Sue Clayton
Photo: Samantha West / The Oriel

Sue Clayton Is a Songwriter’s Songwriter (Quite Literally)

Morgan Kibby has written hits for Panic! at the Disco and Lady Gaga. Yet her true calling was found in a wild new songwriting persona: Sue Clayton.

Sue Clayton
5 May 2023

When the moody electropop outfit White Sea released their sophomore album Tropical Odds in 2017, it contained the dramatic and pained song “Gangster No. 1”. In it, raven-haired singer Morgan Kibby falls into a state of excess and regret, singing, “So get me high / Get me drunk / ‘Cos you know I won’t always be so young.”

Flash forward seven years, and the blonde-bobbed Sue Clayton is lamenting her proclivities in the amped-up pop-rocker “OMG”, where she sings, “Oh my god / It’s happening again / I don’t want to fall in love / I’m too old!” It’s a fun and humorous track born out of aged experience, wry with a side-helping of wistfulness.

Yet with Sue Clayton on the verge of releasing her debut album Rookie, a thread emerges. White Sea wasn’t a band: it was Morgan Kibby. Sue Clayton is a full-bore character and persona created by Morgan Kibby. This Alaskan-born songwriter contains multitudes, and with Sue Clayton, she may have achieved her purest form of expression yet.

When asked about the correlation between the songs “Gangster No. 1” and “OMG”, Kibby notes that “they are inextricably linked because of the simplest, gentlest, most brutal and saddest of things: time. Though I may not have known it, Rookie was written in part for an often neglected audience: women over 35. When I wrote ‘Gangster No. 1’, a song I’m still very proud of, I was young, lustful in all ways for experience, a lot lost, but generally pragmatic. I knew in my bones that I was not ready for things I may later regret not having pursued in that very moment. And let’s name them: Marriage. Children. Gangster was a quiet scream of nascent self-awareness.

“‘OMG’, on the other hand, is wry acceptance of the younger self. But it’s also choosing to dip itself in so much hope. The realization that yeah, things aren’t probably gonna pan out the way I was bred to expect, but I can still feel that jolt of newness, wonder. In fact, in most instances, I’m so grateful I didn’t do what I was “supposed” to. Look, I’ve always been a bit of a nihilist, and I wake up every day far too aware of how fleeting life and its moments of deep pleasure are (and have been since I was a child). But ultimately, neither song is truly about love or relationship, just to be clear. It’s about the panic of a young and ultimately fully formed woman, grappling with her desires and her disappointments, with her own commitment to her own story.”

Kibby’s career arc has been truly incredible to see. Starting out as the Romanovs, Kibby’s clear songwriting talent soon led to her joining French retro-synth outfit M83, wherein she co-wrote legendary singles like “Kim & Jessie” and “Midnight City”. From there, her solo project White Sea generated some indie-pop notices, which in turn led her to become a go-to collaborator for Panic! at the Disco. Before long, she was writing title tracks with Harry Styles, orchestrating the interludes on Lady Gaga’s modern classic Chromatica, and working with acts that varied from Phantogram to Mandy Moore. Kibby could write her own check, but something was drawing her in a different direction.

During a tour of his studio for a YouTube gearhead channel, uber-producer Butch Walker discussed how much fun he had working with Kibby on a new project where she created a new songwriting persona, inspiring him to create and release an album under his own retro guise: Glenn. Kibby guests on Glenn’s 2022 album, and he returns the favor for Rookie, but to hear Kibby describe it, the creation of Sue Clayton took years upon years of work.

“I was laser-focused on composition for the five years leading up to Sue’s creation,” she tells us. “Leaving White Sea behind, I made the choice at the time to give up making my solo-artist career a priority and instead forge a new path that allowed me to be creative musically and stay fed. Then my life fell to shit, I ended up moving into my parents’ guest house in Palm Springs to figure things out, and the desire to create for myself re-surfaced like a rogue wave in a rare month off. I didn’t want to make electronic music; I wanted to focus on the simplicity of songwriting in a traditional sense. Lyrics particularly.

