Susannah B on Raising Spirits in a Material World

Susannah B has accumulated a lot of labels in her life. The daughter of composer/lyricist Carol Hall, she’s built a career on her own talents as an actress, singer/songwriter, and activist, but as the title track of her latest album reminds us, we’re all “Far More” than a family history or a list of descriptors.

That pursuit of something beneath the superficial gives the album its sense of purpose. Throughout Far More, Susannah sings of human dignity and spirituality with rare earnestness–whether in her own words on the quietly soulful “I Am Here” or in her mellow industrial rendition of the Police classic “Spirits in the Material World.”

Her tone is alternately encouraging and contemplative; her calls for self empowerment carry with them a recognition of the hardships of life. As a mentor and educator in the foster care and prison systems, she’s seen firsthand the devastation wrought by inequality, and underneath it all, the human soul worth fighting for.

Over a year after the release of Far More, Susannah B spoke to the All Scene Eye about her post-release goals for the album and her continuing efforts to make a positive impact with music.

If you had to describe the making of Far More in one word, what would you choose, and why?

The first one that comes to mind is “collaborative,” and that would be because I worked with a longtime musical partner of mine, John Ballinger, who I’ve known for 20 years now. He actually played at my wedding. [laughs] I met him before that, but he’s been in my band, and we’ve performed live together many times all over L.A. We’ve made some other albums together, but this one was different. I took more of a leadership role within the collaboration, and I said to him, “I want to make an album that’s all one vibe,” because all my other CD’s had been very eclectic and hard to categorize. I’m already hard to categorize, and I made it even harder by not focusing on any one style.

This one, I really knew what I wanted more than I ever had. I had been listening to tons of what, on Sirius XM radio in my car, is called “chill.” It’s like chill electronica. I brought that idea to John, and he’s completely unfamiliar with that kind of music. He doesn’t even like it, actually. He’s a different kind of guy. He’s one of these guys who can play everything, and he’s done movie scores and all kinds of music, so it was me sort of leading him musically down this road.

If I had to say one more word, maybe I would say–well, I was going to say “exposed.” I feel like I exposed myself more spiritually than I ever had. I always had one song on every album that was kind of spiritual. Sometimes it was interesting that people responded to that one song on the album more than anything else, you know? I felt like I was willing to be more up front about that, which is not religious–I’m not coming from a particular religion–but it was about showing that I have a personal relationship with whatever we want to call it. That mysterious thing. God, spirit, presence, love, whatever word you want to use. The Christ. I don’t know.

The spiritual side of things is clear from the get go with the title track, “Far More.” There’s that bridge part, “inner infinity, your own divinity, past the horizon of what you’ve ever known,” with that sense of the infinite within the personal.

Yes, exactly, that’s it. I wasn’t raised in any particular religion. I do think that religion is a wonderful thing, and there’s a lot of comfort and benefit to it, obviously, being part of a group. I really searched a long time to find a home, and I ended up finding a home that was more of a philosophy, and metaphysical-type writings that have to do with the common ground that all religions share. Some people have said that all religions do have some bedrock commonalities between them, and I guess where I ended up from that was this sense that there’s a mysterious presence within us as well.

There is a more specific tradition involved when you get into a track like “Soon I Will Be Done,” which is built on an African-American spiritual. Where did you first encounter that song, and what made you want to include it on this album?

I learned it about 25 years ago. I have been following, and friends with, and singing with a woman named Maggie Wheeler, who is a Los Angeles actress. She had the role of Janice on Friends, so she’s best known for that. She’s really interesting in her own right, I won’t go into it, but she came to a theater company I was in many years ago and she did this workshop on a cappella singing as a group. She was taught by African-American women who were passing on this tradition that is African-American specifically, coming from slavery times, when singing together outside of church really connected people and helped them survive.

That song was a spiritual from slavery times. We don’t know who wrote it, but I learned it with Maggie, and I sang it with her in different places for many years. I ended up bringing it to something that I’ve been doing the last two years; I lead a cappella singing groups with men who are getting out of prison. They’re in a transitional home taking them from jail back into the real world. So they’re sober, and they’re scared, and they’re facing a lot of different stresses as they come back into society, and I’m doing this singing-for-wellness thing.

