Susanna Hoffs is best known for her work as a member of one of music’s most loved and enduring all-girl groups, The Bangles. The group arrived on the scene in the early 1980s and ruled the charts with such classic songs as “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like An Egyptian,” “Hazy Shade of Winter” and “Eternal Flame” which launched them to super-stardom and earned them legions of fans worldwide. In the 1990s, the band members went their separate ways and would see Hoffs take on a solo career where she would release two critically praised albums. In the late 1990s, Hoffs reached out to the other members of The Bangles to record the single “Get the Girl” for the second film in the Austin Powers franchise. It didn’t take long for the creative juices to start flowing and the band announced their decision to reunite full-time in 2000. Together again, Susanna Hoffs, Vicki and Debbi Peterson set out once more to create what would become the band’s fourth album, ‘Doll Revolution’, which was released in 2003. With well over two decades behind them, The Bangles show no signs of fading away as they continue to tour and recently released their fifth studio album, “Sweetheart of The Sun”.
Her creative energy at an all-time high, Susanna Hoffs stands ready to debut her powerful new solo album, Someday” on July 17th, 2012. The album is produced and orchestrated by the revered Mitchell Froom and marks her first collaboration with singer/songwriter Andrew Brassell, an ultra-talented 27-year-old musician from Nashville, TN. “Someday” serves as an intensely personal song cycle that doubles as a musical love letter to the music of the 1960s, which have always been a reference point for her. The self-released work features the summery groove of “This Is the Place,” the evocative “November Sun” and the lilting “Picture Me,” with its Bacharach-style sophistication, lush retro arrangements and modern state-of-the-art production enclose Hoffs’ one-of-a-kind voice in an aural tapestry of velvet and lace. “Someday” also features updates of two older songs. One of them is “Raining,” which Susanna wrote with Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers back in 1989. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Susanna Hoffs for an in-depth discussion on the creation of this intensely personal album, the challenges involved, her continuing collaboration with Matthew Sweet on the “Under The Covers” series and what the future might hold for her in the months and years to come!
We are talking today about your new album “Someday.” My first question is: What inspired this album?
This album feels like it has been in the works, in my mind [laughs], for many, many years. I had been waiting to make a solo record and had been collecting material, going way back. Then The Bangles reformed, or sorta came out of hiatus, and started working again. Some of the songs, in my mind, that I thought would be on the solo record ended up on the Bangles record. For example, “I Will Take Care of You” ended up on “Doll Revolution” and “Under A Cloud” and “I’ll Never Be Through With You” were on the “Sweetheart of The Sun” record that just came out. Meanwhile, one of the things that really took it from just this thing I was carrying around in my head as a thought and a wish and a hope to make a solo record and turned it into a reality was a chance encounter with Andrew Brassell, who turned out to be my songwriting partner. It was just one of those things! I met him through my niece and they are both from Nashville. I never thought I would find this incredible writing partner in this kid from Nashville but that is sorta what happened!
We just unexpectedly started writing songs together and it was like we uncorked some creative energy and it just went and went and went! It was a cool series of kismet things that brought us together with [producer] Mitchell Froom, we had all of this material and we showed it to him and he loved it. Next thing we knew we were recording! It was kind of a bizarre series of events of all good things that led to it. It kinda reminds me that a lot of the things in my life that have come together and ended up being really good things were really unexpected. I met The Bangles through an ad in the newspaper. I met my husband on a blind date. I met Andrew Brassell and had an instinct to encourage him to move out to LA. I am rambling because it is such a long story but there is a continuity throughout my life that reminds me that it is good to put yourself out there, take the plunge and follow your instincts.
Can you tell us a little about the process of writing with Andrew Brassell and how that made the album take shape?
