05.03 John Cusick: Local boy makes good

And his CD tells a story, don’t it!

There are dozens of books that claim how to write a pop song. Most of them offer the same tip for aspiring songwriters: make sure you give the listener a clear idea of what every song is about, using familiar ideas and images.

John Cusick says he couldn’t agree less. “That’s terrible advice. In telling a story in a song or poem you want to leave parts out, have people guess the references, so the story is more satisfying when you figure out what is going on,” he says.

“The song can mean different things to different people at different times, and that is important. A lot of my favorite lyricists-Sting, Steely Dan-have tunes with very ambiguous meanings or endings.”

The seven songs on Cusick’s debut First Time Around tell a lot of different stories. There’s the seedy, back alley tales of the Combat Zone on “Cayenne”, and a reunion of former lovers with very different expectations on “Lower Broadway”.

It seems like the collection of tales shared by a rambler at a tavern. The words are written with wit, sung with authority and passion, and put to catchy melodies and arrangements that echo the 70s heyday of intelligent mainstream pop.

But there’s a surprise. Cusick turns out to be an eighteen year old who lives in Auburn and is a senior at St. John’s in Shrewsbury. That didn’t stop the disc from getting a lot of notice in local press. Cusick has also appeared on WORC’s “Worcester Rocks” program, during which not a single listener was able to guess his age during a call-in contest.

It comes as little surprise to hear that Cusick writes a lot of short story fiction. After he learned the basics of piano playing — which on the CD ranges from stride jazz piano to touches of classical — Cusick found that penning songs “was a nice, therapeutic way to write strange stories and get stuff off my chest.”

Even the one tune that seems to draw on Cusick’s life-the prep school story “St. Mary’s”-is a double story told by a jailbird visiting a Catholic school girl. “I’ve never broken out of jail,” laughs Cusick, “but I love reading writers like Hunter S. Thompson who describe characters living on the fringes of society.”

Not content to rest on his debut’s laurels, Cusick is already planning a follow-up with a dozen new tunes. He’s also putting together a live band to extend out the material and play around the area when he starts college at Wesleyan next year. Given the well deserved success of another one of Wormtown’s piano-based pop groups, Mossberg, Cusick should have no trouble finding a local audience.

An 18 year old student at Shrewsbury’s St. John’s Academy, John Cusick of Auburn has produced a CD that’s getting a lot of buzz in local press.

The live band will include one of coolest elements of the CD, female backing vocals. They give the music a throw-back sound akin to soul inspired songsmiths like Van Morrison and Paul Simon. “When we did the CD we had to cut back on a few things, but I really wanted to keep the back-up vocals,” says Cusick. “Those rich harmonies can really open up a song.”

When handing out CDs, Cusick is happily surprised to find that both kids his age and their parents like the music.

“A lot of people out there are a little frustrated with the mainstream pop radio scene, so they like something a little more, I hate to say it, intellectual,” he muses. “And the music is really in sync to what a lot of baby boomers listen to and grew up with. So I kind of lucked out with both audiences.”

For future news and tour dates, visit John Cusick’s website at