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Susanna Hoffs Bares All (?) in New Interview
Paying homage to ’60s-era bands like The Beach Boys, and The Mamas and the Papas, Susanna Hoffs has recently released her third solo album, Someday – her first release in 16 years.
The album was inspired by my yearning to sing songs that were as melodic and emotional as my favorite music of the 1960s.
Produced by Mitchell Froom (The Bangles, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam, Indigo Girls, Los Lobos), the album features 10 new songs written or co-written by Hoffs, who plans to tour this fall.
With their catchy, bright melodies, Beatles-esque hooks and jangling guitar riffs, Hoff’s band The Bangles topped ’80s charts with hits like Manic Monday, Walk Like an Egyptian and Eternal Flame, selling millions of albums worldwide.
Hoffs is currently in the midst of a summer tour with The Bangles, but she took the time to chat at length with Rock Cellar Magazine about her new album, collaborating, her affinity for The Beatles, and, um, nudity.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Where did the title of your new album, Someday, come from?
Susanna Hoffs: I think initially when I met my co-writer Andrew Brassell, I told him that I wanted to name the album Someday because I was thinking “Someday my dream will come true and I’ll make this solo album.” I had this project on the back burner for years partly due to all the touring with The Bangles. I had taken many of the songs that I intended to put on a solo album onto those Bangles records.
I also had this box of cassettes filled with songs that I had written over the years. I told Brassell – everyone calls him Brassell – that I was confused about how to approach making this solo album. He was staying in my guest room at the time while he was transferring from Nashville to LA, and I asked him if I could play him some of my stuff. And some of these songs were written as long ago as 1989. I mean, Brassell was only three years old at the time (laughs) – he was only a baby! So after I showed him some of these older songs of mine like Raining, along with November Sun, we just started writing while trying to figure out a way for everything to fit together, and many of the older songs I had written survived that process. So for many years now I’ve been hoping “someday” to make another solo record.
RCM: The whole album has this really warm, summery, ’60s vibe to it. How was that achieved?
SH: For me, it’s kind of a mystical thing how it all works out, but I think it has to do with being in the right place at right time with the right person. What I had in mind when I started working with Brassell was this idea that whatever we were going to write together was going to be done in the spirit of music that was very emotional. It was going to be very true to my life, and very singable for me, and I wasn’t going to strive for anything beyond something I could just sink my teeth into.
It had to be something that was coming from my heart and soul, honestly. There was no other agenda; there was no record company to please, there was no overarching ideas.
And beyond that, my first music crush was The Beatles and the music of the ’60s, so no matter what I do, that influence always colors everything.
RCM: When did you discover your love for The Beatles and music of the ’60s?
SH: Growing up in Los Angeles, you really are in a car a lot because there isn’t a subway or rapid transit system here, and I was exposed to all the music my mom and dad listened to in the car. My mom really, really loved pop music and I always call it the “soundtrack to my childhood.” So early on it was clear to my parents that singing and dancing became my bliss and that it was something I was always happy doing, so they were very supportive of me in it.
Listening to The Beatles, Paul McCartney’s natural abilities as a songwriter were something that has always astonished me, and the way melodies just flow so freely out of him. I always had the impression that he never overthought his songwriting. If you look at a song like Yesterday – he wrote Yesterday when he was, like, 22, and to have it start with the lyrics “scrambled eggs” and end up “yesterday” is something I find absolutely fascinating.
So I feel very lucky that I discovered The Beatles and experienced the ’60s in the way that I did. I owe a lot to those early years when I fell in love with music as I have this deep connection to it. And I just want to continue following that bliss in a way – through the pure act of performing for people, putting music out there, and working with other creative people.
RCM: Tell us about producer Mitchell Froom.
SH: I first met Mitchell in 1986 when he played keyboards on The Bangles record Different Light. We were all working at Sunset Sound Factory and David Kahne was producing The Bangles and it was a little scene going on down there. Over the years, I’d run into Mitchell and then a few years ago realized we were neighbors when we’d run into each other at nearby restaurants. So he and his wife Vonda Shepard would have these really fantastic parties that would turn into jam sessions. They became these famous parties in the neighborhood, where you’d come away thinking “Wow! That was so cool!” Jackson Browne would be there and you’d be singing backup on him doing some old Rolling Stones song. So I’ve always had a great fondness for Mitchell and have been a great admirer of his work.
RCM: And you worked with Froom on the movie Meet the Parents, which your husband Jay Roach directed, right?
SH: Yes, Randy Newman did the score and a song for it. Then I had an opportunity to work with Mitchell on a French version of this song called Fool for Love. It was a quick day in the studio, but then I ran into him shortly after I had started this writing flurry with Brassell. We just so happened to be at this wonderful club called The Coronet Theater, it used to be called Club [Café] Largo, and Mitchell happened to be there and he heard the excitement in my voice telling him about this new batch of songs we had written. It was like fresh baked cookies or something, fresh out of the oven – (laughs) – this new material.
