Suzanne Santo photo by Andy Gulden July 3rd at Lost Lake Lounge in Denver.
Over a decade ago, Suzanne Santo became known to Americana fans as half of the duo HoneyHoney, recognized for her songwriting, her multi-hued voice and her fiery fiddle-playing. Since then, she’s carved out a solo career, toured the world with Hozier, and found a sort of musical renewal in Austin. With her second album, Yard Sale, coming out on August 27, I spoke to her about making music and touring during and after(?) COVID, working with Gary Clark Jr. and Shakey Graves, and realizing that she’s earned her seat at the table.
Americana Highways: How’s it feel to be back promoting a new album and touring?
Suzanne Santo: It’s like a past life resurrected, but with a new set of eyes. I feel really excited. I’m really grateful that the world has revived itself in a way that I can put out a record. What’s funny is, last year I went through such a dark night of the soul, a lot of questions that maybe a lot of other people would’ve asked themselves, like “Is this it? Is my life irrevocably changed? Are my dreams dead? Am I going to die alone?” You know, that kind of thing. And I really dug into that and kinda came into a kind of union of infinite reality, acceptance and peace and appreciation, and just really kind of fine-tuning myself. Oddly, I’m really, really excited about this record, and I believe in it so deeply. But I’m already starting to work on the next thing, just in the way that I’m not obsessing about the outcome and the release in the way that I have in the past, where even if I denied the obsession, it’s still there in the back of my head – numbers and the way you measure “how well your music is doing.” Yeah, I get excited that my Spotify numbers are going up, but at the end of the day, I’m just excited to put this record out, and whatever happens, happens. I’m gonna leave it at that as opposed to in the past, when I’ve been really married to the outcome.
AH: I know that the album cycle is, and I don’t know if you’re like this, but by the time you finish recording an album and it’s ready to go, you’re almost, in a way, sick of those songs, so you need to go onto the next thing pretty quickly. Is it like that for you?
SS: This record was pretty much done in 2019, give or take a new song or two, and we took some songs out. I’ve found that…my job is to make the music, play the music, and facilitate a team that helps get it out to the masses. And then keep doing what I do best, which is keep playing and making more music. I think that the deepest, loneliest parts of my being and my soul are always alleviated when I sit and sing and play guitar in my living room. There’s this untouchable source energy, and any time I go back there, all that other stuff doesn’t matter. All the other stuff of success or even money. Of course, I need money to have freedom! But at the end of the day, there’s so much of that that’s out of my control, and there’s so much of that has destroyed me in thought, because I’ve tried to figure out how to navigate through a world where people don’t pay for music! At the end of the day, I’ve been somewhat – not 100%, because, just like anything in life, it takes maintenance – gotten to an achievable place of just letting it go.
AH: Your Denver show [a sold-out date at Lost Lake Lounge on July 3rd} – was that your first one back?
SS: I played a couple of shows in Austin, but Austin’s kind of this micro-world inside of the big world. And I love playing in Austin, but this was my first road show. That was unforgettable. I’m used to people in Denver being super-stoned and just kinda chilled out and you don’t really get much of a reaction, or you do, but it’s subdued. Then this was just emotional and exciting. Everybody, myself included, were just so thrilled to be there. The merch line after the show – we were just so emotional! It was beautiful.
AH: Well, you answered the question before I asked it – you seemed pleasantly taken aback by the huge response. Because, like you say, I think everybody – you, all of us – were just happy to be there doing what we wanted to do for once!
SS: Yeah. And, to be honest with you, I haven’t done much touring on my own since 2018, because I played with Hozier for so long [Santo played in the Irish singer-songwriter’s band during a world tour]. When I came back to my music in 2019, I was pretty much making a record. I did a fall tour in Europe that I lost all my money on! Then I did a little run in the Southwest, which was a place I hadn’t toured in a really long time. So my numbers were super-low, I didn’t sell out anywhere. And then COVID! So those are my last experiences. So I was, “Man, I hope people show up.” I just had no idea what to expect. And Denver’s always been so good to me. I’ve had some really, really wonderful shows over the years, and that one was no different. So, yeah, I was taken aback. It felt good!
AH: You mentioned Hozier. I was going to ask you about that, too. You were playing his music and singing his songs. Down the road, is that something you might think about doing for someone else again?
SS: If it makes sense, and if I am happy with an area of my own music. I don’t want to leave it. I don’t want to not tend to that garden. It all depends. Preferably, it’s someone I’m really good friends with – that’s a bonus. I’d rather do something like that than kind of be an employee at this point. I don’t like to be away from home for too long, either.
AH: You said you moved from LA to Austin in the last couple of years. How’s that changed the way you make music? Or what changes has that made?
