Conversation Peace: An Interview with Bruce Sudano
While "impostors to the throne" hold court, chart-topping songwriter Bruce Sudano searches for common sense and compassion on 21st Century World.
Produced by Mike Montali, the lead singer of Hollis Brown, 21st Century World is among the strongest musical statements Sudano has made as a solo artist. The personal orientation of With Angels on a Carousel (2013) and The Burbank Sessions (2015), both released after the passing of his wife Donna Summer, now encompasses a more global perspective on songs like "Your World Now", "It Ain't Cool", and "Common Sense". He deftly contours his words with melodies that lift the songs, even when the lyrics invoke introspection or critical thought. The appealing, rough-hewn textures of his voice convey a spectrum of emotions that give 21st Century World its heart.
As the author of number one pop, R&B, disco, and country hits for artists like Summer ("Bad Girls), Dolly Parton ("Starting Over Again"), and Jermaine Jackson and Michael Jackson ("Tell Me I'm Not Dreamin'"), Sudano has spun gold and platinum records and inspired covers by everyone from Robert Palmer to Reba McEntire. His tenure as a songwriter and vocalist in bands like Alive 'N Kickin' and Brooklyn Dreams set the foundation for his solo career, which commenced with Fugitive Kind (1981) and resumed with Rainy Day Soul (2003) and Life and the Romantic (2009).
However, only since the release of With Angels on a Carousel has Sudano toured behind his albums. In a sense, he's begun anew through the process of translating his songs to the stage. He's come into his own as a singer-songwriter, forging a more intimate rapport with his audience as he searches for answers to new questions. In his interview with PopMatters, Sudano explains why he's speaking to himself, as well as listeners, in the conversation on 21st Century World.
Back in May, you performed 21st Century World start to finish at the Cutting Room in New York City. Take me back to that night.
In a way, it felt like I was putting the period on a sentence. It was a beginning -- here I am putting out this new record of new music -- but at the same time, it felt to me like a conclusion of a phase. As a performing artist, I've been constantly evolving and changing, especially because being by myself is fairly new. I kind of felt like, "Here's chapter one of this phase. Let's put a period on the sentence and see what happens next."
It was a sweet night. There were industry people there, there were friends there, and there were strangers there. A lot of other musicians came. I've done enough shows now to understand a little bit more of what energy I bring to an audience and what energy an audience brings to me, in terms of what they expect and what I give them. It's really warm and I can sense that the audience is there to support me and encourage me, to put me at ease. There's a lot of love in the room.
It's interesting that you describe 21st Century World as the period on a sentence because I see that album as the third in a trilogy. With Angels on a Carousel and The Burbank Sessions still have a freshness and currency about them, especially the song "Things Are Changing". I don't think I could have envisioned four years ago how "Things Are Changing" would resonate so strongly now, when you look at where we are with the toxicity of the current administration …
When I wrote "Things Are Changing", I was really coming from a place in terms of my own personal emotions. As I think back on the song, I touched on culture as well -- there's that Warhol verse -- but I was really in an emotional place then. I think the biggest difference with the new record as opposed to With Angels on a Carousel and Burbank is that, in this record, I'm more looking around me than looking inside me. On the previous two, I was dealing more internally and on this one, I'm looking around going, "What the heck?" [laughs]
On 21st Century World, you immediately begin a conversation with the listener in the opening line of the first song ,"Your World Now". You say, "You ain't got no inhibition, you just do what you want to do." What was the impulse to write that song?
I've been on the road a lot and I've been touring with younger people. Just in terms of the younger generation's perception of things, they're more impulsive, they're more free. That's my interpretation. The song is really a letter of encouragement to another generation, saying pick up the ball and run with it. In my mind, I was kind of bookending the album, starting with "Your World Now" and then closing it with "Coney Island Days", which is more from the point of view of somebody who's reminiscing and looking back, coming to terms with their own regrets and missed opportunities, and coming to a place of acceptance.
It's surreal to see Coney Island covered in snow in the video for "Coney Island Days". Were you involved with storyboarding the concept for the video?
Yes and no. Honestly, I have a hard time with videos. Because my songs are such story songs, my dream is to find two or three young filmmakers that I can partner with on a series of videos. This particular video was directed by Isaac Himmelman and Ryan Harrington, two young guys out of New York. It was almost literal to the song, in a way. The snow was an accident because we postponed the shoot once and then set it up for the second time.
