February 24, 2013

Susanna Hoffs: A Bangle Finds Balance

One of last year’s most delightful surprises in music came courtesy of Susanna Hoffs, whose third solo LP, Someday, recalls the spirit and sophisticated songcraft of some of the ‘60s and early ‘70s’ most distinctive and timeless recordings.

“There is something about that music,” says Hoffs, 54, reflecting on what is essentially the soundtrack to her adolescence, from the Beatles’ deceptively simple early hits to more ornate productions by the likes of the Left Banke, the Buckinghams, and Love. “You don’t notice that much when you’re listening to the songs, but when you go back and revisit them, you’re like, ‘Wow, listen to that string part! Listen to that horn part! There’s a cool harpsichord in there!’

“There’s just so much intensity and beauty and melody in the music,” she adds. “I just never outgrew it. I never got over it. I never got over the passion for how I feel, the way I connect to that.”

Hoffs co-wrote much of Someday with fellow singer/songwriter Andrew Brassell, who despite having lived through neither the ‘60s nor the ‘70s — “Not even close,” Hoffs snickers. “He was born in the ‘80s” — nevertheless shared her enthusiasm for the classic music of that era. The songs as they emerged in the early stages of their collaboration, which were still quite rough and tentative versions, soon found an ally in producer Mitchell Froom, whose credentials include albums by Crowded House and Elvis Costello as well as the Bangles’ 1986 LP, Different Light. “One of the things that Mitchell was hearing in the melodies and in the lyrics — just how the songs came across — was all that ‘60s influence,” Hoffs explains, underscoring such album standouts as “Holding My Breath,” which recalls climactic torch songs of Dusty Springfield, as well as “Picture Me” and “Always Enough,” which tap into Tommy James & The Shondells territory of psychedelic folk.

The album has garnered considerable critical and popular praise, a fate that largely eluded Hoffs’ previous two solo records, especially her 1991 solo debut, When You’re a Boy, which was somewhat overshadowed by rumored discontent amongst the Bangles and their label at the time, Warner Brothers Records. Hoffs was often (and, in retrospect, unfairly) pitted against her band mates in the press, depicted as having branched out on her own to spite them rather than to explore her talent’s potential. The stigma subsided somewhat when her eponymous sophomore album was released five years later. Nevertheless, Hoffs laments, “That perception made it very difficult, to be honest with you, because that became the story: ‘The Bangles have broken up and she’s trying to do something.’

“It was a spin that it put on things that was kind of negative,” she continues. “So I’m really glad that that’s not the way it is now.”

So, what’s changed? “I think it’s partly that you get to be a certain age and you’ve been doing this for a long time, it seems logical that as an artist you’d want to do other things and have a chance and explore other relationships,” Hoffs reasons. “The Bangles are something really, really special to me … but we all do different things, and it’s nice to have the opportunity to do that and to know that we can be Bangles too.”

In fact over the past decade Hoffs has enjoyed a healthy balance between making music with the Bangles — the band’s 2011 LP, Sweetheart of the Sun, is as vital as anything they’ve done — and singer/songwriter Mathew Sweet, with whom she’s partnered on two volumes of classic pop revival, Under the Covers, with another yet to come.

“I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to do these other explorations,” she explains. “As an artist, as a writer, as a singer, it’s just really a blast. It’s exciting. It’s fun. You really test yourself when you’re working with other people. Much as I love the Bangles it’s a familiar environment. I love it, but sometimes I need that challenge.”

Someday is available on Baroque Folk Records. For more information on Susanna Hoffs, please visit the artist’s official site.

(First published at Blogcritics.)