Suzannah photo by Dave Heumann
Suzannah Brings Meditative Songwriting To Is There Any Love In Your Heart
Baltimore-based singer/songwriter Suzannah has been songwriting for many years and has substantial experience as a live performer and is releasing her first studio album on November 10th, 2022, titled Is There Any Love In Your Heart. It represents selections from a number of years of songwriting and recording, but she also has many songs that have not yet made their way into the public sphere. The songs have a storytelling aspect in common, and a number of different character perspectives, that take you on a meditative journey into various emotional realities.
Songs like “Skeletons” and “Losing Side of Town” are thought-provoking, but handle potentially difficult experiences with a reflective tone based on Suzannah’s dream-like but guiding vocals and the gentle layers of instrumentation. Drawing from plenty of roots traditions, the songs also have aspects reminiscent of dream pop and the more contemplative side of psychedelic pop while remaining a unique creation. I spoke with Suzannah about her history as a songwriter and what made these songs her selection for her first publicly released album.
Americana Highways: This is your debut album release, but I understand that you’ve been songwriting for some time and also have a fair amount of experience performing in bands before now.
Suzannah: I’ve always had a day job, but songwriting is such a part of who I am that it’s something I’ve always done. When you are a songwriter, you end up meeting other musicians, and I’ve done that, but I’ve just never pursued it full-time. In some ways a lot of people know me, but in some ways, I’m less known. My motivation has always been writing rather than to be an entertainer or performer.
AH: What made this set of songs different for you? Was there a point where you knew that you were really going to push to do these recordings and get them out in the world?
Suzannah: Really, it was that I had a lot songs. I was getting to the point where I was thinking, “If you write a song and no one ever gets to hear it, did you ever make a sound?” Ultimately, songs are meant to be heard by other people. I had made albums before but got so burned out by the end of making them that I didn’t put them out. I don’t think I went into it thinking, “I’m going to make an album.” I had a few songs, then I wrote some along the way, and that was a batch of songs. Then I thought, “This time, I’m going to put them out.”
I don’t really know why I decided that. I think it’s that I’ve learned over the years that you hear the songs the way that they are supposed to go in your head, but, personally, I think it’s impossible to ever get them down on tape that way. It took me a long time to realize that that’s impossible. This was the closest that I got. One thing that changed is that we have a home studio now, which has made all the difference in the world.
When I’m off work, and Dave’s on other projects, our friends can come over and track here. In the past, I was usually working in studios, which was a learning experience. A friend of mine described it as trying to drive a Cadillac when you don’t have the money for it or your driver’s license. It’s necessary, I think, to go through that to learn, but having a home studio now has given us a lot of flexibility.
AH: Did that require much studio set up for you, or was it already in place?
Suzannah: It’s really Dave, my partner’s, studio. His name is Dave Heumann and he’s a musician in his own right as well as the producer on this album. He’s been building this studio up over the years and I’ve been sneaking down there the last few years. He’s an engineer who records himself and other people, now.
AH: Though I understand the idea that you can’t translate everything that’s in your head into a recorded song, I still feel like there’s a lot going on with these songs, musically. There are a number of layers. Is this collection the closest that you’ve come to realizing your ideas?
Suzannah: Yes. I have had a hard time separating an arrangement from a song in the past. When I was growing up, I never thought I’d be able to write a song, because I’d hear recorded songs with really big arrangements. I thought it just all came out that way. I grew up playing classical piano, and there was complicated finger work even though there was a melody running through.
Even now, when I sit down with a guitar and I strum chords, I realize that there’s a simple song there, but when I hear it in my head, it sounds much more fleshed out. I know that a lot of listeners actually prefer to just hear the guitar or piano. It’s all one piece of arranged music, in my head. So you need musicians to play all those parts, to make it sound finished to me. I also have a lot of friends who are really talented instrumentalists and I want them to play more. Whenever I can have them over and give them something to play, that feels like a special experience.
AH: You hinted that you had a lot of songs to work with. Does that mean that several of these songs go back in time for you?
