The angelic voice that launched “Manic Monday” and “Eternal Flame” hasn’t faltered much in the years since the eye-popping heyday of The Bangles. The genuineness of Susanna Hoffs’ vocals on her latest album, Someday, is as sparkling as ever on such tunes as “Picture Me,” “Always Enough” and “Regret.” The petite mom of two teenaged boys is also working on volume three of the popular Under The Covers series with Matthew Sweet, this time launching their interpretations of songs from the 1980’s, following volumes covering the 1960’s and 1970’s. And although Hoffs is wrapped up in helping her eldest son wade through college applications, she has found time to create new music. A month ago, while taking a short break from recording with Sweet, Hoffs called in to talk about the inspiration behind Someday, her original love for folk music, and what it’s like being a mother and a traveling musician.
What made this time the right time to make another solo record?
Well, I really honestly think it was things aligning just right and me getting really lucky with some various encounters with different people and it was like pieces of a puzzle that just sort of started falling into place. I called the record Someday because the last solo record came out in 1996 and I had been dreaming and hoping and wishing that I could figure out a way to make another solo record for years. But somewhere between being a Bangle and being a working mom who is on the road with the Bangles here and there, just multi-tasking and juggling everything, it was just constantly slipping through the cracks. And during that period since my last solo record, I made two Bangles records. So many of the songs that I’d been writing and kind of collecting with the intention of making a solo record, ended up on those records. “Under A Cloud,” “I’ll Never Be Through With You,” pretty much all of the songs that you hear from me apart from the ones I wrote – there was one on Sweetheart Of The Sun, “Anna Lee”, that is one we wrote in the studio – but all the other ones were ones that I had written initially thinking I would make another solo record. So what happened was my niece moved here from Nashville to LA and a friend visited her, a guy named Andrew Brassell, who we call just Brassell, and I met him and instantly, my whole family, we all liked him right off the bat.
He ended up actually moving to LA and he needed a place to stay so we told him he could stay in the guest room. And I think the thing that really jumpstarted the project was having another musician living in my house, literally, who was writing songs all the time in the living room and I started hearing melodies in my head and I would just go running in there, saying, “What is that?” And he’d say, “It’s just something I’m working on.” And it would turn into a song and it turned into this incredible writing relationship. Then it was also somehow having a musician who was singularly focused on music and didn’t have as many distractions. It was interesting how I ended up going with him to a couple of club shows to see musician friends of his from Nashville and I ran into other musicians that I know. The first time was at Largo, I ran into Mitchell Froom, who ended up producing my record. And another time I ran into Benmont Tench, who is the keyboard player for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and it reminded me about this song I had written with Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers in 1989 that I wanted to revisit. And that led to the song “Raining” being rewritten and kind of brought up to date and ending up on the album. All kinds of things like that happened but it was all kind of Brassell’s influence.
And he’s a young guy, isn’t he?
Well, he’s in his mid-twenties, yeah. There was a kind of thing you could do when you’re that age and you’re less encumbered with things that happen once you start having a family and the complexity of all that; but that singular focus on music was kind of what it took to force me back into that focus myself. We ended up doing the record in a very quick amount of time. The songs got written quickly, the record got recorded quickly, and then it sat there because the music business is so different now and it’s a sort of do-it-yourself world for us musicians out here in this time period. So I had to figure out how to do it and I ended up starting my own record label and putting it out on my label but I got distributed by this great, great label called Vanguard and I’m on the Welk side. So all those little steps took time to kind of find their way into this thing actually being born into the world.
Someday sounds very fresh with such clear vocals and instrumentation.
Thank you. God, that is so nice to hear because you know you work on something and you get really excited when you’re doing it and then you get nervous when you launch it into the world. It’s a big place and you wonder what’s going to happen and I just cannot get over how wonderful it has been to get this response on this record. It’s like this little engine that could project of mine and I was just so eager to do it and then I finally did. Then I wondered if it was ever going to see the light of day and then here it is and I have just been enjoying talking with people who really are enjoying the record. It makes me feel so good.
