Suzanna Choffel is a singer-songwriter who was born and raised in Austin. With the forthcoming release of her new album, “Hello Goodbye,” we spoke with her about her musical influences, career experiences and the album – her first to be available on vinyl. Get to know Suzanna and her musical style before the release of her latest record.
This is Part 1 of our two-part interview.
Interview conducted by Jackie Ruth
Online, it says your family was very musically inclined. What role would you say your parents played in your passion for music?
Suzanna Choffel (SC): It’s kind of funny, because my parents aren’t musicians; they’re just kind of normal people. My mom is a teacher and my dad is a civil engineer, so they do normal stuff. But they just had such a love of music that they passed down to me and my sisters. They had an incredible record collection that they were constantly playing, and we had these great speakers growing up. I remember from basically the time that I could do it myself, probably when I was like 5 or 6, I would get into the record collection and just play record after record after record. Me and my sister would do dance routines, or sing with our hairbrushes, or whatever.
Any time we’d go on a family vacation, both of my parents were singing at the top of their lungs, you know, in the car, and there was never any holding back with the love for music. That’s kind of my feeling of how they gave me a sort of musicality. And my dad was very musical – he played piano, I grew up with a piano in the house and that was from his side of the family. He played piano and I think he was in a band in high school, but just never really pursued it as a career. I think they were also just super sweet and cool from the get-go about supporting me, whether it was enrolling me in lessons, or coming to my gigs once I started playing out when I was in high school. They never even batted a lash at me being in bands when I was like, 14 – they were just like “yeah, awesome!” I just think it was really amazing to have that. I have some friends, whether they be musicians or artists, their parents were not as supportive and kind of wanted them to follow a bit more of a straight-and-narrow path or just kind of get a more secure job. I think my parents just knew that I loved it. I showed talent for it at an early age and it just filled me with great joy. My mom always says, “There’s nothing better than seeing your kid love what they’re doing and just be filled with passion for it.”
That’s very cool. So, how many instruments do you play?
SC: Piano is my first instrument, then I became enamored with the guitar when I was a teenager, so I started playing guitar. So, those are my main two that I know. I mean, I sing, I play piano, I play guitar, I play a little bit of percussion and, like, harmonica was actually one of the first instruments I got in one of my [Christmas] stockings when I was 7 or 8, but I would not call myself a harmonica player or anything like that.
You were born and raised in Austin, which seems rare, so how much would you say that growing up in a city like this influenced your choices and styles?
SC: Yeah, I’m a unicorn! Well, it influenced me a lot, I would say. Looking back, it’s funny, when I was a teenager I wanted to live in New York, or LA, or one of the bigger, cooler cities. Cities even like Houston – I remember going to Houston or Dallas and being like “ugh this is such a cooler city than Austin.” I don’t think I appreciated it as much at the time. Austin felt like such a sleepy town then, too. But as I got older I realized the incredible – just the uniqueness of growing up in Austin. For instance, Austin is such a live music town, whereas certain other cities aren’t, so I think I was exposed to live music, meaning like musicians who are just making their $100 at a bar or at a restaurant or a music venue every night of the week, not like your Mariah Carey’s and all the people that I kind of idolized in my teens.
It was really cool – my mom would take me to go see Eliza Gilkyson, or … some other people that I grew up listening to around here. I remember seeing Patty Griffin at the Cactus Cafe when I was, like, 17. There’s also a lot of all-ages venues at the time when I was growing up, it’s not necessarily that way anymore. But at the time there were all-age venues so I was just able to be exposed to – I guess the special thing about it is that I was able to be exposed to live music that wasn’t stadium or arena type artists. I think it shaped my view of a musician in a very special way, because I saw that you could be a musician and not be some crazy-huge pop star; you could actually just be a musician and make a living, do your thing and do your art as you wanted to. It was cool that I got to perform in bands at an early age and we would play Saxon Pub and Broken Spoke, and those are probably things that I would not have been, you know, perhaps if I had grown up in a big city – a lot of big cities don’t have the live music culture that Austin does.
As with most music, it’s kind of hard to put someone into one genre, and this applies to you too. You play to a variety of types of music, but would you say that there’s one genre that you lean toward when you’re playing or writing music?
