SUSANNA HOFFS: EVEN SANS BANGLES, SHE SPARKLES
By Paul Freeman [October 2012 Interview]
Whether she’s sporting Bangles or not, Susanna Hoffs always sparkles. After 30 years of recording, she’s at her creative peak. Two of Hoffs’ finest albums have come in the last year - the band’s “Sweetheart of the Sun” and her new solo record, “Someday.”
Produced by the legendary Mitchell Froom, “Someday” features numerous songs Hoffs co-wrote with a young collaborator from Nashville, Andrew Brassell, plus one she wrote back in 1989 with Mike Campbell of Heartbreakers fame.
Hoffs graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1980, earning a degree in Art. Her ambitions to become a dancer shifted after she experienced Sex Pistols and Patti Smith concerts in the Bay Area. Fired up by punk rock, Hoffs joined Vicki and Debbi Peterson in what was to become The Bangles.
The band had huge hits with such songs as “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like An Egyptian” and “Eternal Flame,” which was sung and co-written by Hoffs. The group broke up in 1990.
Hoffs released a solo album, “When You’re a Boy,” in 1991, and an eponymous follow-up in ‘96. She appeared as part of the Ming Tea band in the Austin Powers movies, which were directed by her husband, Jay Roach (with whom she has two sons). She also contributed music to the films “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Red Roses and Petrol.” She has collaborated on several projects with Matthew Sweet.
Her third solo album, “Someday,” released this past summer, is filled with Hoffs’ assured, vibrant vocals and skillfully penned, instantly memorable songs. They call to mind the cream of the ‘60s crop, Goffin-King, Bacharach-David, Lennon-McCartney, Tony Hatch, Jackie DeShannon.
POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
The “Someday” album captures that magic of the classic pop/rock sounds, yet has a really modern feel. Was that one of the goals with this project?
Yes, thank you for noticing that. Yes, it was definitely something that we talked about, Mitchell Froom and I. And I went in with this goal in mind, in terms of songwriting, to try to come up with material that, obviously, reflected my life, but more than that, would be fun for me to sing, in that I’d always loved the music of the ‘60s. I kind of taught myself by singing along to those records - Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark and Lulu and Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs.
I’d always had this fantasy of, ‘Wouldn’t it be great, if I could come up with melodies that were that fun to sing.’ So I went in with that goal in mind and then, when my songwriting partner and I joined forces with Mitchell, we started to work on everything with just a piano and two guitars, but during the process, the idea of just embracing the love of the ‘60s became clear. And then Mitchell had this idea of ‘Why not go for it with the arrangements and really take from some of the ideas that were used on the songs I was referencing so strongly?’ So we did that. But we definitely wanted it to have a modern spin. We wanted kind of the vintage idea to color the style of the record, but not to be so much so that it felt old [Laughs]. Not old, but we didn’t want to take it so far that it didn’t remain current to the time we recorded it, too.
It’s definitely fresh-sounding. What is it about the ‘60s that makes it such a musical touchstone for you? What is it about the records and the songs of that era?
I think, more than anything, it’s the kind of unabashed emotion that comes through on those records. Sometimes I listen back and I’m amazed at how committed the performances are. To use one example, you could listen to Tom Jones on ‘It’s Not Unusual’ or ‘What’s New Pussycat’ and it’s just like every syllable of every word, there’s commitment and passion. And the same is true of Dionne Warwick or Lulu or Petula Clark. I mean, nobody was holding back and trying to be cool, you know? And I’m drawn to that. There’s a fearlessness in it that I love.
You mentioned that the songs reflected where you’re at. Do you see this as being a particularly personal album?
Photo Credit: Paul Freeman
Oh, yeah. I definitely do. I got lucky, in that I met a kid from Nashville who was friends with my niece who had come to town to start a life in L.A. He followed shortly after and kind of became ensconced in my household, which was very convenient, because it sort of turned into songwriting camp. You know, there are people who have to go on special retreats to sort of force themselves to get away from day-to-day life, errands and pressures and multi-tasking, the things we all need to take care of in our lives, so they can make way for the creative stuff.
So, for me, having someone, literally, living in my guest room and seeing my interaction with my family and what my day-to-day life was like, and then, at night, after dinner, the kids would go off and do their homework and he and I would retire to the living room and start writing songs. And everything that happened during the day would come through in the songs. It was an amazing situation and I don’t think this album would exist had I not had this opportunity to just work on music every night for several nights straight.
Generally, the process of writing, does that tend to be painstaking for you? Or more joyful?
It’s joyful. The problem is, just carving out time for it. I think, like most working moms, there’s so much going on, our lives are so full. These songs were written when my husband was in New Orleans, making ‘The Campaign.’ I was touring with The Bangles for a new album that we had just put out, called ‘Sweetheart of the Sun,’ and trying to kind of keep the household together. So it was just one of those miraculous things, in a way, that I was able to figure out how to have this time to be creative.
So for me, it’s joyful when I find time for music. It’s not that I dread doing it. It’s more that I can’t find the time for it, normally.
In creating a song like ‘True,’ such a beautiful song, does that allow you to gain a new perspective on your own longtime relationship?
