Monday, August 03, 2009

A chat with Susanna Hoffs

Susanna Hoffs, left, with Matthew Sweet.
I've seen The Bangles a number of times since the early 1980s, and even met Susanna Hoffs at NAMM in January of this year. However, I never had the chance to interview her until last month, in connection with her latest collection with Matthew Sweet.
This story was originally posted on the Orange County Register Web site on Thursday, July 30, 2009.
Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet go 'Under the Covers' again
The duo revive their side project, this time focusing on songs of the '70s.
When power-pop heroes Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs released "Under the Covers Vol. 1" in 2006, the collection of more than a dozen classics from the 1960s proved to be one of the best albums of the year.
When I interviewed Sweet in early 2008, in connection with the release of his 10th studio album "Sunshine Lies," the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter-guitarist revealed that work was well underway on an equally-ambitious sequel to "Under the Covers Vol. 1" that would feature the duo playing a collection of reworked '70s songs.
Released by Shout! Factory on July 21, "Under the Covers Vol. 2" finds Hoffs (still active as a member of the Bangles) and Sweet (best known for his classic 1991 album "Girlfriend") revisiting more than a dozen gems from the 1970s, including material penned by the Grateful Dead, Derek & the Dominoes, Todd Rundgren, Big Star and the Raspberries.
In a recent interview, Hoffs was enthusiastic and eager to discuss this celebrated side project that has renewed interest in both her and Sweet, as well as some of the more unlikely artists covered on "Under the Covers Vol. 2."
So, while it may come as little surprise to hear Sid & Susie shine on the Raspberries' pop-rock classic "Go All the Way," notable remakes of songs from Yes, Rod Stewart and Bread are unlikely home runs on the 16-song set.
"I was very excited to take on these songs," Hoffs said in a phone interview.
"The truth is with 'Bell Bottom Blues' and 'Maggie May,' I assumed Matthew would sing those. He said, 'No Susie, you're gonna' sing them.' "
Hoffs' lead vocals on those songs work, in no small part, to how the sweet-voiced singer prepared for specific sessions at Sweet's Lolina Green Studios in Los Angeles. Her appropriately-ragged vocals on "Maggie May" may shock listeners familiar with her angelic vocals on Bangles classics.
"Finally the day comes (to record her vocals on 'Maggie May'); normally, I'm hoping for the clean sound so I can hit the high notes you know on the songs that require high notes. So he's like 'We have to do it today, so go in the other room and scream for 10 minutes.' I went in the other room and started singing really loud and warming my voice up and sure enough, the rasp came back."
Equally affecting is Hoffs' vocal triumph on Bread's "Everything I Own."
"Some people loved that stuff and other people thought it wasn't as cool as edgier stuff," recalled Hoffs of Bread's soft rock when it was on the charts in the '70s.
"Interestingly enough, it was Rick Menck – the drummer who plays on the record and who has been Matthew's long-time drummer – who said 'Well, you guys have to do a Bread song.' Wow, it struck me as so interesting that Matthew and Rick were the ones who (wanted to do that)…but it's such a gorgeous song. Just from the perspective of singing it, it's such a heartfelt, beautiful melody, so I got past that thing of wondering how it would fit in because it was more of a top 40 type of thing at the time…I remember in the '70s, loving Bread was sort of a guilty pleasure."
Surprises abound across "Under the Covers Vol. 2," including Dhani Harrison joining the duo on his father George Harrison's "Beware of Darkness," and guitarist Steve Howe performing on Yes' "I've Seen All Good People: Your Move/All Good People" and Lindsey Buckingham playing on Fleetwood Mac's "Second Hand News." The shimmering vocal harmonies that Sweet and Hoffs display across the disc provide the perfect element to link the collection's wide-ranging styles together.
Sweet and Hoffs recorded a total of about 40 songs, so a bonus collection of material will likely be released soon.
"We're such good friends," said Hoffs of Sweet.
"We share a love of the same kind of music; it has kind of bonded us."
Bangles fans need not fear that her work with Sweet will pull Hoffs away from appearances with Debbi Peterson (vocals, drums) and Vicki Peterson (vocals, lead guitar). Indeed, the Bangles will headline at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 16, 2009. For information on that show, visit
"I'm very actively working with the Bangles all the time," Hoffs said.

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