Susanna Hoffs’ new solo album, Someday (2012), is an intensely personal song cycle that doubles as a musical love letter to the music of the 1960s, which, she says, “has always been my reference point for everything.” Produced and orchestrated by Mitchell Froom, the record is heartfelt and immediate, oozing refinement but without a trace of pretense. On an album full of stylistic surprises, including the summery groove of “This is The Place,” the evocative “November Sun” and the lilting “Picture Me,” with its Bacharach-style sophistication, lush retro arrangements and modern state-of-the-art production enclose Hoffs’ one-of-a-kind voice in an aural tapestry of velvet and lace.
“The album was inspired by my yearning to sing songs that were as melodic and emotional as my favorite music of the 1960s,” Hoffs says. “We recorded ten original songs, eight of which I wrote in a flurry over a period of a few months with Andrew Brassell. He’s a 27-year-old musician from Nashville, who’s been on the Indie club scene there since he was a teenager. So the project started with me, this talented boy from Nashville, two guitars and a reverb pedal. The first song we wrote was ‘Picture Me,’ though the original version sounded more like a country duet, in the style of Johnny Cash and June Carter. From there, we just wrote.”
They also updated two older songs: The first was “Raining,” which Hoffs wrote with Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers back in 1989. “I rediscovered an old cassette of it in a box, and Brassell and I did a rewrite of it to bring it up to date,” she says. “And then there was ‘November Sun,’ a song I’d been carrying in my pocket since 1998. The melody was so natural to sing, and it had a baroque folk/pop style that ended up becoming the template for the rest of the album.”
On a chance meeting at a Ron Sexsmith/Caitlin Rose show at Largo, Hoffs ran into Froom. Though she’d known Froom since he played the signature keyboard riff on the Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” they hadn’t worked together since those 1986 sessions. When Hoffs told him about her new material, Froom said he wanted to hear it. She assumed he was just being polite, but he called three days later, so she and Brassell went to his studio with a couple of guitars and played the new songs for him; they had no demos. When he heard the songs, Froom asked if he could produce the album.
“Susanna is one the few great, pure pop singers working today,” says Froom. “She sings melodies and words simply, yet with tremendous exuberance, subtlety, and charisma. These recordings were very much designed to showcase her singing in a way that harkens back to vocal records of the ‘60s - Lulu, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, etc. A lot of effort and care was put into the writing and harmonization of the songs, designing arrangements, cutting the tracks with great musicians and live singing - all with the intention of complementing Susanna’s voice.”
“We approached the recording process with the spirit of the ‘60s as our guide,” Hoffs recalls. “My microphone was set up in the studio right next to the band, and we went for broke on each take until we got a keeper. I had made a playlist of songs that we used as a reference for the orchestral arrangements.” Sue fires up her MacBook and excitedly reels off some of her picks: “The Girl From Ipanema,” loads of Francoise Hardy, the early Bee Gees’ “Holiday” and “To Love Somebody,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina,” Love’s “Orange Skies,” a couple from Petula Clark, the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow,” the Hollies’ “King Midas in Reverse,” the Zombies, Bacharach, Jackie DeShannon and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” (What a cool playlist - really should post it on Spotify.) “Once the songs were tracked, we recorded Mitchell’s orchestrations using that vocabulary - strings, horns and vintage keyboard sounds.”
Elvis Costello’s Imposters rhythm section - drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher - played on the initial sessions in June of 2011, with Val McCallum and Brassell playing guitar. A few of the songs were tracked with Michael Urbano on drums and Bob Glaub on bass. Froom played keyboards throughout the recording.
When it comes to collaborating, Hoffs is no novice. Prior to co-writing with Brassell, she’d done a variety of projects outside of the Bangles, writing and recording with Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, blending her voice with those of Jenny Lewis and Chris Robinson on Gary Louris’ 2008 Vagabonds, singing on David Byrne’s “Wild Wild Life,” and covering Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” (inspired by Nico’s recording of the song on Chelsea Girls) and the Velvets’ “I’ll Be Your Mirror” on the Rainy Day album, produced by David Roback (who went on to form Mazzy Star), and most recently an enduring collaboration with Indie pop icon Matthew Sweet on their Under the Covers series.
During the time leading up to this album, Hoffs reflected on her lifelong fascination and obsession with art. “This record takes me back full circle to the very beginning,” she says. “I’d always been involved with art in some form since I was a young girl - painting, drawing, dancing, film, theater and music - but it wasn’t until I was an art student and member of the dance company at UC Berkeley in the late ‘70s that I became immersed in the punk-rock movement and my path became clear. When I saw Patti Smith at the Winterland Ballroom, I realized that being in a band was the ultimate art project.”
Hoffs goes on to describe her first band with then-boyfriend David Roback as “John and Yoko meet the Beach Boys.” Although they never played any shows, they wrote songs and made recordings that Susanna eventually played for the Bangles. After graduation, she returned to Los Angeles, where she placed an ad in the Recycler, which led to the formation of the Bangles and her 30-year career with them, which was broken by a solo turn in the ‘90s, as well as starting a family with film director Jay Roach. Someday is a captivating embodiment of art for art’s sake. As vital as ever at the age of 53, Susanna Hoffs is writing a bold new chapter in an illustrious career - a solo album that encapsulates a lifetime immersed in the arts.