By Jeb Wright
Susanna Hoffs has snuck out from under her role as the lead singer and guitarist of The Bangles to release the solo album, Someday, her first solo album since 1996. The album came about when Susanna befriended young songwriter Andrew Brassel, an acquaintance she met through her niece.
The duo were able to tap into that magical songwriting well and create a wonderful blend of Hoffs’ music that reaches into the past, retains the present and even helps to create her future.
Music is often timeless, which is true in the case of Someday. Hoffs was inspired by her love of 1960’s music and there is a feeling of that era in the new tunes. Unlike her work in The Bangles, the new songs are not poppy. They are heartfelt and introspective.
Susanna Hoffs is a woman who has had amazing success in her field, all the way to Top of the Singles Charts with “Walk Like an Egyptian” back in 1986. Instead of letting it go to her head, she remains humbled and surprised when other women are inspired by her success.
In the interview that follows, Susanna opens up about her new album, the songwriting process and her ride to the top with The Bangles.
Jeb: The songwriting on the new album is fabulous. How did you meet Andrew Brassell that you co-wrote with?
Susanna: That makes me feel so good. This kid, I met through my niece, moved out to California from Nashville. They were friends and he was playing in the Nashville scene for a long time. She is a big fan of his guitar playing and his songwriting, so he came out for a visit and she introduced him to the family.
His name is Andrew Brassel, but we all just call him Brassell. We all took to him instantly. He was checking out LA to see if he could make a start as a musician here. We welcomed him and showed him around. I had a show with The Bangles on Lilith Fair the weekend that he arrived, so I told him to come up and see the show. He met the girls and we sort of just adopted him.
I never thought we would end up writing songs together. He, eventually, decided to come to LA and I told him that he could stay in my guest room until he got sorted out and figured out where he wanted to live. He had a guitar glued to him the entire time he was here. It really inspired me to see someone who was playing music constantly. He was always making stuff up in the spur of the moment. I would be in the kitchen washing dishes and there would be this music he was playing and I would start hearing these melodies in my head. I would run in and say, “What is that? Is that a song?” He’d say, “I suppose it could be.”
He is one of those people who have a singular focus, which is the beauty of being in your mid-twenties. It is easier to be that way then, than it is for me now, at my age.
We sat down and started writing together and it was an instant click. Because he was a fixture in our household, it kind of forced me to pay attention. Once that creative spark in me got ignited, then it just flowed. It was really an unexpected joy to discover this unexpected writing relationship.
Jeb: The music is not a throwback album, but you can really hear the 1960’s influence in this music.
Susanna: When I was getting to know Brassell, I spent a lot of time just driving around town, showing him around. I often have the radio set to the ‘60’s satellite station. He was not born until the ‘80’s, but he was very familiar with that music. We share a love for that time period of music.
It is rare when I find someone who was not alive, then, who loves that music. I was a little child then. I refer to it as my first musical crush. You never get over that early discovery of music. There is a point in your early development where you realize how attracted to you are to music. It gets under your skin and there is something in that first music you hear that has a big impact on you. That music is so classic that it’s just an obviously great period. Most people who become musicians, at the very least, check that music out. The Beatles were the first band that I ever loved. Brassell and I have a love for this time period.
The intention was not to make a vintage sounding record. We wanted to take the melodic sense of that period, along with the passion and pure emotion of that time period and bring it into today. We made playlists and we listened to a lot of songs and really listened to the instrumentation that was going on within that music. It was conscious, but at the same time, we wanted it to be a modern record. It is a modern record and it is very fresh. We really set out to blend those influences and those elements.
Jeb: Tell me about the title of the album.
Susanna: I was searching and searching for a title for the album and I was listening to, and looking at the lyrics. There were themes of weather and rain and sun, but also of hopefulness and yearning. I think that is something that I use in my songwriting and something that I am attracted to in other songs. I use “Here Comes the Sun” as an example of a song that has this sunny beauty to it, but there is this darkness lurking just right under the surface. It is the push and pull between things that are sad and hopeful.
I had done some photos in December, the album was recorded in June in 2011, and then I did a Bangles album and went on tour. When I got back, I wanted to get this album moving forward. I had the picture with the umbrella that I took in December where there was a cloudy sky with the sun trying to breakthrough.
There is a song called “One Day” on the album. I started thinking about the expression on my face in that picture and I realized my last solo record was sixteen years ago. I had to come to terms that I had been wishing and praying that someday I would have another solo album.
Jeb: Talk about the song “Picture Me.”
Susanna: I was just downstairs right before this interview going through footage for a video we are doing for that song. That is the first song Brassell and I wrote and it had a real country feel to it. We pitched that song to Mitchell Froom.
Everything we presented was just the two of us singing and playing guitars. We were talking about being in a relationship, whether it be a new relationship, or like my marriage, which is going on twenty years next spring.
