Suzanne Santo, one half of honeyhoney, has recently released her first solo album, Ruby Red, and took time out to chat with National Rock Review about it.
Suzanne Santo is one of those musicians that come along every once in a blue moon. A great singer/songwriter and talented multi-instrumentalist, her raw talent coupled with a die-hard commitment to what she does makes it hard to understand how she is not already a household name. honeyhoney, the band she co-founded with the equally talented Benjamin Jaffe around 11 years ago, has tasted success, built a dedicated fan base and traveled the world but, inexplicably, has never fully broken through into the mainstream. With honeyhoney on hiatus at the moment, Suzanne has put out her first solo album, Ruby Red.
National Rock Review recently took a few minutes to speak to Suzanne about her new album, working with Butch Walker (both on stage and in the studio) and touring the US.
NRR: In terms of starting out on your musical journey, did your musical education start early on and was anyone musical in your family?
Suzanne: My dad had a guitar and I could probably count on one hand how many times I saw him pick it up. But I started piano lessons when I was 6. There was a teacher down the street and my mom would walk us down. I lived in a real neighborhood where all the houses were pretty close together, and all the kids would be running around and playing. My piano teacher lived in my neighborhood and I probably took lessons for a couple of years. I went to public school and back then, music programs, you know, every school had one which was amazing. I was in choir in my school when I was probably like 9 or 10 and then when you’re in fifth grade you get to pick an instrument, and I picked violin. Sadly, these days those programs are usually cut when there’s budget issues which most public schools have, unless they’re fortunate enough to have outside funding which happens as well. Actually, one of my goals in the future is to get involved in programs that fund music in schools in my hometown of Cleveland. But anyway, I also had a keyboard and would play the Casio keyboard and sing along. I remember my parents were really pumped because I figured out how to play the Jurassic Park theme song.
NRR: So a quick scan of your Spotify playlist “What I listened to in High School” doesn’t really hint strongly at the direction your songwriting would take although it shows that your influences were always spread right across the board, with Rock, Rap, Indie and Singer-Songwriters all represented. Ruby Red probably falls within the ‘Americana’ bracket, would you agree with that?
Suzanne: Americana is interesting because it’s still at its core more of a folk thing but I love rock n roll. I think that Ruby Red, my solo record, there’s definitely flavors of some rock in there. There’s this song called “Blood on your Knees” which has sort of like a Tom Petty feel to the chorus – almost a little bit of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and I remember when I put it up I thought that. But actually, I think it’s maybe just a little more about the guitar tone we used. To be honest, I have a bit of musical Tourette’s – I like all kinds of music. I really love hip-hop, and I think there’s little flavors of all of my tastes in everything. But that’s usually the case, unless you’re really specific to a genre. I just finished up a tour with Willie Watson and Willie is just straight folk, you know, he writes about molasses and rabbits and it’s great because he really maintains this specific part of American culture that I think is really wonderful to preserve. But that’s a very specific thing where I think a lot of artists, like Sturgill Simpson and Robert Ellis, these guys, when someone says “what kind of music are they?” – I feel like people call them country but they’re not. They’re like New Age/New Wave – there’s just so much going on.
NRR: Yes, a lot of guys like Sturgill Simpson and Robert Ellis, along with others like Jason Isbell and John Moreland are growing in stature in the US and even across the Atlantic in the UK, where typically that kind of music hasn’t been able to get a foothold.
Suzanne: We actually toured with Jake Bugg from the UK for a couple of months and I felt like he’s a great songwriter. His music has changed a lot, but his first record was some great folk writing. And it’s got a great Dylan vibe to it too. I don’t really know a lot about his songwriting but I think that he’s got a partner that he works with. But back to the Americana stuff, I think that Americana is just a word for an accumulation of a lot of things and the spectrum can swing pretty widely to either side. I appreciate that it’s a really tough question when someone asks like: “what are you/how do you describe your music?” Because I’m not just a rocker or a rapper or hip-hop you know?
NRR: No, you’re none of those things wholly.
Suzanne: Right, right.
: We caught the honeyhoney show at the City Winery in Chicago in October (see the show review here
) but didn’t get to any of your solo performances supporting Willie Watson. So are the solo shows just you playing acoustically?
