Susanna Hoffs: The Interview

Three weeks after its release and I’m still obsessing over the new Susanna Hoffs solo album, Someday. To find out more about it and Hoffs, I caught up with her on what was a rather manic Monday – our phone conversation came at the end of a day of gabbing with reporters and deejays. She turned out to be gracious, genuine and sweet, if a tad tired of all the talking.

JG: Why a solo album now?

SH: I was yearning to do it for many, many, many years. One factor that delayed it was that I got quite busy with the Bangles. A lot of the songs that I had intended to do on a solo record I ended up doing on Bangles records. It was meeting Andrew Brassell, who moved here from Nashville and was really a close friend of my niece Miranda – I unexpectedly started this crazy writing flurry with him. I think part of it was the fact that he was actually living in the house and was around all the time. He was looking to settle down in L.A., but he didn’t have a place to stay so I offered him my guest room until he could get his feet on the ground here. He was sort of adopted by the family – my kids loved him, my husband thought he was great. We ended up writing, and there was no way to get distracted. That kind of kick started the whole record into gear.

JG: Someday has a distinct mid-‘60s feel to it. I know you love the music of that era, does Andrew?

SH: Yeah, I mean that was also kind of a compelling aspect to our musical connection. Here’s this guy who was born in the ‘80s, so he didn’t experience the ‘60s firsthand, as I did, but he loves that music so much, and knows it so well. We had a very strong connection through our appreciation of that era of music. In particular, I have been yearning to write songs that allowed for that kind of very emotional singing. Today, I was out walking and, believe it or not, I was listening to Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” and “What’s New, Pussycat.” There isn’t a moment in his vocal performance on either of those two songs that isn’t full-on – full-on, like every word. It’s the opposite of trying to play it cool. It’s going for it.

JG: In that era, a lot of singers did that.

SH: Everybody did. Most everybody did. You listen to early Beatle things, they’re screaming and crooning and “oooh!” and doing all that stuff. It’s full-on intensity. I grew up singing along to Petula Clark, Lulu, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt. Nobody was holding back. I’ve been listening to the Bee Gees a lot lately and even a song like “To Love Somebody” – I mean, just check out their vocal performance. There is so much passion and intensity, it’s insane. It’s like it’s fully imbued with wearing-your-heart-on-your-sleeve emotion. You sort of take it for granted when you listen to that music because we just get so familiar with the sounds of those records, they’re classics. The same is true for the arrangements. When you listen to “Walk Away Renee,” you’re not sitting there going ‘check out that string arrangement.’ ”

JG: It’s just part of the texture of the song.

SH: Exactly. Mitchell Froom, who produced the record, was an amazing collaborator. He listened to Brassell and I play the songs in my living room with two guitars and me singing. He studied the melody, figured out what kind of production would be the best to put the voice in the forefront and make it about the emotion, the essence of the music. Sometimes when you’re working on something you can’t step back and see the picture, the sound picture, you’re just sort of in the middle of it. You’re singing, and you’re emoting, and you’re breathing, and you’re putting out this performance, and you don’t really have a perspective on it. But he is so musical, and so talented at crafting the production to showcase the important thing. It was really interesting in the case of “Picture Me.” Andrew and I were playing it very strummy, a lot of guitar, and singing quite a bit of it together. Mitchell said ‘don’t play guitar, just sing,’ and he started playing piano – and suddenly, the melody, it sounded like a Burt Bacharach song. Brassell and I looked at each other and were like, ‘wow.’

I don’t really play piano. I can go up to a piano and plunk on a couple chords, but I don’t write on piano and I don’t think like someone who plays piano and knows music the way Mitchell does. I’m very much from the folk school. I pick up a guitar and I strum and I start singing along. [Working with Froom] was a real education.

JG: Did working on the Under the Covers albums (two all-cover sets, one focused on the ‘60s and the other on the ‘70s) with Matthew Sweet influence your songwriting for this album?

SH: That question is really interesting. I hadn’t really put that together. Our ‘60s collection, Under the Covers Volume 1 – the ‘60s were a very varied time period, and there was all sorts of music going on, but we found ourselves attracted to the baroque pop. I think it did have an impact. I’ve always loved that stuff. I’ve always had a real fondness for it.

JG: That music was much more innocent, in a way. It goes more to the heart of the emotions as opposed to a lot of what’s out there now.

SH: I think it’s changing. I think with some of the indie music – I get a lot of exposure to that from my own kids and through young people who are more up on what’s going on. There’s kind of a resurgence of that– very emotional, very melodic, with a really strong ‘60s sensibility.

JG: Will you be touring behind the album?

SH: We’re working on that right now, for October and November. Philadelphia will be early November.

The conversation lasted about 35 minutes – about twice as long as planned. Additional topics ranged from her 2009 performance at the World Café Live in Philadelphia with Matthew Sweet (she was rather nervous as it was the first night of their mini-tour together) to the British singer-songwriter Rumer, whose debut album – after I raved about it – she promised to buy that night. And in two interview excerpts that I uploaded to SoundCloud, she discusses the Beatles and how Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter” became part of the Bangles’ repertoire.

My most unusual question came from singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield, who worked on Hoffs’ 1991 solo debut, When You’re a Boy, and has opened for the Bangles a time or two through the years. Hatfield noted that Hoffs looks so good and healthy, and wanted to know if she was a vegan – a query, honestly, that I never would have thought to ask. Hoffs was delighted to respond (it’s safe to say she’s a Hatfield fan). “I remember we talked a lot about food, so the question is really interesting,” she said. “I try to eat really, really healthy. I exercise. But I do eat a fair amount of fish and some cheese, so that disqualifies me as a vegan.”

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