Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Susanna Hoffs
Nine Songs
Susanna Hoffs

From starting each day listening to a song by Prince to the everythingness of The Beatles, the singer, songwriter and novelist takes Ed Nash on a trip through the musical keystones in her life.

23 June 2023, 13:00 | Words by Ed Nash

Having conquered the world of music, Susanna Hoffs is expanding her artistic focus to the world of literature with the release of her delightful debut novel This Bird Has Flown.

Whilst there are parallels between the novel’s heroine Jane Start and its author – they’re both female musicians in a male dominated industry – Hoffs own career is a world away from that of her literary creation, an on the ropes, one-hit wonder, achieving fame with a song that was written for her, hoping to find an artistic renaissance.

Hoffs is as much a master at writing her own songs as she is at interpreting others. When The Bangles were given a tape of “Manic Monday” by Prince, written under the pseudonym of ‘Christopher’, his expectation was that they’d keep his backing track and add vocals, but The Bangles recorded their own version, which was to prove their breakthrough, followed by an array of hits including the ageless “Eternal Flame” – which remains to this day to be an absolute banger.

When we meet on Zoom, Hoffs is at home in L.A., and asks how I am and what the weather is like London. When I tell her it’s sunny for a change, she mock-laments. “It's been shit here, just pure rain. It's been the longest period of months on end of rain. It's the opposite of what California normally is.”

The outlook for Hoffs novel is the opposite to the weather in California, with the film rights to This Bird Has Flown snapped up by Universal Studios before it was published. “I wrote the script and I got my script in long before the writer’s strike. It was so fun. I love writing about Britain and the vibe there. I think it was The Beatles coming to L.A. in 1964 that made me a lifelong lover of the British Invasion, then and always. I love the sounds that come out of your country.”

Hoffs musical family tree is one of the most extensive in pop music. After The Bangles initial split she was part of Ming Tea, the house band for the Austin Powers films, where she appeared under the pseudonym of Gillian Shagwell, alongside Mike Myers and Matthew Sweet, with whom she would release three covers albums.

As well as a burgeoning literary career, she’s still balancing her musical work, her fifth album, The Deep End, was released earlier year, with even more collaborations, including a stellar vocal on Rufus Wainwright’s latest record, Folkocracy.

“I love Rufus. I sang on his cover of "Twelve-Thirty”, a song by Mamas and Papas and Sheryl Crow and Chris Stills are on it. It's really cool” she explains, “I'm going to be doing a few events with him. I loved working with him. His voice is otherworldly. It's one of those iconic voices that you know it’s him the second you hear it.”

And there are more collaborations on the way. When I tell her the first Bangles song I heard was “James”, a brilliant slice of jangle from their debut All Over the Place, Hoffs explains a link to a song recorded with Elvis Costello for the Deep End sessions, that she plans to release as part of an upcoming EP.

“The Bangles signed to Columbia and word got back to us about Elvis Costello really liking “James”. During the pandemic I was very busy making stuff. I was working on my novel, I was recording The Deep End with Peter Asher producing. Elvis came to the studio and we sang a duet on The Rolling Stones song “Connection.” I did the Keith part. We both wanted to do the Keith part, but I won!”

As we come to her Nine Songs choices, Hoffs initially selected 10 songs and when I tell her we have to stick to the nine, she laughs and says, “You’re really strict!” Talking to Hoffs about her choices is a delight, taking in stories from her life, teaching herself to sing by singing along to Dionne Warwick and Joni Mitchell as a child, and her first band with the late David Roback, who would go on to form Opal and Mazzy Star.

Listening to music a ritual for Hoffs, she starts each day by listening to “Let’s Go Crazy”, but more than that she views music as a magical force, as a drug, a means to find joy.

“When I approached this, I knew that it's a torturous exercise, because if you love music, you love way more than nine songs, you know? You could just do nine Beatles songs if you wanted. So it was difficult, but here goes.”

“I’ll Keep it with Mine” by Nico

BEST FIT: You covered this song early on your career.

I covered it with David Roback, we grew up together. I went to university at UC Berkeley up in the Bay Area, and there was a very vibrant music scene going on which informed the rest of my journey as a human.

Once David and I both returned to L.A, I had graduated at that point and my main goal in life was to try to make it with the duo that David and I started, but it was fraught because of the relationship dynamic, going from friendship to a couple and friendship again. During that period the music we were making was sort of a template for future Mazzy Star. It was very droney, but very beautiful.

