It was 26 years ago when most of the world caught their first ear full — and eye full — of Susanna Hoffs as the doe-eyed singer from the Bangles. For some, “Manic Monday” had them hooked; for others, it would be “If She Knew What She Wants,” “Walk Like an Egyptian,” or, later on, “Eternal Flame” that would do the trick. Regardless, most all fans and critics agreed then, as now, that Hoffs has an utterly unique voice among so many in the pop music milieu.
In the years since the Bangles reigned supreme on the Billboard charts, Susanna has spent her time working on a multitude of creative and collaborative projects — from appearing alongside Mike Myers as a member of his character’s Ming Tea band in the Austin Powers film franchise to dueting with Matthew Sweet as Sid ‘n Susie on their Under the Covers album series. And, yes, she has also released a couple of solo records. The first, When You’re a Boy, came on the heels of the Bangles’ original run in 1991; the second, Susanna Hoffs, dropped five years later.
On July 17, her long-awaited third solo set, Someday, takes flight. The Mitchell Froom-produced album tips its hat in a big, bold way to the ’60s-era pop that has, for so long, infused and inspired pretty much all of the music Hoffs has made. It’s fraught with melodies and arrangements that lean into spunky horns and luxurious strings to support Susanna’s ever-impeccable voice.
To celebrate the release, Hoffs sat down with an acoustic guitar and her writing partner to render three of the album’s songs exclusively for NoiseTrade, along with two brand new cuts. Susanna noted last Friday, ”Andrew Brassell and I went into the studio four days ago with a mission — to record five exclusive tracks for NoiseTrade! It’s been an intense and insanely fun experience burning the midnight oil and laughing all the way. Two of the songs were written in studio this week, and three are reinventions of songs from my new album … We hope you enjoy this music as much as we enjoyed making it, all in a summer daze.” She also took the time to answer a few questions.
NoiseTrade: Your new solo album, Someday, brings 1960′s singers like Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, and Lulu to mind what with all the catchy hooks and the lavish instrumentation. At the same time, it feels thoroughly contemporary. How did you strike that balance?
Susanna Hoffs: I’ve always loved how passionate and energetic the singing was in the 1960′s. I was very conscious of crafting melodies that allowed for very emotional singing during the writing process. And, we recorded the music in an old-school way — I sang in the room with the band using a vintage Telefunken 251 microphone, and we went for broke with every take until we had a keeper. David Boucher, our engineer, printed the mixes onto analog tape to add a bit of extra warmth, and then sent those versions to the mastering lab. We recorded on Pro Tools, which is the modern standard, but took advantage of Mitchell Froom’s cool vintage gear, to bridge the ’60s vibe with a contemporary sound.
The NoiseTrade tracks were created in a kind of “mad scientist” manner, recording at my home studio, with Andrew Brassell layering guitar parts and the two of us building percussion tracks out of hand claps, finger snaps, and an odd assortment of instruments and sounds. We had a lot of fun overdubbing layers of background vocals for that ’60s Swingle Singers vibe.
NT: With the wide array of genres and eras you’ve covered as a singer — especially in your Under the Covers series with Matthew Sweet — is it possible for you to have a favorite song? Are there particular melodic characteristics that draw you in?
SH: That’s such a hard question! A song that comes to mind is “Here Comes the Sun.” There is so much hope and beauty in it, with a layer of sadness just below the surface … something about that combination always touches me. I’m very drawn to songs that deal with contrasting emotions, the dark and the light, and of course I’m a sucker for a delicious melody and a catchy guitar riff.
NT: As you ramp up to the release of your new solo album, you’ve been very active on Tumblr, posting all sorts of groovy stuff. How do other art forms influence your music?
SH: I’ve always been fascinated — and even obsessed — by art in all forms. We traveled a lot as a family and my parents took me and my brothers to great museums and to see films and theater and dance performances. I danced and painted from an early age through college at the University of California at Berkeley where I was a member of the dance company. My mom had studied art at Yale and painted a lot during my childhood, so there were always art supplies around. I am so grateful to my parents for encouraging me to follow my bliss.
I think what draws me to music, film, painting, sculpture, theater is that there is a contagious joy in the experience of it. A great song or beautiful painting changes how we see the world, and connects us to each other in a unique and profound way.
NT: Who are your top five artistic influences — not limited to music?
SH: This is an impossible question! There are way too many to list, and it’s so difficult to narrow it to five. But here are a few that pop into my mind today… The Beatles, Henri Matisse, Francoise Truffaut, Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs, and Woody Allen films of the 1970s and ’80s. Tomorrow the list could be The Beatles, Patti Smith, Tom Perrotta books, Joni Mitchell, and Pablo Picasso.
NT: Being an artist who rose to prominence in the 1980s on a major label, how do you feel about the brave, new, independent world you are now in?
SH: I love the brave, new, independent world I’m now in! In some ways, it’s like I’ve come full circle to where I started, back to my first band with David Roback and to the early days of the Bangles. The DIY movement was happening then, too, and we were part of a very interesting cultural scene that was taking place in Bay Area and Los Angeles.
It feels much simpler, somehow, to move forward without having to factor in pleasing the middle man. That direct connection between the artist and the audience is what has always exhilarated me. My goal is to make music that I feel excited about and then share it with the listener. And, hopefully, they will enjoy it and connect with it, as well.
Writer Kelly McCartney spent her formative years spinning the Stylistics, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Rick Springfield. All grown up now, she much prefers the musical stylings of Brandi Carlile, Death Cab for Cutie, and Erykah Badu, although the old Stylistics tunes still sound pretty good.