This article is written by MIKE RAGOGNA at THE HUFFINGTON POST

MIKE RAGOGNA: Hello, Susanna.


MR: You have a new BANGLES album: SWEETHEART OF THE SUN.

SH: It’s been seven years in the making, but yes – a new BANGLES album. Finally.

MR: OK. Tell us all about those seven years.

SH: (laughs) Well, it wasn’t our intent to wait that long, but many factors affected how slow it was. It was partly because all of us had kids and we’re working moms. We were on the road with THE BANGLES on and off all year. We did three tours of Australia, a tour of Europe, many, many little runs in the U.S. in different markets – the east coast, west coast and the midwest – but kind of under the radar and things like that. It was just that juggling the family stuff with the creative stuff took a while.

MR: It’s interesting being a grown up and doing this, isn’t it?

SH: Yeah. That’s a really good point. When THE BANGLES started…I actually spoke with VICKI over the phone in 1980, but the band really was formed in the beginning of 1981. During that whole period, we were sort of married to each other. We were on the road; we were like gypsies. It was all BANGLES all the time during the whole decade of the 80s…and we worked it. We were in our twenties and our main responsibility was showing up to the gig on time, so it’s quite different now.

MR: It’s amazing that you all can get back together after that long a break and make as solid an album as this is.

SH: Thank you.

MR: I wanted to talk about a couple of the songs. One of them, ANNA LEE, has some interesting lyrics:

Got a picture of you sittin’ in the kitchen without a stitch on

What do we need to know about ANNA LEE?

SH: Well, she’s sort of a fictional character. The song was written in the studio – actually, up at MATTHEW SWEET’S house where we tracked the record. I had just read a book called GIRLS LIKE US – SHEILA WELLER wrote it. It has very detailed biographies of JONI MITCHELL, CAROLE KING and CARLY SIMON. I recommended it to VICKI and DEBBI who read it and loved it as I did. In it, there’s a lot of talk about Laurel Canyon and the scene in the 60s and 70s, with JONI and CAROLE KING living there. I also had read, during that time – just prior to writing the song with VICKI and DEBBI – two other books about the L.A. music scene. HOTEL CALIFORNIA was one and LAUREL CANYON was the other. So they were very much in our minds.

There was a section in the book about CAROLE KING talking about her writing partner TONI STERN and there’s a great picture of her sort of crouching down in the garden. I can’t remember what she’s doing, but she’s completely naked in the picture with TONI STERN. It’s really iconic and sort of said it all about the Ladies Of The Canyon.

It was an interesting time, because they were feminists in a way – they were affected by the whole feminist movement – but they were also free spirits and very feminine. There was this vibe…I don’t want to say it was a hippie chick vibe, but it was a unique time for women. We just decided to use those images and some of those stories that we got from the SHEILA WELLER book to kind of make this composite character that we ended up naming ANNA LEE. We wrote the song about her and about how our generation of women had looked for inspiration from those women in Laurel Canyon in the 60s – those female artists.

MR: Those women sure were the sweethearts of the singer/songwriter genre and I would go so far as to say they’re the archetypes for singer/songwriters to this day.

SH: Yeah. I think the culture today is very, very different from what it was in the 60s and I feel lucky that I grew up at a time when I had these very strong female role models. They were strong women, but their power was very much connected to their creativity and their voice, as opposed to this culture of beauty that we live in where everything is so wrapped up in appearance. It changed. I can’t quite put my finger on how to say it. But I’m glad you like that song.

MR: Another thing about the artists of that era is that they didn’t use power for power’s sake. It really was about the power of creativity.

SH: Yes, exactly. There’s a great picture that I believe is in GIRLS LIKE US of JONI at her house in Laurel Canyon, or at one of the houses that all these musicians were hanging out in – I think it was hers – and you just see ERIC CLAPTON sitting on the lawn looking at her, like transfixed, as she’s playing the guitar. ERIC CLAPTON, the guitar hero of all time – at least at that time, for sure – looking like, “How is she doing that? What is she playing?”

