SUSANNA-HOFFS (2012) Blue Chair

Susanna Hoffs Returns to Popdose: The “Someday” Interview

Susanna Hoffs today doesn’t look a day over 1985.  It’s hard to believe 30 years have passed since the Bangles burst onto the national scene with their debut EP and breakthrough album All Over The Place. With so many hits packed into their heyday catalog, you couldn’t fault her if she’d decided to ride out her glitter years on the nostalgia bandwagon. And yet, with her fantastic new album, Someday, Susanna joins an elite club of Eighties alumni (Devo, Duran Duran, OMD, Blancmange and The Fixx) whose current albums rank among the best of their careers.

Almost three years to the day after her first Popdose interview, Susanna walked Popdose track-by-track through her new album while giving us an inside look into her old school approach to writing and recording. She reveals what her kids are listening to and her own favorite records; we discuss lost treasures from her audio vault and how she plans to rock her signature Rickenbacker guitar on tour this fall.

The title of LCD Soundsystem’s new documentary. Shut up and Play The Hits, evokes the challenges many artists face when introducing new material. When you walked out on stage at the Grammy Foundation in July, how did it feel to play your first new solo material in 14 years?

Initially, it was exciting, and I have to admit, a little terrifying; but I am embracing the thrill of feeling vulnerable, exposed and at the same time grateful for the opportunity.

You hit a point in your life where it’s refreshing to do something that feels really new, really different, and is something to be proud of. I had an incredible band, the band that played on the record, backing me up that night: Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher who played with Elvis Costello were on bass and drums. My producer, Mitchell Froom, was on piano and keyboards. My co-writer Andrew Brassell played guitar and our mixer/engineer David Boucher was there too. It was an incredible night. As soon as I realized that I was among friends. I said to myself, “this is great, I am just going to enjoy singing these songs and soaking up the moment for what it is.” It felt really good.

Will this band hit the road with you?

Probably not. Pete and Davey are in-demand session players, they have their own band, and they tour with Elvis Costello among others. I’m gonna hit the road with Andrew Brassell, Jim Laspesa and Derrick Anderson, who plays bass on tour with the Bangles.

I bought your new album, Someday, on Amazon over the weekend so I could listen to it on constant rotation before we talked. It is a revelation. Easily your best solo record — and I really loved the first two.

Thank you! Wow.

The funny thing is, reading the advance press on your album, I’m not sure which descriptive words scared me more: “Baroque Pop” or “Burt Bacharach.”

Baroque folk, yeah, yeah right.

But when I listened to it, I was amazed how easily you defied all the laws of physics. Here you are, an artist whose beloved and associated with the Eighties, yet you went back to the Sixties and somehow created a completely modern sound.

Thank you so much — that was the goal, I’m so happy you’re saying that. When I ran into Mitchell Froom at Largo back in the spring of 2011, Brassell and I didn’t have any demos. We were in the thick of this writing frenzy once we realized we could write songs together (editor’s note: Brassell is 27 to Hoffs’ exquisite 53; Froom is a notable musician and producer who last worked with Susanna when he played the signature piano riff on the Bangles’ hit “Manic Monday”). After we played these songs for Mitchell at his house, he dove right in and said “let’s do a record in a very old school way.”

My favorite music came from the Sixties. I call it my first musical crush. When I was a little kid, I fell in love with the music on the radio and my feeling is, you never get over that first love. The reason all that’s coming through on the record is exactly what you just said, we really wanted to go for this Sixties sound but wanted it to sound modern as well. Figuring how to accomplish that became the goal. I’m glad you’re hearing it that way because that’s the intention.

When you and Brassell were writing these songs on guitar, were you thinking, “this would sound great with lush strings and horns,” or did Mitchell come in with those flourishes?

A lot of that came from Mitchell. When we were discussing the way my voice sounds, he was comparing me to pop singers of the Sixties; the same artists I taught myself to sing by singing along to their records: Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bachrach songs, Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt when she was in The Stone Poneys, plus Jackie DeShannon, Lulu and Petula Clark.

