It’s been a few months now since we reviewed the new album by Tokyo born but San Diego raised Susie Hug titled ‘Tucson Moonshine’. At that time ‘Tucson Moonshine’ sounded like the former Katydids vocalist had made the best album of her long career. In a year where we have been flooded with not just great but outstanding albums ‘Tucson Moonshine’ was never far from my CD player. In those months since the album was released it’s become obvious that ‘Tucson Moonshine’ is not only a career high but also one of the best albums of this year so far.
Like all Susie Hug’s music this latest batch of songs has a timeless quality to them. In the same way that the Katydids' debut album from 1990 still sounds fresh today one gets the feeling that ‘Tucson Moonshine’ will also still be played three decades from now.
It’s one of pop’s mysteries why the Katydids never troubled the charts like the Pretenders did. Both bands were fronted by strong women who, although vocally different, had very distinctive voices. Both bands peddled the same type of catchy yet thoughtful pop music that appealed to a wide audience. Even though the Katydids and the Pretenders could seemingly write and play hook-filled pop songs along the lines of ‘Lights Out’ and ‘Back On the Chain Gang’ with ease they were never lightweight. There was always more substance to their music and lyrics than other pops bands could come up with. Of course with Katydids songwriter and guitarist Adam Seymour eventually joining the Pretenders the similarities between the two bands was only strengthened. So it’s strange that while Chrissie Hynde was never far from the charts or the radio why Susie Hug never gained the same acclaim.
Although Susie has kept busy with music since the Katydids spilt, for many of us ‘Tucson Moonshine’ was the first new music we heard from Susie in many a year. In keeping with Susie’s tradition of using talented and musically different producers on her albums, for her latest release Susie hooked up with the Calexico boys. It’s not the first time of course that Calexico have been heavily involved on an album that features an outstanding female singer. John Convertino, Joey Burns and Howe Gelb in their guise as OP8 featured Lisa Germano heavily. But where those recordings were very much in the Calexico/Giant Sand mould with Germano virtually just a guest vocalist (albeit a brilliant guest vocalist) even on the songs she wrote herself, ‘Tucson Moonshine’ is very much Susie Hug’s album and she has lost none of the pop sensibilities she displayed all those years ago with the Katydids but this time there is obviously a distinct country / folk sound added to the mix.
In this interview Susie talks to Pennyblackmusic about the different parts of her career. It is good to rediscover the music of Susie Hug especially on such a strong set of songs as ‘Tucson Moonshine’ and it even looks like we might be hearing some unreleased Katydids songs in the not too distant future.
PB: How you met up with Adam Seymour and formed the Katydids is well documented, but how did you both end up in that studio singing backing vocals for Big Bam Boo. What were you doing musically before the Katydids?
SH: I was writing songs and recording them in a little 4-track studio set up in a closet in my flat. I was ready to start collaborating with someone, as I was somewhat limited. Adam knows Big Bam Boo’s producer and I know the engineer.
I remember we saw Prince’s ‘Alphabet Street’ video that day and we both thought it was a great song, so started talking about other similar musical likes, from the 60s and 70s mostly. He needed a singer and there I was,
so we wrote three songs on our first day!
PB: It’s been twenty years since the two Katydids albums and they still hold up. They haven’t really dated at all. Do you feel that? If so why do you think that is?
SH: They are three minute pop songs recorded with real instruments, and we were Beatles fans, so maybe they have something traditional about them that we were tapping into at the time? Maybe the natural sound helps keep it timeless. The funny thing is our demos sound dated, but modern for today, since the 80s/90s has come around again.
PB: What is your favourite song from the Katydids era?
SH: On the albums, ‘Heavy Weather Traffic’, because of the level of energy and Nick Lowe’s arrangement. I also like ‘See Saw’ because of how Ian Broudie arranged the song. Both show those eccentric production/songwriters' minds at work. They build and build like good songs magically can.
PB: You’ve had some well-established and acclaimed producers working on your albums, not only on the Katydids tracks but also in your solo career, from Nick Lowe and Ray Schulman to Fran Healy and, on ‘Tucson Moonshine’, J D Foster. How much did each producer have in shaping the album they worked on?
SH: I always go into the recordings with the songs pretty much written. During the Katydids days Adam’s demos were precise, plus we toured with the band quite a bit before recording them, but Nick Lowe asked us to strip the songs down to acoustic so he could hear them and then put us through pre-production as a band before we went into RAK Studio.
It was then recorded very fast, analog and with a lot of joy and laughter.
It was the same thing with Fran Healy, and as it happens the same studio at RAK, but no pre-production, as the band had a rare break and generously helped me out during their time off. Fran liked my demos and wanted to keep it simple, so we did some acoustically first and some live with the band. Everything was recorded in those two weeks, including vocals and it captures Travis putting their heart and soul into my songs.
With JD Foster and Calexico I was again fortunate to have met musicians who all knew each other and played together. Almost all of the instruments were recorded in a week at Wavelab Studio in Tucson, so they work along the same sort of telepathic lines. The songs became the spark and then it was recorded in a flash, with John Convertino’s drums and Joey Burns' multi-instrumental tornado unleashed under JD’s guidance. It sounds laidback and passionate at the same time.
PB: There is a distinct Calexico feel to ‘Tucson Moonshine’ but it’s still very much your album. How did you hook up with those guys?