It’s like he’s trying to understand it because it’s so impressive. And JONI was that person. She was playing dulcimer and tuning her guitar in all kinds of ways that no one had done, or at least you weren’t hearing them much on the radio prior to her doing it. She just kind of took it all on. It wasn’t power for power’s sake, like you said. That’s why in ANNA LEE we have that lyric

quiet power/simple grace

It was power through the creativity. It was all the expression that was so strong and was such a point of view – the female point of view being presented through these very intimate songs. I remember listening to JONI as a little girl and just being so attached to all her records and having a certain experience that a little girl who’s age nine or ten or whatever I was has. I remember going back and revisiting those records at different eras in my life as an adult and thinking, “Oh, my God. I had no idea what she was singing about!” These were very personal stories of her life that were coming out in these songs and I had no idea what it was about – I just liked it. I just liked the sound of it as a kid.

MR: Now you were one of the feisty girl groups of the era. Were you aware of that at the time and playing into that?

SH: Yeah, we were very aware of it. It’s interesting looking back, which I’m doing partly because the album’s out and I’ve been talking about it with people and revisiting the whole journey of my life prior to THE BANGLES and then spending the last thirty years as a BANGLE. I went to UC Berkeley for college and it was during the period when the whole punk movement was happening. So I’d gone from thinking, “When I’m going to a concert, I’m going to a stadium,” like with THE WHO and LED ZEPPELIN and THE ROLLING STONES, to all of a sudden discovering THE RAMONES and THE TALKING HEADS and THE SEX PISTOLS and PATTI SMITH.

I actually saw the last ever SEX PISTOLS show at WINTERLAND in San Francisco because I was in college across the bay at Berkeley and then I saw PATTI SMITH. It really was that music that emboldened me to decided to be in a band. That became my dream from having been a dancer – I actually graduated as a painter at Berkeley, in the fine arts. It was really that movement, which was very much rebellious, that made me want to be in a band and made me think it was even possible.

It was like, getting that RAMONES record and realizing, “Hey, I know those three or four chords they’re playing. I could put down the acoustic guitar and grab an electric guitar and kind of make that sound!” It was kind of mindblowing for me, at the time. So THE BANGLES were very…We had a lot of attitude. We were pretty tough little girls back then when we started the band. It wasn’t the era of AMERICAN IDOL. We weren’t waiting around to be picked or vetted by a team of people who seem to know or not know what’s good or bad. It wasn’t that kind of mindset at all.

It was like, “We’re doing this ourselves…Everything.” We made our own single, like, hand delivered it to RODNEY BINGENHEIMER, who started playing it. It was all do it yourself.

MR: And what a great energy you had within the band. When you get together, do you still get that energy, that same feeling?

SH: Yeah, it feels good. Honestly, I have to say that it’s a really great job. I feel really grateful to have been in the little club that we call THE BANGLES for so many years. And to this day, when we get together – we just did a little radio thing yesterday, just with acoustic guitars and the three of us singing – every time, I feel this chemistry that’s special. When we go and rehearse for tour and I go to the rehearsal place and plug in my guitar and crank up my amp and we start playing, it just transports me to a really good place. I just enjoy it. I enjoy the sound. There’s just a sound that the three of us make.

We met for the first time – they’re sisters, VICKI and DEBBI – when they came over in 1981 and I was living in a converted garage at my parent’s house in west L.A. and we played music for the first time back then. We knew. I don’t know how it happened, but we just got really lucky. There was something good about the sound that happened that night. We basically said, “I do. Let’s get married.” We decided to be a band that night. It was crazy when I think about it. There was no, “Let’s go home and mull this over.” It was like going on a blind date and getting married that night.

MR: So, I have to confess: GOING DOWN TO LIVERPOOL is one of my favourite records…and it’s yours. Love it.

SH: Yeah, it’s great – it’s written by KIMBERLEY REW. I can’t remember how we happened upon the song. I think it might have been during the era when we got signed to COLUMBIA RECORDS. I’m not remembering if maybe DAVID CONNOR the producer had come across it, or if we had. But it’s such a cool song. One of the things that sort of glued us together musically was our mutual love of THE BEATLES. So just when I heard the title GOING DOWN TO LIVERPOOL, I was like, “OK. I want to hear that song.” You just associate THE BEATLES with Liverpool. So it just kind of tapped into that thing, our affection for THE BEATLES. We were very influenced by British Invasion music.

