Susan Gibson has toured and performed for three decades (both as a member of the ’90s Americana group the Groobees and as a successful solo act) and written a hit song. She’s recognized as a classic Texas troubadour, taking her songs from town to town across Texas and beyond. Her new album, The Hard Stuff, released Oct. 4 (with a corresponding tour launching as well) and contains 10 songs that illustrate Gibson’s superb handle on the songwriting craft. Senior Editor Tim W. Jackson touched base with Gibson to give you a detailed look at her career and new album in this 5 Questions segment.
1) First, while you were born in Minnesota, you’ve lived in Texas most of your life. What can you tell us about growing up in Amarillo and your early musical influences?
Hey! Thanks for asking and for the spotlight! My earliest musical influence was definitely my mom. She played and taught piano and got my sister and I into school and church choirs. She was all about harmonizing, which I think is metaphorical. 🙂 Then I spent years listening to whatever was on the radio until the summer of my freshman year when my cousin Tony turned me on to U2, Sinead O’Connor, the B-52’s, The Cure, Depeche Mode. That music seemed to fit my moody adolescence. When I was a senior and learning to play guitar, my sister made me a mix tape with Suzanne Vega, Simon & Garfunkel, Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman. Their songwriting seemed to reach straight through all the cracks in the walls I had built up as a teenager.
Well, first I love the song and welcome the opportunity to talk about it. If I ever get sick of talking about it, I should probably give the money back 🙂 Having a song do what “Wide Open Spaces” did, especially as such a young and inexperienced songwriter—it was one of the first 20 songs that I wrote— was an almost overwhelming, exciting, and scary experience. I think one of the best things to come out of it was, after a couple years of trying to write “Wide Open Spaces, Part 2,” I realized that I don’t have to do that, and I wasn’t even trying to do it when I did it, you know? I wasn’t trying to write a hit song as a 22 year old, sitting at my mom’s kitchen table. I didn’t even know that’s how things worked in country music. I was trying to express a true thing. That realization, I think, is where any confidence about writing songs came from. Not necessarily having a hit, although I think having a song like that makes people maybe listen to my other songs differently, like more credibly or something. But, the confidence of thinking, “I didn’t set a goal and reach it, I was out here finger-painting and got really lucky,” was my most valuable take away. The Dixie Chicks really touched people with that song. I got to be a part of the whole world in a moment of time because of how they delivered that song. That’s pretty rare.
Well, I’ll tell you, the songs came slowly ( I do want to say that I released a live album and an EP and put about a half a million miles on my van in between there just so your readers don’t think that I took early retirement on my “Wide Open Spaces” money 🙂 ) I think my songwriting voice is there, but early on I decided that I wanted to make a record that was not so tied to my acoustic guitar, not so tied to my solo/singer-songwriter identity. The sound of the record is definitely on the shoulders of my producer, Andre Moran. I had never worked with Andre before on my songs, but had been in the studio (backing vocals or something on someone else’s record) and I kind of got a sense of his vibe, his easy calmness, his humor, and then heard some other projects (particularly Eliza Gilkyson’s Secularia that he had worked on. Also he’s in a band called the Belle Sounds, whom I am a huge fan of. They have a great, big, sound.
For The Hard Stuff, Andre brought in the musicians—the core being Fred Mandujano on drums, who I have played several shows with about a decade ago when I was hiring a band all the time, and a young bass player named Alexander “Z” Lynch, who I had not worked with previously. Fred, Z, Andre, and I tracked all the songs live and then Andre brought in different musicians and their instruments: Noelle Hampton (Andre’s wife and musical partner in the Belle Sounds) and Jana Pochop with their beautiful vocals, Mark Hallman on B3 and organ and vocals, Kevin Flatt on trumpet, Tony Bray on saxophone, and Brian Douglas Phillips on pedal steel. And layers of Andre on guitars, organ, clarinet. You know, we tracked the record for about 4 days in December 2018 and then I went on tour. I wasn’t even in the room when the horn players came. I left it with Andre and he would send me mixes and I would listen and make comments. We did a lot of it long distance. It is weird to trust somebody to shape your songs and not even be in the same time zone let alone the same room. I really like that. I love what he did with the songs and I’m super proud of this record.
Funny about that. I was playing a gig in a bar in a town and there was this guy there throwing this girl around the dance floor like he was a WWF wrestler—I swear there was a headlock in some of his dance moves—wearing a T-shirt that said “Pro-Life, Pro-Guns, Pro-God, Pro-Trump. Any Questions?” and I just thought, “Yes. Yes I have so very many questions.”
I wrote that after my sister, Jane, tagged me in a Facebook post: a picture of John Wayne with the caption (I believe to be a John Wayne quote) “Life is Hard, It’s harder when you are dumb.” A lot of people know a lot of the stupid things I have done because I have had somewhat of a public life—as many of us do in the age of social media—and also I write a lot about my own mistakes, imperfections, insecurities, fears, etc. But there is one person who knows more than the rest and that is my sister, whom I love dearly, fiercely. I wrote that song as if she was writing it to me because she is funnier and wiser than me, and that’s what I think the message needed. Wisdom with a little wink and a hug … and maybe a thump on the head. I think the horns really add the punctuation marks to the song … kinda like the “BAM!!” “POW!!” “SMASH!!” that you see in comic strips. That was the goal and Andre, Tony, and Kevin really nailed it. It kind of stands alone because it’s the only song that has the horn section, but I wanted that vibe, the lightness, the celebration of it, wash over the tone of the album.