Q&A with Susannah Blinkoff (aka Susannah B) - refreshing yet nostalgic time capsule of musical brilliance.

"I know that many things in our society have improved over the last 100 years for women, as they have for people of color and the LBGT community. I also know that not nearly enough has changed. I am stunned and heartbroken by the way-too-many examples of how women, as well as black/Jewish/Asian/LGBT/Native American/disabled/immigrant people… are preyed upon and abused every day."

Susannah B: Girl Gone Wilder!

Broadway baby Susannah Blinkoff (aka Susannah B) grew up in Manhattan in a cradle of creativity. Her childhood was filled with music and theater. Her dad Richard Blinkoff was a fashion photographer and her mother, Carol Hall, a composer/lyricist who recorded two albums for Elektra Records in the 70's, toured with Kris Kristofferson and Don McLean, wrote the children's classic "Free to Be You and Me," and the score of the hit Broadway show, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Susannah kept acting and singing through college and in 1999, she co-wrote the film Bellyfruit, collaborating with Stephen Bray (The Color Purple) on the opening title song. Her debut album, Vintage Susannah B was self-released, followed by Camp Susannah's Happy Today, which was heard in films and on MTV. Let's Pretend, her 2008 release, garnered placements on multiple Billboard charts. Her most recent release, Far More (2017) is a unique blend of spirituality and chill electronic beats.                                                          Photo: Susannah B

Susannah B's new record, Girl Gone Wilder! is a tribute to legendary composer, Alec Wilder, whose career spanned 4 decades, starting in the 1940's. Susannah explains, "I'd never heard of him until my neighbor, Doug, a well-known musician in Los Angeles was putting together a house concert that featured the songs and unique orchestral music of Alec Wilder. I signed up to be the ‘chanteuse' of the group, and came to feel a kinship with his romantic, witty songs and their lush, lyrical melodies. Alec Wilder is deeply admired by many jazz musicians, but largely unknown to the public. As we performed the music for friends and others, I realized how deep Wilder's songbook is and decided to make a record to showcase his talent to today's music fans. Girl Gone Wilder! will be released this June. The debut single, "Crazy In The Heart" is out now. The album was arranged by and co-produced with Susannah's long-time collaborator, John Ballinger (Dancing with the Stars, Rufus Wainwright). Her band also features Michael Farrell on keyboards, Sal Lozano on saxophone/flute/clarinet, David Sutton on bass, Scott Breadman on percussion and Ray McNamara on drums and hang drum. All songs were recorded at the legendary Sage & Sound Studio in Hollywood, CA in February 2019.

Interview by Michael Limnios        Special Thanks: Carina Sayles (Sayles & Winnikoff)

How has Jazz (and music in general) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Music has always been completely intertwined with my life, it’s impossible to separate my experience from it. I come from a musical family — my dad still sings in an a capella jazz group, and my mom was a successful singer-songwriter. My mom’s parents met because of music! I discovered on ancestry.com that my great-great-grandfather was listed in the census as being a professional “song seller”, which I think means that he went from town to town selling sheet music at the turn of the century. Then his son opened Hall’s Music Store in Abilene, Texas and his son (my grandpa) worked there. When my grandmother was barely 18, she’d go in there to buy classical music for both piano and violin, which she played very well. Next thing you know, they eloped, my mom was born, then she started playing with professional symphonies when she was just 12 years old…so it’s definitely a huge part of my heritage. I feel like music is in my blood.

My mother Carol Hall, who passed away almost two years ago, was a very talented songwriter — a person who knew early on that she wanted to write for Broadway, and who came from Texas to New York City to follow her dreams (and succeed at many of them!). She had all different kinds of success as both a performer and as a songwriter, and watching her pursue her career and work on her craft throughout my entire life shaped me in many profound ways. It was also sometimes like she was a very hard act to follow, so for about a decade after college, I avoided music completely and focused on being an actress because I never thought I could be even half as good at music as my mom was. But then one day, I started waking up with melodies in my head and songs just started pouring out of me. And I learned how to write songs very intuitively, because I had no formal music training. So singing and writing my own songs has been a road to discovering my own voice, to figuring out who I am as an artist separate from my mother’s amazing legacy. And coming to the realization that there’s room for all of us — making music is an amazing way to find out who you are and what you want to say. Making music has been my focus for the last 25 years, it’s the language I use to express myself creatively, and where I keep growing as a performer. I’ve self-released 3 EPs and 3 full-length albums, which is something I’m really proud of. Music has saved me, soothed me, and keeps me inspired. It’s a huge part of who I am.

"Music-wise, I really miss going out dancing! I’m in my 50’s and none of my friends go out to dance on the weekends like we used to in our 20’s. And post-Covid (whenever that will be), going to clubs and concerts will one of the last things to return, I think…which is heartbreaking because I love going out to hear live music, and I love playing live with my band." (Photo: Susannah B)

How do you describe your music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

As I said, my childhood experience of music was so rich and varied, I had “backstage access” to Broadway auditions and rehearsals and recording sessions — recording studios are still some of my favorite places because I can remember taking naps on leather couches in studios when I was a kid, when my mom was recording an album or doing a jingle for a commercial. Having a mother who was a performer was so unusual — she would sit at the piano and sing her own songs. To me, it was like she had magical powers and she was casting a spell on the people listening. I used to tease her, calling her a musical witch. I also saw the pain of the artistic life, the rejection, the years of work that could end in one night because of a bad review, and the brutal toll it takes on one’s ego. But I recognize how powerful music can be. After my mom passed away, at her memorial, it was truly amazing to hear all these songs of hers and get such a clear sense of her personality, of what made her laugh and what she cared most about. Being a writer allows for a certain type of immortality, as the work lives on after the creator is gone. I’m very touched by that. And I guess that inspires me to keep creating too.