It's hard to talk about "It Ain't Cool" without quoting every line of the song. Every word you wrote just cuts to the bone. The line that I come back to is “It’s a culture built on 'all about me'”. In what ways do you see that aspect of culture reflected around you?
As a culture, there's a pervasiveness of thought right now where people are in their own world, building their own world, building their own walls and houses, and having all of the games and toys and technology. At the same time, there's a spirit of "If this person didn't make it, then that's their fault". From there, it goes into social media, the posting of "this is what I had for dinner, this is the party I went to last night, these are my new shoes". All of that is fine within reason, I guess -- it's all about balance -- but it's definitely a "me" culture.
Typically when I land on these things, I'm speaking to myself as well as everybody else. I think a big part of this record for me is the concept of compassion. I sing about it in "True Believer" as it relates to, What is the call of Christianity? What is Christianity supposed to do and mean? Is it really about dressing up and going to church? Or is it really about helping somebody and helping your brother? As a nation right now, we're sending wrong messages as it applies to immigration. Yes, we have to protect our borders, I understand that, but we have to look through the heart of compassion in all things.
You began writing songs at a time in the '60s when there was such division over our country's role in Vietnam. Could you have written a song like "It Ain't Cool" back then?
Yes, I could have and I actually did. There were a couple of songs that I wrote back then when I was freaking about the war. I don't remember them anymore, but friends of mine remember and, periodically, will sing them back to me. I recently was thinking that there were really three times in my lifetime where I've been this stirred up, politically, for lack of a better term. The first time was the Vietnam War, the second time was Nixon -- Nixon really twisted my mind -- and now with this current situation.
Earlier, you said "balance" and that word, to me, is very applicable when I go back to your earlier albums and listen to a song like "At the Dawn of Hallelujah Day", which is anchored in hope.
Hope, for me, is eternal. As a culture, I feel like we're being manipulated on several different levels. We're being driven hard right and hard left, but I know that the things that unite us as people are much greater than the things that actually divide us. This has been my mantra.
If you can sit down and have an open and honest conversation and understand that compromise has to happen, that you don't have all the answers and you don't know everything, then that is how things will improve and how things will move forward. This is how lessons will be learned. Yes, there is hope We are at the dawn of Hallelujah day. We will learn from this situation, we will grow from it. At the end of this, I believe that the world, somehow, will still be here and will be better off for it. This is my hope, as far away from reality as that might seem right now.
When you performed "Charade" at Rockwood Music Hall a couple of years ago, I wrote down these two lines from the song: “You like the shine that your Instagram is bringing / Does it turn you blind to the message that you’re sending?” The words struck me because it seems like there’s a chasm between the life we project on social media and the actual reality of it.
It's funny because I learned a lesson performing that song live when I was on the road with Johnnyswim. Here I am, solo on the stage. There's like 1,500 20-30-something year olds in the audience. They all have their cell phones out. I introduced the song: "Here's a song about responsibility of social media …" As I'm speaking, I think, Bruce, this is the wrong crowd for this message. [laughs] I said, "This is obviously a message that is directed at you guys in a way and I don't want it to be a negative message because I'm not coming from a negative place. It's really about the awareness of what you're doing and the responsibility of what you're doing and taking responsibility for and understanding what you're putting up there and what you're putting out there. That has a place in your life, but it is not your whole world. I know you all understand that … so here's the song"! [laughs]
It's difficult because, in a sense, I play the character of the wise old man, but I don't want to be the wise old man speaking negativity and condemnation or any of that stuff. My purpose is really a dialogue. I want to provoke some thought. It's not really about preaching. It's more about talking and thinking things through.
To go back to an earlier comment you made about looking outward and looking around you, "True Believer" is an absolutely chilling character study. In listening to it, I get the sense of someone who professes love in the name of religion but doesn’t seem to posses it or offer it in any real way. How did that character manifest in your mind?
There was a period of my life when I lived in Nashville. Nashville is really a bubble of contemporary Christian thought and action and reality. There are bubbles everywhere… New York, LA. For me, as somebody who has moved around a lot and lived in a lot of different bubbles, I see the bubbles clearly and I also see how the bubbles affect me because within every bubble, there's a certain level of truth and a certain level of good, but again, it's a bubble. It's one almost incestuous ideology.