Mitchell asked me to create a playlist of some of those early influences. I put together a crazily long collection of songs — I mean it took two CDs. Thinking about arrangements, looking back on songs, everything from Zombies songs to the Left Banke (“Walk Away Renee”), the Beatles, Rolling Stones songs like “She’s a Rainbow”, Glen Campbell (“Galveston”), Herman’s Hermits and then a lot of the girl singers that I admired like Françoise Hardy all the ones I already named. There started to be a theme in the music. Orchestration, baroque pop, strings, cellos, horns, flutes even – that’s how the color palate for the record came together.

What’s really amazing, if I had Someday on vinyl, it would fit in my record collection between Lee Hazelwood, The Beatles, even Prince’s Parade era when he had all the Clare Fischer orchestration.

Yeah yeah!

And I thought, Someday would also fit perfectly in an iPod playlist alongside acts that are popular today like Bon Iver, Best Coast, The Head & The Heart…

Thank you, that is so cool. My older son is totally into all that stuff. He played me something the other day, it sounded so reminiscent of all the stuff I grew up with. It sounded exactly like the Nico record Chelsea Girl – I wish I had the name for you.

It might be Best Coast, but I’ll open it up to the Popdose readers and staff to offer guesses in the comments section.

There’s a thumb picking guitar part, it sounded like “The Fairest of the Seasons” and “These Days” – the entire sound of Chelsea Girl. I put some of those songs on my playlist for Mitchell.

Iggy Pop recently released Aprés, an album of classic French standards; and now you make that era’s sound fresh and modern with Someday. I think your record going to excite a lot of people.

Thank you so much! I’m so psyched. You live in your own bubble sometimes and try really hard to stay in touch with the outside world. I’m lucky, my kids are really into music and are constantly exposing me to stuff I just wouldn’t know about. It makes me feel so thrilled. It was my ultimate goal to create something that I was happy with and would connect with people on some level. You just never know, but the feedback has been so good, I’m just blown away and happy about it.

Let’s dive into the album. I was in my kitchen doing dishes when the first track (“November Sun”) came on my iPod. I was listening to the lyrics and thought, did Susanna Hoffs just record the sequel to Guns & Roses’ “November Rain?”

(Laughs) You ‘re the first person who has connected it to that song. I remember that song. I remember the video more than the song. It’s not related in any way. In my song, there’s a little play on the idea that November S-U-N can be November S-O-N. It was written after my kid was born in 1998 and reflected what I was going through in my life — nothing to do with (G&R), except for the fact that I remember thinking, “is the title too close to that song?” There’s a lot of references to rain and sun throughout Someday, including the cover photo.

You land on my next question, which was about the theme of rain – there’s also a giant raindrop on the CD’s back sleeve. On “Holding My Breath,” you sing “You always say it’s raining, don’t let it chill you to the bone.” You rarely get rain in Southern California, where did this theme come form?

Well, I think it’s a metaphor too – but when we do get rain, it really rains – it’s unexpected. The theme came though in Sweetheart of the Sun too – the Bangles record that came out last fall. I’ve always been attracted to push and pull, the emotional tone between darkness and light – looking for the light and looking for the good in something, sort of weathering hard situations and coming out the other side better, hopefully. There’s a theme of hope in this record and that’s why I called it Someday — even just the idea that I actually made this record after 14 or 15 years of wanting to.

George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” — one of my favorite songs — captures that same contrast. On the surface, it appears to be this beautiful, bright, sunny song — with the guitar playing and the riff. But you’re aware the whole time there’s this darkness lurking right below the surface. It’s about coming through that darkness.

Weathering is a good word to describe some of the stories in your new songs. In the last couple of years, Adele, Amy Winehouse and Beck turned getting dumped into universal songs about relationships, but you’re writing from a different place. You’ve been married for 20 years and have a happy, healthy family – is Someday about weathering the challenges that come with that?

