An Interview With Susanna Hoffs - Part 2 of 2 (A City Winery Concert Postscript - Tuesday, 11/6/12 in Chicago)

An Interview With Susanna Hoffs - Part 2 of 2 (A City Winery Concert Postscript - Tuesday, 11/6/12 in Chicago)
Photo by Jonathon Kingsbury

Tuesday night at City Winery, Bangles frontwoman Susanna Hoffs fronted a stripped down, three-piece band that tore through over ninety minutes of Bangles hits, numbers from her outstanding new solo album Someday as well as a variety of covers.  What follows here is the second part of an interview conducted with Susanna as she launched her solo tour in the northeast amidst the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that hits upon her thoughts on everything from Tom Jones to the Kingston Trio... and even a humorous anecdote about Bruce Willis...

Tuesday night at City Winery, Susanna Hoffs overcame early sound problems with her acoustic guitar for a strong performance that focused on the repoire between herself and current songwriting partner Andrew Brassell. 

The best live performances are delivered by those who can roll with unexpected punches... and performing without her drummer or bassist for the first time on this solo tour, Hoffs made up for that with a sharply self-deprecating wit and the most friendly, conversational approach to a live set that I've seen in some time.  In the process, she delivered a best of set that touched on just about every corner of her nearly thirty year career. 

Bangles hits were delivered with vigor, a nod and a knowing smile.  Particularly impressive was a version of "Manic Monday" that moved deftly between Prince's "1999" and the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" throughout.  Also intriguing was a rendition of "In Your Room" that, courtesy of Nashville native Andrew Brassell on electric guitar, showcased that song's influence by the Rolling Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash."  

But make no mistake, it was the jangly, sixties influenced sounds of her new solo album Someday ("Picture Me" features a particularly unforgettable hook) that, delivered with an urgency befitting of their sixties roots, actually stole the show.  Well chosen covers by artists like The Beatles, the Stone Poneys, the Association and Jackie DeShannon harkened back to that aforementioned sixties influence and balanced out the set nicely.  

For part one of this two part interview, click HERE...

Q.  So you’ve got the Bangles shows, the Bangles put out an album last year, you’ve got the new solo album and of course you’re working on another album with Matthew Sweet… You’ve been busy! How do you find the time?

Susanna Hoffs:  Very busy! But it’s all good. And I have so much going on back home too. I have a kid who's applying to college and today's the deadline for early stuff. It's just been one of those days! I'm trying to do stuff on my iPhone, I'm running around the airport and trying to get to the hotel. But it's good! It's what the road is all about, ya know? It's good. I'm very grateful to have these opportunities to be this busy with Matthew and with the Bangles and with my own music. Right now it's an interesting time creatively so I'm enjoying it.

Q. When it comes to writing a solo album now, as opposed to the writing of a Bangles album, how is that process different for you?

SH: I was just sitting on the ride back in the shuttlebus coming back to the airport and we were talking about songwriting with the guys who happen to be with me on tour. And my songwriting partner from the Someday record is playing guitar in the band and we were talking about how we all write. And I was mentioning to the guys in the band that most of the songs if not all of them, besides "Anna Lee," were written with the idea of doing a solo record and it just happened that the Bangles ended up making two studio albums during that period of sixteen years between my last solo record (the self-titled one that came out I believe in 1996). And I was talking about how I had written with Charlotte Caffey and they weren't aware of that (because I guess we had been talking about the Go-Go's too).

Q.  Well growing up, what was that first experience for you with music where you really knew you were hooked? Like for me, when I was five, my first concert was Michael Jackson and that would be it...

SH:  I can't believe you remember it. You were pretty young. That must have been amazing!  Well, I think I was probably reacting to music from the earliest age, a baby. My Mom is always like "You loved music when you were a baby!" Now that I'm a Mom, I believe her because I know that most kids respond to music. Mine certainly did. But I definitely started responding to music very early. But I think it was probably around the same age you were when you saw Michael Jackson. I would say about four, five, six I started to really take pleasure in listening to music and singing along. And I started to even dream of doing it in some way. I really just loved music in a kind of really passionate way as a little girl. I was also studying ballet and listening to a lot of classical music in my dance classes. Because I actually had a ballet teacher that occasionally would have a pianist in the room but more often we would play records. And we would dance to like Tchaikovsky. And it was profoundly thrilling for me to move to music too. And then when I was about six or seven I started wanting to play the guitar. My mother's younger brother is a really excellent guitar player and he first taught me some chords and then he had a friend who actually gave me some lessons. So all through elementary school, I was one of those girls with a guitar playing mostly folk songs.

It's so funny, I was listening to the Kingston Trio again. Because I remember my Uncle, the one that taught me guitar, was really, really into the Kingston Trio as was my Mom.  They're so cool! And the people in the car were saying "What are you listening to?!" And we said "It sounds like something from that movie A Mighty Wind." And that's exactly what those guys were kind of going after with that movie A Mighty Wind, about the old school folk bands, because there's kind of an earnestness in the delivery. It's very straight forward in a way that I just love.