Suzanne: I sing with a hollow body out of an amp so I get a nice warm electric/acoustic vibe, which is great, because when I am by myself I am limited in terms of guitar texture but I have some pedals so I can put some effects on things. I’ll be honest, it’s been really cool. I love honeyhoney and I love rocking and I love playing my fiddle and having all these different aspects to that band. At the same time it feels really great to play these smaller listening rooms with just me and a guitar – I can sing however I want and play guitar however I want and it’s just been great. I love the simplicity of it and I love just singing, you know?
NRR: I think the songs on Ruby Red would lend themselves to that kind of performance. I actually really like that you did both an electric version and an acoustic version of “Regrets” on the album. When I listen to the album, obviously you can hear the song electrically but it would be great to see the solo shows as it would be good to hear the stripped back versions with just you and the guitar.
Suzanne: Actually, I got sick halfway through the tour (with Willie Watson) so I had to start playing everything a little differently. Like for instance, with “Regrets” there’s a lot of Falsetto in it and I got this real sinus dry cough thing that just totally kicked out my higher register so I had to sing it with more power, which is cool. It’s fun to have so many different ways to sing it. Yeah, that tune started off as more of a ballad but the producer, Butch Walker, was like “I like the song like that, but I think we should kick it up because we need more ‘upper’ songs”. So we have both versions. There’s this one Yeah Yeah Yeah’s record called It’s Blitz. I love that record. There’s five tracks, and they do acoustic versions and they’re beautiful. And then you get to these shit-kicking rock versions of the same tracks and I listen to both and I love them both and I think that’s really cool.
NRR: I do think you can hear Butch Walker’s influence on some of the songs on Ruby Red (listen to the shimmering chords that open up the electric version of “Regrets” which are very reminiscent of the sound on Butch Walker’s “Wilder in the Heart” from his last album Gold). We saw you play with Butch in Chicago last year.
Suzanne: Oh, yeah. That was one of our best finales because we had all the balloons!
NRR: That’s the one. Nothing makes a show better than seeing the people on the stage looking like they’re having the time of their lives. And Butch Walker had so much joy coming out of him that night, he looked so happy to be there that it was infectious. Did he bring that sort of enthusiasm into the room when producing your record?
Suzanne: It’s just amazing. You know, it’s funny – first of all, I think he is one of the greatest frontmen there ever was. But he is very different in the studio, in the best way. You know, Butch Walker performer and Butch Walker producer are two different people. In the studio, he’s just one of the greatest guys I’ve ever worked with you know – sorry other guys!. He brings such a force, from such a loving place that I’ve never felt more encouraged challenged and safe. Because you really get a lot of people in the room when you’re working on a record and I’ll be honest with you, I’m often the only woman and I love producing, I love singing but in terms of the pace at which most seasoned recording artists produce a record I’m not as quick to the draw. In honeyhoney, I love working with Ben, he’s so brilliant, and he works really fast and so I’ll sort of get pushed to the back because I’m not going to be like – “hey slow down your thought process so that I can formulate an idea”. I never want to disturb him. But what was so crazy was, working with Butch, at the outset he was like “You’re at the helm, what do you want to do?” And it blew my mind to, sort of, discover what I was capable of. I never knew I could do those things because I felt there was always somebody in front of me and that’s so stupid. But I felt it was kind of like a video game, and I’d got the coin to go to the next level. I always want to be that (*the way Butch Walker is) for other people. I want to bring to the studio or any creative space what he brings, because it is amazing. And I think that the best work is created from those areas of confidence and patience and saying, you know, “let’s just try it and it if it doesn’t work out then we can try something else”. He’s supportive and also so tenacious and you can feel that, you know, it moves around the room the second you step in and I just didn’t have that. I was so lucky.
NRR: It’s great to hear you say that because he’s in some pretty revered company – I mean honeyhoney worked with Dave Cobb on the last album right. So you must be really impressed to say he’s the best.
Suzanne: I don’t know, I guess I can’t say enough. You know, from the live aspect too, I learned a lot from him as a performer. It was so cool to be on that tour and to be a utility guy, you know. I didn’t have to carry the show I wasn’t up at the front and it was just so great to be a support. I felt like that with Willie Watson too. Willie and I are friends and it’s been really cool to tour with him and I love being a support, I love being a headliner or frontwoman, that’s great, but I also love being there to help this person and it feeling like it’s an honor to be part of their tour. I just have so much fun every night.
NRR: So how were you introduced to Butch Walker and was it during the Gold Tour that you approached him to produce your album?
