“I’ll Sing Myself Back”: An Interview with Suzanne Santo

Suzanne Santo couldn’t sleep. She’d tried everything one tries to bring about sleep when it is elusive, when it won’t come, and had no luck. What she could do, however, was write about it, write it out. Thus, came into being “Bad Beast,” the lead single on Santo’s second record, Yard Sale, out this August. “There’s a bad beast living in me/chaining me up then setting me free/so he can do it over and over again,” Santo sings, and it’s as powerful a manifestation of insomnia as you’re likely to hear. Santo isolates what is so maddening about insomnia, which is that it’s a loss of one’s agency; one is animated, calibrated, played by this other force, which is indeed beastly.

Insomnia is also a state of longing, in the most natural sense, a longing for sleep, which is also a longing for disruption of the story. It is intolerable to forever be enmeshed with the plot, to feel oneself being passed through with narrative, to feel oneself being asked to hold, to remember. Sleep is a reprieve from the daily task of meaning-making, of being asked to confront and understand a process that can only ever be incomplete, if not incoherent. All of this Santo captures impeccably in “Bad Beast,” but her interest in longing as a state of being doesn’t stop there. We spoke by phone recently to discuss this new record, which is a triumph in every sense of the word; a piece of auto-cartography that illuminates and showcases Santo’s nearly sadistic brilliance.

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I’m curious about how you conceived of Yard Sale, top to bottom. Maybe the title is a good place to start, and we can branch out from there? How and where did these songs come into being?

Well, most of them were written — were gestating — when I was on tour with Hozier. I realized that I needed to have songs ready for when I got off the road, so I wrote in hotel rooms, on the bus, in back stages, and in parks — anywhere I could. I bought this little acoustic nylon-stringed guitar in Brussels because I desperately needed something to carry around that I could write on. It was probably double the price of what you could get it for in the States, but I just needed it so badly! I wrote a lot in travel, in transit, in a really cool but incredibly exhausting tour. So, Yard Sale has a lot of different meanings for me. It’s really an unpacking of sorts, unpacking the last couple of years. There’s really something for everybody in it. I grew up going to yard sales with my grandma and my mom and you know, you’d always find these gems and trinkets that were seemingly meant for you. Then there’s also that term where if a lady accidentally dumps her purse out and there’s shit everywhere, everyone yells, “Yard sale!” And that kind of feels like what I did — I dumped all my shit out.

Did you also sort of feel like you were in transit as a person when these songs were coming out? I know you were literally, but I’m wondering if you were figuratively, too.

I mean, I feel like I’m always in transit, just learning and evolving and searching for joy, the good things. I was definitely going through some major life changes then. And I was also going from where I was as a musician and a place I’m really proud of to have achieved to world stages with a top-level artist who sells out every venue he plays. Energetically speaking, it was a tsunami of energy, and I’m still standing, so I did something right, I guess. But yes, a lot of transition.

The press release — which I know you don’t necessarily have complete control over, of course — says this is “an album inspired by the past, written by an artist who’s only interested in the here-and-now.” I wonder if you can talk a bit about that, if that rings true. Is it a former self that wrote these lyrics? Or is it a present-tense self looking back in retrospect at a previous version of a lived life?

 Well, I mean, it’s all one and the same, tapping into previous experiences and programs, if you will, and being able to express them clearly and honestly. I can do that in my here and now, but when I was in it and in that life, my emotions were right at the surface, and my necessity to create from that place was almost unavoidable. It’s really interesting because I used to be a little precious about writing — Oh, I need to be home alone, I need my doors closed, I need to light a candle, that kind of stuff — but then the muse, or whatever you want to call it, didn’t give me that luxury. I needed to write anytime, anywhere — on cocktail napkins, in my journal, and so on.

We sometimes limit ourselves with our idea of how things are “supposed to be” and, turns out, I can write a great song just sitting on a park bench. This record has a lot of echoes from my childhood, in ways that were really emotional and informative, and I really recognized that seminal moments in our lives when we’re adolescents and our exposure to energy — whether it be dark or light or the multitude of emotions and energies we can experience — they can really shape your whole life. I’m always fascinated by what makes us tick, and how we relate to one another, intimately or otherwise. I have a lot of gratitude for that self-discovery.

I’d really love to talk about “Bad Beast,” a song I just can’t get enough of, and about insomnia. How did that song come to be?

I would plead out loud, “Please let me sleep, please, please!” I’d just ask for it, from whoever. I’m not a masochist or anything and I don’t want to suffer but I do recognize that there’s some creative side of the brain that is activated when I’m not sleeping. That said, I felt like a slave to it; it dictated everything. I’d wake up and just start crying, and it’d be the second week of just not sleeping. It’s gotten a little better, lately — not 100% right now, it’s an intense time — but I think that my quality of life is incredibly altered by it. But it also made me realize how tough I am, that I got through my days and even tours and shows and not have slept for weeks. And that’s sort of what “Bad Beast” is about. I was at the end of my rope, and just so, so indescribably exhausted, and it just came out in like two sittings.

It strikes me that writing of and through states of longing are really where you hit pay dirt as a songwriter, both on Ruby Red and on this new record. I think about a song like “Common Sense,” which is just imbued with longing and a simultaneous knowledge that what the singer is longing for is probably illusory or forever out of reach. What is it about longing that has been generative for you as an artist?

You know, I’m such an optimist, so I don’t like to believe in any kind of finality of failure. “Common Sense” is a recognition of the ramifications of some sacrifices we make for the things that we love, whether it be a calling, or family, or a career; it’s about the balance or imbalance of those choices. But it didn’t ever stop me from playing music, knowing that my life was going to be hard in so many different ways — intimately, financially, physically, all that. “Where’s my common sense?” is cheeky in that way, in that it isn’t a common sense job — you just do it. That’s where I’m at with that, and for myself I have to believe there’s an alleviating element to this all at some point.

You say, “I’ve gotten good at knowing what I need to keep holding onto and what I don’t,” which strikes me as a really enlightened place — does it feel that way now? Maybe that’s the voice in “Save for Love,” who believes it’s love — precisely — that will provide shelter for the singer, that will “hold it all together.” Maybe that’s the voice in “Since I’ve Had Your Love,” for whom love has brought into the detail the entirety of the world. Does that sound accurate?

Definitely, it does. The real bedrock of that sentiment is the love I have for myself, and anyone who really has that in their grasp can maintain so much more in their lives, is what I’ve learned. The minute that starts to waver or is questioned is when things are out of balance. I think that when you have that for yourself, first and foremost, and then you’re able to give it to other people accordingly, and receive it accordingly, it’s some really powerful stuff. The love I was able to generate for myself during this pandemic is something I never really had before, and it’s changed my life in a really beautiful way.

Photos by Cameron McCool

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