SC: No, not really. I was just having that conversation earlier with someone about genre, because I have so many people asking, “What do you call yourself? What do you call your music?” It’s so hard, and I think we’re kind of approaching a less genre-oriented world, but it’s still good to have an umbrella to live under. I would say that the two biggest influences on me, that I kind of lean towards when I write songs and when I perform, would be soul and folk. I know they seem very different, but I kind of think back on my parent’s record collection and it was basically Motown, which is soul, and it was a lot of folk. [They had] Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and all that stuff. I think what unites – what is the unifying thread between both of those musics, even though stylistically they’re very different – is that they’re very lyric-driven and they tell stories, and they’re very emotional. I think from a young age I was kind of drawn to that type of songwriting, and so I would say the genres that I lean towards, that I draw from the most when I go to write, are probably those.
Soul, R&B a little bit, definitely my voice is very influenced by that, but then also with my guitar, I’ll go to like finger-picking a version. It’s funny, because as I’m thinking this I’m also realizing I’m so influenced by reggae and world music too. I’ll put a weird reggae or Brazilian beat or rhythm into something, so I draw from a lot. I would definitely say, if I had to pinpoint it, soul and folk.
Would you say that in creating and performing music, you like to kind of use the same things that you like to listen to from other people?
SC: Yeah, although not always. I like a lot of different styles of music and some music styles that I like I know that I will never really touch or never really do, but I have so much respect for, you know? Like hard rock, I really sometimes love, I wouldn’t call myself a super hard rock person, but there are some bands that I just love to see, like they rock so hard and I will probably never be that person. I occasionally will write a song that sort of hints at that, but I’m just not a hard rocker. I would say, in general, I write towards the things that I want to, and that I actually listen to. I think that makes perfect sense.
Yeah, because you have so much experience in listening to what it sounds like.
SC: Exactly! You kind of aim for sort of what your heroes are doing and hope that you put a different spin on it.
When I was listening to your music, I heard a lot of influence from the 1960s and 1970s. If you had to pick, what would you say influences you most: a time period, a place, a group of people or something else entirely?
SC: That’s a hard question. It’s so funny because I feel like I’m equally influenced by the ‘70s as I am by the ‘90s or something. I guess it’s like this: the music that I was listening to as a child, which were my first influences, the first sounds that I was absorbing and really kind of attaching to and loving and figuring out what they were doing, it circled back around I think and hit me in a different way in the ‘90s when I was a teenager. Those are your formative years when you’re becoming an adult and I was listening to a lot of Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, and a lot of hip-hop, like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets – but then also Fiona Apple and a lot of singer-songwriters like that. I feel like I went to the same genres that I was influenced by as a child, but it was the new form of them in the ‘90s. Like Erykah Badu became to me in the ‘90s what maybe Roberta Flack was to my ears as a child; Fiona Apple became what Joni Mitchell was to me when I was a kid. So, if you’re asking me what influences me the most, it wouldn’t be necessarily a decade or a place – I’d say it’d be more of like, just a vibe. It goes back to that “soul or folk,” just really great, soulful, singing and melodies and songwriting.
But, I definitely love being influenced by places, and I’ve definitely felt that; I think growing up in Texas, Texas music, regardless of the genre, has a very specific sound to it. I think because Texas is such a big state it’s influenced by so many things, and I feel like that comes through in a lot of musical artists that are from Texas. And then I spent some time in New York, and New York really influenced me, and I spent some time in Brazil, and Brazil influenced me. I really love the idea and I find it to be true that places influence you.
I think you kind of attach to certain sounds and they kind of get reborn in different artists over the years. It’s a similar sound but it’s a slightly new take on it, you know, and that’s what everybody’s trying to do: they feel like everything’s been said and everything’s been done, but it hasn’t because there’s always someone to come along and do it in a slightly different way.
You can follow Suzanna Choffel on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Stick around for Part 2 of our interview. You can catch Suzanna at her album release party tonight at 3Ten Austin City Limits Live at 9 p.m. To purchase tickets, click here.
Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, Jackie has called Austin home since choosing to attend the University of Texas, where she graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism. She loves spending time with her dog, writing about pop culture in all its forms and spending time with friends – eating, drinking and doing trivia. You can follow Jackie on Twitter and Instagram.