march 2009

'There's No Wrong Note'

Opposites Attract, And honeyhoney Settles In For a Long Run

By David McGee

honeyhoney (aka Ben Jaffe and Suzanne Santo): A savvy blending of country, folk, blues, jazz, pop and straight-ahead, bruising rock 'n' roll—not rock, but rock 'n' roll—and incisive, blunt lyrics

When a recording engineer friend introduced guitarist/songwriter Ben Jaffe to the stranger named Suzanne Santo, a fetching young brunette beauty who was an aspiring vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter herself, the former did not break into "Some Enchanted Evening," but a courtship of sorts ensued right there on the spot, which resulted in the pair writing their first song together and deciding to move forward with their collaboration, but only on a professional, platonic level.

Or as Santo told one inquiring writer, "We're married without the candy. Sometimes Ben and I forget to hang out together because we're so busy. But he's hilarious. I freakin' love that kid. But no nookie. Uh-uh."

Typical of each party's rather dry sense of humor, that first song was, according to Jaffe, "a French song."

You mean the lyrics are in French?

Suzanne: No.

Is it a song about France?

Suzanne: Absolutely not.

It sounds like it could come from France?

Ben: That's kind of the idea.

Welcome to the world of honeyhoney (or Honeyhoney—there seems to be no agreement, although it's all lower case on the band's sizzling debut album, the Jude Cole-produced First Rodeo, released on Ironworks, the label founded by Cole and his partner, actor Kiefer Sutherland). Against a white background, Jaffe and Santo are photographed on the cover as a musical version of Grant Wood's American Gothic couple: both stare deadpan straight into the camera, Santo holding a fiddle aloft at shoulder height in her right hand, Jaffe gripping a white Fender Stratocaster at his side, with a black crow perched atop the head stock. It's a simple and time honored rock 'n' roll tradition: a striking but mysterious cover shot of an almost totally unknown group that gives away little about the music being offered inside. Think about the Beatles' faces shot in half-light on Meet The Beatles and remember how you felt upon hearing the first urgent, explosive guitar chords introducing song one on side one, "I Want To Hold Your Hand."

No, no, this is not to posit honeyhoney as being in a league with the Beatles. But they do serve notice on First Rodeo of having potential to be major players on the contemporary scene, by dint of their savvy blending of country, folk, blues, jazz, pop and straight-ahead, bruising rock 'n' roll—not rock, but rock 'n' roll—and incisive, blunt lyrics, delivered by Santo in a voice that can be, alternately, as sultry as Shelby Lynne's, as cheekily petulant as Duffy's, as swaggeringly confrontational as Chrissie Hynde's. As a guitarist, Jaffe ranges far and wide for influences and maybe in the end sounds like nothing so much as a rock 'n' roll version of Chet Atkins, precisely on the notes, easily adapting tone and attack to suit the shifting styles and moods of the songs, making every note count and calling attention to himself not by flashy displays of technique but rather by the tasteful economy of his instrumental voice. These are some formidable comparisons with which to burden two young and developing artists with, but their collective confidence and aesthetic—and work ethic—put them in a position to justify the comparisons.

That Ben and Suzanne seem an unlikely duo may also portend great things for their long-term prospects, in a sort of opposites-attract kind of way.

Ben Jaffe was born in Williamstown, MA, but lived in New York City and in upstate New York as a child before the family moved to Northampton in western Massachusetts. At age six he was taking violin lessons, and absorbing, in his words, "the really eclectic music getting played all the time" by his parents. "I grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix and George Gershwin and Mozart, stuff like that," he says. "Violin didn't go so well with that, so I ended up switching to the drums and went from there."

The signal moment of Ben's young career came in his early-teens immersion in what he calls "this weird kind of Texas blues vibe in western Massachusetts, along with jazz. Then my sister played me Nirvana, which I became obsessed with. So that was my thing."

The polyglot sound of honeyhoney now starts to make more sense, to seem as entirely natural, organic, as it sounds on disc.

After playing around Massachusetts for awhile, Jaffe moved to California. "It was too cold in Massachusetts," he says, and adds: "I'm not kidding. I got out of there as fast as I could."