I am also very motivated by the idea that singing can make us feel better, that it can create wellness. It also can create a sense of community. I spent over two years teaching songs to men at a halfway house  in South Central L.A. who were transitioning back to society after being incarcerated for — in some cases — decades behind bars. I saw up close how just one hour of singing, even without any musical accompaniment, could completely change someone’s mood. These guys were ex-cons — tough, very hardened, very suspicious of me — and over and over, they would go so quickly from anger to joy, from  being resistant to being willing. It was really incredible. Because of that experience, I was inspired to make an album called “Far More” that is much more openly “spiritual” than any others I’d done before. It was my intention that people would be able to sing along with it, relax to the “chill electronica” groove. The songs I wrote and chose to record are ones I wanted people to be calmed and cheered up by, songs that would put you in a good mood on the way to work. Especially at a time when our country is so divided, I want music to bring good feelings to all.

"Music has always been completely intertwined with my life, it’s impossible to separate my experience from it. I come from a musical family — my dad still sings in an a capella jazz group, and my mom was a successful singer-songwriter. My mom’s parents met because of music!" (Photo: Susannah B)

Why do you think that Alec Wilder's music continues to generate such a devoted following?

The musicians who first introduced me to Wilder’s music all played instruments that don’t usually get the solos in an orchestra — like, my neighbor, the professional tuba player and his friend, the bassoonist. Alec Wilder took pride composing for these “unpopular” instruments, which was a bit weird and almost avant-garde at the time because of the unique combinations he put together — flute and conga, tuba and piano, a quartet of saxophones. Many jazz musicians and fans appreciate Wilder for his unusual hybrid of jazz and classical music. He is also admired for his songs, which have these really beautiful melodies, but also often use strange, unexpected chords to give them a haunting quality. He was a wonderful songwriter and I think his work stands the test of time.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I think music is a deep form of communication. It can bring people of all different backgrounds together. I really believe the right song could ignite a political movement, just like “We Shall Overcome” did for the civil rights movement. I hope that in the near future, music and politics will become more intertwined, with more musicians embracing their power as cultural leaders and using their voices to help promote global healing and positive social change. I would love to hear hundreds of thousands of people singing an anthem together about equal rights or saving the planet. Music can help change the world for the better.

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I know that many things in our society have improved over the last 100 years for women, as they have for people of color and the LBGT community. I also know that not nearly enough has changed. I am stunned and heartbroken by the way-too-many examples of how women, as well as black/Jewish/Asian/LGBT/Native American/disabled/immigrant people… are preyed upon and abused every day. The pay inequality that exists in this country is shameful. It’s just a very upsetting time right now. But I am working hard to take action, to support as many charities and nonprofits as I can. To be politically active and keep moving forward, trying to help the world become a better place. We just have to take care of one another, otherwise, we’re all going to go down with the ship.

"I think music is a deep form of communication. It can bring people of all different backgrounds together. I really believe the right song could ignite a political movement, just like “We Shall Overcome” did for the civil rights movement. I hope that in the near future, music and politics will become more intertwined, with more musicians embracing their power as cultural leaders and using their voices to help promote global healing and positive social change." (Photo: Susannah B & her band)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Music-wise, I really miss going out dancing! I’m in my 50’s and none of my friends go out to dance on the weekends like we used to in our 20’s. And post-Covid (whenever that will be), going to clubs and concerts will one of the last things to return, I think…which is heartbreaking because I love going out to hear live music, and I love playing live with my band.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

For so long, I’ve been writing my own unique brand of pop-rock, which was always a little bit hard to categorize, a little jazzy, a little groovy, sometimes a bit electronic. And I’ve always been obsessed with hooks. I love the pop-song hook that you sing along to after hearing it just once. I absolutely love the radio and I surf Spotify all the time and turn to my teenage son for new music as much as I can. Just recently, though, I discovered these older songs written by Alec Wilder in the 1940’s-50’s-60’s that were recorded by people like Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, which are kind of old-fashioned and sentimental, but also really swinging and jazzy — which my voice really likes to sing. It’s the hardest music I’ve ever sung, the intervals are insane, the technical effort it takes to sing a jazz song is a real challenge for me. But the songs touch my heart and I just love singing them. Lucky for me, I get to do what I love.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

This is strange, but when I thought about this question, the first thing that popped into my head is that I would go back to the times of Cleopatra and be hanging out with her during one of the wild feast-parties she used to host for, literally, the whole city, on the riverbanks of the Nile. Incredible food and drink and music and dancing all night. I read a wonderful biography of Cleopatra and the descriptions of those parties were just astonishing, the lavish scale of them! I think I’d like to check that out. And sit at Cleopatra’s table, of course.

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