Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano
How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.
Spirals, Vol. 1: Not a Straight Line to Be Found
17 April 2014Amazon
Piano chords line the marrow of Bruce Sudano. They're always there, ready to convey his emotions through the keys. On a crisp winter afternoon in New York, the kind where brilliant sunlight bursts through a clear blue sky, Sudano dropped by the Laurie Beechman Theatre, a midtown cabaret space where performers of all theatrical persuasions have held court for more than 30 years. Within seconds of Sudano's arrival, the piano pulls him to the stage like a magnet.
"Is there a remedy for the passions of the sun?" he sang, his voice tinged with warmth and wonder. It's the opening line to "I'm a Rainbow", a song he wrote just before the release of his first solo album Fugitive Kind (1981). It's a spontaneous performance but the sentiment behind the song is as much a part of Sudano as the supple yet rough-hewn texture of his voice. He is an artist whose soul speaks through melodies.
Whether the sun or rainbows, the sky has always furnished a canvas of inspiration for Sudano. It's the backdrop for "The Mountain", the latest single from his new EP, Spirals, Vol. 1: Not a Straight Line to Be Found (2020). "You don't look at the mountain when you're reaching for the sky," he sings, his voice carrying the last note to a whole other octave. Of late, Sudano has explored the upper part of his vocal range, a place where words themselves seem to soar. It serves "The Mountain" well.
"The thing is, you want to fly," he notes about the "The Mountain". "You want to keep going forward and you want to keep reaching. It has to do with purpose of life and purpose in life." In translating those thoughts to video, director Elliot Mason has turned Sudano into a guitar-strumming avatar who climbs rocks, hang glides, and deep sea dives. He even becomes a superhero, manifesting endless possibilities when "all you've got is faith to fly".
Producer and engineer Steve Addabbo, who's worked with Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Bobby McFerrin, and Bob Dylan, is an ideal collaborator for Sudano on Spirals, wrapping the raw yet tender qualities of his voice in blankets of sound. As always, Sudano's guitar is like a natural extension of his heart. He draws the listener in with a hushed intimacy on "In the Garden of November" and uses dreams to explore different kinds of loss on "Back in the Neighborhood" and "See You When I Get There". Like a respite from the emotionally charged "spirals" of the EP, "Shelter Island" evokes plush duvets and glowing embers.
Spirals was among several projects Sudano discussed when he talked with PopMatters at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, following his February appearance at the Durango Songwriters Expo in Ventura, California. In this wide-ranging conversation, Sudano reflects on his career, from his solo albums to his unique collaboration with Giorgio Moroder on Doug Aitken's "moving light sculpture", Station to Station (2013). He also shares his philosophy of songwriting, discussing the musical strengths of his late wife Donna Summer and his bandmates in Brooklyn Dreams, and reveals one of the greatest challenges he's overcome as an artist.
Of the videos you've done, "The Mountain" sets an entirely different tone. It's a little more playful and has a pop-art aesthetic to it. When you approached Elliot Mason about directing the video, did you give him a blank slate or did you have a particular concept in mind?
Elliot is a musician. He's a bass player out of the UK. He actually lives on the Isle of Wight.
When I was on tour with Colin Blunstone, I was opening for Colin and Elliot was Colin's bass player. Elliot is a very nice, talented but quirky individual. We got to spend some solo time together and developed a rapport. Then he started showing me these animations that he'd done and had been doing.
I wanted to twist things up a little bit so I said, "Elliot would you do a video for me?" I sent him the song and he loved the song ... and I'm now a superhero! He's such a quirky guy, as you can tell from the video. He really has a great sense of humor.
There's a line in the song that's also highlighted in the video — "You think too long, you can talk yourself out of anything". When has that been true in your own life?
Almost everyday! When I wrote that line, I wasn't thinking about myself. I was relating it to somebody else, but I'm certainly guilty as charged of that as well. The funny thing about many of my songs — not that I listen to my own songs that often — but there are many times in my own life where I bump into a line that I wrote and it puts me back on course or corrects my vision or rights my emotion. That line certainly is relevant in my life and has been at different times.
I recently got married. In a situation like that, certainly, you can tap dance around things for awhile but then forward motion is good.
When I listen to "In the Garden of November", I feel like I'm sitting with you on a park bench somewhere. It's such an intimate performance. There's a phrase in the lyrics that really strikes me: "Memories and dreams colliding in mid-air". I'd love you to expound on that.
