When the late great Bea Arthur saw Suede perform, she told the out and proud lesbian singer, “Thank you for the most incredible night of my life in an audience. You are f#!king to die for!” The New York Times published a review expressing equal enthusiasm. It included: “A spectacular evening of song and style. Voices like hers come along maybe once in a generation.” We share the opinion offered in these and many other rave reviews, and are thrilled that Suede is returning to San Francisco for two performances at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, September 22 and 23, with shows at 8 pm.
We feel lucky that Suede is making a stop here, as she tours worldwide, playing venues like New York’s famous Birdland and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C. Her latest CD (of four), Dangerous Mood, was recorded at Bennett Studios in New York with her hand-picked nine-piece big band. Yes, the studios are named after that Bennett; they are where Tony Bennett recorded many memorable tracks.
Suede’s DVD Live at Scullers Jazz Club (Boston) has aired on 54 PBS stations nationally thus far as part of their pledge drive efforts. Her version of Shirley Eikhard’s song “Emily Remembers” was the number one song of the year on WJZW Radio in Washington, D.C., after the phones rang off the hook each time it was played. (Eikhard also famously wrote “Something to Talk About,” recorded by Bonnie Raitt.)
Here in San Francisco, Suede will be joined by Bay Area great John R. Burr on piano. It has been a while since Suede has performed in our area. Too long! Ahead of her much anticipated trip, we caught up with the busy performer whose music has been described as “Adele meets Diana Krall meets Bette Midler—sassy, smooth and intoxicating.”
San Francisco Bay Times: Maintaining artistic control has been a hallmark of your impressive career. Is this just something that evolved over time, or was maintaining artistic control a goal of yours from the outset? What do you think is gained, and conversely lost, in choosing such a music career path?
Suede: From the start it was important for me to be true to myself, yes. After being consistently and repeatedly rejected by record labels, booking agencies and management companies—as nearly every artist has been—knowing what I wanted to do with my life professionally and being self-taught at just about everything I’ve done in my life, including all the instruments I play—and being determined, resourceful and creative—I just decided to jump in, make it happen for myself and figure out the business too, which is an important thing for any artist to know, I think. What better way than on the job training? Would I prefer having a top notch team and all the support that comes with a good record deal? Of course. But, for one thing, that’s rare. For another thing, going that route often means doing what you’re told in terms of dress, material to perform, and on and on … not always being true to oneself to supposedly be created into the overnight sensation. That would never work for me.
Integrity and authenticity are too important to who I am and what I do. I have had managers and agents in the past, some good, some, um, well, not so good and very costly and challenging to unravel from. It’ll all be in the book. I’ve also never really fit anywhere in particular, as my friend Eva Cassidy was also told repeatedly, and the business never knew where to put me, how to manage me, promote me, sell me. Additionally, I’ve been out my entire 30-year career and never fit the mainstream popular jazz market’s image of a female song stylist.
Thirty years ago the world, and even the U.S., was a very different place for LGBT artists. But I made the conscious choice to be out, especially when I started losing so many friends to AIDS in my time in New York City in the early–mid 80s and faced so much homophobia. The mainstream wasn’t evolved enough yet to be okay with that. Aside from that, it just wouldn’t work for me to sing about the man who got away. I’ve always kept my pronouns non-gender specific. I want my music to be inclusive, not exclusive. But I’ve also never been the stereotypical lesbian singer; certainly never a “girl with guitar”—although I do play one, as well as trumpet and piano—that has so often been assumed for a gay woman musician. So in the early days of my 30-year career, especially considering where society was politically with such things, the mainstream wasn’t exactly interested in booking me. The LGBT community, specifically the women’s music community, was—although, there were several very vocal protests to my being included there, too, because I have always worked with men, I don’t write my own songs, I do wear make-up on stage, etc. But thankfully we’ve all grown up!
