Analogue Music | Suz Slezak

Suz Slezak

By Matt Conner

Suz Slezak finally straightened out her own life enough for a solo album.

In contrast to other artists who might plot out the strategic components of a solo release as part of an overall effort to achieve some specific career goal, Slezak's beautiful new solo record, Our Wings May Be Featherless, is the organic by-product of self-discovery. It's rooted in the joy of creation and the discernment of self-expression. It is, simply put, for her—and anyone else who chooses to share in it.

After years of making music with her husband in the acclaimed David Wax Museum, Suz has emerged from a couple of years sheltering-in-place with a set of nine new songs, all produced by Anthony da Costa (Sarah Jarosz). It's taken time to explore her message and music, along with raising two children, but Featherless is an intimate release that required such consideration.

Slezak recently sat down with us to talk about her new album, the process she's taken to get here, and what it all means going forward.

Analogue: How far back does this solo project go for you in terms of a desire to see it happen? Is it a by-product of the pandemic?

Suz Slezak: I would say it’s been cooking my whole adult life, but yes, the pandemic allowed this space to finally take a break from touring. We toured for over a decade and many of those years with kids along, so to have the regularity of sleep every night and all the energy freed up that we didn’t have to use toward logistics really opened up the time and space for me to work on these songs.

I think being an artist in a supportive role like I have been for David Wax Museum—in a way I’ve co-fronted that band and certainly added some songs—but to be forced to start from scratch on my own instruments and figure out the style of writing and my own way was so refreshing. It was a relief because I’d been waiting so long to do this.

I understand why it took me so long because I was raising two little kids and dealing with my own hurdles of a brain that cycles a lot and touring, of course. But now that I have one done, I feel very encouraged and inspired to keep doing my own solo work.

" be forced to start from scratch on my own instruments and figure out the style of writing and my own way was so refreshing. It was a relief because I’d been waiting so long to do this."

Analogue: That whole exploration of who you are musically was framed as a fun exercise but I’m also thinking how vulnerable that would feel for me.

Suz: Well, I live with a very talented, intelligent, disciplined songwriter who has been writing songs since he is 13, so there is this sense that I need to write songs like he does. That means working on things every day and the guitar is the premise for writing a song. It’s taken me years to get over that hurdle as so many people do who are in a relationship with someone like that or who compares themselves to someone like that. It’s very natural to think that we have to do our art the way we see other people do their art.

But I don’t work in the way that he works and I play many different instruments than he does. I come at it differently. So your question made me think that most of these songs were written very differently from one another. In some ways, it was a grab bag of me trying to experiment with how songs are written.

The first song, “This Life is Kindly,” was written with this beautiful harp lick that I’d been toying around with for years. That was beautiful to try to come up with a melody that would work over that. Then a song like “Beautiful Mess” came out of a Joseph Campbell quote that I love so much that I’ve had on my wall for so many years. That felt more lyrically based, and I think I used a guitar to come up with the chords.

“Why Luke” was this need to talk about and write about this incredible friend I’d lost in high school and my attempt to understand what suicide is. It’s also my lifelong attempt to figure out how the brain can get to that place where it’s the endpoint for depression and serious mental illness. I needed to write that for him and to him.

Then “Loneliness is Measured” came out of this beautiful freewrite that I did with my writing community who I Zoom with each week in Boston. It came out of that freewrite and then looking for internal rhymes within the writing. There are lots of words that rhyme, so once you do a prose piece, you can go in and switch around the way the words are laid out so you can find rhymes in it. I sat at the piano and just started playing and that song came out.

I could go on about how each song was made, but that’s an idea of the different ways and reasons the songs came to be.

Analogue: By the way, what is the Campbell quote?

Suz: “World is perfect. It’s a mess. It’s always been a mess. We’re not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.” That’s been such a guiding message for me as I had the pressure, as so many kids do, to go change the world or help the planet or help society or volunteer. Obviously, I believe in those ultimate goals but I don’t think we’re teaching young people the way to get there properly.

For me, to go make a difference when you’re 21 and don’t know how your own mind works or what is fun or what is easy or what gets you into the flow. You don’t know if you’re an introvert or extrovert or want to work in a group or solo. Those are such important things to know before you ‘change the world.’

Analogue: So that it comes from a centered place…

Suz: And a knowledgeable place so you’re not fighting who you are and forcing this way of being that’s not for everyone. Some people need to be out there on the street as activists, but for others, it takes such a toll that it makes it detrimental to them and the cause they are working for.

Analogue: We’re talking about this as a straw man sort of issue, but this sounds deeply personal. Can you tell me how you worked things out?

Suz: Yeah I felt all this pressure to do environmental work or social justice work, when in fact, if I had this musical calling, I was ignoring it because I didn’t think it was ‘changing the world.’ Making art and slowing down and living a simpler life so that you can have enough quiet to hear songs come… it looks like you’re being lazy or not doing anything or that you’re living for yourself and not for others. At least I had that sense.

I had two parents who were very service-oriented doing tangible things for others. They were cooking meals at the homeless shelter. I think that is extremely important and I’m so proud of and grateful for everyone who chooses that path, but with the arts, it can feel selfish to be painting if you love painting all the time.

Maybe I’m speaking to young artists here. For me, it was so hard to accept that maybe someday I would help people or ‘change the world’ and know that the fact I was trying to follow something that felt good and right to me—doing it with David, doing it with our kids—that ultimately would be modeling something important. But it’s hard to know that when you’re flailing and figure out what you’re doing.

Analogue: Was this a hidden away process? Was David involved at all?

Suz: I would come up with the starts of the songs. I think we called one of them a co-write on “Telescope.” He found a prose piece I’d written and was so taken by it and really wanted it to become a song. I said, ‘Okay give me something to start with,’ and he came back with a sketch of that song. Otherwise, I would just be up in my room alone and bring down something and get his feedback. But I wouldn’t say it was that collaborative.

The collaboration came in because he finally learned to engineer records. Because of the pandemic, we bought one mic and one little box that you plug into your computer—I don’t know what it’s called [Laughs]—so we would engineer and then send them to our wonderful producer in Nashville, Anthony de Costa, who would add all these beautiful textures and arrangement ideas and send them back to us.

Analogue: So what does all of this mean for your first solo album? Is this a free-flowing exploration that culminated in solo work or is there some sort of strategy here of stepping out and starting something new going forward?

Suz: It’s not important for me to have a solo career in music, but it is important for me to share the incredible journey I’ve been on to understand myself and my own mind and what the words ‘bipolar disorder’ means. It’s sharing what it’s meant for me to experience the suicide of a friend as a child and what it means to give birth and sing about birth, which there aren’t that many songs about because of the imbalance of male and female songwriters in our culture.

So to have this platform feels wonderful. And to be able to talk about these things feels wonderful. It’s less about, ‘This is my first album and the launch of my solo career.’ It’s not really about that. It’s more about this wonderful avenue I have to share with others—not to mention that creation is a wonderful process itself and it’s fun to do no matter who listens.

VISIT: Suz Slezak