In and around Los Angeles, Jaffe's path took him from bands to solo work, until he met the fellow known only at Todd, "T-O Double," who let him sit in on, and eventually, join his recording sessions "working with really amazing older players." With T-O Double Jaffe wrote material for other artists and music for television.

And then T-O Double introduced him to Suzanne.

Born Suzanne Alisa Santosuosso in Strongsville, OH, she grew up in a musical family and began taking classical violin lessons as a child. Her father had played in bands in the '70s, as a songwriter-guitarist.

"It was a special bond I had with my dad," she says. "We would get in the mini-van on my way to soccer practice and do all the harmonies for Journey. Seriously, we'd totally gay out and do all the harmonies, and he was into Jethro Tull as well. I was thinking about this recently: Jethro Tull uses a flute in a rock 'n' roll kind of way, and that inspires me sometimes with banjo and violin to make them rockadelic."

But in those years music took a back seat to something more lucrative and immediate: modeling, and then acting. At age 16, after spending the two previous summers working in Chicago and in Tokyo, and with her parents' blessing, Suzanne moved to New York City to pursue her modeling career while attending a private performing arts school.

"My parents had helped me for a long time, financially; for my first year in New York City they had helped me and supported me. I was working modeling jobs, but even then, between rent and the high school I was going to it was really expensive. The following year we all sat down and they told me they couldn't afford it, but if I wanted to stay they would help me whenever they could financially, but that I should work hard on my own and be emancipated. So that's kind of how it happened. I was on my own, I was paying my own rent, but I definitely had some dire straits that they helped me out of. Which is nice.

"I wasn't completely abandoned," she states, laughing.

Thus began a grind of jobs familiar to struggling actors and models everywhere: "I was illegally bartending and cocktail waitressing when I was 17. I had so much fun doing it because I felt like I was involved in a scandal. I think I've always secretly wanted to be a bandit anyway, so I was like, 'Cool.'

"It's funny, the more and more broke I got, I moved farther and farther into Brooklyn. I started off—and this helps explain the inexperience I had with a big city—moving right into Columbus Circle when I got to Manhattan, and our rent was some astronomical sum. That cleaned us out our first year. But after that I moved to the upper east side, living with four other people, all in their mid- to late 20s. And then after that I moved to Greenpoint, and after Greenpoint I moved into Williamsburg, deep into Williamsburg. where you have to watch yourself. It's really great now, and it's really expensive.But back then... "

Through all this she was never very far from feeling a bit displaced, and alone. "I wasn't terrified. I was excited all the time. But there were definitely times I felt really lonely. All my friends were like ten years older than me, and there was a time when I couldn't relate to any of my friends from high school. I started to take on some responsibilities, like rent, and when I couldn't pay it and was absolutely scared, I'd call my friends in Ohio, and I'd be like, 'What are you guys doing?' And they'd say, 'Well, I'm not really sure who I should take to homecoming' or 'the prom.' And they'd say, 'What's up with you?' 'Oh, I'm just trying to pay my bills.' It took me a couple of years to come to terms with that, to stop looking back and feeling nostalgic about being a kid again. But I wouldn't take any of it back now. I'm grateful for how things played out."

HoneyHoney, "Not For Long" (Live at Wiltern, 03/07/08)

At 19, with a boyfriend—"my first boyfriend"—in tow, she moved to Los Angeles, intent on leaving modeling behind in favor of acting. When she arrived on the west coast, she found the lure of music taking over, and it felt right.

"I've always had this strong connection and instinct with music, but it wasn't honed in until I moved to L.A. I had always loved jazz, and like Ben I had a middle school obsession with Jimi Hendrix. I love Frank Sinatra. I listen to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. That was always an inspiration vocally for me. But I didn't really start learning about the Beatles and Bob Dylan and my favorite bluegrass banjo pickers and Appalachian-style musicians until I moved out here. I'm still learning every day. I always get really insecure when I'm around people who are music snobs, who just know every back alley story known to man about, say, Bob Dylan or somebody. I'm afraid I'll say something stupid and out myself as a complete, I don't know. I usually try to skirt the issue by saying, 'Hey, you wanna thumb wrestle?'"