When I brought that song in, one of the guys was like, “what the hell is this? Is this about how great it is to be dead?” And I said, “yeah, it is.” It’s talking about how life as a slave was so unbearable, it really became like, “after we die, heaven will be way better than this.” I started thinking about that song because it touched my heart in a kind of intuitive way. I didn’t know why, but it did, and I thought, “yeah, but if I covered it, what would it mean today? Why would it be cover-able for me?” Especially because I’m a white woman.


Some people really have an issue with that, and feel like that’s not my history, so it’s not my song to sing. I really turned that over and thought about it quite a bit, and I disagree. I feel like, no, music is music. I mean, Moby has also sampled and used spirituals. You can’t start saying “that’s your music, and that’s my music.” Music is a thing that binds us, and it’s common, and I feel like it’s important if I respond to it from my heart, even though it’s not my history. As long as I know that, I’m not pretending it is my history, but how can I explain what it means to me?

I was thinking about, spiritually, what does this mean? I brought it to John, and we talked about it, and I said, “ok, this is what I think: soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, going home to live with God. It means, first of all, life is short. We’re all going to die, so take that and let that inspire you, because that idea inspires me a lot.” I think all of us feel that, especially when tragedies happen, and you don’t know that you’re going to be here the next day. That’s not guaranteed. “Soon I Will Be Done,” for me, is kind of a mandate: “so make sure this moment counts.”

I also thought “soon I will be done with the troubles of the world” is about this long continuum coming from the slaves. We really are this little speck on the timeline, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. That means we’re part of this larger whole somehow. I also was tapping into a third thing that had to do with that feeling that you know is common because people are killing themselves every day. That feeling that you are overwhelmed, that feeling of “I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. It’ll be better when I’m not here.” That is something that’s real for people. I was trying to tie it all in with those three lenses.

You’ve got these samples toward the end of the song, of indistinct voices shouting. Where did those sounds come from?

I went in, and John is like the master of harmony, so he’s–I’m in the studio with the booth, and he’s like, “oh, try this, try this,” and it was sounding so beautiful. I was like, “this is great, except, we have to have something that represents ‘the troubles of the world.'” We can’t just have this beautiful thing and no element of trouble.

So what’s trouble? It was a while ago, but it was before the election of President Trump. So I said, “what if we had yelling in the background, like, shouting–what if we had that?” And we start going through YouTube, and of course, a Trump rally was the best example of shouting we could find. We worked with the mix a lot, because some of that was cursing, and I didn’t want to have cursing so loud in the track that it would be an issue. But it is literally recorded from–it’s not actually inside a Trump rally; it was outside. People were yelling at each other and starting to fight.

It is hard to deal with all the troubles. I was trying to acknowledge that it’s painful, and it’s difficult, and we’re all trying to do our best. But yet, also, I feel like when you focus on, “we only have this moment,” maybe then we’re motivated to be the best us that we can be. So that’s what it was: the Trump agitation-type fight that was going on, and we mixed it in.

That was one of those creative moments as a producer that I felt like, “wow, I’m so glad I thought of that.” I was really happy about knowing that I wanted some kind of conflict, sonically, and it wasn’t instrumental. John is an orchestrator, so at first he was like, “well what about some brass instruments?” I was like, “no no no, this isn’t a movie.” I wanted something else.

It is such a defining sound of the current moment we’re in.

I thought so too, and then when that election happened as we were mixing and mastering, just to listen to that over and over again was tough. I’ll say another thing–this was interesting. “I Just Want To Celebrate” was a song I knew a little bit when it was out in the 70’s. I was pretty young, but I had heard it. Years ago, I was playing a nursery school gig. It was sort of a charity thing, and we were playing for four-year-olds, so we’re trying to make it cool for the parents, and danceable. One of my friends had said, “hey, why don’t we cover this old song by Rare Earth,” and I was like, “oh, I remember this.”

It was a funky song, and I brought that in to my prisoner guys as well. That’s always been a big hit, singing it a cappella. It’s pretty easy to follow along with, and it’s got good parts. I was singing that almost every week, and I realized, “I should do a cover of this.” So we’re getting ready to do the cover, and the day that I was supposed to do vocals, I think it was a Sunday, because the shooting in the [Pulse] nightclub in Florida happened the night before. The next morning, I was devastated, and I was like, “I don’t think I can go in and sing. I just can’t.” I called John, and he was just like, “I know, I can’t either,” so we didn’t. But we had a schedule, so a couple days go by, and I’m like, “I’ve got to go in and do the vocals.”