Even if you’ve been with someone a longtime there are always periods of time where you wonder where you stand. With young love you wonder if it is reciprocated. You pull petals from a daisy going, “He loves me he loves me not.” It is the nature of relationships.
The song ponders that from the point of view of me singing the song. There is that hopefulness that I want it to be true love, which is the universal theme. It goes from questioning, doubt and worry to more playful moments.
Jeb: “Regret” is a great song.
Susanna: There were a lot of times when Brassell would observe me and my life and notice what I was going through. When we sat down to write this was all very fresh.
Giving him the opportunity to stay in our guest room allowed us to have very concentrated time focused on our songwriting. We would be sitting around having coffee and I would say, “I always wanted to write a song about regret.” I am talking bout trying to go back and fix things in your life even though it is not a very useful thing to do. We have all been there and done that. We try to get past these regrets. I think I was mentioning this problem about waking up in the middle of the night and thinking about things I had done and things that I wish I had done differently. It is on the darker side of the emotions on the album.
Jeb: Was “Raining” the song you did with Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s band all those years ago? Where did that come from? Surely you were not saving that back for your next solo album all of this time.
Susanna: I have had that so many years it is ridiculous. I showed that song to The Bangles for Sweetheart of the Sun but they didn’t pick it. I found this box with these cassettes in it.
Part of the reason this solo album took so long was that I was writing for myself just as a creative outlet, clear back to 1989. I did a couple of solo albums where I collaborated with other people. Songs that I had just written got left in a shoebox up on a shelf. There were two Bangles records in the last ten years that were made. Things got busy and the song just stayed in the box. I’m so glad that song survived all of those years in the box.
I reconnected with both Mike Campbell and Mitchell Froom, oddly enough through Brassell. How weird is that? He wanted me to come with him to see a show by his friend in Largo, Caitlin Rose, who is a singer songwriter he has worked with over the years. She was playing a show opening for Ron Sexsmith. I had no idea Mitchell would be there. He was there to see Ron and I was there to see Caitlin.
Another time I was seeing another friend of his named Tristan, who is a great singer/songwriter. I went to the show and Benmont Tench, who played on the demo of “Raining” back in 1989, was there. He told me to call Mike. I was really shy. It took a lot of courage for me to call him. I sent him the song because he didn’t remember the song right then. He inspired me to do a rewrite on it and bring it up to date. We went back and worked on it and it has now seen the light of day.
Jeb: You were young and cute when you were with The Bangles, you were, however, a songwriter, which differentiated you from the norm.
Susanna: When I started out it was all about songwriting. It was the opposite of American Idol. It was very garage rock. The Bangles were very much like that. We were kids who sat in their rooms writing songs and put a band together and rehearsed in the garage. We, then, made a cassette that we could take to club owners to get them to let us play in their club. It was very grassroots.
Jeb: Did you think that girls would look up to you or were you just being a musician?
Susanna: I was just being a musician. I was very inspired by the Go-Go’s. It was a fact that I downplayed during The Bangles because we were compared to them one hundred percent of the time. We started to not want to emphasize that. For me, in particular, maybe more so than the other girls in the band, I was very influenced by the Go-Go’s.
I had just graduated from The University of California at Berkeley in the Bay Area and had been smitten by the whole rock scene in the clubs that was going on. I saw the Sex Pistols, I saw Patti Smith. I was going to see all of the punk bands.
When I came back to LA, I was transformed and I wanted to do this. I went to see all of the great LA bands that were coming out in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. I saw the Go-Go’s at the Whiskey A Go Go.
Jeb: Describe the scene to me.
Susanna: It brought it down from Stadium Rock, which seemed very inaccessible to kids playing music. It was very raw. It no longer seemed unattainable to be in a band. I was very heavily influenced by Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell back when I was in high school, so I wanted to write songs. I was very influenced by Linda Ronstadt but I was more into the folky thing. I was also influenced by Patti Smith.
The bridge between Joni and Patti saw me go from playing acoustic guitar to electric guitar. I was seeing a lot of rock and roll live. When I saw Tina Weymouth playing with the Talking Heads I got very excited about playing in a band. I think the combination of seeing Tina and Patti and the Go-Go’s and a lot of other bands on the scene led me to start putting ads in The Recycler and that is how I ended up meeting the girls in The Bangles.
Jeb: When did you know you were good enough to make it?
Susanna: When we met, though that ad, Vicki [Peterson] and Debbi [Peterson] came over to my house; I was still living at home. We played in the garage and we became a band that night.
We had a friend of the family visiting us from New York, who was staying in our guest room and she heard us play and said it sounded like we had been together a long time. She was amazed. We really clicked. We played “White Rabbit” from Jefferson Airplane, which Vickie and Debbi taught me. It was just two chords and I was like, “Wow, I never realized that. It sounds so complicated.” We played that song and it sounded really good and I said, “Let’s do this.”