MR: And then there’s GERRY & THE PACEMAKERS who gave us the saddest song ever written: DON’T LET THE SUN CATCH YOU CRYING.

SH: Oh yeah. I know. I love those bands.

MR: Speaking of writers, I do believe a certain PRINCE had a little something to do with MANIC MONDAY.

SH: Yes, absolutely. We got really lucky in that early on, it was sort of the dawn of MTV. It was the era during which it was all videos. It was a music video channel.

MR: Weren’t those great days? (laughs)

SH: Those were great days, right? We had a video for the first single off our first COLUMBIA record ALL OVER THE PLACE. It was a song called HERO TAKES A FALL and it was right at the point when PRINCE was starting to become not just an artist that everyone looked up to and knew was really cool, but he started to have hits on the radio. I was just driving around L.A. going from BANGLES gigs and rehearsals and things and I heard WHEN DOVES CRY. I thought, “What a cool song,” and then, every single song off that album ended up being a hit on the radio.

But at that time, for whatever reason, PRINCE turned on MTV and saw THE BANGLES’ first video – actually, it was our second video: HERO TAKES A FALL. He really liked the band, so he started to come to our shows. He wouldn’t just watch – he would jump on stage with us. He really liked that song. We still play it…it’s still one of my favourite songs to play. It really rocks. It was the real garage rock or garage pop side of THE BANGLES. We were really influenced by 60s psychedelic garage pop. So he would jump on stage and play these solos. You can find them on YouTube now. There’s not footage of it – it’s just audio – but it was just incredible for us, because it was exciting.

Then I got a call from one of our engineers when we were working on DIFFERENT LIGHT – the second record for COLUMBIA – that PRINCE had a song he wanted to give me. So I drove over to the studio, picked up the song and sure enough it was MANIC MONDAY. We recorded it and I don’t know if he wrote it for us or if he just thought of us because he had a version of it in existence. I never did find that out. But yeah, it ended up being the first single off DIFFERENT LIGHT and our first TOP 40 single. So I’m very grateful to PRINCE for that.

MR: And of course, that led to WALK LIKE AN EGYPTIAN, which everybody has mimicked since then. Isn’t that amazing? That song and that video are like the catchiest things ever.

SH: Thank you.

MR: Now on your new album, you have a couple of interesting covers. You end the album with the TODD RUNDGREN song OPEN MY EYES. You’ve been playing that one live for a while, but how did you decide to finally record it?

SH: It was one that we had done in the 80s. We never recorded it, but it was in our set in the mid 80s. Actually, VICKI brought it up again. She said, “What about Open My Eyes?” It was actually TODD’S first band’s. They were called NAZZ. We were really obsessed with THE NUGGETS records, which were these compilation records with the psychedelic pop stuff on them. I think LENNY KAYE from PATTI SMITH’S band had something to do with the organizing of the material for those albums. They were kind of iconic albums. We were big fans of that song and when we were looking at the themes and the material for SWEETHEART OF THE SUN, we were kind of honing in on what we wanted to do with the album. We wanted to make an album that would be fun to play live – that was a definite, conscious thought.

So VICKI had that thought, like “This is one we used to do. It’s a blast to play live and it has a really cool guitar riff that’s real signature in the song.” So yeah, we reinvented it a little bit, but the song was full of harmonies anyway. With everything we do, we always want to put a BANGLES spin on it by making sure that we approach things from a harmony point of view. We always want to make sure there are three part harmonies in as many places as possible.

MR: Let’s talk about your other cover on this record – SWEET & TENDER ROMANCE by THE McKINLEY SISTERS. How did you come across that one?