I had been in this non-writing mode for far too long and Mitchell could see that I had made this incredible new discovery in a songwriting partner. He was really excited and wanted to hear them, so we went over with guitars and played the new material and that’s how it all started. That’s how “the team became a team.”
RCM: You also put out a sampler of Someday on the free music site Noisetrade.com, with that groovy alternate version of One Day. How was that experience?
SH: It was a lot of fun putting it out there, as your music becomes instantly available for people to discover and download. I didn’t know anything about it as I’m very slow to some of this social media stuff, but I’m learning about it. With this new record I’m getting a crash course in all of it.
After working so hard on this record, it was so great to see things heating up towards the release and that’s how I found out about Noise Trade. I saw it as an opportunity to jump back in the studio and create a couple brand new songs while doing some fast and furious new versions of a few songs on the record. And the next day, people were listening to it! It’s a really interesting new world and it’s just so different to how it was for new bands in the ’80s.
RCM: Are you and Matthew Sweet, under your stage names “Sid and Susie,” planning to cover songs from the ’80s on your next Under the Covers release, given that the first two were tributes to ’60s and ’70s?
SH: We are. After my fall tour for my solo record, one of my goals is to dive back into that world and work on Under the Covers 3. Then I’m going to be touring with Matthew in 2013 when that record comes out. I always keep the tracks we’re working on a secret, but yes, they are songs from the ’80s and we should talk again when that record’s going to come out.
RCM: How were those first two Under the Covers albums received?
SH: They were received so well, and I cannot tell you how important my relationship with Matthew Sweet informed everything I do, including this solo record. Honestly, I’m really glad you’re asking me about it. He’s a musical genius, kind of like a mad scientist in the studio. And he’s got this room filled with artwork from the ’60s along with every kind of guitar, keyboards and drums up at his house. It’s like this music factory.
We both did music for the Austin Powers movies, which by the way my husband directed all of those, and what I learned from Matthew is spontaneity, and that you can live, breathe music 24-hours-a-day if you just get yourself oriented towards it and put your mind to it.
I think the years leading up to working with Matthew, for me, had been this working-mom “mom by day, Bangle by night” crazy juggling act that all of us Bangles are in the midst of all the time. Then I met Matthew and seeing his intense focus on creativity in a way was kind of a wakeup call, as I realized how I had allowed my writing and creativity to lay dormant for a really long time as a solo artist. My last solo record was something like 16 years ago, that’s terrible to say (laugh), but it’s true. So the whole experience I had with Matthew Sweet informed, for me, this whole new way of making music.
RCM: How do you and Matthew Sweet go about picking which songs to record on your Under the Covers albums?
SH: When we made the first record, we didn’t even know there’d be more than one as it was just our little love letter to the music of the ’60s. When we started out I came over to Matthew’s house and we both made lists of songs that we wanted to do, and one of the songs that was on both our lists was She May Call You Up by Left Banke, which is a really obscure song. That’s when we both just looked at each other and said, “That’s so weird that we would both have that on our list!” Another one that was on both our lists was The Beatles song And Your Bird Can Sing, which was also a bizarre thing that we both went to that choice.
So there was a little bit of a baroque-pop concept going on there so we just took it from there and did The Zombies song Care of Cell 44 from Odessey and Oracle. Right then and there we thought, let’s make this list every time and get together and share them, and that’s what we did with the ’70s Under the Covers one.
RCM: How did choosing songs for Under the Covers 2 compare to the first album?
SH: We ended up recording something like 40 songs for the ’70s one because we found it was such a diverse era in music, compared to the ’60s. We even had the revelation to do a Yes song (I’ve Seen All Good People), and that we should enter into the progressive rock. We also did a whole lot more new wave and punk era stuff, we did James Taylor and then we did Todd Rundgren. It was really overwhelming actually and as a result we recorded so many songs in that process. I said to Matthew that we’ve got to release some of the songs that never made it to the record or the deluxe version, even, because there are so many tracks sitting there up in his studio that I feel deserve to be heard.
RCM: Are there any Bangles outtakes and rarities tucked away somewhere, waiting to be discovered?
SH: God, I have a massive amount of cassettes in a box, so who knows what I might find? Definitely, I think there’s some really interesting Bangles demos and outtakes around that would require a little bit of digging and careful archiving, to be heard someday. And that’s one of my goals, the problem is that I’m so busy all the time moving forward. There is that part of me that wants to look backward, but in moving ahead I could see myself spinning out of control trying to figure out how to budget my time (laughs). But I do want to revisit some of the early Bangles outtakes and things, because I know there’s some really cool stuff in there.