Music is so much like the universal language for people. It just cuts through everything. I mean, I’ve been getting this incredible response in Japan on the record and somebody just told me I’ve been selling a lot of the CDs in Germany. It’s so cool because even when the language is different, it just proves to me how much music means to people and how it kind of cuts through languages. It’s a shared experience in a culture where they don’t necessarily speak English. It’s just great. I don’t know if there’s a way to translate the lyrics or whether the songs just kind of tell the story with the melodies. I always try to do that when I write. You want to write about something specific and make it clear but it’s almost like for me the melody is the stuff that I listened to growing up, when I was too young to even know what they were singing about. I was too young to know what being in love was. But I still connected with it. So that’s the power of music. It always amazes me.
How does it feel to open up so much of yourself in a song?
It’s a little bit vulnerable, definitely, I have to admit to that. I had a trial run of the solo show and I played a place called The Mint, right before we started recording just to kind of play the music out loud to somebody outside our little circle. Then I played in April a show at our little guitar shop in Santa Monica called McCabe’s where they have a little back room and it’s really intimate. I think I’ve hit a point in my life where I’m kind of brave enough to just sort of be myself in a way. And I don’t have anybody else to hide behind, I don’t have the other girls in the Bangles to hide behind, and I just vividly remember those two shows where I just showed up and I had no answer prepared. It was like, “Here I am, hi,” (laughs). It was a very exposed feeling but in a way I think I’m at that place in my life where it feels exciting to do this because it’s a little more vulnerable.
Did you first start writing songs when you were a little girl?
Yes. Luckily my mom put dates on the backs of pictures and there’s a picture of me when I was eight, or barely eight, from 1967. I was definitely playing guitar then so I think I started more like at six or seven and I was actually writing songs. And it’s weird but I heard a lot of like classic folk music when I was a little girl and the first songs I learned on guitar were songs like “Tom Dooley” and “John Reilly” and I would listen to the Kingston Trio and of course all the pop music like the Beatles that were on the radio at that time. But in terms of the guitar, I was playing folk music on the guitar initially. And my first song, and I don’t know why I remember this, but it was called “The Rock Island Line,” which I think there is a folk song called “The Rock Island Line,” but I was writing sort of vintagey folk style at eight. I don’t know why (laughs) but I was.
How did you go from folk to the craziness of the Sex Pistols?
Well, a lot of time intervened, about ten years, between being eight and, if I’m going off that picture of me with the guitar sitting outside on my back patio, going to UC Berkeley. Obviously, I was a music lover from pretty much day one, and growing up and listening to the 60’s music and not kind of conforming my love of melody and folk rock and pop. And the Beatles, probably being the first band I ever really loved and still love probably more than any other band I would have to say. Then through the 70’s, which were a very diverse time, and really, really obsessing over Joni Mitchell and singing along to all those records and Bonnie Raitt records and Linda Ronstadt. And then the punk rock revolution happened and I remember my brother went to Yale in 1975 and I went to Berkeley in 1976, and when I came home over winter break between 1976 and 1977, and my brother was home from Yale that winter too, it was like that scene from Almost Famous where the Cameron Crowe as a teenager character’s sister starts playing The Who and she kind of blows his mind with all this great music. Well, that’s what my brother did. He walks in and he had like the Ramones and Blondie and maybe the Talking Heads. I remember we went to see the Talking Heads play at the Whisky-A-Go-Go, but he definitely had the Ramones and Blondie and I had that epiphany, that moment kind of like, Oh my God, because the middle part of the 70’s was like stadium rock. It was the heyday of Zeppelin and it was also the singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King and that kind of stuff.
But it was also, at the same period of time, it felt like there was no real club scene. There wasn’t really a club scene where young bands were playing. These musicians were kind of like rock gods or these kind of golden singer-songwriter brilliant people. Then all of a sudden it was like kids are doing it and they know three chords and they’re starting a band and they’re playing really simple songs and it seems like something you could do, like you could start a band in your garage and get a gig at a club. It seemed like an attainable goal. And I think everything changed for me when I started realizing there was this club scene and I just happened to go to college at a time when the San Francisco music scene and the Bay Area music scene was alive and well and there were shows at Winterland and I saw the Sex Pistols and I saw Patti Smith and I started going to see shows at the Whisky-A-Go-Go when I was home in LA. I saw the Talking Heads and the Jam and the Undertones. It was a great time for music.
When was the first time you performed in front of people?