To the open mic nights she went, playing her first original songs, "real sappy, reeee-ally over the top songs," inspired by the boyfriend who had become an ex, but came out to see Suzanne as a show of support, at her request. Hearing her tell the tale recalls the Seinfeld episode in which Kathy Griffin invites Jerry to her standup gig and proceeds to regale the audience with a routine called "Jerry Seinfeld Is Satan," which she fashioned after Kramer had told her Jerry said she should get out of the business. "I was writing these songs about him and he'd be sitting right there. And I'd be hoping maybe it would change something, but it never did. It's funny to look back on now."

And then T-O Double introduced her to Ben.

After composing that "French" song together, they fbegan playing out intermittently, continuing to write and develop their partnership. As more gigs came around, they stepped up their writing pace. "We needed to have enough material to perform at these places," Ben says. "Now that we were playing live, we wanted to put our best foot forward. So it grew from a writing collaboration into a band."

The "band" was Ben, Suzanne and an upright bass player, soon whittled down to an act known as Zanzibar Lewis, a duo, "because we couldn't afford to pay anybody and we wanted to maximize our sound," according to Suzanne. "So Ben started playing the kick drum and the guitar at the same time. And I give Ben a lot of credit for sticking by me when I picked up the violin again after so long a time away from it, because it was so gnarly at first. It was so very difficult to sort of re-introduce myself to the instrument. I've always loved bluegrass and country music, and I kind of took it back in that direction. I can still play some classical pieces, but my heart is in some good sloppy bluegrass licks and things like that. I just love it. He was so supportive, and that's the cool thing about what we have—we're always down to try new things, new ideas. I don't feel like we're married to one specific style or genre. It's really great to have that space and support for each other when we're trying something new, and you can totally fall on your face and it's fine. There's no wrong note."

In music business terms, time moved quickly for Zanzibar Lewis after that. Less than a year later a French A&R executive ("French McGee" as Ben and Suzanne refer to him) stumbled upon the duo's MySpace page and took an instant liking to the music, and to them when he came to the States to visit.

"He was the first person who not only was into what we were doing but actively helped us do it better," says Ben. "He was exposing us to people, introducing us to people—we traveled in different circles. People like Mitchell Froom, the producer, we got to meet him, got to work at some amazing studios."

"People that made us totally geek out," Suzanne exclaims. "'Are we really at Bob Clearmountain's house?' Holy Jesus!"

Through Frenchy, Ben and Suzanne made contact with the new Jude Cole-Kiefer Sutherland label, Ironworks, via Jenn Littleton in the licensing department and Amy Meyer in publicity. Getting to Jude and Kiefer proved problematic, because of the label's focus on breaking one of its first signings, Rocco DeLuca & The Burden, and because, as Suzanne puts it, "Kiefer's a working actor and he's constantly doing crazy Jack Bauer moves."

So, seeking another avenue by which to get Ironworks' attention, Zanzibar Lewis entered, and won, a contest for local bands sponsored by Ironworks, the radio station 98.7 and VH-1. First prize was an opportunity to record an EP for Ironworks. Ben and Suzanne won the contest—"Mark McGrath handed us our comically big check," Ben says, to which Suzanne adds: "It was pretty ridiculous."—and shortly thereafter Jude and Keifer entered the picture.

Cole has a long resume dating back to the early '80s, when he played bass on Del Shannon's Tom Petty-produced album, Drop Down and Get Me, and includes session work for and producing a range of artists across stylistic spectrums, including the Doobie Brothers' Patrick Simmons, country-folk siren Jewel, singer-songwriter Beth Orton, and traditional country artists Travis Tritt and Clay Davidson. He's known, and respected by other producers, as a "musical" producer who emphasizes song structure, concise lyrics, to the point solos, ucluttered vocals, and whose productions are notable for striking ambiance and presence, and a touch of wit, too—witness the reverberant gunshots animating the pauses in honeyhoney's first single, the driving, Latin flavored "Little Toy Gun," and the subtle backwards tape loops in "Bouncing Ball." Most of the record was cut live in the studio in less than a week, and has that live dynamism about it in its furious energy and in Suzanne's intense emotional involvement in her material.