We wanted to do it in the style of Velvet Underground, “I'll Be Your Mirror” and stuff like that, which really resonated with me, and I loved the emotion of it. Even though people think of the Velvet Underground sometimes more as driving songs, I always loved the delicate songs on their first record. Then I discovered the Chelsea Girl album, and I didn't know about John Cale’s collaboration with Nico. I don't recall having the vinyl or anything.

I returned to LA in 1980 and during that whole fall I tried to grapple with the duo that we were, and once I knew it wasn't working, I had this idea. I started to realise I needed to venture out on my own. And in my typical DIY spirit I actively advertised myself in The Recycler, which was a throwaway paper where you could buy a couch or a car, meet someone to date or meet someone to make music with. I made custom hand-drawn flyers and left them at the record stores in town and at Whisky a Go Go.

And through all of that, it was putting an ad in The Recycler that hooked me up with Vicki and Debbie Peterson. That's how The Bangles happened, it was me to some degree being tenacious and trying every method I could, pre-internet, to find like-minded bandmates, and I was particularly interested in working with women at the time.

The experience of working with David was so incredible on a musical level, but it was clearly fraught, and I thought the concept of an all-girl band sounded good. It was then I was able to sing my version of “I'll Keep It With Mine” with David producing, and then ultimately, in 1984, the Rainy Day record came out, and it was so hard. It resonates on so many levels as a part of my life that was so immersed in music and in trying to make a band.

So even after The Bangles were on their way, at least the Paisley Underground scene, as it's been named, had started to happen. It was people in LA finding each other, different bands and artists who were really inspired by the ‘60s in particular and trying to bring that melodic jangly sound into the power pop that was the beginning of the ‘80s.

“And Your Bird Can Sing” by The Beatles

The opening riff is so gorgeous, it’s like magic, it casts a magic spell over me. I ended up becoming obsessed with owning and playing guitars that had a jangle to them, particularly Rickenbacker’s, and I got my own custom one, which is cool. I love the jangle, but I don't know how they make that riff work, if it's two people or one person playing it. I've never really known, but that song really sends me.

BEST FIT: On Anthology, there's an outtake version with a different guitar riff. The legend goes that they were on LSD, because they laugh most of their way through it.

Really?! I’ve got to get that! I guess it's not a song most people instantly think of when they think of The Beatles, but I always gravitate to that song.

I like that they did the idea of a bird. I’ve been thinking about this lately, my novel is called This Bird Has Flown, which is taken from “Norwegian Wood.” When Matthew Sweet and I were doing our covers records, I think we might have covered this song, we recorded so much music but some of it didn’t end up on those records.

I remember there was something in the linear notes about how I really liked that British expression, to call women and girls ‘birds.’ I thought that was so cool as a kid. I don't know that I understood the meaning exactly, but it's sexy (laughs). Do people still use that expression in Britain?

One of my best friends refers to my wife as bird, she’ll ask me, “How’s bird doing?”, but it’s not a phrase that’s aged well here, it’s very much a sexist term.

Yes, I completely get that, but all that aside, I thought it was charming when I heard The Beatles singing it. The Beatles were everything for a period of time in my life. And they always will be. I watched the Peter Jackson film Get Back, and you really feel like a fly on the wall, you feel like you're a foot away from them.

I found it mesmerising, I actually watched it three times, the first two times by myself and then with my son Jackson, who's in his 20s. It's so transporting, there's so much humanity and brotherly love there, but also so much conflict, yet somehow they’re brothers.

When Billy Preston walks in with that smile, you can see it written all over his face - “I’m in this room with the Beatles and they want me to come back tomorrow.” It was so joyful. It was what they needed in that moment of the story of recording that record. I’ll always love the Beatles.

“Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince

BEST FIT: Is it true that you start each day by playing “Let’s Go Crazy”?

Yes, I like to start my morning walking alone with this song. I'm not a particularly conventionally religious person, but there's something of a kind of prayer, or a kind of idea with this song – “Dearly beloved, we’re gathered here today to get through this thing called life”. You hear this warbling organ, a churchy thing, but then there’s the whole part about “That shrink in Beverly Hills”, and all that stuff.

It's a call to action, to seek joy, to get over yourself. Whatever troubles you're having, everybody's having them. That's a part of life, it's full of predicament, there's sadness, but there's also joy. If you have that opportunity, live as joyfully and well as you can, be good to others and take care of your friends and your family. All of those messages somehow swirl in my head when I listen to it, and it lifts me. It's a great way to start the day.