“I just want to celebrate another day of living” took on a totally different meaning. I was singing a song people could have been dancing to at the club, if maybe it was remixed by a really cool DJ. It was that idea of having this ebullient, fantastic, funky, danceable song, but also having this meaning of, “let’s dance tonight, let’s dance right now,” because the hatred, it is scary for me, and for so many people. In terms of tying it to these times, I remember that also being really powerful.

I just feel that music is a really powerful healing agent. That’s my main thing. I’ve seen it heal the toughest looking guys you can imagine, guys with tattoos all over their face. You’d be shocked that I get them singing with no instruments. They look at me when I start like I’m a complete idiot, like, “what are you doing here?” And then an hour later, they’re saying, “oh, I really feel good, I didn’t think that was going to happen.”

How did you get involved doing that kind of work with prisoners?

That was connected to the singing thing, again, through my mentor, Maggie. I ended up taking a workshop with her mentor, who is a woman from this all-female black a cappella group called Sweet Honey in the Rock. They were founded by women who were very active in the civil rights movement. I went to take this week-long singing workshop with this woman, who I had met before, but it was a particularly intense history of African-American music from African chants through slavery and blues, and it was really fantastic.

I knew a lot of the songs because I had been singing with Maggie for so long, so during workshop, I probably looked like I was a TA of the class or something. I knew a lot of the parts, I knew the harmonies, so the woman who was teaching started saying to me, “go over to the altos and make sure they know that line,” because we were singing four-part harmony a cappella the whole week, and it wasn’t for singers, it was for anybody.

At the end of the thing, these two women said to me, “hey, you look like you know what you’re doing; could you ever lead a workshop like this?” And I was like, “well, I’ve never tried, but I suppose I could.” And they said, “well, we have this foundation, and we run a series of prison programs in prisons, but we also have a few halfway homes in Arizona and southern California where we have guys coming.” These two women are very dedicated to wellness–they talk about nutrition, and yoga, and all sorts of things, and they just hired me. It was kind of amazing. It took me a while to figure out, “what am I doing here?” But then I realized, “oh, I’m pretty good at this kind of thing, and I can bring these kind of songs.” I’ve even written some songs for those guys.

Do you feel like being in that role has given you some insight into the problem of incarceration we have in this country?

Yeah, it has. I’ve always been drawn to issues regarding incarceration. When I was a kid in New York City, I was a reporter for a magazine, which was kind of amazing, when I was in, like, eighth grade, and we ended up doing this hearing in Washington about the conditions in juvenile institutions, which at that time were unbelievably horrible. Then in college I did volunteer work at the prison nearby my college. It was something that had already touched me in certain ways.

But these guys, I just get a sense of when they’ve paid their dues, they’ve done their time, it’s so hard to come back. There are so many strikes against them, and so many difficulties. I think I read that California, or Los Angeles, I’m not sure, has finally taken away the box on the form that says, “have you ever been convicted of a crime,” only for city jobs. So those guys don’t have to check that box if they want to work for the city, but they have to check it everywhere else.

A couple of the guys I’ve gotten to be quite friendly with. Some guys, I only see them once, and other guys stay longer. One guy, he was there almost a year, and he had been imprisoned for 38 years. He went in when he was 21. He used to joke, like, “yeah, I missed the whole VHS thing. I completely missed that.” To have had no technology, no nothing, and now he comes out and the world is the way it is?

I’ve stayed in touch with him, actually. He recently emailed me and phrased it like–something about his second life. “You’re one of the coolest people I’ve met in my second life.” It’s very humbling, especially the guys who have done a lot of time. What do you say to someone who’s just got out of prison after 30 or 40 years? I just look at them and say, “I don’t know what you did, but I can’t imagine what that would be like.”

What’s something you wish more people understood about the issue?

This is for every issue, right? They are human beings. They’re people. They made a mistake. I’m not saying if they murdered someone, they shouldn’t be punished. Absolutely, I get that. But at a certain point, especially guys who got in trouble young, usually it’s a cycle. Their parents weren’t around. Their dad was in jail, whatever it was. A large percentage of foster kids just go right into the system, get arrested, and go to jail, because they don’t have anybody caring about them. I’m very active in the foster care system as well.

