Caught halfway between the dark swoon of pop-noir, the raw rasp of soul music, and the honest punch of Americana, Suzanne Santo's Ruby Red tells the story of a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who, more than 10 years into an acclaimed career, is turning a new corner.
Produced by multi-platinum Grammy nominee Butch Walker (whose Los Angeles recording studio gives the album its name), Ruby Red marks Santo's first release as a solo artist. For the past decade, she's spent most of her time fronting the Americana duo HONEYHONEY, whittling her banjo, violin, and vocal chops into sharp shape along the way. Here, she takes a break from that longtime gig to explore something different, creating a moody, sexually-charged album filled with organic instruments, distorted fiddle, Walker's powerful electric guitar, and Santo's most stunning vocal performances to date.
"I think I started writing songs for this record long before I realized that I was writing songs for this record,” said Santo. “I’ve identified with a collaboration for so long that the thought of taking a leap into the depths of my own music and having no idea what that would look like, definitely came as a shock. I was getting lazy and not finishing the tasks at hand like I really wanted, deep down, to be able to do. Writing this record was bewitching in a way.”
Before they collaborated on Ruby Red, Santo made multiple appearances on Butch Walker's eighth album, Stay Gold. She joined him on the road, too, singing harmonies and playing violin, guitar, and banjo during a nationwide tour in 2016. During breaks in her touring schedule, she began diving into a different type of songwriting, looking to diverse albums by Erykah Badu, David Bowie, Townes Van Zandt, and the Alabama Shakes for inspiration. For years, she'd always been somebody else's bandmate. This was a time to explore her own identity. To write her own music. To ignore genres and defy expectations. To determine what, exactly, she wanted to say. . .and find out the best way to deliver it.
“Once Butch acquiesced to producing the record, I had an ‘oh shit!’ moment where I realized that I needed to really show up,” continued Santo. “I had to have songs that were finished, let alone good enough. I couldn’t stop and I wrote all day every day to finish the songs I’d started years ago as well as the few that presented themselves in the 4th quarter. I took long walks in my neighborhood and listened to demos on my cell phone and worked out lyrics. I would also wake up in the middle of the night with new ideas and would get up and write them down or record them. It felt like the songs were seeping through the cracks of my mind and out of my mouth, without much of my consent. I think art is a channel, connected to something much greater than we are and I feel honored when it picks me from time to time.
Ruby Red is an album about love, life, and lust in the modern world. Moody and melody-driven, its 11 songs range from "Handshake" — the record's epic opening track, equal parts Southern-gothic anthem and slow-burning soul ballad — to the driving "Ghost in my Bed," which pairs an explosive chorus with layers of mandolin, fiddle, and piano. Meanwhile, tracks like "Better Than That" focus on little more than Santo's voice: an electrifying, elastic instrument that's capable of both vulnerability and ferocity.
Santo and Walker recorded Ruby Red quickly, pulling long hours in Walker's bright, sunlit studio in Southern California. The instrumental tracks were captured live, with help from guests like pedal steel player Dr. Stephen Patt — Santo's primary care physician, as well as a former member of the Edgar Winter Group — and drummer Mark Stepro. Santo kept the guest list small, though, splitting the bulk of the instrumental duties with Walker.
"It was incredible to work with Butch. He facilitates a great time and an artistic environment that orbits solely around what’s best for the song, which is so rare in a business full of egos. Butch and this environment liberated and enabled me to work in a way that I never knew I was capable of."
Although Ruby Red marks the start of something new, it doesn't signify the end of Santo's long run with HONEYHONEY. Santo will join bandmate Ben Jaffe in the television series The Guest Book, whose episodes feature the two musicians in acting and musical roles. The show premieres on TBS during the latter half of 2017, adding another bullet point to the acting career Santo launched years before HONEYHONEY's formation.
Santo's story is still unfolding. This is the newest chapter, bringing with it a track list that doubles down on the songwriter's strengths and stretches her limits. There will be more chapters to explore. More colorful stories to tell. But for now, Suzanne Santo's future is looking Ruby Red.
"This record is so fucking sexy, I can't deal,” said Walker. “Proud to have been in the room when these songs were going down. Put it on and turn out the lights."
While She Sleeps is the debut solo release from indie-folk artist Leah James. Hushed one minute and as lush as a Hollywood film score the next, the album was entirely self-written and self-produced by James, who fills While She Sleeps with songs about family, femininity, and independence.
"After becoming a mother, I felt very inspired," says the songwriter, who composed the melodies and stirring arrangements from a yurt outside of her Los Angeles home, dur-ing her daughter's daily naps. James also pulled double-duty as the album's producer, layering the songs with tenor guitar, piano, symphonic strings, and the swoon of her own voice. The result is a record that sounds like its California birthplace: soft and sun-streaked, with songs that evoke everything from the wild, pastoral charm of Laurel Canyon folk to the bright bounce of indie pop.
"I began writing this album during the little moments while my daughter slept as a newborn," James adds, "and I became fiercely inspired to step into my femininity. I was influenced by her — and by today's world — to write an album that both supports and encourages women with every word."
Although While She Sleeps marks Leah James' first release as a solo artist, the album also carries on a family tradition. Like her own daughter, James grew up surrounded by music. Her father, Don Felder, was the Eagles' lead guitarist for decades, as well as the main architect behind the band's biggest hit, "Hotel California." "There was an acoustic guitar in every single room of the house when I was growing up," she remembers. "My dad absolutely loves music, and that's how we bonded growing up. I was born while the Eagles were still broken up, and until I was 10 years old, I didn't know that he was a famous musician. He was just my dad. He'd drive me to school and cook perfect pan-cakes in the morning and play guitar around the house. It wasn't until the Hell Freezes Over tour that everything changed."
When the Eagles hit the road again during the mid-1990s, James tagged along. "It felt like an outrageous extended family," she says, remembering a childhood spent back-stage, in the wings, and aboard the tour bus. The experience was eye-opening, teach-ing James about the love, passion, and connectivity of live music at a young age.
That said, While She Sleeps stands apart from James' family tree. This is a singular al-bum, its songs aimed at folkies, pop fans, Americana audiences, and everyone in be-tween. With one foot planted in her influences — from Mazzy Star's reverb-heavy haze to Neil Young's acoustic folk — and the other pointing toward newer territory, James turns While She Sleeps into something that's at once fresh and familiar. It's real, raw, and romantic, offering up a mix of lilting lullabies ("My Love Will Follow," "One and On-ly"), cinematic campfire songs ("Wildfire"), elegant pop-noire ("Love Me With Mad-ness"), airy instrumentals ("The Moment I Met You"), and showcases for James' cooing voice ("Big Sur," "That Fateful Day").
It's the sound of a woman embracing her motherhood and finding her musical footing alone, even as she shares the studio with session musicians like slide guitarist Greg Leisz and former Tower of Power horn player Bill Churchville.
"When Eva arrived," she says of her baby daughter, "my perspective changed. I real-ized that while I'm watching her to see what she does with her life, she's watching me to see what I do with mine. It was just time to go for it and see what I could do by myself, without anyone to hide behind. I decided to put my music into the world not under my husband's last name, or under my father's last name, but under a name I give to my-self. Instead of standing on a platform that someone else built, I felt like it was so im-portant to stand on my own."