to my heart.
If you could have any work of Italian art, painting or sculpture in your home, what would you choose and why?
Oh what a terrible question! How does one choose? I’m drawn to da Vinci’s painting of the Annunciation, because the angel brings both good and difficult news, and it always seems to be that way in life. The good and the hard at the same time. Some things don’t change. But I also love da Vinci’s notebooks because you can see his mind at work, his process, his imagination, and his curiosity. That’s very inspiring.
I’d like to take a moment to introduce the readers to your delightful husband Mr. Leventhal, (the award winning musician, composer and producer) I had the honor of working with him. Several times in the process, I thought, John has got to be Italian. He’s a perfectionist. Precise. And like every Italian man I grew up with, it’s the bad news first. It’s very Italian for married couples to work side by side in the family business. Are you surprised at how well the machine works?
I’m both surprised and I expect it. We should be able to work well together and we are heathens if we don’t know how to do it at this point! He has Cuban and Basque blood, as well as Jewish and Irish, so I think the Basque temperament is similar to Italian. He can be fiery and pessimistic, but he has a beautiful, imaginative, soulful artistry.
I’m going to give you a year sabbatical in Italy. How would you spend the time?
Wandering the hills in Tuscany, exploring unknown villages and hidden towns, sailing off the Amalfi Coast, trekking across Sicily, eating the best food of my life, drinking the best wine of my life, climbing towers, admiring art, visiting churches, seeing ruins, dressing myself in Prada and the great Italian designers, going to the opera, learning the language and connecting with the old Libertos and my own ancient history!
You are known for your exquisite taste and style.
That’s very kind of you—you are a little too flattering, but I like it.
It happens to be true. I wish everyone could shop with you—not even to buy anything, but to just see what you’re drawn to. So, with that in mind, Could you choose one Italian made product you could not live without: (jewelry, fabric, clothes, shoes, wine, food, etc.)
I could not live without a good Italian wine—a Montepulciano, preferably. I also could not live without my Fortuny chandeliers, which hang in my living room. (I dream of a vintage full-length Fortuny opera coat in a fabulous silk velvet. When you give me my year sabbatical in Italy, I’ll find it!) I also love my bright orange Prada handbag, and I’ve worn my Prada puffer coat for about twelve years now. My stepmother had a pair of Prada pumps that were insanely beautiful. They were multicolored with four inch crazy-shaped block-ish heels and straps across the instep. I wanted them so badly, but could never find them in my size.
My daughters gave me a pair of gold and lavender Prada pumps that are gorgeous, also with a block-ish heel and a t-strap. I love them.
And now, the lightning round. Choose one or the other, no judgments.
Church bells or wind chimes? Church bells.
Lasagna or spaghetti? Lasagna.
Canoli or baba rhum? Canoli.
Valentino red or Tiepolo blue? Tiepolo blue.
Red wine or Prosecco? RED WINE.
Giacometti or Manzu? Manzu.
Bitters or Grappa? Grappa.
Rome or Milan? I can’t. Omg.
Roman Holiday or Moonstruck? Roman Holiday.
Lake Garda or the Blue Grotto? Never been to either, but from pictures, I think Lake Garda is more me.
Venice or Sorrento? Too hard.
8 ½ or The Bicycle Thief? The Bicycle Thief.
Prada or Ferragamo? Prada. Although, I have a pair of knee high Ferragamo boots I couldn’t live without. (see above: ‘could not live without’.)
Elena Ferrante or Mario Puzo? You’re killing me. Both.
Espresso or cappucino? Cappucino.
Puglia or Tuscany? Tuscany.
The Adriatic or the Meditterranean? Never been to the Adriatic. So… the Mediterranean.
Meatballs or riceballs? Meatballs.
Fortuny or Scalamandre? Fortuny.
Claudia Cardinale or Gina Lollobrigida? Claudia.
Fellini or Rosellini? Rosellini.
Marcello Mastroianni or Giancarlo Giannini? Swoon. But I think Giancarlo.
Gondola or speedboat? Gondola.
I’m putting together a dream concert on the stage of Carnegie Hall with you, Mr. Leventhal and Tony Bennett. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, and Enrico Caruso come down from heaven to join you. What song would you sing with them?
“Ave Maria.” And perhaps, as a warm up to that, “Tu Lo Sai” and “Nessun Dorma.”