SUSAN: IT NEVER GETS LOST
photography by alex the brown
The world is a difficult and alienating place, but when you find people who can understand and commiserate when the walls—or the practice-space ceiling—come crashing down, it somehow makes everything more bearable. L.A. trio Susan is Jessica Owen (guitar, vocals), Beth Borwell (bass, backing vocals) and Katie Fern (drums, backing vocals) and together they’re a testament to how creativity, compassion and friendship help manage the unpredictability of life. With music split between depicting promise and disappointment, Susan has found a way to communicate the struggle and hope in being a human being in the world today. Susan’s new “TV Girls” EP is out on Volar on Fri., Dec. 8, and they perform with Dimber, Peach Kelli Pop and more at a record release show on Fri., Dec. 8, as well. This interview by Nathan Martel.
What the hell have you guys been through?
Beth Borwell (bass / backing vocals): Like … some shit!
Listening to the records, it’s like, ‘What have these people been through to write like this?’ ‘Down the Drain,’ ‘Waffle’ …
Katie Fern (drums / backing vocals): That’s a god question. Oh wow! You’re starting really strong!
BB: A lot of that was written when Katie and I moved here from Austin. And we met Jessica, we were just having really shit times.
KF: Yeah, the experience of moving to L.A. and feeling lost and confused. Just those things that everybody deals with and we just channeled it together … [laughs]
These songs all deal with displacement, disillusionment … just a general lack of connection.
KF: Totally, there’s a lot of that … I think for all of us, Susan has been a place for us to let those general life frustrations out. Right? It’s just a place to voice it without it affecting our greater lives outside of the band. This is where we channel our frustrations.
Jessica Owen (guitar / vocals): Like any time you’re feeling really shitty, the thing you want to do is write about it. You want to write most when you’re feeling frustrated. More than when you’re feeling really stoked on something.
BB: It helps when we’re feeling in a weird spot. Like when we moved here, going through some weird shit and then finding each other. And it’s like, ‘Let’s write a song about it in a garage.’ And we had a lot of material to write about.
The songs seem like they could apply just as well to people as they do to the city. Like when you use ‘he,’ it could be a metaphor to the cities you’ve left.
KF: As far as gender application goes in our songs, we say ‘he’ in some songs and ‘she’ in other songs, and other times it’s more ambiguous and there isn’t a gender necessarily specified. It’s not necessarily a person or a place or anything defined. Sometimes it’s just easier to say a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ for language purposes.
BB: Especially in pop music.
KF: Specifically for a pop song. It just makes it easier so we aren’t ambiguous.
JO: It’s not necessarily about specific people or somebody you’re going through something with either—like somebody you’re dating or a friend. But some of them are about a specific people. A lot of them are about—vaguely—all of us going through similar experiences and venting that in some kind of way.
‘Pancake’ is clearly about somebody!
KF: [laughs] Actually that’s the only one that’s not!
The ending is clearly addressing somebody! ‘Fuck you / I don’t need you!’
KF: But seriously! That was the first song we ever wrote! We literally gave up writing the lyrics at the end of it. [laughs] And it became, like, ‘I don’t know. Should we just say “fuck you” at the end?’
Why not? It’s universal!
KF: We just ran with it!
BB: That is actually the truth of that song. Which was: ‘We don’t know what to say at the end. How do we end this song?’
KF: Let’s just put a ‘fuck you’ on it … and tie it with a bow!
BB: Yeah! We tried people and places but just came to the conclusion of, ‘Fuck all this shit.’ ‘Just say, “Fuck this shit! Let’s end it like that!”’ And it was the first song we ever wrote.
JO: It’s called ‘Pancake’ because it’s like your first pancake—like we’ll just throw the first pancake away, the first one you ever make. But it stuck. We worked on it for so long and we ended up liking it.
KF: And it used to sound so much different too! It had a one-minute interlude of …
JO: It had a ‘prom song’ break down.
KF: It had a break down! [laughs] Where we harmonized a lot. And we ‘ooh’d’…
JO: And the talking part!
KF: Jessica talked, and Beth was all, ‘Heeey’ …
JO: Like Ronettes style … [laughs]
KF: Like … ‘Hey, what’s up, guys … we got something to say.’ We were experimenting! What do you want?!
JO: You gotta try some things!
Your songs do have a dough-y dessert-breakfast theme with ‘Waffle’ and ‘Pancake.’
KF: I’m glad you picked up on that!
Dessert and difficult relationships!
KF: Yeah, well—the good news is we’re in better places now. Better than we were when we wrote that first record!
JO: The lyrics are really starting to change from when we first wrote songs.
KF: I think now … honestly, this all just an experiment for us. Figuring out what we want to write about, who we are as musicians, that type of thing. We learned how to play music together, the three of us.
JO: We’re learning how to write, too.
KF: Yeah, learning how to write songs together. Now we’re coming to a place where we feel like we have a little bit more direction. Not that we didn’t before, but we were just doing what felt right and what worked. Now we are honing in on it a little bit more on this new batch of songs.
BB: We’re definitely channeling more feeling through art. Trying to be more purposeful, less relationship and crisis oriented.
Just life crisis now!
