INTERVIEW: Suzie Chism

Photo Credit: Olivia Vlachos

Hi Suzie, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

I am great! Perpetually in a dream-like state of exhaustion from the excitement of releasing my first solo album!

Can you talk to us about your latest single “Five Minute Face?”

Oh my goodness, yes. “Five Minute Face” is the first of the 2020 Suzie songs to be released from my album “Where.” It’s technically the third song to hit online platforms from the record, but it is the first of the collection that I produced in my closet. I recorded six of the ten tracks myself at home, and I played every instrument on “Five Minute Face.”

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

“Five Minute Face” is about a first date after taking time to be alone. All of my songs are autobiographical, and this track is a great example of my documenting real events.

How was the filming process and experience behind the video?

I have been involved in a documentary-style movie about “Where”’s album cycle, called “Where the Heaven,” and have spent months on camera to make both it and the album happen. It made sense to do the music videos for the singles with my camera crew and film producer/director Sinah Ober. We scheduled it like any ordinary filming day, just doing it on deadline around everyone’s schedules—that’s LA! We scheduled the shoot two days before, and I used my few free hours before it to shop for wardrobe, which is everything to my videos and the documentary. Since we soundproof my recording studio in vintage clothing, we are no strangers to extreme dress up! Sinah had two cameras around her neck and would instantly switch from “music video camera” to “documentary camera” between scenes, so we really were doing double duty.

The single comes off your new album “Where”—what’s the story behind the title?

“Where” as a concept represents total self-acceptance. Where you are, there you are, or so we say in Suzie World, there the heaven you are. Are you okay? Can you stand yourself? How did you get here? It really encapsulates my transition into womanhood in a foreign city, which seduced me into introspection. Location in space and time was already on my brain as the theme before naming the album. I executed many of the more tedious or not-so-musical edits on the album on my laptop at a bar called The Know Where, and one night the neon sign was out and only read “Where.” It was the week of a full moon and the sky was practically black. I got a photo on an instant camera and kept it on my credenza while finishing the record.

How was the writing and recording process?

My process presented itself to me organically, and all at once. I had just moved into a new apartment in Hollywood, my first apartment in almost a decade after living in houses with no sound ordinance. I was very lonely, and struggling to find hours to write without pissing off my neighbors; I was working grown-up hours at a job in fashion, and only had about 45 minutes a day around traffic to play guitar, not exaggerating. I became so sad and manic about it, since I had for many years written music at any hour and preferred the unconventional; for a long time I loved writing late at night because it felt like I had the world to myself.

It didn’t take long for me to quit my job and find a job serving at a French restaurant within walking distance, only open at night. I record music by day all day every damn day, and then head to La Poubelle. I listen to mixes on my walks to and from work, always, with the city noise as background, to get a less critical listen of them. Without the city noise, I could tweak a song for eternity!

Would you call this a departure from your previous musical work?

Yes and no. I’ve consistently used the same two guitars my entire life, and sold the rest to move to LA. I didn’t even have a guitar amp of my own for the first year in LA, so subsequently my sound on this album involved more acoustic work than I have released in many years, if ever. The album is what it is due to gear, schedule and budget restrictions, but that is what forced some nerd-level creativity on the project; I drummed on it! I recorded live saxophone and harp! There were a lot of firsts for me in this project, and it’s definitely not heavy like my previous bands, and it does have theatrical and jazzy moments, which are new to my sound.

I started out on barstools in Nashville with a Martin playing songwriter nights, but pretty quickly became Fuzz Queen in a rock band there; the band wouldn’t allow the presence of an acoustic on our album, ha! Now look at me go; no rules! When I was packing to move to LA, I found a CD of songs I wrote and recorded when I was 18 in Reno; I wasn’t even that embarrassed! My voice as a writer is remarkably consistent. I’ve been writing songs longer than I have known how to write the words down. There is a song on this album without any guitars at all, just mellotron, à la Harry Nilsson, and it’s still rock; that is how I realized that rock music is in me and not the other way around.

What role does LA play in your music?

