Heading to town for a solo show Tuesday night at City Winery, I spoke with Bangles frontwoman Susanna Hoffs over the phone last Thursday as she arrived in Boston for the launch of a solo tour set to take place in the northeast amidst the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. We talked about her excellent new solo album Someday, the sixties and her affinity for Chicago as her "home away from home."
Q. So this tour was set to start in the northeast...
Susanna Hoffs: It’s been a little crazy in the aftermath of the storm and the tour was looking a bit worrisome with everything going on. All of this worrying and anxiety and it’s just a mess and I feel so terrible for everybody who was effected by it. But somehow the show has been going on so we are just sort of behind it. But there’s still so much complexity at the airports and travelling right now is a little strange but we made it and I'm looking forward to the shows coming up including Chicago!
Q. You didn't have to cancel any shows?
SH: Amazingly, no! I mean, we were in Atlanta. We flew in after some Bangles shows in Florida. When I was just getting ready to leave to tour there was a lot of worry about the two shows we had there but we ended up making those shows and then I travelled on Monday morning to get to Atlanta. And that was the night that the storm was hitting the northeast. I was due to go to DC the next day and amazingly our flight was on. We were sure it would be cancelled but sure enough we got on the plane and we went to DC on Tuesday. We’re just sort of going up the east coast here. The power was on in DC so they said “If the power is on, we’d like you to do your show.” So we were ready to go. It was stressful. But the shows have been going really well so I’m very excited about the tour.
Q. Well you seem to have made a concerted effort to book this tour in pretty intimate venues where I imagine you can hear just about everything going on while you're onstage. How's that gone so far?
SH: That's sort of what it feels like! Well, I am so happy [these shows] are in intimate venues because that's kind of the right setting for this record I think. And looking back on my thirty years of doing this and all the different kind of projects that I've been involved with and pulling from different chapters of my musical life and trying to of put together a set that digs into all those different areas, I wanted it to feel like I was just kind of in your living room playing if that makes sense. I really was hoping that it could be very casual and spontaneous and so far [the] shows have been that. I've encouraged the audience to ask me questions... but I feel kind of naked up there. First of all, I'm not with my usual musical partners and I'm realizing now that I'm kind of in the hot seat! But at the same time, it's liberating and it's fun and it just feels good and natural in a different way. It's a very different kind of show than what I do with the Bangles which you press a button on, you do the show and it just sort of flows and it has this kind of routineness to it. And I don't mean that in a negative way. It flows along and everybody does their stuff. And there's moments during the show where I step back and the other girls step forward and so this is definitely in the hot seat but I'm enjoying it. And the crowd seems to be having a great time so that really makes me happy.
Q. When it comes to writing a solo album, as opposed to the writing of a Bangles album, how is that process different for you?
SH: My favorite kind of writing situations are just sitting in a room with someone, really feeling comfortable, knowing them really well, writing with a good friend, face to face with guitars (and/or a piano if someone knows how to play... I don't know how to play a piano). So I just really like this back and forth of one person's idea sparks something in the other. Generally writing sessions begin with some kind of... I don't want to use the words "therapy session" but they tend to begin with talking about what's been going on in my life or if we're writing with someone else, sharing stories from our lives and those end up being touchstones or jumping off points for how the song evolves. I mean, that's how "Eternal Flame" came about. I was sitting with Billy Steinberg and I had just come back from touring Graceland in Memphis with the Bangles when we had been on tour. And I was sharing the story about us reenacting our Spinal Tap moment at the "Garden of Memories" where Elvis is buried and it led to me talking about the eternal flame there and so on. So it just seems to be the best way for me to write about myself, [where] something personal [comes] out of just sharing stories with somebody.
Q. Well, it's pretty well documented at this point that there's a bit of a sixties influence on this record. I can hear Brian Wilson in terms of the different types of instrumentation and I know you're a Beatles fan. What inspired you when you were putting Someday together?
SH: Well, I was thinking about this... The sixties have always been my reference point for everything musically, even in art and it just kind of made a really strong impression on me as a kid. And that's probably why I like the show Mad Men so much. So for me, as a little girl, listening to the Beatles made me want to be in a band. Initially, the songs from the record were really just written in a folky setting with two guitars: Andrew Brassell and I sitting there coming up with the songs. I didn't have the idea yet about the orchestrations (that was really something that Mitchell Froom mentioned when he started working with us). Really, what I wanted, what my wish was, was that the songs would be as melodic and emotional as the stuff that I had grown up listening to. I always hold the Beatles, Petula Clark, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt... those were the people that inspired me and those were the records that I sang along to and taught myself to sing from. I'm always striving for that. I'm always striving to have songs that are like the songs I heard as a little girl that made me want to sing.
So that was a goal. But the idea of really taking it to the next level and actually doing orchestrations was something that Mitchell thought of. At that point he said something like, "Ya know, we could almost do two records. We could do a version that's the way it sounds when you and Brassell just sit in a room with two guitars and then we could do the more embellished version with this kind of sixties architecture around the songs with the strings and the horns and the woodwinds and all of that." But in the end we just made the one version!
Q. Well the tour brings you to Chicago on Tuesday and obviously you've been here many times with the band, with Matthew Sweet, solo...
SH: You know, my mother's from Chicago...
I did not know that!
SH: Oh yeah! So I feel like Chicago has always been a very, very special city for me.
My Mom made this movie in the seventies called Stony Island. You know the street Stony Island on the south side?
SH: My mother grew up in Hyde Park and I used to go every year to Hyde Park and to the city. As a child, my grandparents lived there. I have a deep, deep connection to the city and I love it. And she made this movie with Andrew Davis the director. It was his first movie but he ended up going on to direct The Fugitive and so many movies. But we just presented the movie. It was made in 1978 and we just showed it at the [Gene Siskel Film Center] downtown and it was so fantastic. It was so fun. It was a movie about blues musicians in the seventies. It's just a time capsule of Chicago in the seventies. Everyone who experienced the Chicago of those days and still lives in the city, they just were going crazy over the movie because it really, really presented Chicago in this way that was just so wonderful. And all the great music that's happened in Chicago and all the great music scenes that have come out of Chicago and it just was really fun coming back to the city recently for that screening. So I love Chicago and I always will. I feel like it's kind of a home away home for me.
Wow. As a fellow south sider, I need to find that. I had no idea.
SH: Yeah! You can find it! If you look up Stony Island, there's this cool documentary, The Making of Stony Island. And it starts out with Quincy Jones talking about the movie and all sorts of people talking about the making of this film. It was a super low budget movie done kind of guerilla style, just indie on the streets of Chicago in the really cold winter of I think it was '78. I think that's when it was. But you can find out about it on the internet. It's so cool.
It was really fun going back to that time. I had just started college at University of California at Berkeley and my Mom called me and said "We got the financing! We got the money scraped together to make Stony Island!" So I left school for the winter quarter and went to Chicago and I lived in Chicago for three or four months and worked on the film and had a little part and wrote one of my first songs that was ever recorded. I didn't sing it but I wrote a song that was in the movie so it was a really interesting connection to Chicago.
*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan ***
(Check back on Wednesday for part two of the Chicago At Night/Susanna Hoffs interview featuring more on the Bangles plus interesting anecdotes on Tom Jones and The Kingston Trio as well a humorous story about Bruce Willis's fortieth birthday party)
Live at City Winery
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
Click HERE to purchase tickets