Music is magic. That’s how Susanna Hoffs sees it. It’s an individual and a communal force. Growing up in California, some of her more magical musical moments were discovering a new band with the late Mazzy Star guitarist and co-songwriter David Roback, finding the enigmatic genius of Syd Barrett, or being blown away by Big Star—years after singer Alex Chilton and co. disbanded—by the time the two were attending UC Berkeley in the early 1980s.
“Back then you didn’t have streaming services, you had to go to record stores and buy things, so it was like a treasure hunt,” Hoffs tells American Songwriter of her earlier discoveries. “We thought we knew the ’60s, ’70s because we had grown up during those eras, but we didn’t know about Big Star, because it wasn’t what we might have found a Tower Records or some of the big chains that we would go to.”
There was more to discover for the two childhood friends—the Velvet Underground, Badfinger, Nick Drake, and more indie bands from the ’70s and earlier on. “That was something David and I really connected on,” shares Hoffs, who, along with Roback and his brother Stephen, formed one of their first bands Unconscious before she ventured into The Bangles and he moved on with Mazzy Star, both filling their gaps in a community of musicians who found each other at the time during the Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene. “It was like a revelation to discover Big Star or Nick Drake.”
On Bright Lights (Baroque Folk Records) Hoffs connects the dots of her musical past, covering artists who molded her and left some emotional marks. Produced by Paul Bryan, the 10 songs of Bright Lights were a more personal collection for Hoffs, a shift from her Under the Covers releases with Matthew Sweet.
Working through the songs with Bryan was partly improvisational since the songs were never ones Hoffs even sang along to in her younger years. A self-taught singer, Hoffs remembers singing along to everything playing on the radio and finding her style somewhere in mimicking artists like Joni Mitchell and records at home. “It was like jumping into a pool and not quite knowing how to swim but it was fun,” says Hoffs of making Bright Lights. “There was something challenging about it that I enjoyed specifically because I was rather unfamiliar with singing the songs.”
She adds, “These were songs I always admired and adored and had listened to on repeat for pure pleasure, but had never sung. Stepping up to the mic to sing them for the first time was truly exhilarating if a little terrifying.”
Adding some more twang to the Monkees’ “You Just May Be the One,” and cutting through the thicker folk of “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” by British duo Richard and Linda Thompson and even keeping the pace of Paul Revere and The Raiders’ “Him or Me (What’s It Gonna Be?),” Bright Lights shines a little brighter, lyrically, as every word is crystallized.
“I’m always attracted to music that’s deeply emotional because I find ways to connect with it,” says Hoffs. ”Music is a lifeline to the idea that other people feel similarly, or as deeply as you might about something. These are all feelings as human beings that we experience, and the unique way that they’re expressed. There’s a beauty in it, something that is transcendent.”