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The Way to Susanna Hoffs’ Heart Is with a Mixtape

The former Bangles singer talks new music, old music and why Nick Hornby is the greatest Spotify DJ of them all

Susanna Hoffs
Shervin Lainez

Susanna Hoffs always stood out from the other pop stars of the ’80s. Talented and beautiful, sure, but she always came across as unaffected, like someone who’d be up for hanging out with you after a show and talking mixtapes. You know her as one of the lead voices and the two main eyeballs of the Bangles, who had their biggest hit with “Walk Like an Egyptian” and who are the best example of why you should never judge a band by its biggest hit. 

Since that band’s heyday, she’s released a handful of solo albums, raised a couple of sons, and most recently written a novel. This Bird Has Flown, which came out this month, is a legit page-turner, a sexy and breezy story of a one-hit pop star putting her life back together after a breakup.

I caught up with Hoffs over a video call, from her living room in Los Angeles, where she hosts occasional music nights.

Dave Holmes: You’re going to need to talk me through music night at Susanna Hoffs’ house. 

SH: The first one was when I turned 50, and we had Lindsey Buckingham, Ben Harper, the Bangles, Matthew Sweet, and we just played a lot of music. We had another one right before the pandemic for my 61st birthday, with Neil Finn from Crowded House, and we had my songwriting partner Billy Steinberg singing some of his greatest hits, like “I Touch Myself,” that Divinyls song. Fran Healy from Travis, Colin Hay from Men at Work.

DH: Oh my God.

SH: It was just such a fun night and then it was lockdown. We haven’t done a proper one since, but maybe we can restart those.

DH: In the golden age of the Walkman, were you a maker of mixtapes?

SH: God, yes. 

DH: Was there a band that was a mixtape staple? 

SH: I was obsessed with the Beatles, obviously, and I still am. But also the Byrds, that jangly, 12-string-guitar-driven ’60s and ’70s stuff. Now I have friends who are such incredible mixtape makers on Spotify. I had the occasion to meet the novelist Nick Hornby, who’s one of my favorites and the greatest mixtape maker of all time.

DH: Untouchable.

SH: He sends me stuff. It’s the greatest gift ever, sharing mixtapes. I share songs with my family all the time. It’s one way that we communicate. When the kids were away at school, we would be sending songs and sort of blowing each other’s minds.

DH: What are you listening to now?

SH: It’s almost like a ritual for me to listen to Dionne Warwick singing those old Burt Bacharach songs. I sing along to those in the car to warm up my voice. Dionne, the Supremes.

DH: Is there a song from the early ’80s L.A. music scene that you were part of that should have been a hit?

SH: I don’t know what makes a hit sometimes. I would never have thought that “Walk Like an Egyptian” would be a hit. That was a quirky song we did. Who knew?

DH: I thought “If She Knew What She Wants” was going to be the big one. 

SH: Right? It hit number 30, so at least it made it into the charts. Well, I love Rain Parade’s “Talking in My Sleep,” it was kind of dreamy sounding. The Three O'Clock had some good ones

DH: Is there a song that you didn’t really, really get until you turned 50?

SH: From any era?

DH: Any era.

SH: Oh, that is so hard. There’s songs like “The Waters of March,” by Elis Regina and Antônio Carlos Jobim. Do you know this one?

DH: I don’t.

SH: It’s the greatest thing. Art Garfunkel covered it. 

[She pulls it up on her phone. It is, of course, the coolest thing I have ever heard.]

DH: That’s a sunny day.

SH: It’s like an antidepressant drug, listening to that song. We used to go to the record stores, the actual physical record stores in the day. Now, I have to admit, I love that it’s a click away on my phone. But back then, it was like a treasure hunt, wasn’t it? 

DH: There was built-in scarcity to it. You had to know somebody who had it, or be near a cool record store. And the other people who were looking for it could become your people.

SH: That’s why going to college in the late ’70s was so fabulous. Living in Berkeley, going to these really fabulous bookstores on Telegraph Avenue. I got William Burroughs' autograph in one of those, and I didn’t have anything for him to sign. I had a dollar bill.

DH: Wow.

SH: He signed my dollar bill, and as he did, he said, “Ah, defacing U.S. currency.” He was really into it. I don’t know why I drifted onto that. Oh, because of all the record stores that I would sift through, finding all these bands like the Blues Magoos, these mod American bands that were trying to do British invasion–sounding stuff. Those explorations really informed my life, I would say.   

DH: That’s the one thing that I worry about with younger people now. They’ll have experiences that we can’t imagine, but they don’t have that experience of finding your people because they’re wearing the shirt of the weird radio station. I don’t know how you define yourself now.

SH: I just have trouble keeping up. There’s just not enough time to find stuff. But that’s why when my friends send me stuff, it’s like opening a present. Like, “What the hell? This is amazing.”

Follow Article Topics: Inside-Dope