I think so. Basically you write from what you know even if occasionally things are composites, different experiences morphed into one, you find a way to talk about them in song and lyrics. This album is a definite reflection of where I am today. Even though “Raining” was written in 1989 about – well, what I was going through in 1989. Even though some of the wounds are that old, the song was specific to the time. Songs like “True.” “Always Enough” and “November Sun” (even though that one is older still), are reflections of my more adult life, whereas the heyday of The Bangles captured 20-something experience.

Wow, so “Raining”  was written around the same time as the Bangles’ Everything album. It’s your best ballad since “Eternal Flame.”

Thank you so much. I updated the lyrics, but it’s essentially about the same thing. I didn’t change the idea about a relationship that ends suddenly and you’re standing there thinking, “what just happened?” and working your way through the emotions that come with trying to let go. By revisiting what happened in 1989, there’s a new wisdom to it. A lot of life experience comes between 1989 and 2011, when it was revamped. I think songs are reflections of what you’re going through in your life and that’s why it’s so much fun redoing it, because it’s kind of a catharsis. (An interesting side note: the original co-author of the song was Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers). 

“Picture Me,” on the other hand, is a straight-out joyous song. At first, it skips along like a fresh take on “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

That was never conscious. “Picture Me” was the first song that Brassell and I wrote together; it was very strummy, featuring constant strumming on the guitar — in fact, it got kind of monotonous in the way we were first playing it. That’s one where Mitchell Froom’s brilliant musicality came through. He said, “OK, we’re going to sing the same song, but I’m gonna put this much more architected little arrangement around what you’re doing.” We stripped it down and rebuilt it. It’s still the same song, but it showed us what a dramatic difference you can make in just changing the guitar part from strum strum strum to plunking those little chords under the voice — clearing — making a lot of space around the voice. It was mind-blowing to Brassell and me.

When you’re in a band, everyone jumps in and plays the way they always play — even as a writer — everyone has a signature way they approach their instrument, so having Mitchell come in there and hearing it — wanting to strip a lot of pieces away to let the voice tell the story was really a revelation.

On “One Day” I was picturing you as a teenager – before the Bangles and everything started, singing “One day, I’m going to make everyone love me.”

I have been introducing that as an anthem for anyone who’s gotten their heart broken, because there’s a false bravado in saying “One day, I’m going to make everyone love me.” But there’s also something that you were talking about, the will to keep going on. Determination.

That’s the nice thing about this album; it works on so many different levels. The first time I went through it, I was tapping my fingers, singing along, whistling — and then I realized what I was happily singing very sad words like “ooooh it hurts” on “Regret.” There’s a lot of depth here – I think people are going to really enjoy diving deep into it.

I’m so glad to hear that you’re enjoying it and finding different things beyond the first listen, I think that’s so cool, I’m so glad. A lot of thought went into it. I was talking to Mitchell recently and we were feeling really good that the record finally came out.

(Promotion wise), I kinda have to do everything myself. It’s basically the Wild Wild West out there for artists right now. There’s not a lot of support. I’m happy and fine with doing it this way – I honestly love my focus being making music and getting it out to people somewhow, someway, fingers crossed. You just never know if people are going to get what you’re intending and I’m just so happy to hear people are responding to it and seeing the layers to it.

Speaking of having the freedom to release music directly to your fans, walk me though the NoiseTrade session that resulted in Some Summer Days, a FREE EP (though tips are welcome) that gave fans an advance taste of your new songs in a different setting.

I had no idea what NoiseTrade was. All of a sudden I found myself going out with the Bangles for a couple of shows in July and someone said, “Oh you need to record five songs for this special NoiseTrade promotion, free downloadable music — I said “cool” and then thought “Oh my god, I’ve got to record something in less than five days!”

Two of the songs were written right then and there. With “Petite Chanson,” we had this little piece of music we were playing while warming up and jamming. I kept track of the chords using an iPhone app. I logged and labeled it “French Song’ and then rediscovered it for NoiseTrade. We wrote “Summer Days” on the spot. In between those bookends, we did “Ragtag” versions of three songs from the Someday album: “Always Enough,” “Raining” and “One Day.”