The contemporary Christian community has its own face and its own presentation to the world. They're putting up this front of what they want people to see and who they think they're supposed to be. There's a bit of hypocrisy in that, but again there's hypocrisy in every bubble. I'm not saying it's here and not there, but for me I experienced a lot of it just from how people responded to me, personally, as I transitioned out of that and went on with my life. It all comes back to me, as well, to strive to be more compassionate and not as self-centered.
There's this line in "True Believer", "If you don't know how to love / When love is the hard thing to do", that I was reminded of in another song of yours, "Bat Shit Crazy", which has the line, “She’s not afraid of anything except maybe for love”. I thought, What would happen if the guy in "True Believer" met the woman in "Bat Shit Crazy"?
The "Bat Shit Crazy" girl would find the guy in "True Believer" to live in a total fantasy. They would both be complete strangers in each other's world. They don't relate at all on the surface. If they got into a conversation, depending on the people involved, they could come to some understanding, but the "True Believer" guy in the "Bat Shit Crazy" girl's world would be like "Oh my God, these poor people". The "Bat Shit Crazy" girl would be, "Oh my God, this is weird. These poor people!"
They would have the exact same thought!
Very likely. That's a concept I never thought about.
One of the questions you ask in "When Cinderella Dies" is “What do you do when a dream becomes a lie?" What's the sentiment behind that question?
With "Cinderella", it's really a specific story of me being a guy who was married for a long time, who then gets out in the world and runs into these women who were trying to figure out their lives with a kid or two or three on their own. Basically, they got married with a "happy ever after" Cinderella dream and got to this place where they had to recalculate their lives. I had such respect and empathy for these women and their strength and commitment to working it out. Then I got into this thought about the state of marriage and how people view commitment now. Is marriage not taken as the commitment that it was for me? I had all of these thoughts around that and I think that's what drove that song more than anything.
"Analyzing Stars'" has some very introspective lyrics: “I got this mind that don’t stop thinking even when I’m sleeping. I feel like I’m always guessing, is that the way it is for you?” What sort of release did writing "Analyzing Stars" give you?
It deals with searching for an understanding. We're all looking to understand what's going on and read the signs in our life. It's really just kind of analyzing your internal and external dynamic as you go through life. It surprises me because in some ways it could come off as a personal thing, but people totally relate to that song, they get it and they like it.
There are a couple of songs that I've written over the course of my life that appear and come through me in a different way. "Analyzing Stars" is one and the other is "I'm a Rainbow" (1981). In terms of how the song came out, how it got written and the things that it deals with, for some reason, it made me feel the same as "I'm a Rainbow".
"Common Sense" was written maybe a couple of years before this album. It's not like you had a shortage of new songs. How important was it for you to still make that statement on this record?
I think that in my mind "Common Sense" was always the first song of the record. It set the direction of everything else that I wrote. For me, it was the doorway to the record.
Earlier this year, you led Master Classes in songwriting at Stax Music Academy and Hunter College. What were some of the things that the students were curious about or that you were surprised to be discussing with them?
I gave them a lot of basic facts. I think the things that I found interesting were that certain things I take for granted because I've known them for so long. For me, it's really a joy to be able to do those classes because I love to be able to inspire people, to encourage and inform people. I get a great sense of satisfaction from it. They are excited. They are grateful. They'll say, "Oh thank you! I never understood that."
When I was looking at your three most recent albums, it occurred to me that you wrote all of those songs yourself, whereas the writing that you did in the '70s, '80s, and '90s was more collaborative. At this point in your career, would you ever collaborate again or do you prefer writing solo?
When I was in Nashville, co-writing to me was always a little bit -- in most cases, not in all cases -- a frustrating situation because I frequently came away feeling that it wasn't the best song that I could write. You have somebody else's opinion that you have to acquiesce to sometimes because it's a collaborative thing. There are places that you compromise. There was that in my psyche. When I got to this place of being on my own again, there was a lot of emotional turmoil going on inside of me. Since writing is my go-to place, I had a lot to say. I was inspired and driven.
I think it was a combination of those elements, of the frustration that I always had in collaboration, and it was also my own desire: Okay Bruce, you've lived this whole life and now you are on your own. You've always kind of hidden from being this guy for whatever reason, but this is who you're going to be, so be him.
I'm sure I'll collaborate again. I say this as part of when I do the songwriting class: song collaboration is also a good exercise, just from the aspect of writing itself. You may learn a new chord, it's going to take you to a place that, on your own, you wouldn't get to.