I think that's the most important line in the song because when you're in that season of November, it's kind of a moment of reflection because it's coming into the end of one year. You're getting ready to prepare for the new year. The leaves are falling so it's kind of a reminiscence. You're just sitting in that spot where you're looking back and you're looking forward and that's where the memories and dreams collide. It's a time of assessment. Where have I been and where am I going?
The title of the new EP is Spirals, Vol. 1: Not a Straight Line to Be Found. How does the word "spirals" create a unifying theme for the songs on the EP?
It's an analogy for all different kinds of emotions in life, whether it be a love or a loss or a remembrance, a dream. Nothing is ever straight. You're always kind of spinning and growing and shrinking. I've just always viewed life as a spiral and so I think it can relate to any aspect or emotion of life, of a beginning of a feeling and the end of a feeling.
Last fall, you released a new single "With Him" in advance of Spirals. There's a moment in the song where your voice let's out this soft but high-pitched cry. I was really struck by that. It sounds like you're saying "Why?" ...
... I'm not really saying "why". I'm actually crying. It's more a cry, but it could be "why" because that is what the cry is. We all have our experience with loss on different levels. I've had my share so I think that's what you're drawing from when you're crying out "why?" It's a yearning to understand what you can't understand and I think that's what the emotion in the song is.
When I was listening to "With Him" and the new songs on Spirals, the playlist jumped to your last album 21st Century World (2017). It's been a few years since you recorded it. Of all the albums you've recorded, what place does 21st Century World hold for you now?
I think 21st Century World was a bit more of an outward thing where I'm commenting on some socio-political point of view on "Common Sense" and "It Ain't Cool". There's that song on there, "Charade", which addresses social media a little bit.
I've recently been keenly aware that I've been on this cycle of inspired, passionate drive which started with the Angels on a Carousel (2013) album. It's been both inward and outward so I've been asking myself, "What else do you have to say?" My philosophy is always "keep living, keep writing".
I'm sure I'll have more to say but right now I'm in a place where I'm finishing up Spirals, Vol. 2. I haven't been in a particular writing mode. I've been recording and thinking about what I have to say. What do I want to say? What am I feeling?
A few months ago, I bought the 12-inch single of "Willoughby" (2013), the song you and Giorgio Moroder wrote and recorded as part of the Station Station project. Doug Aitken described it as a "moving light sculpture". The track surprised me because I've never heard you sing solo on a dance cut like that. It works so well! Given your recent albums, it's really an outlier, stylistically. Explain the genesis of your involvement with that project.
Giorgio called me up and said this artist Doug Aitken asked him to be part of this project. Giorgio asked me if I wanted to be part of it with him. We had to show up and in one day record a song. We got on the train. The idea was to have no idea but one of the cars of the train had a recording studio. When the train reached the next city, which I believe was Winslow, Arizona, there was a stage set up. We had to get off the train and perform this song that we had just written.
We were on this train so we wanted the concept to be train-related. It was Giorgio's idea for "Willoughby", because he remembered The Twilight Zone episode of this guy on a train, so that's how it germinated into whatever it became.
It's interesting because I've known Giorgio a long time and we've never really worked in this way before. I'm not really sure we accomplished anything great here but we did it! [laughs] I haven't listened to it in a long time.
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical opened on Broadway in 2018. It included a couple songs you co-wrote, "Bad Girls" and "On My Honour". Would young Bruce Sudano from Flatbush in Brooklyn have imagined that his songs would one day be performed on a Broadway stage?
It's not something that I would say surprised me and at the same time it was nothing that I anticipated. Songwriting, for me, is where I know who I am and it kind of always was, from the time that I was very young, so that was my place of home. That's my place of passion. That's my place of fulfillment. I kind of understood that that was going to take me down my path. I believed that all things were possible.
I still believe that. As long as I continue to be inspired and continue to grow, I think that songs that I write can take me anywhere. I don't think there's any door that cannot be opened because of a song — the people that I've met, the places that I've been — so it was nice to have a song that you were involved with be on Broadway.
Broadway lyricist Fred Ebb [Kander & Ebb] was among your mentors when you first started out in the business. What did you learn from him about songwriting?