The first Bangles song Prince heard was “Hero Takes a Fall” and he went on to perform it with you live. There’s footage on YouTube from a show in Hollywood, Prince slots into the band perfectly, his solo is incredible.

Right? It's supernatural. I like to say ‘supernatural’, because imagine standing there as he swaggers onto the stage. It was like how Tom Petty organised for him not to be waiting his turn in a line, because he was Prince. He had an extraordinary talent that I’ve never been witness to before or since.

He came a few other times and played. Notably, I remember the time he came to The Warfield, which is fairly big club in San Francisco, and he just appeared out of nowhere and was ready to rock. He really did love to play. He invited us to play at Sunset Sound with him one night.

“Hero Takes a Fall” piqued his curiosity about us. He really liked that song, which made me feel very good, because it was a breakthrough song for Vicki and me. We were very much a writing duo, and within The Bangles we’d sometimes break it up, people would write on their own or with others, but we did a lot of writing together, all the way through the band. So it was very rewarding to see that clicking with someone like Prince.

I had a friend whose brother worked in the Obama administration and she got to be his plus one for one of their parties they’d have with their friends, just to relax. The musical guest was Prince and the party went on until three in the morning. Everybody took off their shoes and were dancing in their socks. And that was Prince, he liked to play music, it was his bliss.

“Walk On By” by Dionne Warwick

Weirdly, I don't have a good practice of finding new music, I lean heavily on my favourite’s playlists. Streaming is so great, a song is a finger touch away on your phone. In the old days I'd have to take the bus from my house to Westwood Village to go to the record store. Not that that's a bad thing, but you didn’t have a phone to be transported into this warm bath of beautiful sound, coming out of this little device.

But growing up as a kid, Dionne Warwick records were always on repeat in my house. If it was 1966 when that album came out, I would have been about seven. Music would always put me in a trance, but it was more than that. It wasn't just enjoying it, it was this instinct to sing along. I drove my family crazy - especially once I got into my deep Joni Mitchell phase - it was the same record over and over again.

I think that because I didn't have any real training as a musician, it was all just by doing and I really learned a lot about singing with this song. I ended up singing on the Austin Powers movies, not only being in the band with Matthew Sweet and Mike Myers as the lead singer, I sang “The Look of Love” in the first Austin Powers movie and then I sang “Alfie (What's It All About, Austin?)”

Burt Bacharach and Hal David gave me permission, and those guys could write a lyric and melody. But it was the Dionne Warwick versions I really was in love with and studied and listened to, because my Mum loved those records.

“California” by Joni Mitchell

This is a cruel exercise! But it’s OK, we have to pick one and I love that song. There's so many great Joni songs, but “California” is one that came back to me recently. I was in the car with my family and somehow it was on somebody's playlist. I realised I could still mimic every line, and that was a real learning exercise, alongside singing along to Dionne Warwick.

Joni has such a… I don't know if it's jazz, or having been a jazz aficionado, which I think she is and was, but she never feels compelled to sing the melody any one way and repeat it. Typically in a pop song there’s melody and it’s ‘This is the verse melody and this is the chorus melody’, but she went off book and has this improvisational thing. Every line of every verse of her songs can be slightly different, and that's what she does.

She has a voice that can do so many things. Just singing that song in the car the other day, I was realising how much I learned from her records as a teenager. Not only that, I was also learning about grownup things, I remember thinking ‘What does she mean here? What's going on? Is this a love story?’, and there's all these emotions.

She's just off the chart genius. It's so confessional but so relatable, yet so specific, and that's very rare in songs. She's a truly extraordinary singer/songwriter.

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours” by Stevie Wonder

He is, was, and always has been a genius singer, songwriter, person and human. I recently did the Grammy salute to Paul Simon, and I’m so fortunate they keep asking me to be involved. I did the Prince salute with Chris Martin, and it's a very heady experience, because you're in a room with so many incredible musicians on this one show.

Stevie was so incredible at the Paul Simon one. He started the song and then he went, “Wait, I'm in the wrong key.” And then he started it over and it was so cool. I like seeing the curtain pulled back every once in a while, we're all just humans and we're doing our best, and once he was in the right key it was like, “Oh my God…” Everybody got on their feet like crazy, as you can expect.