Definitely. I think that that was one of the first songs that we wrote where I really had this moment where I turned to Andrew and I said, ‘What we’re doing is really good. I feel like we started this whole process as an exploration and I just have this feeling that what we accomplished in writing that song, so personal and so much fun to sing and it really captured my experience, it all came together in a kind of way that’s hard for me to do.’ And so not only was I convinced that he and I made a great team, but I was convinced that I could figure out how to be creative in the chaos of my normal day.
There seems to be, ultimately, a sense of optimism in the album. Is that just part of your nature?
I think that’s true. I’ve always been interested in using music, whether I’m the listener and I’m just picking a song to help me work through something that’s painful or dark, emotionally. And I think that it’s true in my writing. I always want somehow find my way back up to the light.
I remember, in the early days of The Bangles, when we were just on the road continuously. We did some tours in Europe during the coldest months there. And you would never, ever see the sun shining, unless we were in an airplane and we had reached a high enough altitude that we’d broken through the cloud layer. And I was so terrified of flying back then that it was an odd thing that it was just darkness all the time and then I’d be on this airplane and I’d be scared, but when we got high enough to see the light, to feel actual sunlight coming through the windows, it was this amazing feeling. I don’t know why I’m remember that right now. Something about your question just brought back that image and even that feeling.
So I’ve always been interested in that. It’s always been a theme, in everything that I’ve done, musically, for sure.
During the zenith of The Bangles’ success, were you able to fully enjoy those moments? Or was it too much of a whirlwind?
Photo Credit: Paul Freeman
Oh, a little bit of both. There were moments that were surreal. I just couldn’t believe that I was standing on a stage, having opened for Queen at Slane Castle in Ireland and I’m watching them perform from the side of the stage. There were many, many moments like that.
Also, there were moments where I just thought, ‘How am I going to keep going?’ It was so intense and exhausting and crazy, to just be living, kind of heaped together with this team that we were. And you were never feeling your feet on the ground. You were just always on the move.
Having had time apart and doing solo projects, has that enhanced your appreciation of the group now?
Oh, definitely. I think there was a point, at the end of the ‘80s, where I really did need to just stop moving. Literally stop moving [laughs], to just feel like I was sitting still and stuck in one place.
And I didn’t even expect to make this solo album. It fell together partly because of finding a songwriting collaborator and then running into Mitchell Froom and having the perfect players make this thing a reality. And a little gap in my Bangles tour dates that afforded me the little chance to go and do something else.
And I do think there’s just an enhanced appreciation of everything, when you hit 50. So I guess there’s something good about hitting 50. Fifty, they say, is the new 30. Maybe that’s an exaggeration. But I remember being in my late 20s, going, ‘Oh, no! Thirty! Thirty was looming like this terrible thing. And then, a lot of wonderful things happen in your 30s. And I could say the same for the 40s. And now, entering a whole new phase, it’s really actually fantastic.
Well, you’ve certainly hit it gracefully. That skepticism that The Bangles had to overcome early on, as women in rock, is that over now? Is it at least better? Or is it still there?
I think it’s still there. But I think it’s better. And it’s something that I’m so interested in. Lately, I’m so happy that Patti Smith is on the road right now. I’m so happy that my idols growing up, my female idols, my inspiration - I got so much inspiration from other female artists, starting with my mother [film director Tamar Simon Hoffs]. And my mother from her mother, who was a painter. I’ve always cherished the strong female role models.
And I feel like it was okay that The Bangles had to come up against that in the ‘80s. It’s okay. I mean, it kind of made us stronger. And tougher in our resolve. Greater. It’s been an ongoing challenge for female artists since the beginning. So it’s so nice to see new artists, people working in different media, people like Lena Dunham, who have a strong voice and are very brave about it. It’s inspiring.
And it must be gratifying to know that a lot of young female artists have been inspired by The Bangles and your solo music.
Absolutely. Nothing makes me happier than that. For me, I feel incredible gratitude and joy for the fact that this record ever saw the light of day, and beyond that, the kind of response I’m getting from people, because music has been such an important thing in my life, as a listener and also having the great opportunity to make music and share it with people. And if it is enjoyed by people and beyond that, people are inspired by it, wow, I don’t even know how to articulate how wonderful that makes me feel.
With all you’ve accomplished, are there still unfulfilled goals you’re burning to get to?
So many [Laughs]. So many. First of all, just to keep on keeping on, is one. That’s something I’m working on. But I’m looking forward to doing more music with Matthew Sweet. I’m looking forward to doing more collaborations with The Bangles. I’m really interested in continuing to write songs with Andrew Brassell and to work with Mitchell Froom. And I’m working with my husband, finally, on some interesting things. So everything is good. I think that being able to stop everything... or stop enough to carve out time to have made this ‘Someday’ record, is kind of the beginning of a new phase that I’m very, very thrilled about.
For the latest news, visit www.susannahoffs.com.
10.29.12 Atlanta, Georgia Eddie’s Attic
10.31.12 Vienna, Virginia Jammin’ Java
11.02.12 Natick, Massachusetts Center for the Arts
11.04.12 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania World Cafe
11.05.12 New York, New York City Winery United States
11.06.12 Chicago, Illinois City Winery
11.13.12 San Diego, California Anthology
11.14.12 Los Angeles, California Largo at the Coronet
11.15.12 San Francisco, California Red Devil Lounge
11.17.12 Portland, Oregon Mississippi Studios
11.18.12 Seattle, Washington Triple Door