Oh, a lot. Just about the importance of a lyric, the importance of words, economy of words, how one little word can twist everything, and respect for the art of writing a lyric. I can't say enough about Fred Ebb and how gracious he was to me. He opened doors to worlds that were very different than the world that I was in at the time. I was already a young kid trying to write songs, but he was gracious and he nurtured what I had at a point when it could still be questioned whether or not I had any real ability or not.
When you arrived here this morning, you went over to the piano and played "I'm a Rainbow", which many listeners know as a song that Donna Summer recorded after The Wanderer (1980). Describe the life of that song.
I always look at that song as a purely inspirational piece of music. It's one of those things where I sat down at the piano and this song came out. I live in wonderment of that song, because most songs when I write them, of course, there's that seed of inspiration. I look at songwriting as part inspiration and part craft but that particular song was just a flow that came out of nowhere for me. That song has a special place in my heart. That at some point Donna decided to record it and name her album after it was an extra added bonus. It's a special song for me because it was like a gift. All songs are for me, but that one especially.
It was a treat to see you play the piano earlier because I've only ever seen you play guitar in concert. Is the piano still an instrument you compose on?
No, I'm now putting together a new apartment in Milan and I think that's been the conversation of late — "Bruce, do you want a piano?" I love having a piano. I actually miss the piano. It's different for me. At my house in LA, I have a full size keyboard, but I don't ever go to it, but anytime I see a piano, I go to the piano. Maybe I need to start composing on the piano a little bit more. That will move my musicality a little bit.
Around the time you wrote "I'm a Rainbow" you recorded your own version of "Starting Over Again" on your first solo album Fugitive Kind (1981), just after Dolly Parton had a number one country hit with it. It touched on your parents' divorce. What was their response to hearing a song that's basically about their life?
My mother loved it. My father didn't like the way I characterized him. There's a line in the song "He's out scheming big deals with one of his friends". My father would always say to me, "Bruce, why did you have to say 'scheming'? Why didn't you say 'dreaming'?" I go back and forth with it all the time because I'm a big dreamer. I definitely got that from my father because he was a really big dreamer too, but I think the difference is that there was part of his dream that he was always scheming how he could make his dream a reality. I don't have that scheme 'gift' — if it's a gift or a curse, I don't know.
Photo courtesy of Sekou Luke Studio (2020)
Part of what I admire about your catalog of songs is that you can go from "Starting Over Again" to co-writing "Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming". How did Jermaine Jackson and Michael Jackson end up recording that song together?
The song came about because Michael Omartian had this track. I was working with Michael at that time co-writing songs with him and Jermaine for Jermaine's album. Michael sent the track. Somehow he hooked me and Jay Gruska up to write on that song.
I remember I was living in Hancock Park. We had this big attic. Donna decided she wanted to convert it. We had pinball machines and stuff up there. I was against the whole proposition. Who's ever going to go up there? Of course, it turned out that I'm the one that lives up there! I remember Jay and I up there, working on the lyric.
We finished the song. Jermaine's going in to cut it. Somehow Michael [Jackson] heard it. He loved it and said, "Hey can I sing on the song?" He went in and did his little duet. The song starts taking off. It's very hot on the charts. Jermaine was on Arista, Clive's label. Clive puts it out. Never asked permission from Epic, which was Michael's label. As soon as [Epic] see that it's happening, they put the breaks on it so it stalled wherever it stalled.
You also co-wrote "(Closest Thing to) Perfect" with Jermaine, the title track to James Bridges' film, Perfect (1985). Was it intended for the film? Were you given a rough cut or a script to look at?
It was intended for the film. I don't think I had a rough cut. We had the title of the movie. It was really funny because that movie was the biggest failure of all time, but it had so much hype because it had John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. There was all this anticipation for the film, but it turned out that it didn't work. [laughs] The song was alright. I don't remember it very well.
Donna's song "I Do Believe (I Fell in Love)" was featured in Season Two of Stranger Things. It was also a strong bookend to She Works Hard for the Money (1983). She references "Charlie B." in the second verse, which is you. What did it mean to hear Donna write and record a song that's really about you?
I liked that song. More than I liked it for me I liked it for Donna. I just thought that it revealed an interesting part of her persona that frequently gets glossed over, because she embodied a lot of mystery in a lot of different ways. People felt like they knew her because she was so accessible in so many ways, but there were also so many layers to who she was. I think that song reflected that little bit of mystery that she possessed.
