It was 11 years ago that Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe met at a costume party, formed a group initially called Zanzibar Lewis, got signed to the Ironworks label co-run by Kiefer Sutherland, changed their name to HoneyHoney and put out their debut album, First Rodeo.
Eleven years. That’s how long it took for the pair to get sick of each other.
We’re kidding, of course. The creative fires still burn between Santo and Jaffe, but HoneyHoney is on hiatus right now, and Santo admits that they really are a little burnt out from working together for so long.
“We’re the best of friends, but we wanted to try something different,” Santo says. “We still champion each other, and are so supportive and excited. It’s a departure, but I still run a lot of big decisions by Ben and vice versa. We still figure it out as we’re trying solo stuff out.”
Santo releases her debut solo album, Ruby Red, on Aug. 11. While there are naturally many similarities between Santo's solo work and the music of HoneyHoney, the songs on Ruby Red veer further towards the dark poetry and Southern Gothic waters that the band has dipped its toes into in the past. This may be because of the freedom that Santo has been afforded, or it may be down to the influence of producer Butch Walker, the Southern-born singer-songwriter who moonlights as a producer for everyone from Dashboard Confessional to Taylor Swift.
“I love working with Ben, but it’s so interesting to see how different it was to work with Butch on the record,” Santo says. “There was a little more space for me in a way that I did things I never thought I’d be able to do. Like, making violin arrangements, and having the space to work at my pace. With HoneyHoney it’s always personal, but this is even more so.”
Santo admits that her head was in a dark place when she wrote the songs on Ruby Red, ultimately fueling the beautifully somber tone of the record. That sensual, romantic turmoil is expressed perfectly with the first line of the first song, “Handshake,” which goes, “I wanna smoke and I wanna drink and screw/Every time I think about you.” It’s fair to say that Santos isn’t recalling the healthiest of relationships.
“I was in a darker place then,” she says. “Cathartically coping with some of the more difficult things in life, one of them being myself. You’re always learning. It’s not a ‘fuck you’ album. The whole album’s about accountability. It’s about mistakes, and learning and growing from them. Just being accountable for them. It’s really important in all aspects of life to do that.”
Santo, who plays violin, guitar and banjo, split instrumental duties with Walker on Ruby Red, and the producer also obviously had his say regarding arrangements and song structure. But the personal nature of the music on this record marks a clear evolution in Santo's songwriting chops.
“Some songs I had been working on for a while; some came out in the fourth quarter and needed to be on the record,” she says. “What’s funny is that I listened to it after it had been mastered and I had an ‘oh shit’ moment. There’s a lot of sex on this record, and booze and drugs. It’s very sexy, and I totally freaked out. I had to be accountable for it. It’s a part of life sometimes. Sometimes I smoke, sometimes I drink, and then I don’t. It came out on the record, and I felt like the responsibility to take care of that in a way that it deserves. But this record is a lot more raw than I’ve ever been.”
It would appear from the album that Santo and Walker make for a perfect match (well, another perfect match, after Santo and Jaffe). But then, there are few people who have worked with Walker and not spoken highly of the man afterwards. He’s worked with artists as eclectic as Avril Lavigne, The Donnas, Pink, Weezer and Keith Urban, after all. On the track "Better Than That" — which L.A. Weekly is premiering below — he accompanies Santo's lovelorn lament with aching vocal harmonies.
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“I’ve never worked with a more selfless, motivating and positive force who cares, first and foremost, about music,” Santo says. “It’s not about him. I think that more often than not, producers or collaborators don’t coalesce as well. You get a little ego in the room. I just never felt that, not for one second. Every single person that Butch surrounds himself with are wonderful people as well as musicians, and I can honestly say I’ve never felt like that before. I’ve had great experiences, but this is the best one.”
When Ruby Red is released, Santo will be playing as many shows as possibly to promote it, including AmericanaFest in Nashville in September. Meanwhile, while no new studio HoneyHoney music is imminent, Santo and Jaffe will be appearing on a new TBS comedy series together, debuting Aug. 3, called The Guest Book.
“That’s pretty big for us,” Santos says. “I’m really excited about that. We wrote a bunch of music for it, including the theme song and that was cool. We are also releasing a live album, recorded at the Troubadour last summer. We toured our dicks off. We toured non-stop for two and a half years. We know each other so well, so it was cool to see the songs change and evolve. [We] put it out for the fans. We hope everybody enjoys it while we take a little hiatus for our solo stuff.”
Suzanne Santo's Ruby Red is out Aug.11 via Soozanto Records. She plays the Bootleg Theater on Thursday, Aug. 10.