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Susanna Hoffs On Her New Covers Record, Prince, Nick Drake, The Go-Go’s And More

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For her wonderful new covers album, the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs didn’t necessarily turn to easy songs from her childhood or favorite songs. Rather the 10 tracks on Bright Lights tap into some very well-known angst and emotion, including selections from Nick Drake (“One Of These Things First”), Syd Barrett (“No Good Trying”) and the Velvet Underground (“Femme Fatale”).

The songs Hoffs chose, which also include Prince’s “Take Me With U” and the Monkees’ “You Just May Be The One,” transport her to a very specific time, her college and early 20s days when she was starting in music.

That time is incredibly tied to her former band mate and close friend David Roback, who sadly passed from cancer in February of 2020.  Between his loss and her brother, who is a year older, moving home to L.A., she says, “I couldn’t be more in that moment in my life. I’m feeling quite emotional.”

I spoke with Hoffs about her friendship with Roback, getting into the emotion of singing Drake and Barrett, memorable Prince stories and much more.

Steve Baltin: I love this record. Was this covers record something you wanted to do for some time? Or did COVID allow you the time to do this?

Susanna Hoffs: Actually, this project really predated COVID. We sort of finished it during COVID. I met Paul Bryan through Aimee Mann, and we all did shows together at Largo. And I had done a little bit of touring with Aimee. And so I got to know Paul and then he started to play at Largo with me when I did a residency there back in 2015 into 2016. I realized that he had this cool little home studio and it was very casual and I started to think about how fun would it be, to just go over like kids in a candy store, and just mess around and record some stuff? It was that casual. So that’s how it started. And these little recordings were made over the course of over a year, where we would just be like, “Hey, want to come over and play in the garage?” Like I said, totally out of love and enthusiasm for music. So Paul would pull together, between the two of us, a little group of musicians, and we’d go to his studio. And it was like a home studio. I would sing in this little hallway between the laundry room and the bathroom. It was very casual. And then we started to do that thing which music lovers know, where you share songs with each other. So we would send each other song links all the time, and it was this constant dialogue, one music fan to another. We were like, “What about this song? What about that song? Ooh, I just remembered, Nick Drake.” or, “Oh my God, Syd Barrett, gotta do a Syd Barrett song.” “Oh, I’ve always loved this Monkees song, I’ve always loved this Paul Revere and the Raiders song.” “Oh, gotta do Emitt Rhodes, we’ve gotta do the ‘Merry-Go-Round.'” So it was like that. And this album was created out of going over to Paul’s on a random basis. We would usually do like a batch of two days in a row, two to three days, when the musicians were available. And the weird thing that I reflect on now is that strangely, these were not songs that I sang along to on records. As a kid, I taught myself music by just like mimicking records that I loved. These were all songs, most of them I discovered when the Bangles were just starting out when there was also the Paisley Underground and a club of musicians who found each other. Music aficionados have a way of finding each other, especially if the obsession is like psychedelia from the ’60s or something, very specific thing. And so I’ve always found other people who share the same passion for these bands and artists that flew a little under the radar and weren’t necessarily having hits on Top 40 radio. And so that’s how we came to doing these songs.

Baltin: You say that these weren’t songs that you necessarily sang along with. Do you feel like these songs have an emotional density for you particularly?

Hoffs: Absolutely, yes. Yeah, you’ve tapped into something that definitely was part of the discovery of doing these songs. So we had this list. We were sharing songs, two kids in a candy store. “What about this? What about that?” All excited. And I realized that in taking each of them on, first of all, they weren’t songs that I had memorized the road map of. They were songs that I loved listening to, but had never tried singing. But also that each one of them had this deeper story to it. And I started to realize that they were sort of darker, more emotionally complex songs than some of the pop songs I’ve sung hitherto. And then there became an awareness of the stories, in some cases and actually many cases on this collection of songs where the artist involved died tragically young or suffered in their lives. And we decided to call the album Bright Lights. Of course, there’s the Richard and Linda Thompson song, “I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight” on there. But for me, particular songs have always been like bright lights on a dark night for me. You know how it is when you love art and you’re talking about this movie, you’ve re-watched it many times and how it moves you and affects you and has altered your life in some way, in some really profound way? Well, for me, these songs were kind of like that. Like each one was sort of a bright light on a dark night; even though many of them are quite melancholic.

Baltin: So were there nuances that came up for you in doing these songs that you hadn’t noticed before that?

Hoffs: I use the analogy of like, “Does the dress fit? Does the glass slipper fit, does it fit when you’re singing it?” In The Bangles we were always covering songs in the early days because it was all like this love affair with music. I’ve always loved covering songs, whether it was The Seeds or all the various psychedelic pop songs that we did back in the day. But with this too, like when I would stand up, step up to the mike at Paul’s, in that little room by the laundry machine, and I would actually realize, “Oh my God, I’m singing this for the first time,” it was almost like walking through a portal. And then you’re in this like new land and you’re kind of going, “I’m now the character of this beautiful creation that this other person made.” And you’re in total full immersion in the story, of the song. So singing the Nick Drake song, I had to figure out, “How do I sing it?” And the only way I know that is to let go and be completely immersed in the emotion of the song. You are right there. Whatever he made, my own interpretation of it was trying to honor the sort of deep emotional tissue of it, if you will. To feel those same feelings and sort of render them through my own voice. It was really fun and it was kind of deep. It was sort of intense, I guess.