I had this band with David Roback in Berkeley but we never performed for anybody. David Roback, from Mazzy Star, was a childhood friend of mine. But we never really performed. I think the first real performance was with the Bangles and we played at the Laird Movie Studio cause Vicki [Peterson, Bangles guitarist] was working on the lot there as like a secretary. I don’t remember what exactly she did but she was working at the studio there taking care of the property, almost like a property manager or secretary to a property manager. And we played a party and then we started playing all these shows around town and we would open for like punk bands. It was a pretty cool time. But I think that was the first time. I mean, I did a lot of theater and stuff in school so I had performed before but I had never performed in a band setting. I’d done a lot of singing and stuff.
So you weren’t so nervous about getting up in front of people.
I was nervous, actually. I remember there was a transition from playing this party on this movie lot and being very, very focused on getting everything right. And I remember feeling like I was just staring at the neck of my guitar making sure that every chord change I made was perfect and that everything I did was right. Then there was this unbelievable transformation that occurred when we had to open for like a group of punk bands; I have a feeling it was the Descendants on the bill and we were playing in the Valley somewhere and we had to go on stage in front of a really rowdy punk audience. And I remember we were changing in the bathroom, we had all our gear in Vicki’s station wagon and I thought, I can do whatever I want on stage. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to stand here and hit every chord right. This is about energy and this is about attitude. Like I had this thought, I’m just going to see where that takes me. Cause I was watching these bands and they were doing all that crazy punk throwing their heads around and bouncing up and down and pogo dancing. So I just thought, they don’t know who I am, they don’t know I’m like this girl who just graduated from college and came home and learned all her chords and wants to play everything perfectly and not miss a note (laughs). You know what I mean? I just thought, I can do whatever I want so that was the night I just kind of went wild on stage for the first time and it was so much fun and I never wanted to go back to trying to play everything perfectly.
Didn’t you major in Art at Berkeley?
Yes, I started out as a Theater major and then I switched my emphasis to Dance because they had a good dance company at Berkeley. So I was in the dance company and then I started dating David Roback and we started doing all our songwriting. And he wanted to do painting in the Art Department there and I switched out of the Dance Department and became an Art major and I did a lot of painting in college.
Was it watercolor or acrylics?
I was a little watercolor but mostly acrylics and they were kind of just abstract color fields, but I still have all those paintings. I was actually just organizing all my stuff. I swear to God, I have so much stuff compiled over all these years. Like right now I’m staring at boxes. One box says 1981-1989 Bangles Photos. I’m looking at another that says Bangles Press 1987. One whole box for 1987 (laughs). That kind of tells you that was a big year cause I have a whole box dedicated to 1987. But I’m trying to scan everything and preserve everything. The problem is I’m trying to both preserve this stuff before it disappears and move forward and do new stuff. So it’s like this crazy balancing act, cause I want to definitely preserve it at least. And it’s come up so many times about doing a memoir or doing a book, so it’s definitely in my mind. It’s definitely fascinating stuff. I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately. It’s very interesting.
So going back down memory lane – who was the first rock star that you ever met?
Wow, well the thing that just popped in my mind, we were eating at this restaurant that has been next to the Troubadour forever called Dan Tana’s, it’s an Italian restaurant, and my parents and I and my family were eating there. And we wandered over to the Troubadour, which is next door, and this is in the 60’s I’m sure or possibly in the early 70’s, I don’t remember, but Judy Collins was playing there and I was such a fan. My mom had Wildflowers, her record, and she sang the great Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now,” this big hit. And we wandered in there and somehow they let me stay in there even though it’s a club with a bar. And my memory is that she was somehow aware that there was this little girl fan in the audience and she said something about it and I might have met her but it’s a dim memory now. I’ll have to ask my mom (laughs).
But in the 80’s, we met so many people that we had idolized. Apparently, I met Keith Richards. I don’t have a good memory of it but that’s how funny those days were. I met Eric Clapton. You’d meet people at these awards shows and things. We met George Martin who produced all the Beatles records. That’s one I really, really remember cause we just idolized him and it was great meeting him at the British Music Awards the year we won Best International Artist Award, so that was pretty cool. Of course I met Prince and that was always interesting and wonderful and he gave us “Manic Monday,” which ended up being our first radio hit. Gosh, we met so many interesting people.
