20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
Published February 26, 2021
In part 23 of our series,
Susan Anders—singer-songwriter, vocal coach, and rollerblader—
joins us in a delightful Q&A.
Susan’s fourth solo album, 13 Women, comes out March 5. This lovely compilation consists of thirteen songs each inspired by a different woman from throughout our country’s history, among them an astronomer, a sculptor, an architect, a pioneering school teacher, and the first known female tattoo artist in America. Many of them had to overcome trials and tribulations to do the work they were called to do. Susan shares the hope and lessons from their lives and stories in her beautiful, harmonic voice.
Join us as Susan talks about her new album, growing up in Berkeley, teaching globally, creating, rollerblading, and more!
Photos by Nora Canfield Photography | Courtesy of Susan Anders
20:20 with Susan Anders
NWM 1): Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Susan: I’m a singer-songwriter originally from Berkeley, now in Nashville, Tennessee.
NWM 2): What is a favorite of your songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Susan: ‘Just Give Me Everything’ is one of my favorites. I remember watching The Miracle Worker as a child and being so moved when Helen Keller (played by Patty Duke) had her breakthrough. That moment stayed with me for many years and poured out when I wrote the song. It’s one of the few songs I’ve written that I don’t want to go back and fiddle with.
NWM 3): Name three things that make you smile.
Susan: 1) The birds in the backyard that I watch at breakfast. The cardinals bounce along the grass like cartoon characters.
2) Talking to my father. He’s 93 and I’m just plain grateful that he’s still around. He’s in assisted living in Berkeley, so we talk on the phone several times a week about books, politics, and movies.
3) To keep our spirits up during the pandemic, my husband and I dance to one song a day. I’m the deejay, and the song is often by Tower of Power or Sly Stone. My husband has upped his dance game considerably during this time, and he often throws in a slightly whacky new move that cracks me up.
[‘Just Give Me Everything’ is] one of the few songs I’ve written that I don’t want to go back and fiddle with.
NWM 4): We are fascinated by your new album 13 Women, your fourth solo release, which comes out March 5. We love the idea that each song was inspired by a different courageous woman from throughout history.
Please tell us about the overall conception and creation of this stunning ‘eclectic folk-pop-Americana gem.’
Susan: I needed to lose myself in a project during the Trump presidency so I’d stay sane. During a writing session, a song about a civil war soldier popped out. I’d written about historical figures before—one of my favorite songs from my LA band Susan’s Room was called ‘Custer.’
I liked the idea of digging into history for material for a group of songs. The irony is that I dropped my high school history class because I thought the teacher was a sexist jerk.
After I wrote ‘Spell’ and ‘Just Give Me Everything,’ I realized that I wanted all the songs to be about women, so I tore up the civil war soldier song and used the music for ‘Witness’ instead.
Word got around about the project, and I was flooded with suggestions for interesting women to include. I can’t decipher why these particular thirteen women resonated with me, but they did, so I read up on each of them and let them inspire me.
Musically, going in I just knew that I wanted lots of female voices in the production, percussion instead of a drum kit, and much more acoustic guitar than electric. My husband Tom Manche and I built the production from there.
NWM 5): Which of the remarkable subjects from 13 Women most resonates with you and why?
Susan: Lucy Goldthorpe is the least well known of the women and the one I feel closest to. She was a young Iowa schoolteacher who headed west in 1906 to homestead alone in a shack in North Dakota. Parcels were being sold for $10, and it was one of the only ways a woman back then could own property.
I found quotes from Lucy online when I was researching pioneer women, and she sounded like one of my smart girlfriends: personable, down-to-earth, and fun. I identified with her combination of hopefulness and practicality as she was preparing to move. The romantic in me also loved that after her first brutal winter in North Dakota she and her neighbor one parcel over went to a book reading many miles away, and they fell in love.
NWM 6): You ‘grew up in Berkeley, California, amidst peace marches, hippies, and the budding feminist movement.’
Tell us what this was like for you and how it helped shape you as a person and musician.
Susan: Growing up in Berkeley you can’t help but be politicized at an early age. I cut class in seventh grade to go to a peace march. I was too young in the sixties to be aware of what was happening two miles away on the UC Berkeley campus, which is just as well: I’ve read that the radicals of the sixties were often men who wanted their women to make sandwiches while they planned the next protest.
Luckily I’ve been able to work with a lot of great musicians, male and female, who don’t mind that I’m a pushy broad.
Luckily by the time I was paying attention, the feminist movement was emerging and powerful women were everywhere I turned. Also, I was encouraged to be forthright and strong from an early age—and luckily I’ve been able to work with a lot of great musicians, male and female, who don’t mind that I’m a pushy broad.
As for the hippie part: the music of the 60s and 70s when I was growing up was magnificently varied, experimental, and multicultural. That definitely influenced me in multiple ways.
NWM 7): What was your first concert as a fan?
Susan: James Taylor and Carole King at the Oakland Coliseum in the 70s. There were thousands of noisy fans and both of them still got to me.
NWM 8): Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Susan: D’Angelo, tUnE-yArDs, Kimbra, Nine Inch Nails, and lots of Prince.
NWM 9): You have had a delightfully varied career in music: singing in a cappella, rock, jazz, and Motown bands, releasing five albums of eclectic acoustic pop, moving to Nashville in 2002, after which you released three more albums.