SH: There was a guy named JOHN KIRBY who has come to a bunch of BANGLES shows. I’m not sure what the connection is there. I know there’s somebody in our crew that knows him but I’m not sure exactly what it is. But he is from England and has some connection to LED ZEPPELIN. ROBERT PLANT also used to come to our shows. We were very lucky. We had really interesting people coming to our shows in our early days, before we had success, to kind of give us a pat on the back and say, “Keep going, girls. You’re doing well.”

PRINCE was doing that too. Not that we needed that. We were pretty driven and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were going to go until we were barred and locked out of the music world. Nothing was going to stop us. But it was a nice thing, having ROBERT PLANT come to the shows. So this guy was somehow connected to him. I think he might have come with ROBERT PLANT to one of the shows, but I don’t know the whole story.

And when I saw him at our show in Vegas a few years ago, he handed me this CD and said, “These girls The McKinley Sisters had really cool songs in the 60s. It’s totally obscure stuff. You’ve probably never heard it. Jimmy Page is playing the guitar solo on this song.”

I was fascinated and I became just completely addicted to listening to this CD, never thinking that it would be something THE BANGLES would cover. But I just had to share it with VICKI and DEBBI and MATTHEW. So I brought it to the studio when we were tracking and I said, “Check out this song. It’s so cool.” I think in the spirit of the thing I said earlier – that we wanted to do a record that would be fun to play live, I was thinking that SWEET & TENDER ROMANCE could be a contender. The thing that’s so bizarre about it is that when you listen to THE McKINLEY SISTERS’ version – which you can find on YouTube – it’s pop, but it’s got this really modern, kind of alternative punk thing going on. It’s a really unusual song in a really weird time signature. It’s interesting. It was kind of a left of centre choice, but THE BANGLES like to do that.

MR: You also seem to approach song choices the same way when you work with MATTHEW SWEET. Your UNDER THE COVERS albums have the same kind of heart.

SH: Absolutely. MATTHEW and I share a love for music. We’re music fans. When someone asks what advice I have for young bands, I always say, “Learn your favourite songs. Do some covers in your shows…why not? It’s OK to be doing that while you’re also trying to find your own voice as a singer/songwriter or an artist.”

I think that we all come to it from being fans of music and feeling like we can’t live without music ourselves. So I look for that when it comes to covering a song. I love to cover songs. And actually, the girl who runs THE BANGLES website found an old on line questionnaire thing about your goals and something like, “What would you do if you could do any project?” I forget what the question was, but it was something like that. It was written in, like, 1985 and I said, “I want to make a record of all my favourite songs, a full covers record.”

I had totally forgotten about that, but that’s what MATTHEW and I have been doing. So that was kind of cool, stumbling upon this old questionnaire. Because I do believe it’s a really great way to find yourself musically. I know for myself, I never had any formal training. I don’t read music, which is a shame, actually and I shouldn’t even speak of it because it’s embarrassing, but it’s true. I basically taught myself how to sing and play by copying records and that’s just how it was for me. I know that’s true for a lot of budding musicians out there – that’s the thing that gets them inspired, is trying to learn their favourite songs. I think it’s a great way to teach yourself.

MR: You may not realize it – and I know that you’re not trying to do this – but you’re educating people with those records. I’m always surprised by a few of the songs you and MATTHEW cover.

SH: Yeah…and the other cool thing is that there is a whole new generation of kids that may not know about a band like YES. MATTHEW and I were so excited the day that we realized that we should, for the 70s record, do something from the progressive rock thing in the 70s. We both realized that we were major fans of YES. I kind of got into YES because my older brother was listening to those records.

MR: That seven minute version of I’VE SEEN ALL GOOD PEOPLE was pretty surprising.

SH: And STEVE HOWE playing guitar on it, which was pretty awesome. I don’t know if MATTHEW told you, but we contacted him and sent him the tracks and he’s playing that acoustic guitar all the way through and then he did all of that solo, just like on the original record. So MATTHEW and I just have so much fun working on those records. There’s no way to explain it except for that it’s just a party with the two of us learning our favourite songs, trying to figure out how to make them our own, which sometimes we don’t worry too much about because we don’t, obviously, sing like the original singers and when we do the duet thing with it, it automatically takes it to a new place and kind of reinvents it. It’s just been fun. We’re starting the 80s one – I don’t know if MATTHEW told you that.