JO: [laughs] Yeah, like moving to California crisis [for Beth and Katie]. Before it seemed more like venting. If anyone of us had an idea or a song or even a feeling, we would bring that. And we’d turn it into a song. Now I feel like we have more direction about what we want and what we want our songs to become.
KF: To have more meaning behind it. Instead of just being like, ‘We’re sad and have feelings.’
Is that about where you’re at as an artist or where you’re at as a person in life?
BB: I absolutely think it’s both.
JO: We’re a little bit more mature.
BB: We’ve grown and grown and grown. Especially grown together as artists and musicians. And at this point we’ve been playing music together for a while now, and we’ve grown up in our lives. At this point, we don’t have to write a song that says, ‘Fuck you. I hate you’. I can be a little bit more eloquent than that these days.
KF: Yeah! Now we have more words that we can use! We just didn’t know what to do at the time. Just a ‘Screw it! Fuck it!’ attitude! Which was literally our first song!
Doesn’t being more responsible hinder the artistic disposition a bit?
KF: I can agree with you on that. To a certain degree. There’s an amount of intention that is good. But there is also an amount of intention that is bad. Some of my favorite musicians are people who actually didn’t know what they were doing when they wrote the songs they did. There are those records that you hear, that, like … your response is, ‘Wow, that is shitty. But that song is genius! It’s so simple.’ It’s because they don’t know how to play an instrument and what you hear is all that they could come up with. But it’s way cooler than something someone who is super-trained could ever come up with.
Because it’s more honest?
KF: Yeah! It’s more honest. So writing and making music is always an experiment. But, if you can come to a place where there is a little bit of direction, it helps. It’s always going to be the three of us having fun and being friends.
You don’t hate each other yet?
KF: Nope! We still like each other. Not yet! Isn’t that weird? I kinda wish we did at times!
[laughs] Yeah! I want the story of ‘We got mad. And broke up! Then we got back together!’ But we don’t have that.
JO: We’re all just cool with each other.
BB: ‘I’m going to band practice, which means I’m going to my club with my two best friends.’ And no one can argue that because it’s band practice and it’s my time.
JO: Sometimes it’s more talking than playing. But that’s OK. By allowing ourselves to do that from time to time we don’t put the pressure on ourselves to the point where we don’t want to come anymore.
KF: Susan is kind of like an open therapy session.
Listening to the records, I understand the cathartic nature of what is going on here.
KF: Yeah! It’s a check-in. Like, ‘We are going to write about being OK today!’ You know—why not?
Where does the name Susan come from?
BB: Well … we didn’t think about that fact that it’s totally ungoogleable! And that it’s really hard to find us! When Katie and I were in Austin, I just became obsessed with that name. I think I know now … two Susans in my life? And I’ve met them in the past five years! Before that, I was all, ‘ I don’t know any Susans under the age of fifty! That’s a beautiful name—we have to honor the name.’ In some way.
JO: Once we started to dig, we found a lot of inspirational Susans that we would post from time to time. Like an astronaut …
BB: Like Susan Sontag …
KF: It’s just a good name.
And it has all these connotations to it!
KF: Yeah! Like, ‘I’m going to go interview my aunt Susan!’
KF: The name Susan is all on Beth. We had had two band practices, and we were all, ‘We should name our band.’ Beth was all, ‘I really like the name “Susan”!’ And Jessica and I were all, ‘Cool! Done!’ And that was it! Because we’re all friends. And now we are Susan!
How did this whole outfit come to be?
JO: I’m from L.A. I was also going through a hard time. I had just moved to Echo Park. I was trying to make some friends. I just happened to meet Beth at a party. And she asks me if I play guitar—like, the first sentence out of her mouth.
BB: Yeah … a friend was all, ‘That’s Jessica—you know she plays guitar? Let me introduce you.’ And I was all, ‘Noooooo waaayyyy! I gotta find her. I get her to play music with me and Katie. We are going to get her! It’s going to be great.’
How has coming to L.A. changed your approach to music and song writing in? L.A. and Austin are different kinds of cultural hubs.
KF: Austin is just way more weird and raw. People in Austin, they just kind of … vomit art out of themselves. Here it’s just more self-conscious. Art in L.A. is very purposeful. Whereas in Austin, people are just like, ‘This is what I do. And I’m drunk everyday.’ [laughs]
BB: Yeah … in Austin you can get away with more. You don’t necessarily have to edit as much and people will be into it. They just love whatever anybody is making.
KF: If you try at all, you’re cool. [laughs] If you barely try and then present it, people are all, ‘Wow! You made a zine!? WOW!’
BB: Austin is very positive and inclusive. As well as supportive. Here in L.A. it’s kind of shocking because it was professional—real-deal artists. It makes you rise to the occasion. It’s a total challenge.
KF: It’s a change of mind frame where you learn out here people take this very seriously. That was the biggest thing. Beth and I both played in bands before that we loved and were awesome, but it was a whole other plane of seriousness versus here. Not that Susan is super-serious, but it’s totally a different vibe. Here, you’re meeting people who play in other bands, and I’m like, ‘Hey, I went to practice the other night.’ And other people [in L.A.] are ‘I went to rehearsal.’ Just using those terms makes a big difference in how you think.
You’re a complete structuralist!