There's something so uplifting about “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”. There are so many of his songs that I had trouble picking one, but you can't listen to that song without feeling good. If you're feeling bad, if you're troubled by something, it's like a magic pill, that song is like a drug, so just listen to that and know you feel loved. ‘Signed, sealed, delivered I’m yours’, how amazing is it that he could communicate that joy? It's a wonderous thing.

BEST FIT: My wife put it on the playlist at our wedding and the second this song came on, everybody got up and started dancing.

You can't not, right? It's a cool song.

“Ballad of El Goodo” by Big Star

I learned about Big Star in the ‘80s, David Roback was one of the people who turned me onto them. When I realised they had always flown a bit under the radar, I was like “Holy shit”, there was all this music suddenly that I didn't have access to when it came out.

It spoke to me so deeply, the melodicism, the heartache, the humanness, the melodies, the playing, the guitar sounds, Jody Stephens fills, everything. I was like, ‘How did I miss Big Star?’

They’re this big, bright star of amazingness, so I’ve got a lot of gratitude to David for turning me on to them. I love “The Ballad Of El Goodo”, it's hard to know which song of theirs to choose frankly, but that one is extremely moving.

BEST FIT: Big Star weren’t well known in the UK at all until the early ‘90s, until a band called Teenage Fanclub…

…I love Teenage Fanclub! Ming Tea covered a song of theirs, “What You Do to Me.” It repeats the same thing a lot, I love that song.

When Teenage Fanclub released Bandwagonesque, they talked about Big Star, who then suddenly became this big cult band here.

That's funny, we got to know about Teenage Fanclub here. The Ming Tea band from Austin Powers would occasionally do little things, we played at an improv show that Matthew Sweet and Mike were doing and we played “What You Do to Me”, and it’s funny, because it feels so delicious sounding and so joyful, and it's very repetitive, it's like a drone of wonderfulness. You don't want to leave. You don't want the three minutes and 50 seconds to end.

“You Can't Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones

Some people thought The Bangles was us trying to have some connection to The Beatles, when you're so rooted in Beatles’ everythingness, - Beatles / Bangles, all that stuff that we talked about. But I love The Stones. The Rolling Stones seemed like the bad boys and The Beatles seemed more proper.

I loved it when I got into a phase in college in the ‘80s, where I was really realising what The Rolling Stones were about and how amazing and how alive it all was. You know, it's not perfected, it's not autotuned, it's all swagger and sex and its very vibrant music. I love “You Can't Always Get What You Want”, again, it was hard to pick just one, but that's an epic song.

BEST FIT: I watched “You Can't Always Get What You Want” from the Rock and Roll Circus film this morning. Mick Jagger hated the finished film, but it really caught that air of menace they had, from Jaggers’ shimmying to Keith Richards’ nonchalant cool.

I mean, the Beatles were all in their suits and refined, but The Stones just had this kind of sex oozing from them, and that was part of their mystique. I love Mick’s moves and I love Keith. I love his memoir and I love how happy he is, no matter what's going on he just finds joy. Maybe that's just my impression, and there was a dark side, but I don't ever see that. I love them.

“Águas de Março (Waters of March)” by Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim

It's very hard to pick only nine songs but I really wanted to include this one, because I want to turn people on to it, anyone who might happen to read this. It's fairly obscure but it's one of those ones that’s a go to song for me. I consider it to be in the pantheon of great songs that I turn to as needed.

This particular duet is, again, I keep talking about these songs like they're a brand of a drug, but in a way, this is like an antidepressant song. There's a beautiful YouTube clip of them singing, facing each other with a microphone, and at one point she's having a cigarette and they're giggling in the song. I always send this song to friends who are going through a difficult time. I find it so uplifting.

BEST FIT: How did you discover it?

That is a good question, let me think. I know, it was someone I was sharing music with, and I can't now remember who, because it's been a while. They sent me a playlist of songs in this genre, and I always liked “The Girl from Ipanema” by Astrud Gilberto, so that was the song I knew. I think perhaps this version of “Waters of March” was on it, but it's been covered by many, many people.

It's like a long poem, it’s a life affirming thing. I don't have the words in front of me, but it's like everything has a way of making you realise that life has these ups and these downs. You're going to have your problems and you're going to lose things, and all the ups and downs of the experience of life itself are thrown in there. But it's done in a way that makes you feel okay.

It's like a drug, it's a philosophy, it's a mantra, it's a poem. It's just a wonderful philosophy.

This Bird Has Flown is out now

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