Did you ever see the documentary that Davis Guggenheim did called It Might Get Loud? It’s about guitar playing with Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White. In the film, he has The Edge going through old cassettes and there’s this great sequence where he’s playing old rehearsal tapes and early versions of songs, and it’s so fascinating.
But my favorite moment in the whole documentary has Jimmy Page sitting at home with all of his vinyl albums and he puts on a Link Wray record. He’s listening to it and you can see – this album that totally influenced him as a kid – how it has the exact same effect on him after all these years! He’s so into it, he’s loving it, he’s listening and he’s looking up at the camera and going, “Do you hear that!” So cool!
RCM: In addition to the Under the Covers albums, you’ve been known to play covers in concert too – like Bad Company’s Feel Like Making Love.
SH: That was a song I played back in ’91 when I was on tour with Don Henley. I had such a kick-ass band and it was just something I heard on the radio on the way to rehearsal and I kind of said, “Wow, this song sounded so great on the radio!” The band just started goofing around and playing it during rehearsal, but I didn’t give any thought to performing it on tour. And they were like, “You know, that song is just so fun to play!” We had such a good band at that time that we ended up putting it in our set and as a result, it ended up being the highlight of the show, and now of course there’s a YouTube video of it out there that somebody dug up.
RCM: Thanks to YouTube, fans can hear rarities like The Bangles’ first indie single, which included Getting Out of Hand and Call on Me. Do you ever come across those original 45 RPMs?
SH: I know I have a box with some of them, but there’s very few of them around and I think anyone who has one has got a bit of a collector’s item now.
It’s incredible how we’re living in a really interesting time where there are so many things – things that may have been buried or thought to be lost forever – are now surfacing and being made available for people who are curious.
I was just with my mom [director Tamar Simon Hoffs] the other day and we were talking about a film she made called The Haircut. She was part of the American Film Institute for Women Directing program back in the early ’80s, and she made this incredible, short movie that went to the Cannes Film Festival and got some sort of award or certificate of excellence. It starred John Cassavetes, the great actor and director, and she had written this little funny sequence so I think it was The Bangles first ever appearance in any kind of film.
And even my mom will say that she can’t believe that the British Film Institute is including The Haircut in this Cassavetes thing they’re doing, as they only recently stumbled upon it. Now more people will have this opportunity to see this very charming and cool short film my mom made so many years ago. It’s really kind of wonderful.
RCM: The 1978 film Stony Island, celebrating Chicago’s music legacy, was co-written by your mother, and you played the role of a farm girl in it. Since the movie recently came out on DVD, can you tell us a bit about it?
SH: Stony Island was the directorial debut of the great Andrew Davis, who would go on to direct movies like The Fugitive and A Perfect Murder. He and my mom wrote Stony Island about their childhood growing up in the south side of Chicago. My mother grew up in an area near Stony Island, which is a street there in Hyde Park, and so did Andy. They were both very influenced by the music scene there, and I had a little part in the movie and one of the very first songs I ever wrote ended up in the film – not me singing it, though. We’ve recently had all these screenings and this movie is a perfect time capsule of the ’70s, and it’s so much fun to watch. I’m a little horrified seeing myself at that age (laughs), as it seems funny to me now.
RCM: Can you talk about your charity work a bit?
SH: I’ve done a tremendous amount of shows for various charities and it feels really good to do that. As The Bangles, we’ve done many things for Pinktober, which is breast cancer awareness month. Every year we’ve done something for that along with the Revlon Walk/Run and the Hard Rock Walk in Orlando.
I’ve also done a lot of stuff for our kids’ school and other people’s kids’ schools, actually. It’s an easy way to stay connected to things, and it keeps us connected to the arts in our community.
I’ve always been involved in the arts in some shape or form whether it’s dancing, drawing or painting. I also studied art in college.
RCM: What experiences left the biggest impression on you in art school?
SH: I vividly remember the life drawing classes and how I was always amazed by the people who modeled nude for us. These people would just come in and they were just so, I don’t know, comfortable in some way and yet they were totally exposed. I had so much respect for them as they were allowing us art students a chance to really learn how to do life drawing and hone our craft. And the only way to learn life drawing is with a live model.
We’d move around in a circle to get the different angles and we’d do these 30-second gesture drawings in an effort to capture the pose. You’d just start seeing the form of the figure as you’d focus on trying to draw all the lines of the body, as you’d quickly forget that there’s a naked person in front of you. And in life drawing, there is no substitute for drawing from a live model, and that’s why I found it to be such a fascinating experience. But I especially appreciated those models willing to pose nude in front of anyone wanting to learn how to draw the human figure.