We got off to a quick start, but then we had to do what all garage bands do; we had to work on the set list and we had to play some parties and we had to get gigs in Hollywood. We would have to drag our gear to rehearsal studios and all of that. We were not an overnight success. We had a long time where we paid a lot of dues.
Jeb: You were very young. Your album came out and was a hit. How were you mature enough to handle the fame. How did you do it?
Susanna: it was hard. It was very scary. You go from the little bubble of your dreams of musical aspiration and all of this excitement and energy and creating your sound and finding your communal voice as a band to being in a business. You find out what your sonic quality is that you want to share with the world, which for us was jangly guitars and four part harmonies. Suddenly, you get signed and enter the business side of it. There are teams of people in suits, mostly men and they are staring at you and sizing you up and trying to figure out what to do with you and how to sell you. You realize that your little bubble of creativity is no longer a little bubble. You’re out in the world subject to a list of people’s opinions that you never thought you had to consider.
We were managed by Miles Copeland, who I love and who did a fantastic job as our manager. After some time, he started working with an all-girl band that he sort of cherry picked from other bands. I think Darryl Hanna may have been in that band; I don’t quite remember all of the details but they were a put together band and they were also incredibly gorgeous. I remember sitting there with The Bangles feeling kind of insecure. We were hit with this feeling of how are we going to deal with this.
We wondered why he was doing that. It was irrational, for sure. I have not even thought of this for years. We thought maybe we were lacking and that there was something missing in The Bangles. It didn’t turn out to be the case, but it is an example of how everyone was judging us and wanting us to deliver things and we were trying to do that.
All of these things come into play and I think that with all-girl bands, in particular, there is a feeling that it is a novelty. We had this pressure to explain ourselves. People would ask us how we came to play our instruments and why we were an all-girl band. It was like it was an odd concept for a girl to play drums or bass. It felt like nobody believed that there could be an authentic inspiration for us. It was bizarre and I never really understood that.
Jeb: What do you think it is about The Bangles that makes people still want to go see you today?
Susanna: I think there is a great nostalgia for the ‘80’s. It was a really fun time for music. We felt like we were drenched in our ‘60’s influence and that we really didn’t fit into the ‘80’s but, then again, “Walk Like an Egyptian” is an anthem for that time. “Eternal Flame” is also a big song for that era, in a music box sort of way. There is a nostalgia for that time period, just like I have nostalgia for ‘70’s music.
I think people want to see bands that are fun. People want a fun night and to see music that makes them feel happy. We are very lucky—very lucky that we are able to be doing this and for that connection that we made with our fans.
Jeb: When you’ve had a bad day how hard is it to go out and play such happy music?
Susanna: In a way, the hard part of being on the road is not the playing of the music, it is everything in-between. We are working mothers. I have to balance my family life and my life as a touring musician. For me, that is the hardest part. The playing is fun. It is the getting there and getting home that is difficult. It is hard to keep all of those balls in the air.
I am really looking forward to playing small venues and playing songs from this album. I am going to play these songs, some covers and some of The Bangles songs that I will do in new and fun ways. I will play a lot of different and interesting material. I hope people will enjoy it. It is going to be a really fun tour.
Jeb: Last one: Did you ever think “Walk Like an Egyptian” would be the song to go down in Bangles’ history?
Susanna: No, it was the farthest thing from my mind. I was really surprised when it became a single. When you are in the studio and you’re focusing on getting all of the work down and getting all of the magic you need to get for a great record—then you hand the record out to people. It was a fun song, but we didn’t think it was a huge hit. Everyone started noticing the song and everyone loved it.
It was the third single off the record and the record company just put it out there and let it gain its own momentum. It was one of those records that people requested and it gained momentum and that made the record company really start working the record.
The song was on the charts for a long time because the record company just let the song find the audience and it just climbed up the charts until it hit number one for multiple weeks. We didn’t write the song, but we made it our own and we still enjoy playing it every show we do, to this day.
Jeb: Are you more comfortable thinking of yourself as a musician or as an influence to other girls who wanted to become musicians?
Susanna: I am very touched and flattered when people say that The Bangles, or I, have been an influence for them. I’m always surprised because I don’t think of myself as that way. It is so moving to me that I could influence somebody to do something positive or to make music. I look at Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and Dusty Springfield and all of the other people, that I loved, and listened to, and taught myself to sing to by learning all of their songs and singing along to their records—I get what that’s about.
If that is the case, and I have been able to inspire someone to play music, then that is the greatest sign of success that I can think of, for me personally. I love when people make that known to me. It is a rewarding feeling—I can’t tell you how rewarding it is.
Jeb: I detect some humility.
Susanna: Totally. I am always caught off guard. We were doing this big show in 2008 in Hyde Park with KT Tunstall and The Police. We had gone to see Cheryl Crow and Eric Clapton play the night before.
KT pulled us aside and told us what a big influence we had been to her. It was amazing. We stood at the side of the stage and watched her show in front of all of those thousands of people. She did a video for “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Those moments really are magical.
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