Susanna Hoffs’ Second Act
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American lives.”
With her most recent release, Someday, Susanna Hoffs, who is best known as a member of the’ 80s group The Bangles, achieves something we never expected from an artist who’s been at it for more than twenty-five years – a second act.
The Bangles’ records were the 1980s: fun, noisy nights filled with tequila and hairspray. Hoffs’ Someday is California in the 1960s, dancing on a beach at dusk by a fire, with a cold beer, friends and guitars.Completely different but just as much fun.
What was the first song you wrote that made you say, “that might be pretty good”?
It was early on in The Bangles with Vicki Peterson. We developed a really good collaboration starting back in 1981 when we first met. A couple of songs that we wrote early on that I remember really feeling, that were kind of milestones in our writing, one was the song “Hero Takes a Fall.” That ended up being the song that went to college radio and kind of got The Bangles known nationally, at least on the college circuit.
Even earlier than that, we had done a song called “The Real World,” actually it was called “Real World” not The Real World [laughs], not to be confused with the TV show. That was one that we wrote, I believe for our first EP, probably our first official Bangles recording. It was actually prior to us being called The Bangles. We were originally called The Bangs.
Do you have a routine when you’re writing or does it kind of happen organically for you?
Well, I wish I could say that I had more of a discipline that followed kind of a formula, but I’d have to choose the organic formula (laughs). I got really lucky on the Someday record that I did find a new writing partner that I really am so excited about. I think the chain of events that led to him, and I’m talking about Andrew Brassell, who wrote nine of the ten songs with me on the record.
It really was this sort of chance encounter with him, and then getting to know him, and him actually staying in our guest room because he had just moved out from Nashville to try to become a musician in LA, after being on the club scene there for years. He was observing my life and getting to know my family, and having a lot of insight into what was going on in my world. It really became like songwriting camp.
Let’s stop right here for a second because I did read somewhere that Andrew was living in your house. How did that come about? I’m sure it’s not a practice of yours to invite random guitar players to live with you.
No! It was a very unusual circumstance. My niece had moved here from Nashville, and they were friends. She had been living here and all the Nashville kids kept showing up at my door. Well, it wasn’t exactly like that but it was very unusual. My husband [director Jay Roach] had to do a film out of town, so he was coming and going, and since Andrew needed a place to stay, it turned out to be a good thing to have him in the house while Jay was gone because he could help me with the kids, and I was going on tour at that point.
The whole album, the writing and recording of the album all happened in the Spring of 2011. It was really convenient. It became this extended family type of thing because he was so close to my niece. We kind of adopted him, really.
Kind of a weird way of finding a collaborator. Now, when you started writing, did you have in mind that this was going to be for a solo album?
No, not initially. Well, I had this plan of making a solo album that I just kept backburnering for literally years. I mean, it was ridiculous. So, at first we just wrote to try to write a song together. Just for fun. Without any kind of concept to it. And it went so well that I couldn’t be distracted from it as I usually am. Because I don’t sit down to write at 10am every day, religiously. It had been – to be honest – a really long time since I’d written a song.
At first, sitting down together to write, we just thought, “Let’s try it.” We wrote “Picture Me,” although it did sound very, very different from how it ended up on the record. But that was the first song we wrote. Then I thought, “You know what? I really should go back to my solo record idea.” Why don’t we kind of go back to the drawing board, and I’ll dig through all these songs that haven’t ended up on Bangles’ records? Most of the songs that have been on the last two Bangles’ records were initially intended for this solo record. Then The Bangles ended up making records and it just kind of got ahead of the assembly line. It kind of kept moving to the front, and my solo record kept getting pushed back.
I talked to Brassell about learning a bunch of my old songs, so he started to do that, and we just continued to write. We got into this writing streak in January, February, March and April of 2011. Then Brassell invited me to go to Largo to see Caitlin Rose. That’s when we ran into Mitchell Froom. We had just written 4 or 5 songs that I was really excited about, and I mentioned it when I ran into Mitchell, and he said he wanted to hear it. That’s when the stars kind of aligned and the players of this particular project all got in the same room together that night. That’s when the momentum really kicked in.
The album is not what people would expect, or let me put it this way…The Bangles became known as this MTV pop band.
But that’s not what you are at your core, is it?
I don’t think so. It’s been an interesting revelation, looking back and figuring out where I am now and realizing that, at the core, I was always…
You guys started out as kind of a jangly, power pop band.
Yeah, we were kind of. A bit rougher though actually. We were always jangly. I think jangliness is something that’s very appealing to me. So, even as I prepare for the tour, I’m figuring out a way to bring a twelve string on the road. I play Rickenbackers, mostly because I like that sound.
The Bangles were pretty rough around the edges. We did jangly pop music with a little bit of garage psychedelia thrown in. We kind of considered ourselves from the school of Garage Rock. If you listen to the Garage Rock station on Sirius, it really does go from the kind of rougher sounding kind of girl group stuff to The Troggs to all sorts of sounds classified as Garage. I’d say it was Garage Pop.
How about that?
I can deal with that. I like it.
