Susanna Hoffs Shines on ‘Bright Lights’

Music is magic. That’s how Susanna Hoffs sees it. It’s an individual and a communal force. Growing up in California, some of her more magical musical moments were discovering a new band with the late Mazzy Star guitarist and co-songwriter David Roback, finding the enigmatic genius of Syd Barrett, or being blown away by Big Star—years after singer Alex Chilton and co. disbanded—by the time the two were attending UC Berkeley in the early 1980s.

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“Back then you didn’t have streaming services, you had to go to record stores and buy things, so it was like a treasure hunt,” Hoffs tells American Songwriter of her earlier discoveries. “We thought we knew the ’60s, ’70s because we had grown up during those eras, but we didn’t know about Big Star, because it wasn’t what we might have found a Tower Records or some of the big chains that we would go to.” 

There was more to discover for the two childhood friends—the Velvet Underground, Badfinger, Nick Drake, and more indie bands from the ’70s and earlier on. “That was something David and I really connected on,” shares Hoffs, who, along with Roback and his brother Stephen, formed one of their first bands Unconscious before she ventured into The Bangles and he moved on with Mazzy Star, both filling their gaps in a community of musicians who found each other at the time during the Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene. “It was like a revelation to discover Big Star or Nick Drake.”

On Bright Lights (Baroque Folk Records) Hoffs connects the dots of her musical past, covering artists who molded her and left some emotional marks. Produced by Paul Bryan, the 10 songs of Bright Lights were a more personal collection for Hoffs, a shift from her Under the Covers releases with Matthew Sweet.

Working through the songs with Bryan was partly improvisational since the songs were never ones Hoffs even sang along to in her younger years. A self-taught singer, Hoffs remembers singing along to everything playing on the radio and finding her style somewhere in mimicking artists like Joni Mitchell and records at home. “It was like jumping into a pool and not quite knowing how to swim but it was fun,” says Hoffs of making Bright Lights. “There was something challenging about it that I enjoyed specifically because I was rather unfamiliar with singing the songs.”

She adds, “These were songs I always admired and adored and had listened to on repeat for pure pleasure, but had never sung. Stepping up to the mic to sing them for the first time was truly exhilarating if a little terrifying.”

Adding some more twang to the Monkees’ “You Just May Be the One,” and cutting through the thicker folk of “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” by British duo Richard and Linda Thompson and even keeping the pace of Paul Revere and The Raiders’ “Him or Me (What’s It Gonna Be?),” Bright Lights shines a little brighter, lyrically, as every word is crystallized.

“I’m always attracted to music that’s deeply emotional because I find ways to connect with it,” says Hoffs. ”Music is a lifeline to the idea that other people feel similarly, or as deeply as you might about something. These are all feelings as human beings that we experience, and the unique way that they’re expressed. There’s a beauty in it, something that is transcendent.”

Mirroring The Velvet Underground’s chilled out “Femme Fatale,” and psyche-rock rendering of Barrett’s “No Good Trying,” Hoffs picks up the opening “Time Will Show the Wiser,” written by The Merry-Go-Round’s Emitt Rhodes. “It’s is very different from the Emmitt Rhodes version and a lot of people know the Fairport Convention,” says Hoffs. “We went with less of a go-go dancing rhythm and made it more scrappy, and less psychedelic.”

“One of These Things First,” Nick Drake’s song about dreams that could’ve been, off his second album Bryter Layter in 1971, was another track Hoffs approached differently. “I wanted to find my way into it,” she says. “There was some improvisational really for me because Paul was very committed to the idea of our versions being our versions and our interpretations and a new take on it, so when I got up to the mic to sing it, I just found it on the fly. I didn’t want to do a straight imitation of Nick Drake.”

In honor of Prince, who wrote The Bangles’ 1986 hit “Manic Monday,” is a less synth- and drum-beaten rendition of the Purple Rain single “Take Me With U” playing around more strings. “I love that it’s kind of stripped-down,” says Hoffs. “I always loved that song, so it was fun to do it this way. It’s much different than I’m what I’m used to where you have a lot of pre-production, and then you block out several months and make an album. It was really sort of like kids playing.”

The 1978 song by former Big Star’s Chris Bell, “You and Your Sister” was a recommendation by actor and comedian Mike Myers’ wife Kelly Tisdale when Hoffs and her husband director Jay Roach—who worked on all the Austin Powers movies starring Myers—were out to dinner with the couple. “It was such a memorable experience singing that song because it’s so deep,” says Hoffs, who says she also connected with Myers on music, when she starred as the leader of the Ming Tea house band in the 2002 Austin Powers film Goldmember. “It’s so profoundly emotional, so it’s was closing my eyes and just trying to be fully immersed into the feelings of the song and the emotions of the song.”

Circling back to one of her earliest favorites, on the lesser-known Badfinger ballad “Name of the Game,” longtime friend Aimee Mann was the natural choice to collaborate and already had a premonition of what song they would record together. “Before she even knew which one she guessed it, and it gives me chills when I think about it,” says Hoffs. “We were on the same page somehow with loving that song, and it was mind-blowing for me to be able to finally, after performing with Amiee quite a bit, to actually record something together. It was like a great gift.”

Now ready to release her first novel and immersed in another book of fiction, some time has passed since Hoffs has written a song. Writing mostly with Bangles bandmate Vicki Peterson and others, most of her songwriting as always been in collaboration with someone else. “It was funny sitting down and just having this solo journey in writing,” says Hoffs. “I do long to get back to songwriting. It’s been too long, frankly, since I’ve written a song, but I want to go back to it.”

Susanna Hoffs (Photo: Jonathan Kingsbury)

Now 62, Hoffs is still living her dream. She finally wrote a novel, something she put off for a long time before heeding the advice of her son Jackson to just “face the empty page” and write. 

“In reflecting back on my life, post-college, when I started to try to make something of myself in the world, it always took those moments of diving in and just doing it out of sheer passion,” says Hoffs. “Had I not, I wouldn’t have advertised myself in the ‘Recycler’ [newspaper] for bandmates after I graduated Berkeley and The Bangles wouldn’t have existed, because I wouldn’t have met Vicki and Debbi Peterson.”

There’s gratitude for the way everything has unfolded for Hoffs, reflecting on the 35th anniversary of The Bangles’ second album Different Light and the 40 years since the band formed in LA. 

“I’m so lucky that my life took a turn where I could actually make a living doing the thing that I love,” she says. “I’m so grateful for that. When you just kind of add up the decades it’s kind of daunting. I remember putting my fliers out wanting to start a band myself. I just feel a lot of joy thinking about this worldwide community of music lovers. I like thinking about the community and how it brings us all together. Music is one of the really beautiful things.”

Right now, she’s most attracted to songs exploring human emotions—whether sad, elevating, or joyous moments. Music is part of daily life, says Hoffs. There’s a song for every mood, and emotion, and challenge in life. “Anyone who loves music, there’s no language for describing the power it has over us, to console us when we’re down, or to give us courage when we have to face something that’s difficult,” she says. ”It’s hard to sometimes write about joy, but I do love a joyful song or a song of courage, or a shared understanding. I’m trying to lean into those things right now. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Hoffs adds, “That’s the thing about music. It is a magical thing. We’re lucky, those of us who love listening and singing or playing. It’s indescribable and yet here we are trying to talk about what is it. It is magic.”

Photo: Rebecca Wilson

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