2019: Taking Charge
It was the summer of 2019 when Santo connected with “dear friend” and “phenomenal human being” John Spiker about producing her sophomore solo album after considering some “really heavy hitters and cool folks” who ultimately proved to be too expensive.
Performing with Hozier at Bonnaroo, she remembers running into Spiker “like ships in the night” as her tour bus was preparing to leave the Tennessee festival while he was just arriving. It didn’t take long to seal a deal, as Santo describes.
“We met up in a field and I was like, ‘Dude, you want to do a record together?’ And he’s like, ‘Fuck, yeah!’”
Returning to her L.A. residence on 3 July after finishing her Hozier commitment with an across-the pond gig at Glastonbury, Santo was working in Spiker’s home studio three days later. And this time, she was in charge after almost 14 years with HoneyHoney, followed by Butch Walker’s heavy lifting as producer of her solo debut album.
“It’s so different being the boss as opposed to the co-captain,” offers Santo, who impressively contributes electric and acoustic guitars, violin/fiddle, banjo and percussion on Yard Sale. “Ben and I were co-captains together and I think we can both admit that we kind of got stuck in our roles, which became limiting. But also, we always had each other to make big decisions. The comfort in that was always helpful … having your ally.
“Now, I make big decisions on my own and have a deeper trust of myself and what I’m capable of. I’ve also really learned that I’m capable of much more than I ever thought I was. Because I would really kind of keep myself small sometimes and let other people do things that I was actually entirely capable and qualified to do myself. I just didn’t think I could. …
“It’s like you get thrown in the deep end and you figure out how to swim and you knew how to swim the whole time. So that’s been really liberating for me and is no knock on HoneyHoney. … When Ben and I have played together since. It’s like a whole other level of musicianship that we’re both really excited to experience and … You know, we needed a breather from the relentless touring we were doing.”
2020, Part 1: A Long, Strange Trip
Santo felt fear and anger at the onset of the pandemic, and she dealt with them in different ways. With the rest of her 2020 tour canceled, she drove from New York City to the South Carolina Lowcountry in March to see her parents Ray and Kathy Santosuosso, ex-Clevelanders who recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, which fell on Father’s Day. Last year’s visit turned into five weeks of quarantining with them.
While they were out of their home one day, Santo decided to take an acid trip with her friend Jose. Asked about the escapade after providing some details of her journey down the rabbit hole on the “Joe Rogan Experience” in June 2020, Santo groans, “Oh, God. Why do I say these things?”
The story goes that Santo’s mother was stunned and upset when she returned to find her daughter under the hallucinogenic influence. Almost anyone can identify with a similar “gotcha” moment by mom and/or dad, but Santo’s epilogue adds melancholia to the family soundtrack.
“At one point, my dad was just kind of messing with me just to be funny. By the end of the trip, everybody was laughing and having a good time. But I definitely could have made a better choice than that one. I’m 36 years old, and staying with your parents for that long is quite a … I haven’t had that since I was 16. It was both wonderful and terrible,” admits Santo. “… We would cook epic dinners, which was the wonderful part. I come from a long line of restaurant owners and food people [some family members still operate Santo’s Italian Restaurant in the Cleveland area].
“I was still grieving a breakup from the previous winter. Thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s over. Like, this is it, Sooze. You did OK with the music. You didn’t get to this place that you really wanted but, you know, there’s a lot to be grateful for. I was just grieving.”
While taking long walks during her stay in the Sun City gated community near Hilton Head Island, Santo at least was able to find humor in her sorrowful situation. “It’s a really friendly development, so … every few minutes, somebody would come by in a golf cart and I’d be like crying … and then I’d wave and then I’d go back to crying. (laughs) It was so sad and pathetic and hilarious.”
By the time she drove back to Los Angeles, Santo was ready to get her life back in order, realizing, “Everybody’s got their version of what that interpretation feels like when the world shuts down. I don’t think anybody got out without some kind of freakout or, you know, despair or fear.”
Not making the same mistake twice, though, Santo is pleased to report that a happy reunion with mom and dad at her Austin home in May “was just so great.”
2020, Part 2: From “Pretty Good” to “Great”
Her second time around a solo project, Santo discovered more than “I’m a much better musician, especially after playing with Hozier,” as she emphasizes that the key name of the Irish singer-songwriter born Andrew John Hozier-Byrne rhymes with “CO-zier.”
“I had more confidence,” adds Santo, getting notable instrumental contributions from L.A. regulars Paul Doyle (drums, grunts on “Bad Beast” and co-producing credits on four songs) and Blaine Stark (slide guitar), along with multi-instrumentalist Spiker and special guest appearances by Graves (vocals, programming on “Afraid of Heights), and Jaffe (“Common Sense”) and Gary Clark Jr. (“Fall for That”) on electric guitars. “I was prepared differently. I learn something new every time. I’m really excited about that and grateful for that because I want to make records until I die. So why limit yourself to trying to do things the same way every time.”
Santo sang, wrote and co-produced all 12 songs on the powerfully substantial 50-minute album, employing a gospel trio on two standout songs — opening with “Over and Over”, then closing with “Island”. The cosmic “To No End” adds Stark’s spacey slide to an old-timey chorus that seems heaven-sent.
Inspired by “Acid Tongue”, the title cut from Jenny Lewis’ 2008 solo album, Santo calls the harmonies by Whitney Wood, Kesha Shantrell, and Darris Sneed “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. You have a physical reaction to when they sing. I was crying the whole time. I was watching these … songs come alive. It was how I wanted it and more. … It was just our little vision, and it worked out so well.”
After three additional songs — “Save for Love”, “Goldrush” and “Idiot” — were written and recorded in the past year, while making a few other revisions, Santo was pleased with the final product, saying, “It really reshaped the record and I’m so grateful. … ‘Cause my record was pretty good before, and I think this made it great.”
Later, Santo cites “Idiot” as a song that “needed to come out,” so she sent demos to Spiker. “It proved itself worthy of release. … It turned out to be something that John was really excited to put on the record,” after Sneed’s vocals were rerecorded to create a more bare-bones effect.
“Sort of like a reflection of Lauryn Hill’s ‘Ex-Factor’, you know? It’s really about the drums and the feeling and the lyrics,” not necessarily in that order, Santo surmises. “But Darris’ voice and the cello [by L.A.’s Leah Metzler] just brought it home.”
Santo’s crushing lyrics and fluid delivery also scored.
Among Yard Sale’s other songs, “Mercy” and “Save for Love” hit Santo the hardest. The former “was one of those that like just burst out and it was very emotional,” Santo points out. “I realized that any song that is a direct cable to my childhood where I’m from [in and around Cleveland], they always hit me really, really hard. And in a way that I’m just aware that my upbringing, my childhood and my nostalgia for it are a really big part of who I am.
“So Mercy is a reflection of growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood with real-life experiences that shape a lot of my instincts now. I was crying really hard when I wrote that song.”
The haunting “Save for Love” affected her similarly and was written in one sitting during the height of COVID-19’s “torture of hell” after Santo watched and admired Dave Chappelle’s standup special Sticks & Stones on Netflix for the fourth time.
“I got a little embarrassed at first ‘cause you could water it down to some kind of hippie sentiment,” Santo admits. “But at the end of the day, I feel so strongly about that feeling of what is the most healing choice I could make for myself and others, and love is it. Sometimes that is tough love and sometimes that is a nurturing love. Sometimes that’s a self-love, first and foremost. And everything else comes next.”