LET'S GO TO BED: SUSANNA HOFFS INTERVIEW
“Well, let me guess,” laughs Susanna Hoffs, as she anticipates the first question. “What happened to The Bangles?” Predictable, yes, but the question needs to be asked. Imagine interviewing Paul McCartney in 1970 and not mentioning The Beatles. Susanna may be in the country to promote her first solo album, ‘When You’re A Boy’, but she is ready and prepared to face the music. After all, at the time of The Bangles split, the girls were at the height of their success. ‘Eternal Flame’ was a worldwide smash, scoring number one hits on both sides of the Atlantic (their first in both countries), and the ‘Everything’ album sold bucket loads in its wake. But it was a hard song for The Bangles – all four of whom both wrote and sang – to confront as a group.
The uncharacteristic sound pushed them towards new fans, but as the song’s singer and composer, Susanna was yet again perceived to be the central focus of the band, always a cause of contention. “It was a hard song for the group to deal with because I always felt a tad of resistance from the other girls about it,” she explains. “The band was imposing decisions about what songs should go on the record, based not on what’s best for the record but what’s best for the ego of each person. It’s so frustrating to feel like you’re making decisions on politics as opposed to music.”
So ego nearly extinguished the ‘Eternal Flame’?
“Unfortunately that starts happening in bands,” she says. “You’ve got four people who in the beginning are willing to make sacrifices for the good of the group, and then as you go on different personalities emerge. In our band, I guess in a perfect world every song would have had four-part harmonies so that everyone could be in the forefront of every song and feel they were expressing themselves. But you can’t really try to control the songwriting in that way. I found it really difficult to try to tailor the music to make it fit what was going to make The Bangles happy.”
But is that grounds for a split? Surely you could work it out in therapy?
“I really wanted The Bangles to stay together,” she insists. “I didn’t want to undermine it in any way. And if I wrote a good song or if one of the songs I was singing became a hit, like in the case of ‘Manic Monday’, I wasn’t doing that as a way to break the group up, I was just doing my job. I wanted the group to stay together and I wanted to try to work out all the problems, but in the end it just seemed like they were insurmountable.”
Now introducing her new career, being filed under ‘solo female vocalist’ seems to agree with her. “I think it’s the peace and quiet to enjoy the work of the music,” she smiles. “In The Bangles, what I didn’t like was all that emotional stuff, feeling the hostility and frustration from the other people. I think for me it was being able to be an artist, just focus on my music. Going into the studio to take on a challenge is scary, it really is, but it’s so rewarding when you accomplish something.”
One of the legends that surrounds the memory of The Bangles is of a book – some say film – that the girls were preparing. A kind of raunchy tale of girls on the road. The legend, however, seems to be more fantasy than fact. “Everyone’s heard that,” she laughs. “When we were on tour Vicki and I used to joke about writing a real fantasy, all the things that we didn’t really do but could have done on the road, doing this pot boiler novel about all-girl bands just as a joke. And somehow it got turned into a film. I think it was a way of trying to let off steam and look at what we were going through and laugh about it a little bit.”
But the idea of writing a novel, something a bit more personal, is a project which appeals to Susanna. “Instead of keeping journals on the last Bangles tour, which I like to do because it’s good material for writing songs, I started to write a novel – but it was about my family. I disguised the characters but really it was very much based on things I felt myself. That’s something I’d like to finish.”
And if writing a novel isn’t enough, Susanna would still like to return to her first love – acting! Time permitting, of course. “I wanted the record to come out really quickly so I actually turned down some parts that might have been fun to do,” she says, “but I really felt like I didn’t want my musical career to end. I wanted to be able to move on from The Bangles and establish a future for myself because I just love music so much.”
Her one film to date – The Allnighter – was less an Oscar candidate than a California based beach romp. “It was such a low budget quickie thing, a cutesy little teeny-bopper movie,” she confesses. “It wasn’t a great movie but the whole experience of it was great. They actually had a good cast in the film. Joan Cusack was recently nominated for an academy award and it was one of her first movies!”
One thing that remains a constant, even now she’s solo, is the demands on Susanna as a pin-up. Even if her own name hasn’t yet permeated the public consciousness, her face is one that pop fans the world over will recognize at a glance. But does the pin-up pressure trouble her?
“I think it becomes part of you,” she says. “When you’re a performer and you’re on stage and in front of people, the natural instinct is to feel good about yourself. And through that you end up wanting to wear things you like, or feel you look good in. I think music brings out a lot of sides in us that are buried. For instance, doing the ‘My Side Of The Bed’ video, everybody looked at it and goes, ‘Wow, it’s such a sexy image’. But if you think about the lyric of the song, it was really me just letting go and not being ashamed or embarrassed to let the sexy part of me come out, which was very inhibited in The Bangles.
“It’s fun to try to feel good about yourself and to look good but fashion has never been as important to me as the music. I have a boyfriend and he really cares for me. I don’t have to dress up for him or wear make-up if I don’t feel like it. But when you’re in this business and you do a photo-session, it’s fun, like a chance to play that character.
“But I think we still live in this sexist society in a lot of ways,” she continues. “If women are not dressed up nicely they’re judged harshly, and if you are dressed up nicely, all of a sudden you’re getting all of this weird attention. It’s really hard to find people or situations to be in where you’re just treated with respect and not judged on how you present yourself. I just try to feel comfortable with myself and hope that’s the image that comes off.”
ALBUM BY ALBUM…
ALL OVER THE PLACE
“The first album was the first time we’d really been under the pressure of a major label. And working with David Kahne taught us a tremendous amount about arrangement. That’s where we really, really started to figure out how much potential we had to use our harmonies as a major ingredient In our sound.”
“This was our breakthrough album. It was a very painful album to make. David Kahne was a really tough producer – that’s why I liked working with him. He wasn’t an ego-stroker, so I think the girls felt on the spot musically, but it ended up being a very important album for us. It was a chance for us to experiment with things like ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’.”
“The last record was almost like four solo records within a group context – everyone had their songs mapped out, had made demo tapes, knew what they wanted pretty much and went in and did them, with each girl kind of calling the shots on her own songs.”
WHEN YOU’RE A BOY
“My solo record was like experimenting every step of the way and trying to make the best 12 songs I could.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007