SS: Well, I haven’t been making as much music. I’ve been working on other people’s music here, which has been super-cool. The community here in Austin is really another vibe. The thing about LA, and it’s not just music, it’s the way that people move to Los Angeles. There’s a lot of energy of desperation there. You get some good-lookin’ people from the Midwest that move out there to be an actor, but they never studied acting a day in their life! And it has a weird tone to it. Not that the music scene is flawed, it’s just different. Whereas here, I have just been welcomed so warmly, like “Hey, you wanna sit in on my set?” or “Hey, I’m doing this tonight, I’d love for you to play” or, “You gotta meet so-and-so, you’re gonna love them.” Just the way that I’ve been integrated into the scene here, I’ve met nothing but great, talented people. I’m so inspired to just go home and practice every day and get better. I keep meeting all these f@cking awesome female guitarists. It’s what Nashville could’ve been for me if pop country weren’t so omnipresent! Austin just has this authentic, “we’re just here to play music,” and then it just so happens that there are some superstars that are sprinkled in there, too. It’s pretty cool! I guess, the approach is so genuinely good and exciting to be a part of that it just makes me want to get better and better. And there isn’t that depleted feeling. I’m charged here.
AH: Did you work out of Nashville at some point?
SS: I actually moved there for two years in 2012, but I was on the road so much that I wasn’t there enough. And I met some great musicians, and I have a ton of friends there, but it just wasn’t my vibe. It’s one of those towns where everybody knows your business, and everyone is in the music business, and it’s annoying! I…I prefer not (laughs).
AH: I’ve been going to Nashville for five or six years, and even in that time, it’s changed so much.
SS: Well, I love to visit, and I’m going to be there for AmericanaFest. I feel like people in Nashville could agree that there’s an upside and a downside to it. But everybody’s got their flavors. I’ve said this in a couple different interviews – I lived in New York City for a few years as a teenager, then I lived in LA for 19 years. I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve always thought I was going to move back to Cleveland, like, “One day, why don’t you just go back and you buy a building” and all these plans. I’d never, until I moved to Texas, to Austin, and I was here for just a few days, and I have this overwhelming feeling of, “This is home. I’m home.” It was so weird.
AH: OK, album sequencing. It’s something that’s fascinating, because I’ve made mix tapes and mix CDs, so it’s always fascinating what goes in what order. The line you started off Ruby Red is just one of my all-time favorite album-opening lines [from “Handshake”] – “Yeah, I wanna smoke and I wanna drink/And screw every time I think about you.” It just sets a tone – “Here’s what we’re gonna talk about!” Yard Sale kind of starts a little smaller, a little quieter, a little more pensive. Was there a specific thinking behind that?
SS: That’s a really good question – maybe you’re helping me realize it now. That was not strategically done that way. I came by it honestly in this time in my life. I think, with the tone of this record, all of the different incarnations of my life all in one album. Ruby Red is very much a break-up record, and this is not that. And, if anything, I’ve come to a place where I’m trying to really discuss the music objectively – it’s just good for me and for the listeners. I personally do get a little irritated when people get specific about their lives in regard to the music, because once you put it out there, it’s everybody’s music. I don’t need to tell you about why my dog ran away and what the song is about (I don’t have a dog). I think that, as an overarching theme, instead of marinating on a darker side of our lives and psyches, this is a much more…chariot of triumph. I’m headed toward something else. Yeah, of course I love drinking whisky and rockin’ out and all that stuff in my life, and what’s been a real bedrock for a lot of my music is drinking, and you could elaborate on that. But I think there’s maturity to this, just like anyone in life who’s seeking harmony and peace. That’s where that opening track is going to show you we’re headed in a different direction.
AH: Yeah, I’ve noticed some albums in the past few years, instead of slamming you right out of the gate, they start with something more pensive, but it also kind of sets the tone, and that’s definitely what I heard here.
SS: Right. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It gets down later in the record! But we’re all multi-faceted creatures, if we can help it. And Yard Sale, that’s why I came up with the name, and I never wavered. I never thought of anything else that felt better. There’s a lot of different metaphors. You know, there’s a saying, if a lady accidentally knocks her purse over, and all her sh!t falls out, somebody says, “YARD SALE!” So it’s like all your personal stuff is out on the lawn. But also, it’s the tenet of getting rid of things you don’t need. Personally, I think there’s something for everyone on this record – it’s got so many different flavors. Like if you’re at a yard sale, there’s just a menagerie of stuff – you’re like, “Oh my god, I didn’t know I needed these measuring cups, but I do! And this cactus – great!”
AH: It’s funny – “yard sale” here in Colorado means, if you wipe out skiing, your gloves and everything go all over the place. And in hockey, it’s a fight where there’s gloves and helmets all over the place…
SS: Well, I mean, that’s not too far off – that’s applicable in some areas of the record!
AH: I saw common themes in Ruby Red and in Yard Sale, like trying not to love too quickly and romantic “ghosts,” but also advancing past some things, too. So it seems like you went through a big chunk of life in the whole process of writing and recording this.
SS: I did, yeah. Well, also COVID was the fourth quarter of the record, too. Because I thought it was over, and then I had to add more songs!
AH: It seems like you’ve probably come out in a better place.