MR: No. But I have to ask, are you going to cover THE BANGLES?

SH: Well, I said to MATTHEW, “It’s not on the list right now. But if we do it, he’s got to sing it.” Wouldn’t that be cool?

MR: That would be excellent. Make him do it.

SH: I know. I might have to just do it as a bonus track. We could take that on and have MATTHEW sing one of the songs. We do a lot of that gender bending thing. Songs that you typically think of as a boy/girl thing, like in GO ALL THE WAY by THE RASPBERRIES where a boy is singing about a girl, kind of take a twist when I sing them from the female point of view. It gives it kind of a cool edge. We try to mix things up like that. It’s fun.

MR: Now you did touch on this earlier. But I do want to formally ask you – since I do it in every interview – what’s your advice, or rather, more advice for new artists?

SH: Well, I think it’s OK to embrace your love of music, even if that means learning some of your favourite songs. For me, it was singing LINDA RONSTADT songs and singing JONI MITCHELL songs and singing BONNIE RAITT songs and singing BEATLES songs and singing DUSTY SPRINGFIELD songs. I mean, I really owe a lot to singing along with my favourite female voices and female artists. A few more that come to mind are LULU, DIONNE WARWICK…singing all those BURT BACHARACH songs and DIANA ROSS with all THE SUPREMES records.

I taught myself how to sing just copying them. I mean, I grew up in Los Angeles and still live in Los Angeles and you’re in a car a lot here, so my mom – I have a really great mom who loves music as much as I do – she was always playing the radio and bringing home records. I mean, she brought us all THE BEATLES records when we were like four or five years old. She just was always playing music and that’s how I learned. So that’s good. Another thing that we did as kids was just teaching each other, really folkstyle, how to play. Everybody got taught BLACKBIRD and things like that. You feel like a really good guitar player when you learn that and you’re young. I mean, just learning other songs is really useful.

MR: Looking back from the ALL OVER THE PLACE album up until now, what do you think are the major differences in your creative self?

SH: Wow. Well, one thing is that because the music business is so changed, my initial response is that there’s not that much difference. We were on a major label and the music business was thriving in a kind of way and was very transformed by technological advances and also with Napster and Limewire and all that stuff that came and took some of the income stream. It kind of crashed it because of the fact that in some ways, it’s almost like music is free now. I mean, it’s not, but bands like us can now go on the road and play.

I think it’s pretty tough for bands to survive because of the way that the music business is, but from a musical point of view, not that much as changed for me. I still strive when I make music, when I record or write, to create something that I like. I try to just please myself and hope that other people will like it. I don’t get too intellectual about it. It’s the same thing that made me love music. I try to find the spark whenever I’m working, whether I’m playing a guitar part or singing a harmony or singing one of my own songs or singing covers with MATTHEW SWEET. There’s something mystical and magical about music.

I don’t even know if you can put words to what makes it work on such a deep level for people. I mean, I don’t know about you, but music has gotten me through a lot of things. I use music for courage. If I have to go do something hard, I’ll pick which song I want to listen to in the car on the way over to whatever it is I’m going to do something difficult. When I’m upset or when I’m happy, there’s always a song that seems to capture that emotion and has been a partner to me in life. I don’t know if that’s just me, but I have this thought that I often wake up with music in my head. Then one day I realized, “Maybe that’s because I’m a musician – or does everybody do that? Is it that I’m writing a song in my mind or do I have some crazy connection to music?”

I know it’s not just me because I meet so many people at our concerts and everywhere I go that have that relationship to music. So that has not changed. My kids are like that too. They’re teenagers – well, the little one is not quite a teenager, but I have a sixteen year old and a thirteen year old. God, music is so important to them and I actually learn about a lot of bands from them. It’s all different now, with the internet and how kids discover things…with YouTube too. It’s just different. We used to go to the record store and spend hours flipping through those bins. You probably remember that. So that was my childhood. We would spend hours at the record store. We would just sit there with the turntables and the album art reading the liner notes. The kids find it all on line and they still love music. It hasn’t changed the love of music at all.