It was a surprise to see you record someone's else's song with your cover of Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' Bout a Revolution". What is it about her songwriting that resonates with you?
Tracy Chapman's an artist that I completely respect. As an artist, she's somebody that I feel some kind of alignment with. Mike said, "I think that you can sing somebody else's song. It might be a good experience for you." I said. "Okay, Mr. Producer." [laughs] I will respect your wish and I will give it some thought."
The song that I came up with was "Talkin' Bout a Revolution". I thought, thematically, it was a message that fit in with the record. I did better with it than I thought I would. This is not everybody's interpretation of that song, but in my mind, it's a warning. It's about if we don't deal with some of these issues, we're going to have a revolution. People think we're so far away from that, but this world that we live in is much more fragile than people think.
What distinguishes Mike from other producers you’ve worked with? What does he bring to the table?
When I was on a European tour together with Hollis Brown a couple of years ago, we spent a lot of time packed into a van. We listened to a lot of music together. They're a generation away from me in terms of what they like and what they know, how they hear things and how things are perceived through their eyes and ears. Mike would just start talking about, "Here's how I see you". I've finally gotten to a place where I understand who I am as an artist now in this incarnation, at this point in my life. I think that Mike helped me clarify that. He said, "It's really about what you say, and you and your acoustic guitar."
In terms of the production, it's not a lot of bells and whistles. We color it in a stripped-down basic kind of way. That lined up very much with what I was feeling and how I saw myself. Just doing these songs that I'm doing from my house, singing them live in person, and putting them on Facebook or YouTube or Instragram, it's just me and the song and the guitar. It's all very immediate. I felt that I was on a path to get to that place because that's really the essence of who I am and what I do.
When I was on the tour with Johnnyswim I had to play solo. It was really the first time that I had to do that. It was a challenge, but it was a place that I had to go to and wanted to get to. I think that's the ultimate: to be able to be there on your own, with just your voice and your guitar and your songs. It's the most vulnerable and the most real and, for me, the most challenging place to be. That's not to say that now I can't go back to a place of being with a band, but I like that I was able to get to that place.
Your daughter Amanda and your son-in-law Abner are flourishing as Johnnyswim. Back in March you and Johnnyswim performed a sold out show at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Georgia. It was so special to see their name and your name on the marquee. What did that mean for you?
The fact that it was sold out and their audience was so receptive to me? It was cool on every level. Touring with Johnnyswim was such a beautiful experience. It was such a beautiful expression of love from my kids to me. Of course, it was full circle. Here I am on the tour bus and Amanda's like, "Okay dad, here's your bunk". It's their crew and their tour. Abner would go out every day for my sound check and work with the sound man to make sure I sounded right in the room and that my monitors were right. Every day.
In the last few years, you’ve sung with your Brooklyn Dreams bandmates Joe "Bean" Esposito and Eddie Hokenson on a few different occasions. In fact, 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of the first Brooklyn Dreams album. What’s the dynamic like between the three of you now?
The dynamic is as it always was. We're friends in the highest form of that term. We know each other inside out. We love each other. We don't berate each other. We accept each other. I think that was always the thing about us that made us work as a group and as people, we celebrated each other's strengths and covered each other's weaknesses. That still exists.
Joe is singing with the Brooklyn Bridge now and he was in New York to do a show the same week I did the show at the Cutting Room. Eddie was there. Kenny Vance happened to be in from Florida. The four of us sat around the kitchen table in Eddie's house in Brooklyn and sang and talked and laughed. That's the thing, more than anything, when we're together now, we really laugh. I don't laugh as much with anybody as when I'm with Joe and Eddie. It's just hysterical. A large part of that has to do with Eddie, who might be the funniest guy in the world.
I’d like to close with a line from The Burbank Sessions, "These shoes are telling their own story". What do you feel is your story at this point in your life?
I want to continue to push myself and challenge myself, to reflect whatever awarenesses I come to, to try to bring love and light into the world. At the same time, have fun. That doesn't mean there aren't hard times and tragedies, but through those things, good things can come. There's a biblical concept: "to count it all joy". That's a concept that can sustain you even through the hardest of times. When you hold on to that hope and that faith, it broadens you and deepens you, and takes you higher at the same time. That's a concept I hope to carry on through this life and into the next one.