LA is everything to the project! It is where I am. It is the absence of everywhere I am not, especially Nashville, and it changes your scope of humanity with its diversity. Once the album is out, I am excited to have more time to explore the city. Hollywood in particular is referenced often in the album, since that’s my hood.

How did your musical influences and perspective changed as you move from Nashville over to LA?

My perspective changed immediately when I left Nashville. As a songwriter, I am constantly taking my emotional pulse, and am writing song ideas down every single day. I know that my spirit changed with my story when I left the city limits of Nashville, the Davidson County line, and the state of Tennessee, because I wrote it down at every gas station stop. I freaked out, to be honest. I realized I hadn’t been as happy as I thought for a long time, and that I wouldn’t know how to mask my issues as conveniently in a new, big city. I also didn’t know many people in LA, and I turned to music to coddle me through my anxieties. I was hyperaware of what did or did not feel authentic to me about current music, because I was desperately needing connection to something real, so I really dug back into my roots like Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Elvis and the Beatles to keep me company. I really don’t listen to much current music except like QOTSA and the Kills.

You brought some special guests to help you out – did you handpick them or how did they come on board?

I feel like they are all angels that dipped down through the ether and kissed the record, but that probably is either too vague or specific for you, haha! On my song “Socio,” which has these kind of Madonna pop vibes, I was gearing up to move to LA at the time and luckily got Detroit cat Chuck Bartels to play bass by buying him tacos; he is the bassist for Sturgill Simpson who is an incredible talent, and was in Nashville recording part of his stunning new record (out now) called “Sound and Fury.” The engineer on “Sound and Fury” worked on three of the “Where” songs, and he taught me a lot about recording.

All of the guest musicians are stellar, but since I am recording the majority of the songs and playing most instruments myself, I have some real-life heroes in mix engineers and post production. Zack Pancoast is mixing everything I record in the closet, and he worked on Kacey Musgrave’s Golden Hour among other things; most of the songs are only touched by Zack and myself and I could not pull this off without him. My friend Eddie Spear also mixed two of the songs, and he recently received his first Grammy awards for “A Star Is Born” and Brandi Carlile. There are very few hands on this thing outside of my own, and they are all lifting my burdens in their own ways that they don’t even realize. The short list of contributors goes on, even, and it is not unnoticed by me! What the heck is my blessed life?

What did they bring to the table?

I am producing an album 100% the way that I hear it in my head, so the occasional outside ears are grounding, and these people are remarkably talented! As someone who had never engineered an album, I felt immense pressure to replicate the quality I had on the first releases from the album which were not recorded in Suz Suz Studio (what I call my closet), knowing that the engineers who worked on them had studied the art of recording religiously for many years, and I never have. Sometimes I feel I’m an unqualified crust punk with my fist in the air fighting for this album.

Do you tend to take a different approach when you are collaborating with someone else rather than working on your own?

I have always been the songwriter and idea-machine for my projects, but it is so different walking into a project owning 100% of it and delegating the work almost contractually to contributors, rather than knowing that whatever I write for a band will unavoidably and eventually be split with three or four people. Being in bands, I would often spend a good 20 hours on a song before showing it to the other members, and you never know how the first listen will be received; I have had people laugh in my face when I show them a song, and then months later say “remember that sweet song we wrote?” So I am very intentional with how I work with others and who they are, and which ideas are non-negotiable. “Where” is helping me balance leadership and team-player mentalities, which is great for setting healthy boundaries, and I only allowed contributors whom I considered to be above my level of ability in their arena on the album, so that I may learn from them.

Before I owned my role as a producer, or realized that I am one rather, I was very insecure and was known to have meltdowns while recording; now I just shrug and try something different if I don’t like what I am hearing, rather than blaming myself for a lack of talent and entering self-sabotage mode. Truthfully I am so accustomed to recording alone between errands in the closet, that when I do produce another player, I get super nervous…like, “hey come get in my closet!” That’s totally normal right?

How did you come up with the idea for a documentary?