Suzanne: Ben and I (honeyhoney) were on tour opening for JD McPherson in January 2016. I actually had always known of Butch, as we have a lot of mutual friends but I’d never actually met him. It was my birthday and I met him at the Teragram in Los Angeles. I was at the merch stand, I had a bottle of tequila under one arm and a cake in the other hand and then Butch Walker – and you know Butch, he just looks like a rocker at all times, he’s covered in tattoos – he walks over to me and says “Hey, I’m Butch Walker”, and I’m Iike, “Yeah dude, I know who you are!”. But he was so cool and he said “I really like your fiddle playing and I really like your singing and I’m working on a record. I’d love for you to play on my record”. I thought yeah, I’m probably never going to hear from this guy again. And he texted me the next day, he got my number from a mutual friend, and a couple of months later he flew me out, I was on the road at the time, so he flew me out to play on his record. I sing back-up on three-quarters of the thing and it just started then. I was like, Oh man, I really like working with this person, he’s so cool and he let me get creative on his record. You know, I had an idea, and he was just so warm and welcoming and let me try it and it was cool and we tracked it. So we became fast friends and I reached out a couple of weeks later and I was so nervous about it because I’m sure a lot of people ask him for stuff. But he responded immediately and then I knew I really needed to get my shit together! He was like yeah, “I’d love to do a record with you” and he gave me a time frame which was two months away and I was like, oh, ok here we go. I had a bunch of songs that I had to finish up a lot and get them to a place I was comfortable within the fourth quarter of the game, you know, playing for the Championship title!
NRR: In terms of the writing, the album has a pretty dark vibe to it and you lay yourself bare in some of these songs, it’s pretty personal. Do you really think a lot about that during the writing process or is it, kind of, after the fact that you sit and listen to the finished product and think, ‘wow there was a lot coming out there’?
Suzanne: You know ,it’s funny because I’m comfortable with the writing most of the time, probably all of the time I guess. I definitely try to write some happier songs and they always just came out sad! You know, I was going through a difficult time in my life and was really just working it out and writing is a really cathartic thing. It took me a minute to re-calibrate my confidence around something so raw and you know, you didn’t say this so that’s cool, but a lot of people are like – “Wow this is a really sexual record and it’s this and that and how do you feel about that?”. And it’s funny because nobody ever said anything like that to me in honeyhoney, I guess because Ben and I write together, we keep it pretty nebulous you know – I’ve written songs, he’s written songs but they’re just ‘our’ songs and we feel good about that.
NRR: Well, throughout honeyhoney’s releases I think you can hear your songwriting changing and evolving through those records. For example on “3”, and I don’t want to try to pick out the songs that you or Ben primarily wrote here, but it feels like some of the songs on there are a bit of a precursor to your solo record. I know it’s a collaboration in honeyhoney and, listening to Ben’s solo stuff, you guys do have quite different approaches. But on the songs, I would guess you primarily wrote I think you could hear your writing moving in this direction.
Suzanne: Yeah, I think so, too. But it’s interesting because I’m not you know, quote-unquote, a feminist, but I am definitely aware that a lot of people have something to say about the raw sexuality of this record. Whereas I think if I was a man, nobody would say that. And I’m fine with that, I’m not mad but I just think it’s interesting you know?
NRR: I think what stood out to me is that it feels very honest. I think all songwriters draw from their own experience and when I think about that, I always wonder whether it must feel like – “Oh, my parents are going to listen to this” or “all these other people are going to be listening to stuff I would normally write in my diary”. I always feel like it must be pretty daunting doing that and then getting up in front of an audience and singing about such personal stuff.
Suzanne: Oh yeah and I think that’s where the view that “oh wow, this is raw in its sexuality” comes from. And maybe that makes people uncomfortable in terms of it coming from a woman because, usually, I think people want women to be polite. Its really funny, here’s a good example, so when I played in Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music with Willie Watson, some of the people who come to see Willie are quite conservative. They love that folk music and how folk was seen as revolutionary. But anyway, one of my good friends was sitting behind a couple that watched my set and the husband said to his wife “I like her music but she’s a little pushy”. And I just thought that was like a great compliment because, here’s the thing, I am definitely totally averse and annoyed by people who are all about the shock factor. You know, the idea of “I’m going to write this because it makes people uncomfortable”. That is absolutely by no means, ever, a trajectory of mine or a priority, you know. I would feel terrible because I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable, I truly don’t. But I am comfortable with myself and maybe some people don’t like that. And that’s fine.