Robert Plant, that was a big one. Robert Plant is one of those people, and I guess he does this, he loves to go hear new bands and music and he gets out and he’ll go to small clubs. And we were playing clubs in the sort of countryside of England, just driving around in a van, and he showed up multiple times at our shows. As it turns out, and I’ve heard stories now about people who have run into him recently, he loves this band called Love. They’re a great 60’s band and the main singer/songwriter was Arthur Lee. There was also a guy named Bryan MacLean in the band whose sister is Maria McKee. There’s all these interconnections there. But we used to do a cover of a song called “7 And 7 Is.” But Robert Plant was pretty fascinated with this California all-girl garage-rock pop band playing in a club in the middle of the countryside of England and doing this song by the band Love. A friend of mine who was recently somehow able to have a conversation with Robert Plant about the band Love, it turns out he loves – I keep saying the word love but it’s unintentional (laughs) – he loves the band Love, as do I, which is just an interesting fact, I think. So I guess meeting him would have been the most amazing one for me.
How did you stay grounded when the Bangles were on top of the world? How did you keep yourself from being caught up in the whirlwind?
I don’t know, because we were always very aware of being a band that found itself through The Recycler newspaper and were formed in a garage at one of our houses. We were like a real do-it-yourself, grass roots, garage band. We never had a glamorous story in a way. And even though we got really lucky and our songs connected with people and got played on the radio, even in the height of our run in the 80’s in particular, we always felt like ourselves, you know what I mean. That helps ground you right there.
And I always say to people, it’s not a particularly glamorous life, the music business. For me, I always felt like there was a surreal element and I still to this day feel that. When I look out at an audience, when I’m playing like a big festival, you’re looking out at a sea of 40,000 people, and believe me, I look out and go, How did I get here? What am I doing? Is there really that many people standing up? It doesn’t compute, kind of. I guess that’s how I stayed grounded (laughs). I just have a very big awareness of how amazing it is and to the point where it really strikes me as quite surreal.
Is being a mother and a working musician what you thought it would be like?
It’s hard, it’s really hard. It’s hard finding the balance. I think every mom will tell you it’s like you feel you have to do what you’re passionate about or we have to work. You set food on the table or a combination of putting food on the table and following your bliss. I feel very lucky that music is my bliss. But family is my bliss too. So it’s a very tough balancing act. And every day I am tinkering with just how much of this I can do and how much of that. It’s like carving out family time but also being able to do your job well. It’s tough.
I was watching the Democratic Convention and just hearing the stories from Michelle Obama about their family dinners and the girls talking about school and it’s not until the end of the night before anyone bothers to say, “Oh Dad, how was your day?” And he’s the President (laughs). It all boils down to this same thing – well, I can’t compare myself to that, but you know what I’m saying, from one working mom to another. Family for me is really important, the most important thing, and this is a challenge just even for the Bangles. It’s just exponentially more complicated because you’ve got three girls now, the original three who started the band – me and the Peterson sisters – and we’ve all got families and complexities that come with that. So trying to get the three of us in a room together is really quite challenging.
I know people appreciate it though because you’re still popular today.
I feel very lucky that I love to play music and music is one of my favorite things in life. I just love it, I always have, I think I always will. So the fact that I get to go out and perform and play music is great. Getting the opportunity to make this record was especially sweet for me because, like I said, I’d been dreaming of it for years and then the way that it came together felt so natural and so right. It’s rare when that happens. The even sweeter part of it is the fact that it’s just feeling really good and people are enjoying it as much as they are and that just makes me smile and very excited to go out and actually perform the songs live for people.
So what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
There’s a couple of Bangles shows left this year and then I’m going to kind of launch my own solo tour following those Bangles shows. So I’ve got tour dates you can find on my website or Facebook. I have about three weeks worth of shows starting at the very end of October. And I’ve got a video for “Picture Me” that’s in the finishing stages and I want to put out something maybe before the end of the year, just a little holiday thing. I’ve got a lot of little things cooking up here in the planning stages. I want to make another video and write some more songs and I’m working with Matthew Sweet for Under The Covers Vol 3. So I’m sort of juggling all these different things and trying to keep my head on straight, just keep my focus. You know how it is, it’s always every day you wake up and you’re like, ok, this is my to-do list (laughs) and hope that you get part way through there before the day’s end. So it’s been kind of interesting but a lot on my plate right now.
Next week – the great Steve Vai