We burned the midnight oil — locked ourselves in my home studio — just Brassell and I. The EP, Some Summer Days, is something we’re really proud of. Sometimes being under pressure like that and having only the best of intentions at heart, you can come up with something really fun. Doing it in such a short time was a challenging little adventure.

You have not aged a day since the early Eighties — and I’ve heard you talk about moisturizing and daily walking as part of your beauty routine. What have you done to keep your voice in such perfect shape all these years later?

Well, I don’t smoke — it changes the voice and is not healthy. That’s been a big help. My voice gets really raspy very easily. I try to take good care of it. I also warmed up a bit more than usual while recording Someday. My producer, Mitchell Froom, said, “come at blah blah blah and do your warm-up.” I never think to do that, so I went to my room and did some exercises before laying down the vocal tracks.

When I’m making Bangles records, getting the three of us in a room is a challenge – between driving our kids here and this thing and that thing. I am always multitasking way too much. I really tried to focus this time and that’s why Someday came out the way it did. I had much more of a focus and Mitchell created such a great space around my voice — it was bizarrely easy to sing these songs.

Mitchell has such a good ear. I think it helped to not have to fight to sing over a giant bed of music that was competing with the singing part. On a record like this, the voice is telling the story so everything else is supporting it. Mitchell did such a good job creating those arrangements.

And since your voice is so iconic – we keep forgetting that you are such a fierce guitar player — I was listening to “Bitchin Summer” an early surf rock instrumental track by the Bangles…

Yeah!

Was that you rocking out on your signature Rickenbacker?

Yeah, Vicki and I. We recorded that song live — there was no way to sing and play the song at the same time – we were literally standing in the room with our guitars plugged into amps.  I could have plugged in or thrown on an overdub but not on this particular setup.

I didn’t end up playing guitar on Someday, which is fine because we had such good guitar players on the record. I made sure my favorite gear was used — a 12-string Guild from 1966 got played on the record.

I love playing guitar; I have my Rickenbacker and will play acoustic and electric when we go out in the fall.

One of my favorite unreleased Susanna Hoffs tracks is your cover of “Sunshine” by Jonathan Edwards.

That is so cool.

What inspired you to throw in the “No Future” verse from The Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” at the end?

I will do a medley on any song in the world. Every song is a signal for me to think of another song. It’s become a running joke in the Bangles — I always wanna segue into another song. If I’m not careful, I would do it on every song.

That’s cool that “Sunshine” is available on the Internet — that’s from the album that never came out.

I think that album is one of the best unreleased records of all time. I have a hissy version dubbed from a cassette and was psyched to see some of the tracks made your self-titled Susanna Hoffs CD from 1996. Is there talk within the Bangles or even with your solo records of doing some expanded deluxe editions?

I hope so. Ever since I did the NoiseTrade thing, I’ve been scouring the archives and have come across so many things that I really want to figure out what to do with. I’ll keep you posted. I really want to see some of these lost tracks see the light of day. I loved working with Matt Wallace and there was a lot of good stuff on that record that never came out. I’m psyched to know people have it and would love to make it more readily available.

Imagine the joy of having the first Bangles EP back in print alongside some of these treasures.

Oh my god, I would love to do that. Thank you for your enthusiasm. I hope you can come to the Seattle show. Such a pleasure to talk with you!

And now, some music.

Here are some acoustic performances of the new songs. Buy the album to hear Froom’s exquisite production. But you have to hand it to Hoffs and Brassell, even when it’s just the two of them, the sound is heavenly.

 

Addendum:

Earlier in our conversation, Susanna tried to remember the name of a Swedish sister folk duo that her kids turned her onto. That turned out to be The First Aid Kit, whose new album is titled The Lion’s Roar. When she first described the sound, I immediately thought of the Pierces, whose album You & I was my favorite LP of 2011. In early 2012, Catherine Pierce teamed with James Levy to release Pray to Be Free; their album of Sixties influenced songs is a dark and haunting counterpart to Susanna’s lovely new album, Someday.




  • MC

    Fantastic interview! There’s some great little-known’s in there. i feel full : )

  • http://www.wingsforwheels.net dslifton

    Great interview, Keith!