SH: I liked JD Foster’s folkpop/rock approach to Calexico’s ‘Garden Ruin’ album, especially the song ‘Yours and Mine’ where Joey Burns' voice is really heartfelt and upfront. I can’t explain what compelled me to make another album because there really isn’t ever a reason, but I always wanted to record with an American producer and musicians, and so contacted JD through MySpace. He knew of the Katydids which helped, and was up for it, so he asked Joey and it went from there. A wild turn of events. Joey launched himself into it with such enthusiasm and was a great help and inspiration, so when we finally all got together for the first time it was like meeting friends.
PB: You sound at home with the songs on ‘Tucson Moonshine’. On paper it feels like there should be a huge difference in the sound between the Katydids debut and 'Tucson Moonshine' but the Calexico guys have really just added a contemporary edge to the music you were making say twenty years ago. It just sounds so right. Do you feel it’s one of the strongest albums you’ve made?
SH: I had a chance to spend time singing along with the music after I came home from Tucson, then added backing vocals and other little bits to leave my touch. So it kind of ‘distilled’ for a while, so to speak. And it is full of dark love songs that really speak from the heart. Plus, the added lyrics from Joey and John Burns give it another depth, along with JD Foster’s and Craig Schumacher’s atmospheric quality. It all gels nicely.
PB: You released a string of solo albums after the Katydids folded. Where you still involved in music during the period between the Katydids disbanding and releasing your first solo album?
SH: I joined the Blue Aeroplanes for a stint, and then formed four or five groups along the way with other musicians including Dave Newton from the Mighty Lemon Drops and Donald Ross-Skinner who had worked with Julian Cope, playing guitar and learning, and singing on friend’s projects such as Fatima Mansions and Taxi Val Mentek.
I did not like gigging much though. I guess I just naturally shy away from an audience…me = stage fright.
PB: A lot of Katydids fans lost track of what you were doing after ‘Shangri-La’ and have only recently discovered you have quite a back catalogue of solo albums. Are these still available?
SH: ‘A is for Album’, ‘The Language Barrier Method EP’, ‘Huggets Vol. 1 & 2’ can be had via download on the usual sites, including iTunes & Amazon. They are all my own releases on Bow Arrow Records so it supports me directly as an artist, thank you…he he.
PB: You’ve co-written songs with quite a few different musicians. With the exception of Adam who has been there since the beginning how did those collaborations come about?
SH: With Joey Burns, I saved the last verse of ‘Modern Lie’ for him and his brother John Burns to come up with their vision of what happens next in the story. Joey then sent me words out of the blue for ‘Everybody Changes’ fleshing out what I had, so I worked on them and now the lyrics intertwine like the vocals.
The Mighty Lemon Drops and Katydids shared the same management as did the Blue Aeroplanes too so Dave Newton gave me a backing track he’d had for a while and I came up with a tune and words they liked, so they asked me to sing too.
Both Rie Fu and Michel Sanchez were introductions. We started working on music and found we had an affinity. Rie and I would sit and play guitar together and sing, but I just did lyrics for Michel and we didn’t meet until I went to his studio to check the finished vocals.
Although not a co-write, I sang vocals on an album by C.C.Sagee (Gareth Sagee-Ed).I loved Sager’s words and followed his voice on the demo melody as close as I could.Dave Hunter from Katydids was the drummer and that’s how I know Gareth. They had the backing tracks for a couple of years and ask me if I wanted to have a go and we had a match! I recommend the album…it’s called ‘Last Second of Normal Time’.
PB: Having Travis record some of your songs must have been inspiring. Has that affected the way you write songs? Do you still write with the thought that you will record each and every song yourself or do you sometimes now have thoughts when writing that a certain song might suit another artist?
SH: Yes, it is great to hear a song back from someone else’s point of view, very exciting and I’m always grateful.
I almost never think of anyone else when I write though, unless I’m actually collaborating with them, or it’s music without words, then I might be thinking of a certain visual. But I don’t think I’m very good at writing for someone else in particular…I’m not disciplined enough!
I’d hope someone might want to cover a song as it is and then adapt it, like Travis did. A romantic notion, I know.
On the flip-side of this issue, I’ve just done a duet of a song called ‘Les Bruits’ with Naim Amor, which will be coming out with ‘Out of Nowhere’ on 7” vinyl. Naim recorded the song previously with Joey Burns and I saw Naim play it acoustically solo and loved it, so this is our version.
PB: There was talk sometime back that you and Adam were putting together a Katydids album of demos to be called ‘Demo-it is’. Any news on that?
SH: We’ve just put the running order together and so it is planned for soon, via download. It has some tunes on it that were never recorded for the albums, including my all time favourite Katydids song.
PB: Where would you place ‘Tucson Moonshine’ in a list of all the albums you’ve made?
SH: Number one.
PB: What are you working on at the moment? After the positive reaction to ‘Tucson Moonshine’ do you have plans to work with the Calexico guys again?
SH: We’ve talked about getting together to do a gig sometime, so who knows? I’m only just starting to play live though. My first gig [with a band] is at the World John Peel Day in London on October 9th. Rising above my usual reticence, I’m excited about the prospect of interpreting the album with new musicians for the show. Meanwhile, I’m writing some music and a batch of new songs with some groove to them.
PB: Finally what’s your favourite song on ‘Tucson Moonshine’ and why?
SH: ‘Shed A Tear’. It was the first song we recorded, so it has a certain passion to it, and Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet is sublime.
Plus, there is a funny true story behind the lyrics that involves gambling, drinking, dancing and a memory lapse!
PB: Thank you.
'Out Of Nowhere', Susie Hug's next single, will be released on 7" vinyl in the Autumn by Vacilando '68 Recordings. It will be backed by a cover of Naïm Amor's 'Les Bruits' which will also feature Naim Amor himself.