Earlier today, I had the opportunity to talk with award-winning singer-songwriter Suzy Bogguss, who has a new album being released on September 4. Sweet Danger is a jazz-flavored project that showcases her trademark vocals in a brand new setting. As with my earlier interview with Pam Tillis, what starts off as a formal interview becomes more of a conversation about her music, in addition to some fantastic anecdotes along the way about everything from working with Chet Atkins to a special favor done by Kathy Mattea on her behalf…on the South Lawn of the White House!
Look for a review of Sweet Danger as the release date nears. You can stream the entire album at her website now.
A Conversation with Suzy Bogguss
I thought it was cool that the name of the album was Sweet Danger, because the music is very sweet and laid-back, but you go into some dangerous emotional territory on a few of the songs.
That’s exactly what I was hoping people would read into it. That’s great!
Let’s start off with the first single, “In Heaven,” which was written by your husband, Doug Crider. It was inspired by some friends of yours?
My best friend and her husband. It’s a long and hard story, but my friend had cancer and fought it for fifteen years. Her husband was really great through the whole process, absolutely amazing. They had a child in the middle of it and everything. When my friend, who was my roommate in college, passed away, Doug and I were talking about how we were really hoping some good things would happen for our friend, Gary. He had just been a champion through all of it, and he deserved some happiness in life. So that song came out Doug. He said he just sat down and it fell out. It was one of those inspired moments from something personal that happened.
Your performance of it is beautiful. A lot of the female singers today go for the power notes, and you have that clear quality to your voice which can convey the emotion without having to oversing.
You know, it wasn’t always that way. There was a point where I felt like I really was trying to compete with that just because that’s what was going on on the radio, and it really is not my gift. [Laughs] Some of the gals really have the gift of just being able to belt, and it’s not what I was given. I was given more of a clear voice. I’d be in live concerts and my voice would break, and I’d think, “Maybe I need to be concentrating on melodies that are more adapted to my voice.” In writing a lot of the songs, of course, you have a lot of control that way.
One thing that may surprise a lot of people is that you are a distinguished songwriter. The top song you have on iTunes is “Hey Cinderella,” which you wrote.
Really? I did not realize that!
You wrote that with Matraca Berg, right?
And Gary Harrison, yes.
You recently did the “Wine, Women and Song” tour over in England with her and Gretchen Peters.
That was just incredible. We’re going to have to do some here in the States because we had such a great time. Those two have written so many beautiful songs, and it was an awesome thing to be backing their vocals. It was just the three of us with the three guitars, and it was magical. U.K. audiences, they know every little detail about you and your songs. It really is a very personal experience getting over there and doing that. Of course, all of us being friends for so many years, it was pretty neat.
Were you able to test drive some of the new material while you were over there?
I did a couple over there. I did “If You Leave Me Now” and “The Bus Ride”, and the gals helping out with the guitars and the vocals, it was pretty fun.
“Bus Ride” is from the Anna Wilson album.
It might even be the first tune on her album! I just love that song. It absolutely paints a movie vignette for me. I was crazy about it the first time I heard it.
One thing I really loved on the album that you wrote is “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today.”
I’m sitting in the place that the song is all about. I have this window seat in my office and it looks out over a golf course but you can’t really see the golf course from my house, so it looks like mountains and trees. It’s like gazing out into God’s country. This is my place I hide out when I just can’t face anybody that day. It happens to me once in a while. I’m pretty much an extrovert, but every once in a while I get this kind of blue, where I just don’t feel like I can handle anything. I just won’t make any phone calls, and I won’t do wat I’m supposed to be doing, I’ll just hide out in this little corner.
I’m sitting here right now and it just started raining right when you started talking abut it, so that’s strange! It’s a very personal mood that I get in, and I don’t think I’m alone there. I think there are other people who get that overwhelming feeling where, “I can’t talk about it now. I’ll talk to you later!”
It is a universal feeling but not one that’s put into many songs.
It’s a hard thing, because sometimes when you’re sitting down to write a song and you’re feeling a particular way… I remember one time I was trying to write basically the message of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” When I got done with the song, I just looked at it and went, “Wait a minute! This has already been said in the best way it could possibly be said, which is, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word!'” So then I ended up recording that song. I just said, “I can’t say it any better than that!”