"My favorite thing about working with Jude is that he was no bullshit all the way," Ben says. "On any level."

"He never fluffed our egos in any way, which I thought was great," Suzanne adds. "That was the first record I'd ever made. We did our EP, I've done some studio dates here and there, but the learning experience I got from working with Ben and Jude on First Rodeo is almost indescribable. It was life lessons. Like Ben said, Jude is no bullshit, and it was really hard sometimes, but in the long run the best thing I think we could have asked for."

HoneyHoney, "Not For Long" (acoustic duo)

No matter the setting, honeyhoney (the new name they chose, Suzanne says, "because it's southern and sassy") thrives: the first cut, the single "Black Crow," begins with her pouty a cappella voice, then quickly expands into a lush, propulsive pop-rock missive, with stomping percussion, burbling organ, pumping piano and velvety, cooing, Beatles-ish backing voices on the choruses along with swooping synth lines, even a burst of classical violin. The gentle folk groove of "Sugarcane" gets fleshed out by the rising moans and eerie cries of pedal steel, adding a dash of heartbreak to a song that turns out to articulate a litany of reasons why a couple had to part. Clacking, ringing percussion, twanging guitar, and stone country fiddle all animate the infectious rocker "Not For Long," a rather severe but thoroughly enjoyable kissoff courtesy Suzanne's note-perfect realization in song of a woman leaving a lover behind, albeit with some ambiguous feelings as to exactly who is going to miss whom more. The bluesy ballad "Bouncing Ball" showcases Suzanne's sure feel for a plaintive lyric demanding both strength and regret to animate a narrative exploring potentially destructive co-dependence ("I can see you're the bouncing ball/that I follow with no sense at all"). "Come On Home" melds Ben's stark, angry country blues guitar riffing to some mean slide work, furious fiddling and a pulsating, irresistible stomping beat as Suzanne pleads plaintively for her man to return to her side. "Give Yourself to Me" is an all-out punkish assault of frailing guitars and wailing vocals, as heated and unrelenting as the piano ballad "David" is tender and ruminative with Suzanne lamenting the ennui attending the realization that the object of her desire is "stuck on the first page and I'm close to the end." Every song has some striking aspect to recommend it, and subtle flourishes such as the tape loops in "Bouncing Ball" and the album closing meditation, "Oh Mama," stand out not as distractions or needless embroidery, but as essential components of each song's mood.

Ironworks is aiming for the mainstream, where the money is, and doesn't appear to be looking to make art records gathering critical acclaim and nothing more. Ben and Suzanne are acutely aware of this seductive machinery, in both its positive (in their case, Sutherland directed and appears in the video for "Little Toy Gun") and negative manifestations, and say they're mindful of the potential pitfalls.

"I think it's a huge advantage to be on Ironworks, but with the caveat that we have to be super on-our-toes because you can get swept away by the machinery and come out in a different place and not one you necessarily want to be in," Ben says. "If you keep your eyes on the ball, it's great, but that's easier said than done. But we've had some opportunities that have been amazing, like being able to tour behind an act and playing in front of two or three thousand people every night. I hope that keeps up."

Long term goals, anyone?

Suzanne: "I can say I want to keep writing better and better songs, keep telling great stories and not lose steam on that. And keep making great records. One of the things that depresses me about some of my favorite artists is that they start off so great and all of a sudden their songs just don't make any sense to me any more. I'm not talking about genre. I think lyrically after a while some people just peter out and try, as they get older, to appeal to younger crowds, and they write ridiculous songs. I'm like, 'What are you saying? Where's your integrity?' One of my goals is to keep making records that we're proud of, that maintain who we are."

Opting for brevity, Ben offers a narrower, focussed vision: "I want to release three great records. That's my goal."

Three great records?

Ben: Yes.


Ben: Yes.

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