Yeah! It was an interesting point in my life because I was very ensconced in Bangles stuff, mostly touring and working on the “Sweetheart of The Sun” record. Having gone through a lot of different phases as a musician, going back to the first stuff I did through the whole ride through the ‘80s with the Bangles, leading up to having a family and being in the mode of multi-tasking all of the time, juggling music, family and being a mom, through all of that I found the thing hardest to focus on was writing. Suddenly, there was this 26-year-old kid from Nashville with a guitar basically glued to his hands, who was spending a lot of time around my house because he was friends with my niece. I ended up, and it is a long story, but I ended up having him stay in our guest room because he needed a place to stay. What happened was, as I was running around trying to get through the day dealing with all of my stuff, there is this kid sitting in the other room playing guitar 24/7. I kept hearing him from the other room and I would hear a melody in my head to go with whatever he was playing on the guitar. I would run in there and say, “What is that?!” He would say, “I don’t know. I am just making something up!” I finally said, “We should really write something. Together.” That is what started it all! The first song we wrote together was “Picture Me.” Even before we actually wrote that song, I had been getting more serious about working on a solo record. I had started to go through old boxes of cassettes and I was going through the archives I had of old demos that I had made. That is when I found the song I had started with Mike Campbell, I actually had a demo of it. We had completed a version of “Raining” back in 1989, using a lot of Mike’s musician friends. I had that song and a version of “November Sun” and a lot of other songs.
I asked Brassell, that is how we refer to him all the time, if he would learn a lot of my old songs because I thought, “How am I going to make this record and figure out how all of this music that spans almost 20 years of music makes sense together?” I had this idea to do a show and have Andrew play with me because if I could just sing and play the songs, I would know which ones went together and how the pieces of this puzzle fit! What ended up happening is we ended up writing one song, “Picture Me.” Once we had done that, we just wrote for several months, every day. We had enough that when we ran into Mitchell Froom, I told him I was really excited I had been writing again and I introduced him to Brassell. We ran into him at this place called Largo. We were there to see Ron Sexsmith, who Mitchell had produced, and a really talented singer/songwriter from Nashvile, Kaitlyn Rose. We just ended up in the right place at the right time, the three of us — Brassell, Mitchell and me! That was really the birth of the album.
As you said, you balance a lot of elements between your personal life and your career. What was the biggest challenge for you as an artist going into the project?
There was something so natural about the writing of this album. It felt so right when Mitchell got involved. His vision of what we were doing and the fact that he got it. It was kinda great that we didn’t have any demos because it got Mitchell pulling into the picture with the thing that he does so well, which is arranging. He is such a great musician and he was able to listen to the songs in such a raw form, literally two people sitting in a room with guitars playing. He was able to conceive how to make the record in a way that accomplished a lot of the goals I had in my mind of what my fantasy solo record would be. It was, in a sense, a semi-blank slate from which Mitchell could add all this palette of color to. We sat there for weeks and it was so pleasurable, it was so much fun. Mitchell would come over to my living room, where I have a piano. For whatever reason, it sounds really good in there. There is a lot of natural reverb because there is a lot of wood in there and the ceilings are weirdly shaped, it just sounds good!
We would sit there and we would play the songs, tinker with them and work with them. We would listen to how my voice sounded and how the guitar parts worked together and he would play piano. During the process, we would talk a lot about the different influences. It was a really creative period! We would get together from 12 until 6 everyday and just play! From that, with Mitchell at the helm with a lot of great ideas, we thought we should put together a great band, track things quickly and have me singing on a really good mic, in the room with the band. The drummer would be isolated enough that there wouldn’t be drum bleed into my mic. All of the musicians were really close to me and everyone played wonderfully. We really went for it and tried to record it in a very authentic way and very much in the mode of how they did it in the ‘60s. Then Mitchell had these really great live tracks with live vocals and he could work on orchestrations to fit in with the idea of my influences from the ‘60s. He and David Boucher, the engineer and mixer, asked me to put together a playlist of songs that fit into the feelings we talked about, that had those sort of pop orchestrations using strings, horns and flutes — a certain palette. Then we took a step back while Mitchell worked for a good chunk of time, really focusing energy on the orchestration, which was really challenging and fun for him.
All of this describing setting the stage of how we did it, back to your question, the challenge that was great was musically, not feeling like, “Oh, I will just fix it in the mix.” Or, “We will fix the vocal or piece it together.” It was a process of really figuring stuff out so you went in with the idea of “I’m performing.” I felt like I was up to bat, wanted to hit the ball and really do it! There wasn’t a lot of, “Oh, we will just use some tricks to make it good.” It had to be good! I can’t explain it any other way! [laughs] That is where the challenge came in but it was the best kind of challenge!
Is that style of recording an approach you think you will utilize more in the future?
