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Q&A: Susanna Hoffs at Chicago Humanities Festival • Chicago

| April 12, 2023

Susanna Hoffs (Photo by Shervin Lainez)



Susanna Hofffs

Chicago Humanities Festival

Chop Shop, Chicago

April 13, 2023

By  Tom Lanham

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens once drily observed. And nobody could relate better to such innate situational irony than any contemporary artist — someone who traditionally creates to earn a living unimpeded — who found themselves staying not only busy but oddly inspired by the last three altogether grim years of the coronavirus pandemic. Take, for example, ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs, who, since her band’s official breakup in 1989, has steadily released four solo sets, plus three Under the Covers cover-song anthologies with Matthew Sweet, also her bandmate in Ming Tea, Mike Myers’ faux-mod backing group that first inspired his zany Austin Powers movies (which Hoffs’ husband Jay Roach directed). So she’s never suffered for work. “But I dunno — for me, it’s gotten so crazy recently, it’s just been nonstop, and I think that’s a good thing,” she marvels over her Herculean lockdown achievements: A new fifth album, the Peter Asher-produced The Deep End, a collection of mostly-obscure acoustic covers, plus the completion of her very first novel, This Bird Has Flown, with a backing book tour (a Chicago Humanities-sponsored signing appearance, featuring a sit-down chat with The Interview Show’s Mark Bazer, plus a solo concert, hits the Chop Shop this Thursday April 13; “So it’s been thrilling, with me feeling a sense of euphoria, almost, that all these passion projects have come to fruition. But the fact that they’re dropping at the same time has turned into a real when-it-rains-it-pours moment, you know?”

So Hoffs is shrugging off any potential pangs of guilt and getting back on the road proudly promoting her work. Just having bumped into the legendary studio Svengali Asher was cause enough for celebration, she swears. And while they agreed on subtly-tweaked versions of more obvious classics like Yaz(oo)’s “Only You,” Squeeze’s “Black Coffee in Bed,” The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” and Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” it was the keen-eared producer who urged her to explore newer artists like Dodie (“Would You Be So Kind”), Holly Humberstone (“Deep End”), Brandy Clark (“Pawn Shop”), and even the collaborative work of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas (“When the Party’s Over”). And — in prime perfect-storm fashion — both undertakings just happen to be published/released now in April. Hoffs took time out from her book tour to bring us all up to speed…

IE: So, were there any other projects you completed during lockdown? Your feature-length film debut, maybe?

SUSANNA HOFFS: Well, I guess I had my feature-length film debut in The Allnighter (1987), which has become a cult classic. But no, no — I don’t think that will be what I dive into next. I’m actually very eager to write another novel because I had such a great time doing it. I mean, it was unexpectedly blissful.

IE: When did you first dabble in prose? Maybe short stories as a kid?

SH: Well, I was always a reader from a very early age. And my mom would take my brothers and me to the library, and I would just plant myself in whatever section I was interested in, so it would’ve been books kind of geared for younger readers. And my mother was a big reader, and she had a great, great collection of books. Her shelves were filled, and I’ve inherited a lot of her awesome paperbacks from the ‘60s, too. So I always had access to books, and it was a very nice household to grow up in because my father was a psychoanalyst, I had two brothers, and my mother’s an artist who’s directed movies (including The Allnighter) and made a lot of paintings and sculptures. My parents met at Yale when my dad was in medical school, and my mom was in graduate school, back in 1953 or something, and they didn’t really have women as undergrads at Yale. Obviously, all that has changed. So it was a vibrant setting for a kid like me, and my mom was addicted to listening to music, so very, very early on in my life, I had kind of an unusual response to music. She claims that even as a baby, she’d have the radio on with pop music from the ‘60s, and I was reacting to it, cooing along and rocking and rolling in my crib. And it just went from there. So I feel like — though it is a bit of a left turn to have decided to write a novel and started in my fifties, and now I’m 64, which felt like more of a momentous birthday because of  The Beatles song — I’m very grateful that I can just take the time that I need to sit in a room, at a little desk and to have that many years working on the book that I can now see it come to fruition, and then meet readers. I mean, it was a very solitary experience, having been in a band and collaborating and working with Matthew Sweet. But once the book was bought by Little Brown, and they wanted to put it out, I was stunned and surprised and thrilled. And I also, right around that time, had connected with Peter Asher. So it was a funny thing that during the pandemic, when we all were in our houses and not really able to commune with others in the way we normally would have, I got a lot of work done, and I was even able to be in a recording studio, bubbled up with some the best musicians on the planet and make an album at the same time.

