On Susie Suh's self-titled debut from Epic Records, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter takes listeners on an emotional journey. Forging her own path, Suh brings her introspective songs to life by boiling each of them down to their essence. "I wanted this first album to be as honest and sincere as possible with the intent focused around my voice, guitar and words."
The album's organic instrumentation complements Suh's smoky voice, tender delivery and gift for melody, which gives these 10 deeply personal songs an air of intimacy and a timeless appeal. Recorded over an eight-month period at various studios in California, SUSIE SUH was produced by Grammy Award-winner Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, Michael Jackson, No Doubt) and engineered and mixed by Scott Campbell (Dave Matthews, Shelby Lynne).
Ballard originally agreed to produce a few songs, but wound up producing the entire album. "There is a world-weary and wise power in her burnished amber voice," Ballard says. "These stories come from a woman impossibly young to communicate so much experience, with the sexual urgency and poignancy of a Billie Holiday and the lyrical clarity of a John Cheever short story. I feel like every drop of every line is oozing from her pores, no crocodile tears, no excess musical or verbal baggage. I'm mesmerized by her ability to express the ineffable in her lyrics and by her ability to capture the human heart in conflict with itself. There is shade and dappled sunlight in her landscapes of the soul, but ultimately hope of love, of fulfillment, of connection."
Ballard-who co-wrote the first single "Shell" as well as "Lucille"-pushed Suh out of her songwriting comfort zone. "I'm more deliberate when it comes to writing." Suh says. "I usually let things brew for a while. Glen is amazingly talented and works so fast that I felt like I was constantly trying to keep up with him. The songs I wrote with Glen are much more stream of consciousness, written in a couple of hours."
Written at different times in Suh's life, the album tracks her pursuit of emotional and artistic liberation. "Shell" combines those themes into a hopeful song about trading self-repression for self-expression. "That was the first song Glen and I wrote together," Suh says. "It's just about letting go of yourself and all of your inhibitions and fears. In particular, it's about me having the courage to put out my music."
"Your Battlefield"-is a song Suh wrote to describe the disagreements between her and her parents regarding her musical ambitions. Suh says the conflict was mostly a clash between her parent's traditional Korean values (they immigrated to California in the '60s) and Suh's American-bred independence (she was born here). "My parents came here with nothing and worked really hard to put us through school. Like most Asian-Americans, they really emphasized education and creating a prestigious name for yourself. I think parents try to live vicariously through their children because there are a lot of opportunities here in America that they never had growing up. In my family, music or anything creative was always considered a hobby, not something to be taken seriously. Now that I look back, I thank them for discouraging me. Their lack of support actually fueled me more and made me feel like I had something to prove to myself and to them."
The reflective tone and unaffected instrumentation of "Light On My Shoulder" distills Suh's desire to create simple and honest music that sets the mood quickly. "I started writing songs because of singers like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Beth Gibbons, Bjork. I have always been moved by the emotion and pain in someone's voice. It's not about the style-whether its folk or blues or hip-hop etc., it's more about the believability and sincerity that the artist conveys and if that resonates with you."
Singing and performing in choirs since she was eight years old, Suh's singing career had an unusual beginning. At the age of 8, Suh joined a Korean children's choir for a Los Angeles television station KTE. "We recorded traditional Korean folk songs and popular American music to be filmed in between shows on that station. Basically, we did singing commercials. We also traveled around the country performing and wore traditional Korean clothes and this really ugly white and blue sailor outfit."
At age 13, Suh moved away from her parent's home in Los Angeles to attend boarding school in New England. Before leaving, her older brother gave her his old guitar and Suh began taking lessons. "I learned a couple of chords and immediately started writing songs. It was very liberating and for the first time I felt I found a medium where I could really express myself." Suh wrote and performed throughout high school and in addition to playing guitar, Suh sang in an a cappella singing group, and played the harp. "After all my experiences in high school, I realized that I definitely wanted a career in music."
But that career would have to wait. Suh attended Brown University and received a bachelor's degree in English while playing music on the side. Not forgetting her dream of becoming a musician, Suh decided to dedicate three months to her music. The summer before her senior year at Brown, Suh moved into her best friend's apartment in New York City and spent her days writing and her nights playing clubs and bars in the East Village. Her performances eventually got the attention of music industry legends Charles Koppelman and Don Rubin.
In 2003, Suh signed with Epic Records making her part of very rare club of Korean-American artists signed to a major U.S. label. "I was born in America and grew up speaking English, but my parents speak a different language and are part of a different culture. I've lived half of my life on the West Coast and the other half on the East Coast," she explains. With the album completed, Suh reflects on the making of her debut: "My mission has always been to create music that transcends boundaries, to make music that is universal."