Absolutely! In fact, I did a little show at McCabe’s and just to kinda make the night fun, I thought of a few cover songs I wanted to do. I got so excited doing those songs that a couple of weeks ago we even put the pressure on a little more, which was to record and mix a song a day! Not just record it or sing it live and track it live but do everything that was going to go on the song — any overdubs, any kind of harmony and mix it! It was kind of crazy but it was really fun! When you think about the ‘60s, they would record entire albums in one day! It was happening all the time! So much stuff was done live! You know, I just read Keith Richards’ book, “Life,” I listened to it actually. I read it right before I started the “Someday” record with Mitchell. Everything I got from the book about playing with musicians, being in a room, hearing how sounds bounce off other sounds — it is a mystical thing that happens when people are playing together and it is working. It is always the thing to go for! There are a lot of ways to make music and they are all valid but I realized that is the thing I really enjoyed doing so much in the past — in the early days of The Bangles and in making this record, you don’t need to worry about little details. You don’t need to worry if the mic has distortion on it because you belted the note a little too hard, if the guitar is bleeding into the mic a little bit and creating a little extra noise or if the amp is buzzing. It doesn’t matter! It is all part of it! It is all about the experience of it and trying to capture it. It is just a different kind of approach and I really like it. I learned a lot from Matthew Sweet that also informed this process because he really works this way, he doesn’t overthink it!
Speaking of Matthew Sweet, last time we spoke, you guys just put out “Under The Covers: Volume II.” I hear you have been hard at work on “Volume III.” Those are two of my favorite records. What can we expect this time around?
Oh, my gosh! Thank you! It is more of the same but this time it’s the ‘80s! We are having a lot of fun. I have never revealed the songs until after the records come out, it became a thing with “Volume I” and then “Volume II,” so I think I will keep it under the covers until it comes out! It is fun actually, revisiting the ‘80s, because for many years following and even in the ‘80s, I had an odd reaction to some of the stuff that was going on even though my band, The Bangles, was so associated with that time period. I grew up loving the ‘60s, so my reference point for everything has always been the ‘60s. I came of age in the ‘70s but I have always thought of myself in terms of influences, all of it came out of the ‘60s. I think that is still true. When the ‘80s happened, there was a lot of synth driven stuff and a lot of silly and quirky kind of stuff! [laughs] Even The Bangles, even though we were a garage band and always thought of ourselves as a ‘60s influenced garage band, “Walk Like An Egyptian” certainly became one of those quirky ‘80s songs that people now associate with the decade. Even at the time, I didn’t feel that much connection, in my mind, with other ‘80s bands, aside from maybe R.E.M. and certain other bands. Although, I can’t really say that now because now I love listening to ‘80s music! I guess my point is that I have come full circle back around to really, really appreciating the music of that time period. It is really weird. I had a funny feeling about being associated with the ‘80s for many years, like it wasn’t good to be associated with that time period. But people love the ‘80s and I think, in part, that is because it is such a fun era of music, There is a light hearted silliness about a lot of it, not all of it, but much of it.
When might we expect “Under The Covers: Volume III” to be released?
Tentatively, I would say early 2013. Very early!
Back to your solo album for a moment, what does the title, “Someday,” mean to you?
Oh, wow! Ya know, it came to me through a process of thinking about some of the lyrics and what some of the songs are about. But more than that, in a way, when we were taking pictures for the cover, there was a through line of hopefulness. There is something about my wish to make a record, my whole dream of being a musician starting when I was really young and going back to the inspiration I had that made me want to become a singer in the first place and made me love music in the first place. Something about this record really encapsulated that mood — that wishing and hoping for something. It is a tone and essence that has always permeated my thinking and my writing. There were also a lot of songs that had weather in them. There is “Raining” and “November Sun,” so there was sun and there was rain. There was the song “One Day” which has the line “One day, someday, I’m going to make you love me.” There was a theme of wishing and hoping for things and “someday … ” my dream will come true. In a way, that is what this record is to me — a dream coming true. It is really a special record and I am really thrilled it is finally seeing the light of day! The whole process of making it was in a complete “indie” mindset. I didn’t have a label, so it is a labor of love, really. I am so glad to have partnered up with Vanguard, one of the coolest labels around, to distribute it. It is very grassroots, the whole process of doing it and I love that! It cuts out the middleman, in a way. It is basically an art project, which I love. It is very different from the experience I had being on a label in the ‘80s, let’s just put it that way! However, it reminds me of the early days of The Bangles where we did our own stuff too. We were very do-it-yourself and had our own label. There are a lot of things that reflect back to my beginnings with this project.