NRR: I think in terms of people’s views, conservative or otherwise, it’s difficult to get a handle on where America is at the moment. Living in big cities like LA, Chicago or San Francisco it’s sometimes hard to understand how Donald Trump gets elected as president but those cities are only a small part of America, I guess.
Suzanne: Yeah, it’s funny you should mention the country because I’m driving across it right now. I’m in Pennsylvania and about an hour ago I passed this billboard that said “Support Trump’s ideas in Congress” and it’s funny that they’re still campaigning for him in a way. But it’s strange to see the country at the moment. You know, obviously I’m not a Trump fan, but I like to listen to other people’s opinions to understand where they’re coming from. There are so many realities in this country, varying ones.
NRR: Yeah, I think the biggest problem at the moment is, from both sides, that everyone is so polarized. You know – people are at opposite ends of the scale and nobody seems willing to meet in the middle. And really, people have just got to start listening to each other.
Suzanne: Wouldn’t it be great if that actually happened
NRR: Can you imagine? I mean, music has a part to play in this. I honestly think its one of those things in life that can truly bring everyone together. The week I saw honeyhoney in Chicago, I also saw Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt) and The Disciples of Soul and, you know, he has been pretty political in the past and likes to air his views on that stuff. But he made a point of saying at the start of the show “let’s leave the politics at the door and just have a great night” and I liked that. But, also, that week started terribly. On Monday there was the shooting in Las Vegas and then later that same day Tom Petty died and I, along with most of the country, I guess, was in a really depressed mood. Then, on Wednesday we came to the honeyhoney show and it changed the mood, for me and I think for everyone in the audience that night. And what I’m getting at, in a long-winded way, is really to say that I think a lot of aspects of being a professional musician are tough these days, driving all over the country and playing shows back-to-back must get exhausting. But you and other musicians have to keep doing it because it’s really important to people, now more than ever.
Suzanne: That’s encouraging and it can be tough, so it’s nice to hear that. You know, doing a solo tour like the one I’ve just done where I’ve been driving myself was really difficult. My neck and my back can seize up from driving all day and when you’re opening its important that you stick around after your set and after the headliner’s set to, you know, sell your merch and really to greet the people/fans which is one of my favorite things to do. But when I’ve driven for hours that day then loaded in, grabbed some food, and then played – it can be really tough. And people can sometimes get offended if you don’t come out after your set which is tough for me because I want everyone to have a great experience and I don’t want them to feel like they didn’t get all of the things they wanted. But, at the same time, sometimes when you’re totally tapped out you just have to call it.
NRR: Yeah, that’s totally understandable. Speaking of touring what is next on the agenda?
Suzanne: I’m opening for The White Buffalo for ten days from December 5 to 15th. Then I have a headlining tour in January up the West Coast through the North West, making my way up to Montana for a couple of shows. Then I’m not really sure after January, I’m just really hoping my record does well and gets me, hopefully, overseas. That’s definitely a goal.
NRR: Thanks for taking the time to chat and good luck with the record and the tour.
Suzanne: No problem!
Ruby Red is available to buy, download or stream now.
Dec 5 – The Grog Shop, Cleveland, OH
Dec 6 – The Shelter, Detroit, MI
Dec 8 – Aura, Portland, ME
Dec 9 – Showcase Lounge, South Burlington, VT
Dec 10 – Brooklyn Bowl, Brooklyn, NY
Dec 12 – The Foundry, Philadelphia, PA
Dec 13 – 9:30 Club, Washington, DC
Dec 15 – Paradise Rock Club, Boston, MA
Jan 9 – Casbah, San Diego, CA
Jan 10 – The Federal Underground, Long Beach, CA
Jan 12 – Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley, CA
Jan 13 – Harlow’s Restaurant and Nightclub, Sacramento, CA
Jan 14 – Vintage Vine Bar, Redding, CA
Jan 17 – Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR
Jan 18 – Tractor Tavern, Seattle, WA
Jan 19 – Top Hat Lounge, Missoula, MT
Jan 21 – The Filling Station, Bozeman, MT
Jan 23 – Neurolux, Boise, ID
Jan 24 – The State Room, Salt Lake City, UT
Jan 26 – Ivywild School, Colorado Springs, CO
Jan 28 – Globe Hall, Denver, CO