SS: Most definitely, yes.
AH: “Fall for That” features Gary Clark Jr. You have done a few things with him, including Joe Rogan’s podcast. How did you two get to working together?
SS: I met Gary over 10 years ago – HoneyHoney and Gary Clark Jr were playing this concert series at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles, and they gave us all these suites, and so we just played music and partied all night and had a blast. Gary was just playing acoustic guitar, and initially I was, “Oh my God, that guy’s voice is beautiful!” I had no idea he was this guitar shredder, who continues to just get better and better. I just played a show with him last week, and he’s really transcending, and it’s beautiful to watch, especially having known him for so long. I would run into him from time to time. Then, I was in Australia with Hozier playing Byron Bay Bluesfest. Oddly, I ran into him and Shakey [Graves, who also appears on Yard Sale]. Funny story – every time I would run into Gary, ever since he got really successful, I would always re-introduce myself to him, because I didn’t expect him to remember my name! I would be like, “Hey, Gary, Suzanne from HoneyHoney!” And finally, he went, “Suzanne, I know who you are. You don’t need to introduce yourself.” And I was like, Cool, cool cool cool cool.” I had dinner with him and Shakey and the band. And I was, “Man, we should all hang out stateside sometime.” And I just stayed in touch, and at the end of that year, 2019, a couple months later, I was in LA, and I texted him to see if he was around. I said, “Hey, do you maybe want to play on this song, because it would be so f@cking awesome if you played on this.” He wrote back – “I don’t even need to listen to it. I’ll BE there.” And 1) You should listen to it, but 2) That’s awesome! I was just so honored. He’s a spectacular human – I really admire him. I really admire what he does for the community here and the local artists. He’s become a real friend, and I’m actually going to see him later today. And he’s just cool, man! Aside from being a rock star, he’s a cool and really good-hearted man. I met his parents last week, and they’re wonderful. There’s something very special about this local vibe here. The thing is, the people that live in LA, most of the time, their families aren’t there – not your mom and dad and cousins and aunts and uncles. There’s something rewarding and fulfilling to be in a music community, and people are from here, you know! That’s such an odd thing for me, having been in LA for so long, where everyone’s a transplant.
AH: And you said Shakey Graves is on the album, too. Sounds like the same thing, over a period of time, getting to know him?
SS: Yeah, just staying in touch, I have always loved his music – I’m a huge fan. It was the same thing – “Oh my god, he wants to work with me! OK, cool.” But, you know, just knock on the door and ask. Personally, one of my issues in life is feeling like I’m in the way, and then realizing, “You know what, you have a seat at this table and it’s OK to ask someone if they want to play music with you!” I don’t want to bother people, but as it turns out, everybody was pretty pumped to make some music. It was good for me to take a chance.
AH: Also on the album, Ben Jaffe from HoneyHoney. It’s different to see that the two of you are doing stuff together and separately. Usually, each goes off and does their own thing, and that’s kind of the end of it. You do work together, you do play some shows together. How do you guys make that work?
SS: (Long pause) Uhm, that’s a really tough question to answer, because this is super-personal – it’s not in a good spot right now. It’s pretty “toast” at this point. Some things just don’t change, you know. We tried for a really long time to keep a thing going that I don’t think was necessarily healthy for either of us. We’ve realized that as of late, and are maturely are really just…callin’ it. And I am so happy for him and excited for whatever he has coming down the pike, and I know it’s the same. But, for some reason, we just can’t get it together. We can’t. It’s not as sad as it was. I’ve found my peace with it. But, yeah, I guess I have to tell you that it’s not a thing.
AH: With COVID not quite going away – you have a lot of fall dates – any concerns, or just plowing straight ahead and seeing what happens?
SS: That, the latter! I don’t want to waste my time worrying about sh!t that I can’t control. I’m just gonna “bull in the China shop” until they tell me to leave the shop. I just gotta keep forging ahead. And, to be totally honest, I think a lot of this stuff has been sorely mismanaged, and it’s frustrating. I’m just hoping that there’s a sensible approach to this. But, either way, I am not gonna waste my time worrying about it. Worrying is wasteful, and I just want to enjoy this life as best as I can.
AH: Other than the album, of course, and the tour, anything else you’ve got coming up in the future? Any new projects?
SS: For now, ail I can speak on, and I’ve got some other things that I’m always working on, but the music is first and foremost, and there’s always more music coming after that music! I think, in respect to the times, you can’t plan too far ahead. I’m really enjoying my life in Austin, and I’m always going to be creating something. At this point, I’m really looking forward to the end of August for Yard Sale, and beyond.
AH: Anything else you want to say about the album?
SS: I’m just so proud of it, and so grateful for all the people that lent their hands, and their eyes and ears. It’s time. It’s time for that yard sale!
Go find that Yard Sale (out Aug. 27): https://stores.portmerch.com/suzannesanto/
To see Suzanne Santo on tour: http://www.suzannesanto.com/tour