Baltin: When you lose a friend, someone you associate with these songs, it also becomes a trigger and it takes you back. So did these songs take you back because you associate these songs with David?

Hoffs: Yeah, oh my God, it’s so emotional for me. So I grew up with David. He was my brother’s best friend. My brother’s a year older than me so we all went through school together, middle school and high school, just basically with the same friend group, the same obsessions, the same love of art, cinema and music, first and foremost. He actually had started at Carleton College in Minnesota, and then transferred to Berkeley because we wanted to do music together. We ended up having a relationship, a romantic relationship that lasted a period of years. But our friendship lived on until he passed away and it was very, very difficult when that happened. But in the early ’80s, David and I were sharing, we were buying guitars, that’s when I got my first Rickenbacker. So much was happening in that late ’70s, that sort of transition from rock and roll gods, big stadium acts to the punk revolution. And so, David and I saw Patti Smith together at Winterland, we saw the Sex Pistols’ last show at Winterland, we went to clubs all the time, we were writing songs, we were doing kind of our version of Mazzy Star, pre Mazzy Star, reverb-drenched covers of like “Little Honda,” The Beach Boys’ song, like slow and drone-y versions of that. And then when I got back to LA, it just became kind of fraught trying to do music and the relationship, and I happened to go see the Go-Go’s at an LA Club. And I thought, “Oh, this could be the answer to how to have a musical collaboration that’s not quite as complex.” And so that was the birth of The Bangles. But back to David, the Paisley Underground period when we did the Rainy Day record and I got my chance to do the Nico version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” And of course, The Velvet Underground version of “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” that was like a real seminal moment for me. And working with David and Will Glenn was playing violin, I’m almost as proud of those two recordings as I have of anything I ever did in the ’80s. And I’m trying really desperately to make it so people can hear them. They’re very hard to access.

Baltin: Was it something that as you get older, you also start to realize the resonance these songs have? And that’s the period you wanted to go back to?

Hoffs: I couldn’t be more in that moment in my life. I’m feeling quite emotional. Yeah, like my brother, he’s a year older than me, that was exactly the same age as David, he’s returned and lives in LA now, finally after years of living in Nashville. And we’re having kind of a reawakening of everything that you’re talking about. We are able to look from a different vantage point on at things are incredibly interesting to us, at least childhood growing up in the LA of the ’60s and ’70s. And all the stories and reuniting with people from that time period. And revisiting the 20-something, the late teens and 20-something versions of ourselves and how impassioned we were about art, how much our shared community that my brother, John, and David and I and our friend group, what a creative soup and kind of wondrous moment that was, of sharing what we loved with each other. It was like kids in a candy store, like bright lights on a dark night, all this art and music was for us and the sense of community in that. And so I think this album was really born of that spirit and that mindset, I really do. And to me, obviously, it’s sort of indie. It’s the zeitgeist of it. I’m already getting great reaction from people who really have feelings for these artists, many of them that never really got to really feel success, whatever your definitionis by terms of the industry, I suppose. I think Nick Drake only sold some ridiculously minimal amount of albums and never even was in his own time recognized. Am I right about that?

Baltin: Yeah, in fact, Joe Boyd told me he honestly believes that’s one of the things that killed him was never being appreciated.

Hoffs: Yeah, so tragic.

Baltin: As you said a lot of these artists died young. And there was such a darkness in the way that it happened and everything about that. As you go in these songs do you start to tap into that darkness?

Hoffs: Well, I think that the fact that that when you sing, when you play, when you’re immersed in the moment of the song, you know it is kind of a freedom from yourself, but it’s also the most connected to your emotional state as you can ever be. When you’re literally in the universe of the song complete with what the words are and what the emotion is, it’s like the two things all at once,. And I know it’s hard to describe these things, but the older I get, the more I try to. I suppose it would be like an actor becoming a character in a way, especially if you’re singing somebody else’s song. So there’s a deep level of empathy and the experience is emotional. You can’t do it unless you’re feeling it, you have to be one with the emotion.

Baltin: You include Prince’s “Take Me With U” on here. I am sure you have some great Prince stories.

Hoffs: Prince invited us over to his house in the ’80s and then said, “Hey, let’s go over to Sunset Sound and just play some music.” We get to the studio — Vicki, Debbi, Mickey and me — and we’re all there and we’re like, “Oh!” And he’s got all the gear set up in a pretty good-sized recording room. And we’re like, “What do you wanna play?” And all he wanted to play was Bangles’ songs and it was such a compliment. And we were looking at each other like, “Oh my God, he knows all of our songs!” It was so cool. I always think on that movie, the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born where you see that she’s having to perform in the beginning. The movie opens with her performing in front of a giant, fancy crowd. And then afterwards, you see her performing in a totally empty club, just like a restaurant almost. And it’s just her and the musicians singing for themselves, not in front of an audience, just jamming because that’s all they really want to do. They just love being in the moment of playing music with each other. And I think there’s something about that that’s probably true for most musicians. They just want to play. It doesn’t matter if there’s an audience.

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