After moving into my Hollywood apartment, which felt isolating, I started demoing songs out of boredom in my bedroom (not even a soundproofed space, as the album was not yet dreamed of). My friend Erica came to visit; I know her from Nashville, and we hadn’t seen each other since she moved to and from LA, nor since we had technically collaborated—when I was in Nashville and she was in LA, she made a horror film called “The Boogeywoman,” and I had a song in it! She often crashes with me when she’s in town, and she once brought over a producer, Sinah, from “The Boogeywoman” to hang, so that we could meet and so that I could make a friend in a new city. We smoked a joint and ate ice cream and I showed them what I had been writing. Sinah and I hung out again, and I told her how the hostess at La Poubelle made a comment that I should do a documentary about recording my music, based on my Instagram stories of trying weird shit in my closet. Sinah was into it, and we have not stopped since. It has been intense.

A huge aspect of “Where” is my acknowledging my previous inability to maintain what would be considered healthy relationships, and I had some major walls up; I felt a considerable amount of resistance to having strangers in my house at first but now I can’t imagine life without Sinah; she entered the scene a total stranger and now no one knows me better. It’s really special to me that the documentary totally captured my learning to let people know the real me, because my friendship with the director has completely opened up my ability to love and be loved; it’s been an incredible experience.

How was the shooting process like?

Documentaries are a little chaotic by nature, and I believe that to be what gives the genre flavor. It’s guerrilla warfare; here we are and life is lifey! Over time it has become much more relaxed; I’m like: “Here’s my mess, here’s my long johns, I’m giving you my best and this is what it looks like today.” There are currently heaps of vintage clothing from the music videos all over my apartment, and we are just shoving shit from one side of the apartment to the other to keep it off camera, haha! Sinah has to help with the dishes, hand me the guitars, roll my joints and wipe my tears! Because there just are not enough hours in the day to get it done otherwise. The film also gives me a great reason to get up and rock the day every day. It will be complete culture shock when we quit filming, any day now.

How did watching the footage help you with the recording or writing of this record?

The footage hasn’t influenced the sound much at all, to be honest, but it has definitely forced me to see this project through; people are counting on me now. There is also the aspect of, if I don’t record some music in the next ten hours between filming, we will have nothing new to talk about on camera! It can be, truly, hella distracting to have someone in the closet with me, and the first closet session on camera was also the first “crying on camera” session, haha. Now that we are near the finish line, though, Sinah will be full-on playing dress-up in the closet while I am recording (if it is direct input) and we get it done. We did actually catch my writing a full blown song on camera, which was a really magical moment; I just hope I don’t give away all my tricks!

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Although I wrote “Five Minute Face” about the first date with this suitor, I wrote it the afternoon after the third date…after the first sleepover hang. You know, the song blatantly says “I spent a year working on my mental health,” but it has this fluttery butterfly feel that the date had; it’s complex. It is about feeling well enough to connect with someone new who may or may not be worth your time, and also about feeling desirable again after being badly burned. The phrase “five minute face” is meant to imply that because most dates are a total waste of time, I am only allotting a minimal amount of time and makeup for this dude, who ended up being hella fine and lovely to spend time with; the subject is a fantastic songwriter himself.

A few hours after our first overnight hang he asked what I was “up to;” and I had just written the song…he asked if he could hear it. Yikes! I thought, fuck it, because if he can’t handle the songwriting part of me, it will never work anyway, so I sent it. There is a lyric that says “when can I see you again,” which is such a vulnerable moment with a new partner. SPOILER ALERT: I never saw him again. The song probably freaked him out, haha. The record as a whole has been an account of my therapy sessions, after I realized my manic behavior was preventing me from love in any form, starting with self. When I realized I don’t have to ruin my own life all the time, I could not keep this secret to myself. “Where” is straight up the art of moving on.

Any plans to hit the road?

Absolutely! I know this story is a message of hope for people struggling with depression, so I will sell my soul and all my possessions to spread the good news; yes, yes, yes. The great thing about releasing the album is that it gives me purpose for the next year or so, something tangible to share and promote. My cousin Charity recently said “it is called releasing music for a reason,” and it is! It is the big exhale that makes room for fresh air. I can’t wait to share it through performance art.

What else is happening next in Suzie Chism’s world?

Sleep, I hope!


RJ Frometa
Author: RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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