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Susanna Hoffs Riffs on New Bangles Album, Eighties Nostalgia

Singer explains how Keith Richards' autobiography inspired her songwriting

November 18, 2011 4:25 PM ET
2009 susanna hoffs
Susanna Hoffs performs with The Bangles at the Hollywood Palladium
John Shearer/WireImage

From the Byrds-inspired title to the cover art patterned after their childhood clothes, the Bangles wear their Sixties hearts on their sleeves with their new album, Sweetheart of the Sun. Yet the "Walk Like an Egyptian" rockers haven't abandoned the Eighties entirely; their first studio album in eight years also taps into the upbeat, enthusiastic vibe that the group came to embody nearly 30 years ago.

Recently, the Bangles wrapped up a successful national tour and hit airwaves as guests on Dancing with the Stars. Lead singer Susanna Hoffs spoke with Rolling Stone recently about her reasoning behind the current Eighties nostalgia, her new solo album inspired by Keith Richards’ autobiography, and how she finally came to understand Joni Mitchell’s music as she grew older.

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This is very much a Southern California album. Were there musical reference points for the band making this record?
The Southern California sound that we grew up listening and loving has always been part of the Bangles; being little children in the Sixties and kind of adolescents in the Seventies, that’s the sound that got us loving music. And when we finally settled down and said, "Look, we’ve got to make a record," we had a very conscious decision that we wanted to make a record that we would enjoy playing live. The other thought was that we wanted to go back to our roots and the music that we loved growing up. Then as things started to progress, we started to hone in on the theme the Sweetheart of the Sun idea had to do with the ladies of Laurel Canyon and our heroes growing up. Having read this book, Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller, we started to make this composite woman who represented something important to us and inspirational to us.

This heavy California folk influence has been there in past Bangles songs, but not the big hits. So were the casual fans surprised to find this was so much a part of your heritage?
I think there’s still that very strong Eighties association, a lot having to do with "Walk Like an Egyptian" and probably "Manic Monday," as well. I think you’re right that the casual fan knows us by the quirkier Eighties stuff and may not be aware that the Bangles were obsessed with the Sixties. I think when we did "A Hazy Shade of Winter," which was a song we used to play in the clubs, that was more of a tip-off that the Bangles were obsessed with the Sixties. But in our early records, we always referenced bands like the Mamas and the Papas, even the Beatles to some respect – that harmony aspect – and the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. They were really harmony groups and there was more than one singer in those bands. So that was a huge part of our sound.

How much did having the new music reinvigorate you?
It makes all the difference, for sure. I love singing the songs that we’re known for. In many ways, they can be high points in our set because they connect with the audience in a way that’s so sincere. When I’m singing "Eternal Flame" and I’m looking out at the crowd, people are almost ecstatic. They’re hugging each other, it’s so emotional, people are crying, people are laughing, people are kissing. It’s just great. But having said all that, playing new music is a 100 percent thrill for me.

Are there older songs that have changed for you as you’ve gotten older, had a family?
Yeah, songs kind of grow and change with us and do, in fact, take on new meaning as we grow up. I always think about when I was a little girl listening to Joni Mitchell songs and having no idea about the complexity of relationships, the love relationships, that she was talking about. And then rediscovering those records again as an adult woman, I was like, "Oh my God, I totally get what she’s saying here, this is so incredible." But I still loved it as a little girl. And the same is kind of true for some of the songs that we wrote in our twenties. I can still remember writing "In Your Room" – it’s still one of my absolute favorite songs to play live, along with songs like "Hero Takes a Fall," that I also wrote in the Eighties. They’ve grown and changed with me and the same emotion, I think, is the thing that rings true. The kind of really intense emotions, which have always compelled me to want to write or say something in a song and get that feeling kind of transformed into a song, those things never really change.

What have been some of the Joni songs that as you’ve gotten older you understood and appreciated?
"People’s Parties," from Court and Spark. Having lived in Hollywood and being married to someone in the movie business and having been to a lot of parties as an adult, I definitely can listen to a song like that. The images that she wove in the lyrics are just outstanding and perfect. On Blue, there were tons. "California" is a great one. "A Case of You" is just brilliant. "All I Want" – I‘ve always loved that one.