Are you still active in all of these genres and disciplines, and if so how do you balance them? If not, have all of these phases been gratifying or part of a restless search?
Susan: Good question—I’ve often wished for career reasons that I’d picked one style and stuck with it. But I think all the genres are a result of the varied music I heard and loved growing up. The biggest concentration of differing styles happened during my twenties when I was often in two or three bands at once. That was fun, but exhausting. From my thirties onward everything I’ve done musically falls into the pop-folk singer-songwriter realm. It’s a very forgiving genre that can include elements of jazz, folk, country, and rock.
NWM 10): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Susan: I wish I could have seen The Beatles when they were playing in Hamburg, before they got famous. I suspect the magic was already there.
[Pop-folk is a] very forgiving genre that can include elements of jazz, folk, country, and rock.
NWM 11): The New Yorker has described you as having a ‘soulful, commanding voice,’ and you are a vocal coach to singers worldwide. You even have your own app for your instructional methods.
Tell us what it means to you to not only be able to teach, but to do so on a global scale.
Susan: In the last couple of years alone I’ve taught singers in South Korea, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and Kuwait. Being able to work with someone on the other side of the world still blows my mind a bit. It’s probably a cliche, but it really is gratifying to connect with someone from another country and culture and realize that we have the same desires and insecurities. The best part is when I can make them laugh even though English isn’t their first language.
NWM 12): What has been a particularly memorable or rewarding experience of your career so far?
Susan: I did an album release show in Nashville for my last album Loop de Loop that was really fun: I had a bunch of singer friends sprinkled throughout the audience, and at the end of the final song, the instruments dropped out, the singers on stage stepped away from their mics and kept singing, and the pre-rehearsed audience singers stood up and joined in. We sang some weaving 4-part harmonies to end the set and it was quite a moment.
NWM 13): Your songs have been covered by many indie artists. Who does a favorite cover, which song, and why?
Susan: A Bay Area a cappella group called The Irrationals recorded a version of my song ‘Trouble Now’ that I love. They are such soulful singers, their ad libs were funny, and it tickled me to hear the song done a cappella.
NWM 14): What message, if any, is integral to your work?
Susan: Before 13 Women I’d say Socrates’ ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ was my overriding theme. But with the exception of the accused witch Sarah Wildes, the women of 13 Women found their purpose in life and were guided by that. So I suppose the message is ‘Find what you love to do and do it.’ The meta thing here is that in writing and recording 13 Women, I was doing work I loved about a bunch of women who were doing work they loved.
‘Find what you love to do and do it.’
NWM 15): What song/album could you play on repeat?
Susan: I can’t list just one: Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Ry Cooder’s Paradise and Lunch, for starters.
NWM 16): How do you keep yourself centered or able to cope with stress during these trying times?
Susan: My sanity break is to go rollerblading on the greenway not far from my house. I see deer, cows, herons, and big sky, all while music pumps through my headphones. I’m masked and padded to the hilt, and I glued a big ridiculous brim to my helmet. So I look like a crazy Berkeley bag lady, but I’m happy.
NWM 17): Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to ‘normal?’
Susan: I really miss singing with other singers besides my husband. I’d like to gather a bunch of singer friends and make a big beautiful noise.
NWM 18): What is something that has surprised you in your life or career? Tell us a bit about it.
Susan: I was living in Berkeley and expected to stay there forever. Steven Lowy, an attorney who was shopping me to labels in Los Angeles, suggested that I move to LA. At that time many people in the Bay Area including me viewed LA as a soulless hellhole. But I had one of those lightning bolts you hear about, I dropped everything and moved. And I loved it there! Plus, several months after moving, I met my husband which definitely changed my life for the better.
I’d like to gather a bunch of singer friends and make a big beautiful noise.
NWM 19): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Susan: I have a deep love of absurdity. One time I dressed up in a bear suit and walked down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to go visit a friend at work. This still surprises me because I’m an introvert.
NWM 20): What’s next for Susan Anders?
Susan: I don’t know, honestly. It’s hard to make firm plans now when no one really knows when everything will open back up. So I’m practicing and doing a fair amount of Marie Kondo-ing at home. I figure that way I’ll be ready for my next step when it appears.
Just Give Me Everything
Susan Anders grew up in Berkeley, California, amidst peace marches, hippies, and the budding feminist movement. She studied music and performance at U.C. Santa Cruz and S.F. State, and sang in a cappella, rock, jazz, and Motown bands that played throughout northern California. Susan met Tom Manche after moving to Los Angeles in 1990. They formed Susan’s Room, married, and released five albums of eclectic acoustic pop throughout the 90s. After moving to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2002, Anders recorded three solo albums: Release (2005), Swimmer (2010), and Loop De Loop (2016). Her songs have been recorded by many independent country, soul, and Americana artists.
Susan is also a well-respected vocal coach who has worked with thousands of singers, including Hillary Scott of Lady A, Dierks Bentley, L7, Joey Heatherton, and Rose McGowan. Her instructional methods and app Sing Harmonies are used by singers worldwide.
Susan Anders’ 13 Women is essential music for thinking listeners, highlighted by what The New Yorker called Susan’s “soulful, commanding voice.” The inventive arrangements, exquisite vocal harmonies, and use of hand percussion instead of a drum kit all combine to make 13 Women an eclectic folk-pop-Americana gem.
To learn more and buy stuff visit https://www.susanandersmusic.com/
You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with Kivi Neimi
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