MR: When we were spending hours at the store flipping through records, that was our social networking, whereas now there are Facebook and YouTube and Twitter.

SH: Absolutely. We didn’t have any of that. Wow. It was a very different time.

MR: It was a little more prehistoric, but it was the same concept. That’s how we bonded with people, made new friends too.

SH: Absolutely. And my kids still bond with their friends over music. The love of music has not changed. The identifying of yourself with your favourite bands or your favourite records and having that excitement when you turn someone on to a new band they’ve never heard of or something cool. I actually am really enjoying that through my kids and extended family. But the generation younger than me, who are very music obsessed – I’m learning a lot from them. It really is fun to be part of that culture. I haven’t gone to the big festivals here. We used to play those big festivals in Europe, like COACHELLA and BONNAROO and all that. But that’s a cool thing. I think it is a really interesting experience of community and it’s a shared event where people are sharing an experience together. I think it’s a continuation of WOODSTOCK, which started it all. It’s interesting.

MR: You mentioned your kids. When they hear your records, especially things like HAZY SHADE OF WINTER or ETERNAL FLAME or IN YOUR ROOM, can you see the wheels turning in their heads?

SH: They’ve grown up with it and they’re both very musical. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it – that they’ve been around music or whether they would’ve come to it even if I wasn’t a musician. But they have been to a lot of BANGLES shows and seen me perform with MATTHEW a little bit. They both love music, so I don’t know. It’s hard for me to know exactly how it’s affected them. They didn’t ever know anything else. They were always surrounded by music, because that’s what I do. They’d hear me see singing. Even when they were babies, I was always singing to them and stuff. That’s just their idea of their mom. It doesn’t strike them as unusual, let’s put it that way.

MR: What about when they see Mom walking around with a Rickenbacker?

SH: They’re just like, “Oh yeah, that’s the kind of guitar my mom likes to play.” It’s normal that Mom plays guitar to them, because it’s all they’ve ever known.

MR: What a great way to have grown up. That’s really cool. OK. Let’s end with talking about how awesome MATTHEW SWEET is, which is how I will now end every interview.

SH: Oh, yeah. I am such a MATTHEW SWEET fanatic. I am so excited to get going. I mean, we’ve all ready started putting together the 80s thing and have a lot of songs in the works. We recorded so much for the 70s. I actually just emailed MATTHEW because we just had so much that we didn’t put it all out. I want to do mixes of a few of the songs and figure out a way to get them out there because I really like them and no one’s ever heard them. So I want to get working on that too. He’s just so great. I’m so excited by the idea that he and I might be – or very much are working on – doing a tour. I actually have a solo record that I just finished that’s going to come out in 2012 and he’s got a record he’s promoting now. So we’re thinking of doing a tour where we both have a solo set and then also do our Sid and Susie covers duo thing. That’s something we’re planning.

MR: I forgot to ask you about your hit MY SIDE OF THE BED from your first solo album, which was in 91 and was called WHEN YOU’RE A BOY. Well, I don’t really have a question, I’m just sayin.

SH: Yes…and now I have another record that I’ve just done with MITCHELL FROOM, the fantastic producer who actually played the little signature keyboard riff on MANIC MONDAY. He produced everything from DON’T DREAM IT’S OVER and all those songs from CROWDED HOUSE to RANDY NEWMANamazing, amazing stuff. We did a record together of ten original songs of mine. I’d been waiting for the perfect moment to do it and it finally just clicked when I ran into MITCHELL at a club in the spring. We both went, “Wait! We can do this – soon! Let’s do it,” and we did. I’m excited to have it come out and perform those songs.

MR: I don’t think there’s anything we haven’t talked about.

SH: No, I think we’ve covered a lot of good ground here.

MR: Susanna, thank you very much for everything.

SH: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. I’ll have to talk again after UNDER THE COVERS: VOLUME THREE is done.

MR: You can talk to me anytime you’d like. Please come back, ma’am. This was a lot of fun. All the best with everything.

SH: Thank you. Hopefully we’ll talk again soon. Bye, Mike.

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