Along with Someday, you also released a 5 song EP, “Some Summer Days,” that you’re giving away on your website through Noisetrade. There are a couple of pretty good songs that didn’t make the album. For instance, “Petite Chanson.” Why didn’t that make the cut?
Because we didn’t finish it. We were working on that one early on. We were calling that the “French Song,” but we could never finish it. So we never showed it to Mitchell. He never heard it prior to the Noisetrade thing. We found out that it couldn’t be cover songs, well it could be, but it’d be better if they were all original songs. We only had four days to do it, so I said, let’s do that “French Song.” We just called it the “French Song” because it kind of sounded like French pop.
One of the songs on Someday that I can’t get out of my head is “This Is The Place.” It has sort of a breezy ’60s feel. Tell me about that one.
Yes, definitely. That was one that Brassel had. That’s the beauty of Brassell being a member of our family. He was observing how we were doing as a family and how everything was coming together. I was writing songs, Jay was making these movies that he was excited about, the kids were happy, loving school. Hey, this is a nice place to be right now. So he had this idea and we went from there.
Funny that you say that because – and I’m not sure I have the same opinion after a few listens – but my first impression of Someday was that of a positive record but tinged with sadness.
Definitely. I mean there’s always kind of a bittersweet feeling that creeps in. Somehow the light part of what I’m talking about…you see it because there’s a contrast. The contrast between that darkness and the light is something that I’ve always been drawn to. If that makes any sense.
It’s light, but it’s the light at the end of the tunnel. You’re finally getting close to the end of the tunnel and you see it. You know what I mean?
That’s been a big theme. Always.
I actually first heard it on a song you did with Matthew Sweet for the Under The Covers album. You guys did a great if sad version of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes.” That was really the first time I’ve heard that from you. I mean, The Bangles being a rock band or a pop band, it was the first time I heard…
It showed another side.
It’s a great cover.
I actually did a cover record with my friend David Roback, who is in the band Mazzy Star. We did this cover record called Rainy Day. It came out in 1984. It was prior to the real success of The Bangles. I do a cover of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” that’s a little different.
With the Paisley Underground crowd.
Yes, yes. I think that one of the first questions you asked me was about “it’s not the real me, the polished pop thing.” And I think that I have a pop sounding voice, but my actual sensibility is more along those kinds of…
You get a lot out of one line these days. Well, let me say this, I believe you convey a lot of emotion with one line. I think that’s the best way to put it.
Well, thank you. That really makes me happy to hear because I think maybe the perception is more – I don’t know – I think it’s come into focus more. That’s why it’s been so rewarding to be working on this project, and I’m so excited to go on the road with it. Also, working with Matthew Sweet was really eye opening and a chance to kind of reconnect with that sensibility and that emotion. That’s really the goal driving everything for me. So it’s really nice. But I’m really so appreciative that you’re getting that.
Are you more confident these days, would you say?
I would say so. Yes. That’s one of the nice things about getting older. Because we live in a very youth obsessed culture. Especially if you’re a performer. But one really, really nice thing about getting older – and I think this is true for many of us – you hit a point where you have nothing to lose, so you just do the stuff that you want to do. It just becomes clearer and clearer what your priorities are.
I had such a great time recently watching David Byrne with St. Vincent at the Greek Theatre. How cool. Doing what he wants to do. Finding another artist to collaborate with, teaming up, having a really phenomenal stage show. You get older and you can still do music and you sort of appreciate and feel grateful about it in a different way. When you’re younger there’s so much emphasis on trying to make a name for yourself and…
Put out the single, so to speak.
Yeah, there’s so much emphasis on the singles and the business part of it. Now, since the music business is so crazy and sort of deconstructed from what we knew it to be in the 80s, I actually kind of like the fact that you can call the shots for yourself because there’s no real structure holding anybody up anymore, so in a way that’s good.
Very cool. Okay we’re almost out of time, but before we wrap it up, I do want to ask about one thing.
Ming Tea! [Susanna was a member of the legendary Austin Powers band.]
First off, “BBC” or “Daddy Wasn’t There?”
Oh, wow. I think that one’s the A-side and one’s the B-side. I don’t know. Thank you for knowing about Ming Tea. I’m hoping to put Ming Tea back together.
Is there a chance?
Yes, there is a very good chance. There is a good chance.
Now you definitely didn’t get the gig because you’re married to the director, right?
No. Definitely not. Interestingly enough, Ming Tea was happening before….In a way Mike [Myers] was workshopping Austin, I would say, because he always thought of Austin as a guy who had a band.
He was in swinging London, you know, part of the Carnaby Street scene and all that, but he also just happened to be a spy. Since everybody had a band in those days so did Austin. I’ve been talking to Matthew Sweet and every time I talk to Mike, we talk about music. He’s really into music; he’s a player; he’s an excellent drummer, a singer, a songwriter. It would be fun to do it. As a musical project, you know?
Finally, are you going to be making another Under The Covers album with Matthew Sweet?
Yes, we’re working on it right now. Under The Covers: Volume 3. This time it’s songs from the ’80s.
The ’80s? Okay, I think you guys can handle that.
Yes, it’s in the works.