The great thing that I love about Donna's writing was that she was more mysterious in her writing. She wasn't on the nose, and I love that. I try to tap into that when I'm working. I like to create room for inspiration to strike.
Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967) held a special place for you and Donna. Why was that an important album for you?
The soulfulness and the honesty of that record ... It's just great on so many levels. Aretha's vocals, her piano playing on certain songs, the production, I just think it's a masterpiece of genre.
I would put Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971) in that category as well. Donna and I used to have a joke because I loved Aretha and I used to tease Donna and say, "I thought I was going to marry Aretha but here I am with you." Not a bad choice!
Bruce Sudano and Christian John Wikane, 4 March 2020. Photo courtesy of Sekou Luke Studio
You've traveled down so many different roads, musically. All these years later, I'd love to know your state of mind when you recorded Rainy Day Soul (2003), in terms of your musical approach or the things that were inspiring you at that time.
I think I was living in Nashville. I built a studio in the basement of the house. I would just go down there and write these songs.
I've had my own interesting personal journey of becoming a solo artist. There was a point in my life when my kids were finally grown and Donna says to me, "Okay, now it's your time. You need to do you now. You deserve to do you." That was really nice of her to say and to encourage me that way. Yes, Fugitive Kind was 20 years earlier and it was my first solo record, but it had been awhile. Rainy Day Soul is the beginning of this incarnation of who I am now, whatever that is.
"Rainy day soul — wings of a butterfly, colors of a rainbow. You know who you are." Many artistic people have a melancholy kind of spirit and so can I, at times. It's interesting because it's the kind of thing, when I was younger, I used to embrace it because I felt like that's what made me an artist and so whenever that feeling would come over me, I would just go with it and dive into it and embrace it and just be depressed.
At a certain point in life, I realized, You know what Bruce? You have a choice. You don't have to embrace that and go with it. You can resist it. Yes, it's part of who you are as an artist but you can separate yourself out and still draw from it but not sink into the pit. I think that's what I was trying to say with "Rainy Day Soul". [Note: "Rainy Day Soul" — the song itself — was later released on Life & the Romantic (2009).]
It's been 40 years since you, Eddie Hokenson, and Joe "Bean" Esposito released your last Brooklyn Dreams album, Won't Let Go (1980). This past year, the three of you reunited in the studio and contributed to Kenny Vance & the Planotones' "Brave Companions" (2020). How would you define Eddie and Joe's musical strengths?
They're both great singers. Tone quality, control, all of that. Joe is probably an underrated songwriter. I think that happens to people who are great singers. It happened with Donna — I think Donna is an underrated songwriter — because the first thing that you notice is their voice.
Eddie is just a super talented guy on so many levels. The thing about Eddie is he's so talented in so many ways as a singer, as a personality, somebody who can see things from a very unique perspective and break it down. Sometimes his ability to see things on those levels and break it down that artistically paralyzes him. Eddie could be so much more than he thinks he can be. They're my brothers and I love them both a lot.
There's a film in development about Neil Bogart, the founder of Casablanca Records. Your relationship with Neil only spanned a few years, but it was an intense period of time. What kind of impact did Neil have on Brooklyn Dreams?
I think he impacted us more as a person than in any kind of musical sense. He was trying to steer us in a way that, ultimately, if I look back on it, might not have been the right direction, but it was the direction that was happening at the moment. He was doing what he knew to do.
As a person, if Neil believed in you, there was nothing that could shake that belief. He was somebody who, creatively, looked for that crack in the wall to break you through. In some cases he didn't succeed as it applies to Brooklyn Dreams but certainly with KISS or Donna or Village People, it worked. He showed me what the power of believing can accomplish and the power of not taking "no" for an answer and the power of thinking outside the box. That's what I think we all got from Neil.
Through all of your different incarnations as an artist, what would you say is one of the greatest challenges that you've overcome in your career?
Being able to sing in front of an audience. I've always surrounded myself with great singers, whether it was in Alive 'N Kickin with Sandy Toder and Pepe Cardona, whether it was in Brooklyn Dreams with Joe and Eddie, or whether it was with Donna. Great singers.
My biggest fear was singing on my own and just hating the way I sounded. I was always able to connect emotionally but sonically and control-wise, I had a ways to go. I've learned to accept the challenge. I've seen myself progress. I still have a ways to go ... but it's good to have a ways to go.
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