In your opinion, what does the future hold for Susanna Hoffs? Do you have it plotted out or are you more inclined to take it as it comes?
Both! It is kinda both! [laughs] I learned so much about spontaneity from Matthew Sweet. There have been people I have come upon in my life, like Mitchell and Matthew or Vicki and Debbi from The Bangles, who I am able to take something from all of these collaborations and now with Andrew Brassell, as well. It is a weird combination of having to dream it and build it. What is that line from “Field of Dreams?” — “If you build it, they will come.” You have to be a bit of an architect, creating the structure in your mind and you have to keep track of it. You have to keep tinkering away and constructing this thing while living in the day to day moments of finding inspiration. You need to be able to see things when they fall right in front of you. A thought may hit me, a creative burst, an inspiration and I just want to run with it. It is really this combination of building it, being careful, creating something, hoping people will want to join in and listen! At the same time, I need to let my brain, my mind and my energy just be open. It is a really cool period because it is very open to whatever comes into my path.
One of the things I know that I really want to do is go out and play. I want to play small venues, so there is a really nice intimacy with the audience. There is something really special to me about that. It is less about the show biz part of performing and more about the connection with people and bringing it into almost a living room kind of feel. The thought of that is very exciting. The few times I have been able to have that with these new songs, I have really enjoyed it. I think it has been different, in some ways, than what the experience of what a Bangles show is. It is more stripped down, a little more vulnerable. I will probably do shows like that in the Fall.
I am also working on a bunch of cool extras to go along with the record. For example, I am making this book of old pictures from the ‘60s that I found at my mom’s house in some old photo albums, handwritten lyrics, a cool poster and I started working on those cover songs with Mitchell Froom, I haven’t figured out what I am going to do with them yet. I may put out an EP or something — we will see! My focus right now is the release of “Someday” and all of these extras that come along with it for those who want them!
That sounds great. It is cool to see you putting such a unique touch on the project.
Yeah! It is all really personal and it is really fun. It has a different flavor to it than stuff I have done in the past, so I am very excited about it!
Last time we spoke, I asked if you ever gave any thought to an autobiography. You said as you start to get older you get a different perspective on things — and it might be possible. I talked to Debbi [Peterson] around the release of “Sweetheart of The Sun” and she said The Bangles might have something in the works — a coffee table book, perhaps. Any movement on those fronts?
It’s interesting! It’s a great question. The Bangles have talked about that. As the story of The Bangles goes, the fun thing that happens when Vicki, Debbi and I are together is that we each remember slightly different aspects of different events that had happened. It’s almost like that movie “Rashomon.” You’ve got the different perspectives and we kinda fill in the blanks where our memories lapse on certain events! It’s like puzzle pieces! When the three of us come together, it becomes complete and you can see the whole picture! That is the idea behind the coffee table book. It would include photos and interviews with us where we tell the story that way.
With me, a few people have asked me about creating a memoir. I have been reading and listening to audiobooks of other memoirs, like Keith Richards’ “Life” and Patty Smith’s “Just Kids.” Her book is one of the great, great memoirs. It is a great book and hearing her read it is a phenomenal experience. I tell everyone to go and get it or listen to it. As far as an autobiography from me — I don’t know yet! [laughs] I mean, the whole process of making “Someday” and going through these old pictures is definitely bringing up a lot of memories. You never know! I am just so busy with all of this that I don’t know when the right time to dive into all of that would be but it is definitely percolating in my mind! I just haven’t quite figured it out! I am too busy trying to stay in the moment, I guess! [laughs]
I heard the record and it is a very personal experience as you described. I think it is definitely something for you, your fans and music fans in general to be excited about.
Oh, I am so glad! Thank you!
Thank you for your time today. You have been more than gracious and we appreciate this unique look into creating the album!
Thank you so much and I hope to speak with you again soon!
Absolutely! Take care, Susanna!