Have you ever met Joni?
Yes, I met her when I was working on a solo record with David Baerwald, who’s a good friend of hers. Actually, Larry Klein, her ex-husband, was one of the bass players on the record. So I got to hang out with her and jam with her and we sang a version of "Love Potion No. 9" in the studio for giggles. It was really kind of fun. And I met her another time at a Shawn Colvin concert at McCabe's Guitar Shop, one of my favorite clubs in L.A.

Are there moments you look back on and you’re like, "How did that happen?"
Absolutely, it’s all kind of a dream. And bizarrely, there are some memories I just can’t keep track of anymore. Often, because the Bangles have been together for 30 years and because some of the people who are part of our crew have been with us since the Eighties, they’ll remind me, "Oh remember that time you met Keith Richards?" I’m like, "No, did I meet Keith Richards?" I’m trying to remember all of it and I’m actually having a lot of fun with those memories these days because you’re so in the moment, especially when you have young children. Now that my children are growing up and so wonderful and sort of mature, and because I have been on the road with the Bangles, we have been digging back into those memories and having a lot of fun filling in the blanks for each other. It was a crazy time. I’ve had a lot of fun watching my husband’s wonderful career as a filmmaker unfold and all the interesting places we’ve been and people we’ve met. It’s just been a really enjoyable ride.

Could all these memories lead to a book?
Possibly. I’ve been thinking a little bit about that. Girls Like Us was a really interesting book and there have been a lot of wonderful memoirs, such as Patti Smith's. I absolutely love Keith Richards’ book, Life. It inspired me so much. I just related so much to his love of music and his utter passion for it and I identified with it and the way he talked about the songs coming together. It inspired me so much that it made me get to work on a whole new batch of songs and record a solo record over the summer. It made me really happy, so you never know. There are definitely some stories worth telling and I think there’s something to be said for telling your story. I don’t have any definite plans to do it at the moment, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

Can you hear Keith Richards in these songs inspired by Life?
The way I recorded the album was very much in the Keith spirit. I suddenly wrote this batch of songs in a very, very quick period of time, just driven by my love of melody and the Sixties. It’s a very Sixties-sounding thing. But the way that I recorded it was in a room with people, with the band. I amassed this incredible group of musicians and I sang, my microphone was right in the room with them. It was Keith's style, how everything just mushes together. And what was so incredible about it was just to get a group of people together in a room, everybody focused on grooving the music and the sounds. It was really a thrill. It was very much inspired by Keith, no doubt.

Were you surprised by the amount of attention the new Bangles album has gotten?
I am genuinely surprised. It feels like there’s a lot of goodwill for the Bangles. I’ve been noticing for the last few years, and I think it’s cyclical with generations, that the music they grow up with – I’m speaking about the Eighties for a lot of people, now – comes back around. There’s this desire to reconnect to this music, to those moments in someone’s life where music was such a profound inspiration for them. That, I believe, is why the Eighties bring a lot of joy to people now. I think there’s a nostalgia and also a genuine fun spirit that music had. It wasn’t particularly heavy; there were not a lot of protest songs. It was just fun stuff and people are having fun with it now. Even my kids, who obviously weren’t born yet in the Eighties, have a kind of affection for the kind of vibe of it. So I think there’s something to do with that and I think maybe the Bangles have lasted long enough that there’s a respect that starts to happen when you made it this far. So that’s really nice too. Matthew Sweet and I are gonna forge ahead with our Under the Covers collection; we’re actually onto volume three, the Eighties. I'm hoping to get to work on that and hoping my solo record comes out in 2012. I’ve set my sights on that.

What are some of the tracks that could make your Eighties covers album?
I’ve never given away the tracks before, so I don’t want Matthew to be upset with me for doing that. I’ve got to keep my little secretiveness about it, but I’m hoping that comes out in 2012, too. We’ve both been touring so much and I want to do some more Sid ‘n’ Susie shows, too. Hopefully we can sneak one in before the end of the year. The rest of 2011 is gonna be about touring and trying to make sure people know there’s a new Bangles record out. Then I’ll probably hit the road with the Bangles again in the spring. I think the music will be coming fast – that’s the priority.

 

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