15 Minutes with Susanna Hoffs

Lead singer of The Bangles talks to LAMag about her debut novel “This Bird Has Flown,” the legacy of the band, and the dark underbelly of L.A.

Susanna Hoffs is best known for her hugely successful music career as the co-founder and lead singer of 80s band, The Bangles. Now, the artist turns author as she releases her debut novel This Bird Has Flown.

The novel follows down-on-her-luck musician Jane Start, who is sent to London for a second chance at stardom. On the flight to England, she sits next to an Oxford professor who may not be who he seems.

LA Mag: Your book is set in England, did this romantic idea of the country come from your love of British music growing up?

Susanna Hoffs: Yeah, a big part of it! All throughout my life, there have been incredible bands and music coming out of Great Britain. It’s weird when I think back on what informed the journey of the book but some things were deep in my gray matter and I didn’t even know why I was writing. It was such an interesting flow state writing the novel when I crafted this story and the characters started to bloom to life and feel like real people, almost. But music would really stimulate a lot of the writing and inform the writing. I’d get so many ideas, I’d be listening to a song and I’d have to stop the song in the middle and it would be like a trigger for me to go through a portal into the imaginary universe of the book and that’s why I found myself naming chapters of the book after songs.

Was it always the plan to center the book around a musician or did that creep into your subconscious naturally?

I started writing the book late in life. It was a dream to write a novel and I love disappearing into fiction. I’ve always got my head in a book, a song, or a movie, and I try to fill my day with those things, mostly because it’s a coping mechanism. I like to be out of my own worries and ruminations and just be lost in somebody else’s artwork. But once I started to write the book, and I had a basic idea of the themes and somewhat of the story, listening to music in the mornings would always get my characters talking and I could see where they were, what their expressions were, everything. It became routine to walk in the morning and listen to music and ideas would spring to life. I would then sit down in earnest and be like “I’ve set aside four hours, I’m shutting the door, not talking to anyone, my phone is off and I’m just going to go through this portal into this other universe and write it,” and I saw it like a movie unfolding in my head… I really stumbled my way through.

It’s interesting that music inspired you when writing. There are songs like “She’s Leaving Home” by The Beatles that have that narrative and imagery. It’s like a movie playing out in your head.

It’s so interesting because to me songs are like safe drugs. They’re like drugs because you can be in the worst mood or totally freaked out about something, worrying or angsting. I have playlists and playlists and I can listen to songs for consolation, I can listen to songs if I need courage, and there’s songs that I just love to sing along to.

For me, I did the book mostly for myself. For a very long period of time, I wouldn’t let anybody read it but then I let people pry a page or two here or there. When I started writing the book, my kids were still in school. They’re now 20-somethings who have launched in the world, but their friends used to come over and I’d say: “Hey, do you want to hear what I just wrote?” I would do it as an exercise just to see if I could get a laugh or a response and to know that it was real and that I wasn’t just a crazy woman locked away in a corner of a room for years on end. I was starting to worry that my kids would think “What’s happened to Mom? She’s lost her mind.”

How did you find the adjustment between songwriting, which for you was a collaborative process, to writing a novel alone?

I loved it! I was in my 50s when I started the book and I hit a point where it was a bit of a “if not now, when?” attitude. The idea to initially do it was just to dive in but then as I continued to do it, it was like: “this is so freeing and weirdly pleasurable.” My husband is a director and he writes, but writing for him is kind of like a chore. This didn’t ever really feel like that. It really felt like play but maybe because I was writing about the first few months of a hot romance. I can see why Romance writers get addicted to it because it’s pleasurable to write about that. It was harder to write in some ways about the music business.

In the book your protagonist is a musician that had a hit single 10 years ago but hasn’t had a breakout since. When you were starting out in The Bangles, was there a similar fear after your first big hit that that would be it?

Yeah, in The Bangles days there was always that [feeling]. We were such a scrappy indie-paisley underground band, we were never really a polished act in some senses. But somehow miraculously we got this incredible gift from Prince. He didn’t even credit himself on “Manic Monday”, but he was a fan of a song called “Hero Takes a Fall” that I had written with Vicki Peterson. That went to college radio stations and it was not a hit exactly on the Billboard charts, but it introduced the world to The Bangles. It was Prince falling in love with that song that led to him gifting us “Manic Monday.”

I remember driving to the studio where I was meant to pick up the cassette and then I drove back to the studio where the Bangles were. I took it to the studio and we sat around a cassette player listening to it. I’ll never forget singing it for the first time, it just fit like a glove. You don’t know when you sing a song if it’s going to work. I knew it was a great song and I was so honored to do it but I wanted to ace it because—what a gift right? It was fantastic singing and I still love to sing it after all those years playing it. It didn’t ever seem to get old for me. Even though I’m old, the song doesn’t get old [laughs].

When you look at the band’s legacy and even relevancy today does it still feel surreal?

Yeah! There’s a lot of interest now in the 80s and also a kind of resurgence of interest in The Bangles. There’s a biographer writing about us, and The Bangles are planning to do a documentary featuring the 80s. I love the idea of documentaries that have a strong sense of context because in the 80s we were obsessed with the 60s as children growing up hearing The Beatles. The 60s and 70s informed an idea of what we wanted to look, sound, and feel like in the 80s.

There were a lot of musical styles going on, but it was a very vibrant and eclectic time period. I think the music of the 80s is great, and for The Bangles, we were just trying to drag the 60s kicking and screaming to the 80s but the truth is, the 80s was such a nice mix of 60s, 70s—and I don’t quite know how to describe it! It was kind of DIY because a lot of the bands were formed as friends playing in garages. It wasn’t that American Idol, record label executives making a band out of attractive people with good voices. It was DIY and I’ve always been attracted to DIY scenes.

You’ll be releasing a covers album in April, covering big names like Billie Eilish and The Rolling Stones. Do you feel pressure when covering these artists or does it feel natural?

It feels natural to sing songs that I love because that’s how I live my life. I’m always singing along to something so I might as well just record it! It really comes down to just finding the right key sometimes but apart from that I know pretty quickly when I’m trying on a song, like trying on a shoe or trying on a dress and if it’s too tight at the waist, I can’t breathe. I always know if a song’s going to fit. Also, if I can do it justice, I don’t want to take someone’s perfect thing and not do it justice, but if I can add a slightly different spin… So that was the craft involved trying to figure out how we can make these different and special, but honor how much we love these songs!

Does growing up in L.A. give you an innate confidence to try all these different creative outlooks like music, movies and now writing? 

I do think it’s hard to separate L.A. from Hollywood. I’ve always thought of L.A. as this place with a very sunny veneer but there’s a dark underbelly. There is a noir aspect that is very much the story of L.A. Hollywood chose to call it home and the idea of manifest destiny, go West and find your fame and fortune in L.A. There are lots of tragic tales and darkness in this very sunny place and I like those contrasts.

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