I guess I've always been interested in that. Where people aren't trying to be cool, they're just into it. I'm a huge Tom Jones fan.  I love him so much! And I listen very often, at least every week, to "It's Not Unusual" and "What's New Pussycat?" Because every syllable of every word is just full of passion and mojo (for lack of a better word) and commitment. There's not a moment where he's checked out or trying to be understated and cool. He's just going for it. And I just admire that!  I actually had a crazy experience years ago singing at Bruce Willis's birthday party and Tom Jones sang too!

You sang at whose birthday party?

SH:  BRUCE WILLIS!

I just wanted to make sure I heard that correctly...

SH:  Yes! His fortieth birthday party. And I was there. So was Tom Jones... If memory serves...

I think it's really interesting that you just referenced Tom Jones and the Kingston Trio and stuff. Because at the time, while obviously completely different genres, that was all considered pop music. And pop music certainly now is in as different a place as its ever really been. But I think it's interesting lately, especially in the past year or two, where you've got these artists, who don't fit into what a label would consider pop, coming out of left field and crossing over unexpectedly onto the pop charts with these huge hits and albums. Like Gotye, Mumford and Sons, Adele... They've really kind of defied the odds. Where do you see pop music heading?

SH:  Well, I think you're right. But I'm not speaking from a very well-informed place because I do tend to live a little bit in a bubble of the stuff I'm into or occasionally I find out about stuff now from my kids who are teenagers. My son was playing me Mumford and Sons way before they broke huge. He really loves kind of the indie, melodic, folky music. He likes a lot of stuff but he happened to really be going through a phase where it was Mumford and Sons and a band called Noah and the Whale, a lot of bands that were sort of in that zone. The Weepies was one of them. There were a whole bunch of them. The Shins I love.

But anyway, I guess it's always true that there's just a sort of corporate, more kind of corporate music that feels a little more packaged. But I tend to not even know what it is. I'm just occasionally aware that there are these superstars. And I don't mean that in a bad way. But its always been like that throughout history. Every once in a while there's a period where the more left field stuff kind of creeps through. Honestly, that's what happened with the Bangles. We were actually very outside the box of what was popular during the eighties in a way but now we're kind of associated with the eighties. But when we got signed to Columbia, they were like "We don't know what to do with this band. They're kind of garage pop." And we always were. Then we covered "Walk Like an Egyptian" and it just became something that in a way people now think of as, in a certain way, kind of defining the eighties sound. But it was just such an odd song, let's face it. It was not very standard in any way. Nothing about it said "This is an obvious pop song that's gonna be a hit." It was like "This is a very quirky song. What's it about? What do you mean walk like an Egyptian?" It was like completely outside the box of what a normal pop song was.

Q.  Obviously the music industry has changed quite a bit since the Bangles came around. And probably some of the artists that were also around at that time kind of have a hard time with that. But you really seem to have embraced it. You put Someday out on your own label (Baroque Folk) and you really seem to have embraced social media with the "Picture Me" Tumblr page and everything. So what's it like for you utilizing that technology now as a musician?

SH:  Well, it's great, I think. Because, you're right, the support and structure that we knew in the eighties from record companies really doesn't exist for people like me I don't think. So I kind of was faced with the dilemma, what do I do? Does this mean I have to stop? Because I feel like I'm just starting! I'm just tapping into this whole new, wonderful phase. And I do think one of the catalysts for me was meeting someone in their mid-twenties and realizing I'd just met the writing partner I'd been hoping for my whole life. And it was this kid from Nashville [Andrew Brassell].

I think it reminds me of the early days of the Bangles when I was in my early-twenties and it was all do-it-yourself, a grass roots scene in L.A. It was all young bands making a name for themselves and putting out their own records. It was not being dependent on labels. The Bangles never went out with a demo tape. We never submitted a demo tape to anybody in a suit at a record company. We just kind of made a name for ourselves from the ground up. And that's kind of where I'm at now with this. I love having my own label. I love being able to design my own artwork and work with my friends on stuff. Everything is an opportunity to create things that you like and that you hope other people will like. I love the freedom of it. It's so exciting! So for me, I actually feel more comfortable doing things this way. I'm absolutely happy just doing things for the love of it and it's really fulfilling for me.

*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan

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    Jim Ryan

    Jim Ryan has written about music in print and online for a variety of Chicagoland publications for over fifteen years. In addition to duties filling in as Traffic Anchor on CLTV or in the helicopter on NBC 5, you can also catch him Sunday nights at 6PM central as host of "The Rock N' Roll Radio Program" on AM 1420 WIMS and AM 1060 WHFB (streaming at wimsradio.com and via the TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet). Jim has also worked locally for WXRT-FM, lives within walking distance of the Metro and is an avid White Sox and Blackhawks fan whose first live concert experience came at Comiskey Park in 1984 during the Jacksons' "Victory" tour.

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