If we can just care for each other, or care enough to even imagine someone else’s perspective–and I do feel like music is a real loving energy, even if you’re singing a sad song, or a really hardcore rock song. I say this to my guys: there’s a magical way that music feels to us that is different from anything else. You can have all the talk therapy you want, but if you sing something and it moves your heart and you’re sobbing, that’s a different kind of therapeutic experience. Or if you’re laughing, or if you’re dancing, whatever it is.

If people read this and they’re interested in getting involved or supporting this kind of work, what’s the organization they should look into?

There’s an organization in Los Angeles called Peace 4 Kids that has been getting some attention because there’s a new feature film out. It’s a wonderful organization mentoring kids who are in foster care. That’s a big thing of mine. The place I work for in Los Angeles is called Amity Foundation, but they don’t have a volunteer program that I know of.

Here’s what I would say, because this is my next thing I’ve been doing. If you’re into music, either you make it or you love it, let’s have our music, and let’s have it be productive for helping other people. At this time in our history, it is so imperative that any of us who have anything extra–extra money, extra time, extra energy–you’ve got to share it, because there’s too many people who don’t have anything.

If this idea gets you excited, find a way to host a concert in your house, in your small apartment, in your yard, at the park, whatever. You have a party, you get people together, you choose a charity that moves you, and the music is the part that gets donated, right? Maybe people even donate food, and then everybody pays a little more than is comfortable, because we all pay way too much to see concerts. Recently I did one of these, and we raised $8,000 in one night for a children’s hospital. I donated my musical services that night, and it was fantastic.

That’s where I’m at, because, look. I’m the age I am, I’m a mom, I’m not going to get a record deal and be touring. I’m just not. Maybe little mini-tours, but that’s not what I care about at this point. I want my music to be helpful for the world in more than one way. Not just people listening to it; that’s excellent, but now I’m also going deeper, like, “okay, seriously, how can I make this tangible and raise money for people?”

A lot of your musicality came from growing up in a musical home. Is that something you’ve passed on to your son in a similar way?

Well, he’s an excellent drummer. As far as I know, he doesn’t sing in public or anywhere, but he has a fantastic voice; I hope he will use it at some point. I basically made him play something while he was growing up, because my mom had been forced into it, and then she didn’t force me, so I didn’t play anything. We always go back and forth. So now I’m forcing my kid to play something until he leaves home, just because I think it’s such a great language. You can go to any country, and if you have a guitar, you can hang out with people. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak one word of their language. You can figure it out, musically, and I think that’s amazing. I wish I had that.

The focus in my home was a little bit more on performance, and more of a solo thing. After dinner, my mom would sing her songs, and her friends would sing their songs, and I didn’t sing my songs–I didn’t have songs. It was a little bit scary and intimidating in a certain way. Even though I sang all the time, it made me really nervous. People who know me would say, “no way,” but I was just learning when I was really young, and I did feel very shaky about it. Now that I’ve had this different evolution and I’ve had these experiences singing in a group, where it’s really not about a solo, it’s not American Idol, it’s a different experience. I really love that, and I hope my son can find a way that music is, in his life–he adores listening to music. He’s really deep into it. But I don’t know, I have no idea.

What was your biggest goal for Far More? And now, over a year later, how does that feel in retrospect?

My goal is still evolving because I still have a second goal, which is, I would like to put out a remix album of this album. I would love it if it could get remixed by various DJs and producers, you know, younger than I. I don’t go to the clubs all the time these days. I’m a little bit older, but I really love dancing, and EDM, and all that stuff. So if any of these songs could have a life in that realm, get a little sped up, and play with the vocals and all that, I would be into it. I have one guy who’s working on “Far More,” but it’s stalled a little bit. I don’t know what’s going on.

In terms of this past year, I’m happy that people have responded to it, and it feels like I did communicate clearly ideas that I wanted to communicate. I have heard from people that the music has made them feel good. It’s been soothing and uplifting, and that’s what I wanted, so that’s been really great. It’s always just a matter of spreading the word. It seems like it takes a long time, and there’s just so much content out there, it’s insane. I don’t even know how to look at it sometimes. My son is on Spotify getting new music all the time, and I say to him, like, “how did you find that?” And he’s like, “oh, I was listening to so-and-so’s playlist.” If I could get on some playlists, I would love that. Maybe that’ll take some time. Even though it has been the last year, I hope it still can feel relevant, and also current. That’s why I think remixes would really help to keep that going.


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