The line that made be do the double-take was “All the things I’ve left undone. A thousand things or maybe just one.” I had to rewind it because I thought, “I couldn’t have just heard that. It’s too good.”
Don’t you ever get that feeling? Sometimes I just think I’m so overwhelmed, there’s all these things I’ve got to get done, but it’s really just one thing and I don’t want to face it.
The other song on the album that delves into just really unique ways of saying things is “Even if That Were True.”
Yeah, that’s another one that’s very personal. It stems from a couple of things that were going on in Doug’s and my life at the time, two different friends’ relationships. That feeling that it would be so easy to stretch this out just a little bit longer, but maybe this has to be the moment. I’m trying not to end this thing but maybe…maybe not now. [Laughs]
I was surprised to see that Doug didn’t write “No Good Way to Go”, since he wrote the spoken-word song “Bettin’ Money on Love” on the latest Pam Tillis record.
Yes, but he wrote it with Verlon Thompson [who wrote “No Good Way to Go”‘ so you’re more astute than you thought! I love that song that Pam cut, and there’s nobody who could’ve done it better than her!
What are the challenges when you go in to record a spoken-word song? You don’t have the melody to emote from, so you almost have to do a theatrical thing, right?
I had demoed that with just my guitar player and piano player. I just thought it was such an interesting thing. I don’t know if Verlon thought of it this way when he was doing it because his version is very bluegrassy, but to me it was how sometimes you can’t shut your own mind up. Your mind is saying, “Oh, I can do this, I can do that.” And you’re going, “No! I just decided how I was going to do it!” But your mind isn’t processing and so it keeps coming up with new ideas, and you’re like, “I just told you, I don’t want to do it that way!” But your mind won’t shut up!
And then you get the clarity in the chorus.
I played it that way by whispering the verses, then trying to have the melody [in the chorus] be the strong person. And the bridge line, Doug actually wrote that. He felt like we needed more lyrics to pull the whole thing together. I sang it one time and it was done. The band in the session gave me that sexy voice, because I’ve never heard me sound like that. Ever!
This is a very different sound for you, and you worked with a lot of different people. What brought you to New York to record this record?
The co-producer, Jason Miles, and I have been friends for about twelve years. We met each other when I was doing a song on a children’s album for him – it was all Elvis songs. He had a really wide range of artists on it – Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin, Brian Setzer. All different kind of people from all different kind of genres.
And I love Jason, he reminds me of Woody Allen. Very New York, a completely different kind of guy than I usually work with in the studio. And he felt the same way about me. I’m mid-western, sort of goody two-shoes and green in some ways. We just hit it off really well, like “Wow! You’re different than my other friends!”
He’d always come out whenever I’d play in New York City, and he came out for a show I did while promoting my Swing album. We had dinner after and he asked me what I was going to do next, and I said, “Well, what are you doing?” We decided why not?
That’s part of the glory of being at this juncture in my career. Sometimes just having fun and creating something with a friend, you come up with something that doesn’t have a lot of parameters. We didn’t have anything coming down on us, there was nothing that was a downer. We were just really honest and did what came naturally while collaborating.
You’re going to be playing Joe’s Club in New York next month, and that’s a very intimate place.
It’s been on my radar for some time to play there. I don’t bring a drum set on this tour, which is kinda cool. My drummer’s playing a cajon. Do you know what that is?
I don’t know what that is!
It’s a piece of wood that is hollowed out. It’s a box and it’s got a hole in it, and you sit on it and you beat it. You beat with your hand and put your brushes against it, but you’re sitting on it, so you’re playing underneath yourself. Then he plays percussion and cymbals on the side of that, so it’s a much more acoustic feel. Even though he plays swing and all different types of music on it, it’s just not as loud as a drum set is. I’ve been having a blast with that because I don’t have to sing too hard. I’m going for these notes and I can hear exactly where I need to go. It’s been great.
Is this the most extensive tour you’ve done in a while?
Totally. It really is. I’ll be out because I’m actually doing a lot of television along with these dates, and it’s got me a little nervous. I told Doug the other day, “Oh my God! I’m gonna have to wash my hair every day!” I haven’t had to do that for a long time!
