Susannah Hoffs is so down to earth, it’s disarming. Her perpetual wide smile is warm and friendly. The lead singer of The Bangles is luminous as she speaks about her first novel, This Bird Has Flown, and her album of cover songs, The Deep End, both landing the first week of April. In the living room of her Los Angeles home, which she shares with her husband of 30 years, filmmaker Jay Roach, Hoffs is relaxed in an oversized hot pink cardigan she calls her “David Byrne sweater.” Self-financing and -releasing The Deep End, Hoffs leans into all mediums to promote the record, which she made with one of her heroes, producer Peter Asher.
The songs on the album are ones you would expect: a feminist version of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” and a quirky rendition of Squeeze’s “Black Coffee in Bed.” But there are also songs from newer artists like Joy Oladokun’s “If You’ve Got a Problem” and Billie Eilish’s “When the Party’s Over.” Some of these are Hoffs’ favorites, others are Asher’s choices, who, according to Hoffs is “an explorer of new songwriters.” On all of them, Hoffs’ voice is immediately recognizable, clear and sweet, hitting all the notes she did some 40 years ago. But her singular interpretations are so unique, they sometimes render the songs unrecognizable—in a good way.
Songs are also part of the inspiration for This Bird Has Flown, whose chapter titles are taken from song titles—not to mention the title of the book itself. Hoffs namechecks two classics in particular, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as reference points for her novel. This Bird Has Flown’s protagonist is Jane Start, somewhat of a has-been, one-hit wonder. Jane is kind of a mess when we meet her, doing private performances of her song in the fetish-y outfit from its video. She is whisked away to the UK by her British manager and meets Tom, the romantic interest in This Bird Has Flown, on the flight over. Things proceed in patented romantic-comedy fashion, and in the process, Tom is not the only person falling in love with Jane, as she is an irresistible character to the book’s readers as well.
This Bird Has Flown has already been optioned by Universal Pictures with Liza Chasin (Bridget Jones’ Diary, About a Boy) and Bruna Papandrea (Big Little Lies, The Undoing) producing. Hoffs herself is writing the script, but don’t expect any tell-all memoirs from her. There is a Bangles biography being written by author Jennifer Otter Dickerdike (Being Britney: Pieces of a Modern Icon, You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico) who is proceeding with the band’s blessing, if not its formal authorization. At the same time, seasoned executive producer Lauren Lazin (Tupac: Resurrection) is assembling an ’80-centered Bangles documentary. Both release dates are to be determined.
In the meantime, Hoffs is super-excited to talk about her new album and life as an official first-time novelist.
SPIN: Your book and album are being released the same week. Is there a connection between the two?
Susanna Hoffs: The writing of the book preceded the album by several years. 2020 into 2021 was a dark time for me. I felt very bleak about my ability to make music and to continue in my career. I would never give up singing, but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. My longtime tour manager told me Peter Asher wanted to make a record with me. I admired Peter so much, in particular the James Taylor records he did, and the Linda Ronstadt records I grew up singing along to. It was like the sun breaking through the clouds. My whole life turned around. The album started in 2021, right around when Little Brown bought the book, and I began my journey with an editor there.
Was it always the plan to do a covers album or did you want to also do some original music?
I always wanted to get back to songwriting, but I was so deep into the book writing and that had become a multi-year obsession. Music is the beginning, middle and end of every day for me. My next goal is to really deal with my fear of songwriting, to break down that inner barrier I have with myself. When you’re working in a Word doc, like I was with the book, you can see how many words you’ve written. If I could have written 90,000 words, what’s stopping me? I just have to get back on track.
There are so many different musical styles on the album from pop on “Under My Thumb” to folky/country on “Deep End” plus lots of orchestral elements. It’s unexpected and it all works.
Wow, I can’t even express how much that means to me. I just love music so much, it makes me want to cry. I hate to get emotional but for those of us who love music and also like to play it, it’s just magical. I tried to write about that from Jane’s point of view. But sometimes I feel so hopeless about getting the music to the people. I don’t know how to bridge the gap. I feel like Jane in that way. Even though I’m not a one-hit wonder, and it’s not like I’m competing with the amazing shit that happened in the ‘80s, it’s just so hard to connect.
Speaking of the ‘80s, I would have expected a memoir from you. A fiction book came as a surprise.
I’ve been a reader my whole life. It’s kind of a coping mechanism. I have always loved disappearing out of my life into somebody else’s story. Fiction is pure escapism. I attempted to write a novel towards the end of The Bangles, before I got married, before I had kids. I have two spiral notebooks that say “1989” and “novel.” I hate to use the expression, but it was a bucket-list thing. I just wanted to see if I could do it.
I have co-written a lot of screenplays. The problem with screenplays, even when they’re optioned—and a couple of mine were–is they get stuck in development hell, so it may be a great idea that never comes to fruition. I started on the heels of a project that didn’t get made. My older son Jackson said, “Mom, maybe it’s time now to write that novel you’ve always wanted to write.” I started to really think about the story and workshop what this so-called novel might be. Again, Jackson said, “Mom, you’ve been pitching me this story for a week now. Sit down, open your computer, stare at the blank page and just start.” That’s what I did, and then I became addicted to it. I didn’t realize how fun it would be.
How much of you do we see in Jane Start?
There are certain things about her that I relate to. She wears her heart on her sleeve. We’re inside her head, so all her inner monologue, her insecurities, her fears, her panic, her joy, we get that she really feels things deeply—maybe almost to her detriment as a human. Even though Jane is this figment of my imagination, I really like her. I feel for her and I worry about her. I wanted her to find her way back. There’s something fierce in her nature. I am rooting for her because she has a big heart, and she is talented and the music business is frickin’ difficult. It’s difficult to ever have anyone give a shit about what you make. You just have to keep going back to the drawing board and sometimes you get lucky, and most times you don’t.
It seems like you and Jane have similar attitudes toward the music business.
That’s why I made this bold move to put the stuff I made with Peter out myself. I started out in a complete indie mindset and now that I’m 64, I’m looking back on the whole journey of my life, everything that I’ve ever done that has mattered is when I just threw myself in as an indie artist and worked hard on my craft, whether it was to try to write a good song, or to write a novel. I wasn’t put together by a TV show. I didn’t have a Svengali. I never waited for somebody to give me permission to do it. It was always scrappy.
It certainly didn’t look scrappy.
The Bangles never felt very polished. It was a different energy and zeitgeist in the ‘80s. We didn’t have fashion brands coming to our shows. We were scraping together terribly mismatched outfits from thrift stores the entire run of the band. We never had a lot of help in that direction. We did our own makeup and hair. For the “Eternal Flame” video I went to a store in Beverly Hills and bought a really nice dress for the first time in my whole adult life.
That’s so different from today’s styled and sponsored artists.
It would be nice if someone would give me something nice to wear or loaned me something. I have no access to that, but at this point, I’m comfortable. As an indie person who’s not with a label and who never in a million years thought in my 60s that I’d frickin’ be on TikTok, it has been the best thing. I’m not going to be able to make $100,000 video with stylists and DPs and makeup artists and hair people. I make everything in my house. I turn my camera on myself and go, “Hello! I just did this,” or “I just did that.” I’m really into the DIY of it all, which is where I started. It brings it full circle. I’m fine with that. If someone has a giant team and a record company promoting them, that’s great, but I don’t think that would be something I could do at this point. As long as I can get the music to connect in some way, I’m totally fine with that.