RCM: Bangles history has it that you recorded the song Eternal Flame in the nude. How did that happen?
SH: There were four of us in The Bangles back then – Michael Steele was still in the band, and we would go about organizing studio time for each girl. Our wonderful producer Davitt Sigerson said, “You know what, I think it’s best to record vocals at night and I would like you girls to schedule what night you want, and when it’s your night, it’s your night. I want to make you as comfortable as possible, so whatever you want the studio to be, whether it’s having stuff like incense or lighting a candle, you got it.”
He played this kind of practical joke on me – he knew I was very gullible – and he mentioned that he had just finished working on Olivia Newton-John’s record and said, “Oh, and she sings everything in the nude. And she just did her best performances ever that way.” And I said, “Really? I had no idea!”
He told me well after the sessions were over that he was just pulling my leg but that’s what launched into this whole conversation where I said, “That sounds like so much fun!” ‘Cause I had already had this superstitious thing about wearing the same outfit every time I recorded vocals – sort of my lucky shirt and pants. But this idea transformed me into thinking, “Well, gosh, maybe I’ll get my best performances if I’m singing in the nude!”
So it sort of became this thing where I started to sing in this semi-state of undress and I started to do these great vocals, where I started to have superstitious feelings about it as well. I remember thinking, “Well, this new approach is a lucky thing, just like my lucky outfit was!” And just so you know…logistically, there was a screen in front of me so they couldn’t see me in the control room. I wasn’t on display, and had my privacy behind the screen.
But just the notion of it was fun and the sensation of feeling emotionally naked as well somehow brought out these vocal performances on that record, that I don’t know if I would have achieved otherwise.
RCM: A lot of Beatles fans and “gearheads” love to talk about your guitars and amps. Can you talk a bit about that?
SH: I still play the same amp that I bought before The Bangles had any kind of success. It’s a Fender Deluxe and it’s considered a very good amp. It’s a pre-CBS Fender so it has the green light instead of the red light. So I still play it, though I’m sad it’s gotten a teeny bit trashed over the years, but there’s no sound like it. It’s called the “Deluxe Reverb” and I have to tell you, it’s got the best reverb sound. It’s a tube amp so it’s very warm and very cool sounding. It’s a really great one. They’re so expensive now, I’d like to get another one, but I absolutely love it!
I have loads of guitars, like a cool Silvertone bass here, and a Guild Aristocrat from the ’50s that’s absolutely incredible. I have a Guild Starfire 12-string that’s incredible and is on every record that I’ve done. My signature Rickenbacker is a three quarter body and a full-scale neck – it’s the one Rickenbacker made only 250 of in the ’80s. Then I have a John Lennon-style three quarter Rickenbacker, it’s a three quarter neck and three quarter body. I love all those old Beatles-style guitars.
RCM: Is there one particular Beatles song that you feel has influenced your own songwriting, lyrically?
SH: I think that would be Here Comes the Sun, as I feel it kind of captures this theme of bittersweet emotion. And that’s the one thing that I always come back to in my own songwriting, this feeling of longing and hope for things, the clash between light and dark. And Here Comes the Sun exemplifies that emotional lightness and darkness.
That’s why I called the new album Someday, too, along with so many other reasons why I ended up going back to that title. Even the cover shot came from this idea of having a dark umbrella and looking up at the cloud cover waiting for sunlight to come through. It’s a theme that has always propelled me forward as I’m always trying to find light even in dark times, whether it’s in a relationship or overcoming fears, anxieties, or sadness. Anything, really, where you try to find the positive in things, because I think that’s essentially what we’re all trying to do – connect with each other.
I think part of the human experience is the desire to feel connected. That’s why I’m really grateful to have this chance to talk with you about my music, along with fans who have taken the time to write me and share their feelings about the new record. What I have found in speaking with people about their connection with music is, they feel like music is a reliable friend that has this powerful influence on their lives.
RCM: That must be a profound thing for you, as a musician, to hear.
SH: Definitely, and I think nowadays that’s where artists have to have their own gauge of what success is. People talk about the music business, all the changes over the years and how it used to be where the record companies were very empowered until the internet came along and so much music became free, essentially. But somehow for me, the way things are now is kind of bringing everything back to a place where I feel very comfortable. When The Bangles started out, we had this big dream of having great success, but I learned along the way that success really comes from just knowing that people are enjoying your music.
It’s just nice to have made something new after so many years hoping to one day have the opportunity to do it again. My new record is already exceeding my wildest expectations as so many people are telling me they’ve been listening to the album and really enjoying it. So I can’t ask for anything more. To me, that is total success.
Susanna Hoff’s album Someday is available in our new Rock Cellar Store HERE.
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