“I floated the idea of making an Americana-esque ’70s record to my manager Jonathan Daniel (I grew up with country and bluegrass because of my father, who is a banjo player from Muscle Shoals originally), and he was immediately supportive of the idea. Butch is also one of his clients and a personal friend, so the collaboration made immediate sense. But as we started writing, it felt clear to me that this was me, yet a fictionalized, amplified version. I had never really worked with a producer on a full record before (having done it pretty much all myself in the early days), so I decided to really lean into Butch’s brilliance and let him guide me. We discussed the genre we were approaching, playlists of inspiration, and rapidly the lyrics were, yes, born from my own experience, but the song needed to shine as ‘storytelling’ pieces if they were going to work. Once that clicked, it seemed obvious that Sue Clayton needed to live as her own identity, her own ghost. Plus, I felt like writing with the shield of ‘acting’ if you will, allowed the fourth wall to evaporate yet protect me. Ultimately creating Sue was the ultimate key to feeling free. I’ve never been more honest in my personal music.”

While her collaborations with M83 evoked the 1980s synthpop revolution and the busy White Sea albums stemmed from a distinctly American sense of indie rock, the songs of Sue Clayton were entrenched in California vibes. It’s not just the talking about taking acid during “Desert Caviar” (although that doesn’t hurt), but her notes of highways and landmarks, of baking location-based specificity into her songs to, in turn, give them a more universal meaning.

“I was watching the mountains and the sky every morning and evening in Palm Springs whilst I was writing Rookie, and anyone who has ever been there knows that the colors, the air, the feeling of expanse, abandon … it’s unique in the desert,” she notes. “And when I say abandon, it’s a fierce surrender to the loneliness, frisson, and quiet of the desert. No one is watching for better or for worse. There was no universe in which the landscape would not influence the tone and the story of Rookie. It’s viscerally channeling the metaphors of the landscape into the fabric of what it became sonically and lyrically. But I have to say, I find Rookie lyrically darker than anything White Sea. While White Sea had a youthful brooding, Rookie is wryly resigned. There’s a difference of acceptance.”

There is love and romance to be found on Rookie, such as on the flirtatious Glenn duet “Loveline”, but on the Laurel Canyon-infused closer “Buttermilk Sky”, Clayton informs us that “True love isn’t just a man / It isn’t just a place,” hinting at the yearning that extends beyond mere romantic pairings. Yet despite all the drops of hard-earned wisdom being passed down, there was a chance Rookie wasn’t going to be released at all.

“It’s funny because the record was done many many moons ago,” Kibby tells us. “It’s been sitting on a hard drive. Life and composition took over, and ultimately I made Rookie in such a personal little bubble that it could have sat there for even longer, and that would have been OK. There was something healing about making music for no other pleasure than making it. No expectations, no need to share. But ultimately, I do make music to share it, and I think I wanted to do right by Sue. Meaning I wanted to make sure her whole story was represented across the artistic board: photographs and covers. I’m not a perfectionist by any means. I’m a bit impulsive, actually, so the waiting was my own journey to feel like I was being thoughtful about bringing Sue into the world … I was trying to wrangle her. Not throw her away like a brick in space.”

It’s possible that after this album promotional cycle, Kibby could easily go back to writing mega-hits for the world’s top pop acts, which is why the Sue Clayton project remains so compelling: it’s a record that goes at its own pace whose modest songs contain titanic emotions. Its ambitions are modest, but the songs feel like they could last for decades. Does she want to tour Sue Clayton, “Of course I do!” Kibby exclaims, “My god I miss being on stage. But unless there’s a reason to do it … I don’t think it makes sense. We shall see.”

There’s a faux-magazine interview Sue Clayton responds to on the website created for Sue Clayton, where she gives dry and cryptic responses. When asked what’s her greatest regret, Clayton says, “Time lost. I regret the moments when practicality, staying afloat, and staying alive have taken precedence over surrender.” Yet when asked how she would like to die, Clayton gives a response that feels true with Clayton as a character, Kibby as an artist, and via a sentiment that almost any musician can relate to: “Vindicated.”