IE: You had a designated Writing Room. But how was it appointed? Spartan or totally busy?

SH: Well, at first, I wrote at a little desk in another part of the house, upstairs. And then I kept trying to find the right location, so then I wrote at the kitchen table, and then I wrote at this little island in the kitchen. And it affected my head — I started getting cricks in my neck from how I was sitting. And finally, I ended up in the music room, where we have a drum kit and all the guitars that I’ve collected over the course of my career in music, and they’re hung on the wall so that anyone who comes over if they want, can just grab a guitar and not have to dig through a bunch of cases. They’re just all there, and you can be a kid in a candy store and say, “I wanna pick up that guitar!” And there’s amplifiers, there’s a drum kit, and I set up a little folding card table in the corner of the music room. And it had a lovely view of the garden, it had a view of all these instruments, so writing a protagonist who was a musician, I think there was something to being in a room surrounded by instruments. Although I initially didn’t think about it this way, I think it was probably a good vibe. So I wrote in that room, with all those guitars staring at me.

IE: When you scroll down on your website, there’s a screenshot of this gorgeous guitar embossed with your name. Do you have your own signature model?

SH: Yeah! Back in the ‘80s, Rickenbacker approached me to do a signature guitar. And they only made a run of, I believe, 300, and they’re all accounted for. And people have asked me if they can get one, so perhaps Rickenbacker would consider doing another run. It never occurred to me to ask them because it was such an honor when they initially did it. I have a Rickenbacker book somewhere on the shelf, so I know that Tom Petty might have had a similar one, which is a full-scale neck but a three-quarter body. And I have an old three-quarter neck, three-quarter body guitar like John Lennon played. But I ended up with the full-scale neck because it was more…just what I was used to.

IE: Without spoilers, give me the basic plot line of  This Bird Has Flown.

SH: Well, to start with, my book has been optioned by Universal Pictures, and I actually wrote the screenplay, and two of my favorite female producers are producing it. No actresses are attached yet, but things are really heating up. So the book is basically the story of a one-hit wonder, Jane Start, and we find her in Vegas at the very beginning, and she’s down on her luck. And the song that she had a hit with was a cover, but from a very iconic, beloved rock star — she had discovered this more obscure song and done a very radical revamping, or reinvention, of it and had this massive hit. But now, we cut to ten years later, and we find her down on her luck, thrown over for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model by her longtime boyfriend. So she’s trying to recover from the pain of that, living with her parents temporarily, and she needs to make money. You know — it’s every box you could tick for “Things Aren’t Going Well For This Person.” But her manager, who’s a wonderful British character, has flown in for this gig she has, and a gig is a gig — she needs the work for financial reasons. So she ends up performing at a bachelor party in Vegas, which is not the ideal show she wants. But as a musician myself, I chose to give my protagonist Jane the same line of work that I have experienced myself because I know, for instance, what the experience is like of coming down in an elevator in Vegas to play a private. It’s a little-known phenomenon in the music business, but private gigs are a thing — you play corporate parties or someone’s birthday party sometimes. There are all kinds of bizarre things, especially for musicians, but you just don’t hear about them. So it starts there, and the spark is lit. And then sparks fly before too long. So I don’t wanna give away too many spoilers, but she meets a stranger on a plane, actually, and I’ll let the reader have the journey of the book at their own pace and just let them enjoy it on the page.

IE: So it’s a story of redemption?

SH: Yeah. There is a redemption for the character, and that’s part of the arc of her journey. But I don’t wanna give too much away because I’ve realized that it’s really fun for people to discover it as they go. And it was just endlessly entertaining to write, and I really loved just being in the company of these characters. It was like, in the process of writing, I was almost imagining the movie version of it, and I just had to report what I was seeing in my mind.

IE: There’s a bonus scene on the first Austin Powers Blu-ray that should have immediately followed the scene where Michael McDonald’s nameless henchman gets slowly flattened by Austin’s steamroller. It shows a suburban kid riding his bike home, then running inside to find his mom crying on the phone, next to a framed Henchman of the Year photo of McDonald, who she’s just been informed has been killed. Tearfully, she looks at the camera and murmurs, “No one ever thinks about how these things affect the poor family of a henchman…” And your husband chose not to include that in the movie. Did he give you similarly-sharp pointers on your character’s continuity?