So now, the mainstream has also discovered me and asks where I’ve been. Ha! What does it matter? I’m here now and they love me—the more the merrier, I say! And who loves a great female vocalist and song stylist more than gay men (speaking of stereotypes)? Come on! Have those personal choices meant less work, less recognition and success for me along the way? Likely, yes. But I’m still here, with an amazingly loyal, longstanding fan base, going strong, and see no reason to stop now. The pipes are just really getting mature and interesting, for crying out loud, and the wisdom of years on the planet and in the business have made for a richness that only comes from that kind of time on Earth. I wouldn’t trade that—although there’s still time to be discovered by the right team and made into an overnight success. Bring it on! I am so ready!
San Francisco Bay Times: We love your choice of material, from pop tunes to Harold Arlen songs. Dreamy “Never Never Land” too. Please name some of your mentors, and artists who have inspired your own work.
Suede: I have always listened to everything, every style of music, especially as both a singer and multi-instrumentalist. My dad loved Dixieland, swing and big band music, and played it all the time as I was growing up. That definitely influenced my singing, my style in shows and certainly my trumpet playing as I listened to Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and many other greats. My mom loved jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, Rosemary Clooney and Pearl Bailey, who absolutely inspired me to be playful and to have fun on stage, in the middle of tunes, improvising, joking … but then leaning back and savoring a killer ballad or love song. As I got a bit older, I listened to and played James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and taught myself to play guitar to do so. I loved Louis Armstrong and learned a lot from his playing as I learned to play trumpet, and also played in classical brass quintets. Piano was my first instrument after I climbed up on the beach at age 4, as my mother tells it, to sound out a song I liked on the radio. I’ve also always loved comics, and comedy is absolutely a big part of any performance of mine. As a little kid Joan Rivers was a favorite. (It was) especially important to me to see a woman comic, which was very rare then. I adored Rivers’ wit, how quick she was, how real, how honest, no matter what. To grow up and become her opening act was something I never saw coming. It was an absolutely incredible experience and rare privilege to meet and work with such a true master; may she rest in peace.
San Francisco Bay Times: Can you give us a preview of your upcoming Feinstein’s show?
Suede: I’ll be working with John R. Burr, the great pianist from the Bay Area, and we’ll be doing songs from my four current CDs as well as lots of new tunes that will be on my upcoming release. There will be some great original tunes written for me by contemporary songwriter friends, as well as some of the great standards arranged for me personally. I’ve stayed away from doing too many standards, so I wouldn’t get pigeon-holed as a strictly standards singer (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but there are some great songs out there I’ve always wanted to sing and, frankly, I’ve got the pipes to do them justice, so I’ve found arrangers or have co-arranged some pieces that make them my own. No worries, though. They’re still recognizable, true to form and easy to sing along to, but please don’t. Nyuk, nyuk. I promise you this: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll walk away thinking, “What did I just experience in there?! Wow.” Promise.
San Francisco Bay Times: What do you most look forward to when visiting San Francisco and the Bay Area? What are some of your favorite places here?
Suede: I love the park by the bridge, hiking up around Mt. Tam, the restaurants! OMG, the restaurants! I loved Citizen Cake when Elizabeth Falkner was there. I love Zuni and get a kick out of having Wellfleet oysters, literally from outside my door at home (in New England) almost as fresh as I’m used to having them. So many places! I’ve spent quite a bit of time hanging out in Café Flore too. It’s been way too long since I’ve been to the Bay Area, and I can’t wait to get back, especially in a great music room like Feinstein’s. It’s my debut at Feinstein’s, although I have played the room previously when it was The Plush Room and then when it was The RRazz Room. What a thrill!! I hope the place is packed both nights so I’m asked back soon and often. Rally the troops! I’ll make it worth it.
For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.ticketfly.com/event/1169927-suede-san-francisco/ (for the September 22 show) and http://www.ticketfly.com/event/1169935-suede-san-francisco/ (for the September 23 show).