You won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2005 for your contribution to the Stephen Foster tribute, “Ah, May the Red Rose Live Always.” What led you to pick that song?
I grew up with such a crazy mix of everything around me. My first solo was in the church choir, and then I was involved in school musicals and contests. I’ve always had a real love for that classical style music. With this project, there were about eighty songs to choose from. As I started looking through them, I thought, “Here’s a chance to do a song that’s a little different from his catalog of hits,” if you want to call them hits. I romanticized about the period, like it was the kind of song that someone would sing in a parlor in the afternoon after lunch. And that’s how I went about producing the track with the band. I just wanted it to seem like the late 1800’s, just people sitting around having a concert, singing a song someone had written that they had the sheet music for.
You’ve launched your own label, Loyal Duchess.
That’s been the name of one of my publishing companies for sixteen, seventeen years. Loyal Duchess is named after a dog that traveled with me on the road for twelve years. She was an amazing animal, very loyal. She would’ve done anything for me. So when we got ready to have a record label, I thought it was only appropriate that we stick with a name that we’d already been working with.
We have several other publishing companies, and they’re all named after our animals! It’s very easy because you know which time period by which animal you’re naming after! We have another publishing company called Lil’ Isabelle, which is named after a dog which passed way a couple of years ago. And now we have one named Zoe Mahoney, which is our current dog. [Laughs] Doug’s publishing company’s named after a cat. It does make it easier to remember when a song was written!
You’re doing a jazzy thing right now. Are there any other sounds you’re planning on exploring on this label, or have you not really decided that yet?
I haven’t really been thinking about it that way. The jazziness sort of slid in there, it wasn’t like that’s what I was going after. It was mostly just feeling like we don’t have any reason not to, unless it just doesn’t sound good. We just went with it. I have all sorts of crazy things that I love.
If you know Pam [Tillis], then you know who I am, too. She’s just like me. We’re singers, we love to sing. We don’t like to be held in a little cage that says, “You have to be like this.” Creatively, that’s just not good for either one of us. We’d probably just pull our hair out!
It’s hard for me to know where I’ll go next because right now I’m concentrating on making sure that our live shows are gonna be great. I’m making sure I give this [album] its due. It’s like the child that I need to make sure I grow it up to a certain point, then it can have its own life. This is the point where I need to nurture it.
So I don’t know. This morning I just started writing a cowboy song, so who knows? [Laughs]
That’s what you started with, and it’s funny because in college I had a friend who had a copy of Voices in the Wind. And we both started singing on cue, “The Other Side of the Hill.” That song was the one we’d both played to death a few years back. That old rodeo song that was so catchy.
That was around for a hundred years! I had spent five years in a camper out there in the west. “Someday Soon” was something where I had to fight the label for them to let me record the song.
And that ended up your breakthrough.
They just thought I was going to draw all these comparisons, but it’s just a timeless song. You’re never going to sing that and it not be the truth.
I actually discovered a lot of songwriters through your album, like Cheryl Wheeler, who wrote “Aces.” And you were able to put that on the same album as “Someday Soon.”
That actually was a big breakthrough for me, too. That’s how I started out, wandering around. I’d play New York in Greenwich Village, and I made friends with Shawn Colvin. I played up in Cambridge and made friends with Suzanne Vega. I made friends with Nanci Griffith and all these other singer-songwriters, and we’d wander around the country. We’d support each other, because we knew we were doing this thing.
The wonderful thing about the internet is that we can now share so much. You’re a person who actually goes after that stuff, and I’m that way, too. If you see a song on CD, you’d go look out for this other person [who wrote it], and now it’s so easy to do that. It used to be I’d have to go to a record store and sift through the whole bin of out-take records, and things that cost 88 cents, until I could find records by people. And it was a great hobby, it was a great education. And it’s really cool that you can do it so instantly now. It’s amazing how much faster you can get to what you want.
It came along at the right time too, because it was getting hard with all the music stores closing. You can’t find this stuff anymore, you have to get it on the internet.
It was hard to reach out, it just got so tiny. Even our CD packages are so tiny that half the time you can’t even read who wrote the song. But now that we have this other outlet, it makes the music bigger. There’s lots of people out there making beautiful music, and we need to find out about it.