SH: Ha! That’s great! I wanna check that out because we’re due for a re-watch of the three Austin Powers movies — I love them! And I’m glad they included the outtakes — those are always so much fun. But yeah, I got great reads from Jay, great reads. Because you’re basically alone in the whole process — that’s the thing. And Jay gave really excellent notes. There was something in very the eleventh hour that my editor at Little Brown remembered. And he hadn’t had the chance to read the draft that was the so-called final one, but Jay just set eyes on it and said, “Umm…I think this is a little repetitive here.” And every bone in my body felt, “But this is due to be on my editor’s desk right now in New York — I’m supposed to be done with this revision!” But I looked at it again, and I went, “You know, you’re right.” And I ran to my desk, revised it right on the spot, and ran back to him and said, “What do you think about this?” And he said, “Yeah. That’s it, exactly.” And I was like, “Thank you so much for just calling it out, calling out what you noticed!” And I sent it to my editor, and we all agreed. So that was the great gift of having my longtime spouse — who’s also a storyteller —every once in a while clap eyes on something that I was working on. And I’d say, “Do you have a minute to check this out and give me your thoughts on it?” Criticism can be the greatest gift in the world. And I always read the various drafts of things he’s working on because A) I’m curious, but B) We do this for each other, and it’s such a nice thing to be able to say, “You know, this isn’t working for me, although I love this other part.” It’s the same as watching various film edits, even with — like you just pointed out — some really great moments that ended up in the outtakes. It’s so fun because when you’re the director, you’re really in the hot seat. But with Jay, it’s so great because he always does his own focus groups when he has early screenings. And he loves to know — he’s like, “Don’t hold back. I want to know!” And it’s such a useful way of kind of getting things as close to right and perfect as you can. I mean, there is no such thing as perfect. But that feedback is essential.

IE: Your book’s protagonist chose an obscure song, initially. Which kind of parallels what you and Peter Asher did with the mostly lesser-known songs you chose to redo for The Deep End.

SH: Yeah! The whole process during the pandemic was we bubbled up, and I went to Peter’s house, and we would just mess around with guitars and try on songs for size. But the thing that I found with Peter is that he has this incredible eye for new artists, and he’s always on the prowl for some new cool thing that he can find. And I don’t have practice like that — I have playlist after playlist that I keep on my phone of favorite songs. So I just don’t have the practice that he does of finding new things, so he found all these new artists that I wasn’t aware of, and it was really kind of exciting to find out about this new crop of amazing creators, singer-songwriters. It was great.

IE: You’ve actually trod on sacred New Wave turf before when you covered ABC’s “The Look of Love.” But attempting Yaz(oo)’s “Only You” is just a whole new level.

SH: I wish “The Look of Love” was on Spotify! I’ve been rattling the cages at New Line — why isn’t “What’s it All About, Austin?”— which was the “Alfie” cover — and “The Look of Love” available there? It drives me crazy! I’ve tried to get to anyone I can reach at New Line to please, please, please upload the three Austin Powers soundtracks to Spotify. I mean, it’s a no-brainer, so I don’t know why they haven’t done it because I am so proud of those two songs, in particular. And I was so sad that Burt Bacharach recently passed, but I had the great privilege of meeting Burt and getting his blessing on changing the lyrics from “Alfie” to “Austin” for the Austin Powers movies because Burt was in the Austin Powers movies. So it’s just been a frustration. But I think there’s a whole. New generation kids just now discovering the Austin Powers movies because they really are quite fantastic. And my thing with “Only You” is, whenever that song would come on — and I have it on a lot of playlists — I always crank it, but that high harmony just isn’t there, so I would always duet with Alison Moyet on that. I would always just sing it as a duet because her voice is so richly resonant and gorgeous. And I love that song, and I love her so much, and I hope to meet her one day. But I always sang that high harmony, so I pitched it to Peter that way, like, “Can I do kind of a duet with myself?” And he said, “Sure!” He loves that song, too. So we definitely went in with the spirit of reinvention. And for me, there’s emotion and a story lurking in every form of art, but in songs, too. We sort of gloss over the fact that — even though a song might only last for three minutes — there is a story in there. And whether it’s a story of heartbreak or a story of bliss, it’s in there. So it was just so fun to discover those stories on The Deep End.

Susanna Hoffs appears at the Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago, April 13

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