Suzannah: Yes, the song “Four Walls” was actually recorded in 2013. That’s an old recording that I thought fit. That’s almost ten years old! Some of the other songs are also older. The newer ones are probably two or three years old. There are also a lot more, but I thought these fit together.
AH: That really speaks to your selection process because I do think they form a great unit. “Is There Any Love In Your Heart” as a song reflects a particular kind of journey, and the album itself could be looked at as a journey.
Suzannah: I sing in the first person, but when I sit down to write, they aren’t necessarily written from my experiences. They are usually from something I’ve seen, or a story I’ve heard, or been told. That sparks an image in my mind and so I’ll write the song. In my mind, they are all very distinct stories, but I know a listener might see that.
AH: The storytelling can help because the perspective character becomes the one audiences latch onto. Do you have a sense of why you ended up writing and working with these kinds of sound traditions, versus being a classical musician or a rock person? I think this music spans genres, but I do see a lot of roots influences.
Suzannah: I spent a lot of time in Austin, Texas. When I decided that I wanted to learn how to write songs, I thought, “I need to go to Nashville or Austin.” And I picked Austin. From 2007 to 2011, I was much more steeped in the country vein. That style of singing came naturally to me and all the bands that I had down there were country bands, often doing covers of older songs.
I think I have an affinity for those songs, but when I thought about making my own album, I’ve never wanted to do a traditional country sound. I think it’s been done well by people, but it’s not completely who I am. Authenticity is a big thing, particularly in country music. Just to be true to myself, it would not make sense for me to be completely traditional, but I acknowledge that I’m influenced by it, for sure.
AH: I really found the song “Skeletons” to be resonant. I could relate to it, and it has important ideas to it. I’ve known a lot of people in my life who have gone through difficult experiences without talking about things and I think music is a great way to open up conversation.
Suzannah: I like that song. It was actually the first song that I wrote after about two years of not writing anything. I had been in Nashville in the summer of 2018 just kind of soaking up the city since I have a lot of friends there. I like to visit. When I was there, a singer/songwriter friend of mine was writing a song. He was saying that all the songs on the radio right now “stay on the one.” He wanted to do that.
When I got back to Baltimore, I thought, “I want to write my own song that stays on the one.” That was the whole genesis of the song, so it’s not that deep, but it stays in the same repeating pattern. It was that song, though, that made me think, “Maybe I’ll try this again. Maybe I’ll try to make an album.” That’s why it’s included and is the first song on the album.
AH: The repeating aspect of it goes really well with the idea of cycles and trying to process change.
Suzannah: It’s meditative, for sure.
AH: With the title track, that really does feel like a big emotional journey contained within a song, but it’s not frenetic or bombastic. It’s quiet in the way that it moves through big emotions. Was that approach a discovery?
Suzannah: I don’t know that it was. When I’m done with something, I just move on to the next one. I know that with that song, it was a phrase that kept repeating over and over in my head for a long time. Finally, one night I thought about it a little bit more. I just had this very clear image in my head of someone driving down a highway at night.
I wanted it to have a meditative, plodding quality of the lines going by, but for it not to be a traditional highway song. Highway songs are usually about freedom, but I wanted to write a highway song about being confined. In the first verse, the person is coming in touch with the law, in the second verse, he’s in front of some kind of judge, and in the third verse, we see that his pleading didn’t work, and he’s in some kind of prison.
AH: And that’s when he kind of faces himself since there’s nothing else left?
AH: I did think it felt like a road song, but I didn’t want to assume that. That was probably something I picked up on from the sound. It’s hard to imagine that song without the extra elements that fill it out, like the pedal steel. You didn’t have a particular sense of accomplishment finishing that one? It was just, “Right! Next one!”
Suzannah: [Laughs] I never have a sense of accomplishment. No, it’s just, “I hope we got it. Time to move on.” There are so many different ways that you can go with a song and you just have to pick one.
Thank you very much for chatting with us, Suzannah!
Find more information and music, here: https://suzannah.bandcamp.com/album/is-there-any-love-in-your-heart