Chet Atkins was a good friend of mine, and I tell people, he never, ever stopped learning. We’d play together, and after the gig he’d go up to the guitar player, and instead of telling them, “Yeah, one of these days you’re gonna be good,” he would say, “Hey? Would you teach me that lick that you played in that song?” Can you imagine what a different reaction you get when you approach somebody that way, instead of making them feel like, “Hey, one of these days, you’ll be as good as me.”
On the Simpatico album you did with Chet, you guys did “Forget About It”, which Alison Krauss later covered, and the Dixie Chicks did “Cold Day in July”, which you recorded a few years earlier. It’s interesting that not only did you have some hits with songs like that, but other artists are still discovering songs through what you’ve recorded.
Well, I don’t know if they learned it through me or not. Alison Krauss knows R. L. Kass really well, and her ex-husband Pat plays in my band, and when she did that song, she was married to Pat at that point. So there’s a long string of things, I would never take credit for anything like that.
I do know that there are lots of things that have come to me where they feel like they just appeared to me, like “Other Side of the Hill”, where I wonder where I heard it first. “Let’s see, was it Chris LeDoux? Nitty Gritty Dirt Band?” That stuff just kind of travels around.But it really is just a beautiful, networking thing. It’s fun just to float in the middle of it and find out stuff.
Pam and I had such a great time over in Denmark together a couple of years ago, and we were both trying to figure out what we were going to do with our new albums. We both had a few songs, and were trying to figure out what direction we’d go in. Either one of us – she could’ve done my album and I could’ve done her album, easily! Not the same songs, but the same feel. We’re kindred spirits.
That would make a fantastic tour, if you ever got the nineties women together, as I call you guys.
Wouldn’t that be great? I’d do it in a heartbeat!
Get Kathy Mattea on there…
It would be awesome!
So what else should we be listening to, what should readers go on the internet and download after Sweet Danger.
If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Cook yet, I love Elizabeth Cook. She’s been opening some shows for us and she is just a delight, a real talent. She’s the real deal – love, love, love what she does. She’s a real breath of fresh air.
Let’s see. What else…I’ve just been listening to all sorts of wild stuff lately. Crowded House has a new album out, and God, I hadn’t heard them in eons. That’s one of my new downloaded things. I’ve been listening to all kinds of new music lately.
They do “Silent House” on that album, which was on the Dixie Chicks album last year. The guy from Crowded House wrote that with them, I think. There are really all these weird connections out there.
That’s the beauty of it. That’s how I end up with this record that has undertones of jazz and these unusual rhythms and things. You meet these people and you don’t want to waste this energy, this collaboration by not opening yourself to something new.
Everybody’s different. I know there are people who I absolutely adore, and their new record, other than the newer, shinier production, could be something that they wrote fifteen years ago. But I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to be complacent. I have to always be getting something a little bit new. Maybe I’m ADD! I just got it really early and it wasn’t diagnosable yet! [Laughs]
I think great artists are always seeking out what’s new, and then you draw on it yourself.
And then you also get to the point in your life where you’re drawing on your own experiences. When I was doing Aces and those early albums, I was coming off of five years in a camper truck, and I was free and easy. I was running around and singing in taverns, making deals where I was paid a little bit of money, but it was mostly food and lodging, going from one city to another.
And I’m a mom now, and I’m on the board of the Food Bank here in town. I’m a neighbor, I take care of the neighbor’s dog. I’m a mommy at the school, there’s a lot of things that are different for me now. Some of the intimacy of this record come from these life stories that are happening in my life right now. I’ll be really interested to see what I’m doing when I’m 80, you know? [Laughs]
There’s very few people who can say, though, that they’re on the board at the Food Bank and they got to play for President Clinton!
What was that like performing for them, back in 1995. I can only imagine!
Well, my son was only eight weeks old, so I was pretty spaced out. It was Alison and Kathy Mattea and I, and Chet. I think it was billed as a country music women’s night, and Chet was our host. And it was awesome! But they sat in the front row, and it was very intimidating!
Of course I had a brand new baby, so I was a little distracted. It was the first time I’d performed since I’d had him, and I always make jokes because Kathy actually changed his diaper out on the front lawn. [Laughs] So that was always kind of a big joke.