The Next Fun Fearless Female Rock Star
The now generation of local songwriters, native Austinite Suzanna Choffel
Striding across the full parking lot of Central Market near Ben White on a partly cloudy Wednesday before the presidential election, Suzanna Choffel resembles any of several working women heading to and from the store: preoccupied, breezy, and self-assured. Her car keys splay between her fingers as she deflects the sun from her tiny cell-phone screen to read a message, expressionless. She looks up, lifts her sunglasses, and smiles.
Her big eyes glint a clear blue-gray that inspires songs about oceans and heaven. Those boundless horizons seem appropriate given that the sky's the limit for Choffel, 28. In the two years since the release of her local debut CD, Shudders & Rings, in the fall of 2006, she's had the kind of attention young performers covet, and all on her own terms.
As a contender for the Cosmopolitan StarLaunch contest and the winner of two online competitions, including FameCast; a featured artist on two compilations who tours nonstop playing private parties and concerts; and a CMJ showcaser with loads of critical praise for her CD and invitations left and right to collaborate, not to mention one of the hottest videos on YouTube, Choffel arguably has the hottest name out of Austin at the moment. It's more than enough to serve notice that she's, quite literally, moving from the small stage to the big one.
Sliding into a chair in the middle of Central Market's late-lunch crowd, Choffel quickly ticks off her morning agenda 24 hours before leaving town to go on the road. Crammed on the morning list are running errands, renting a van for the upcoming tour, voting early, and then lunch here.
"I stayed out too late last night seeing Grace Potter at the Parish," she grins slyly with a girlish shrug. "Which is a big no-no, but ... whatever. Gotta have some fun."
She punctuates her sentences with precise fork stabs into a bowl of salad and regularly uses the adjective "super." It gives her already effusive personality the air of someone who's having the time of her life. And why not? On July 24, "Raincloud," a video filmed locally at ME Television studios, was posted by Choffel's manager in response to a YouTube casting call for video entries in Cosmopolitan's StarLaunch summer search for "the next fun fearless female rock star" (www.youtube.com/cosmostarlaunch). It sounds like PR piffle, but the results of the official contest launch weren't.
"That totally blew my mind!" stops Choffel midbite. "We were in New York when that happened. They launched the Cosmo thing on a Friday in October on YouTube. I was busy getting ready for a show, but my drummer Eldridge was logging in every 20 minutes or so and checking. He's such an Internet freak. 'Oh my God,' he said. 'There are 50,000 hits!'
"'Really?' I'd look at him and go about my business. My sister called and said, 'You went from 75,000 to 150,000 hits in half an hour.'
"I opened up my in-box, and it was full. It's crazy how many people are on YouTube at any hour of the day. It's bigger than any festival I could play.
"The Internet is overwhelming, because it's so accessible. And because anybody can put stuff up there, there's so much to sort through to get to the good stuff. Not to shoot anyone's dream down, but anyone who thinks they have a chance at becoming famous has music on MySpace. It's a beautiful thing, and it's a terrible thing. It's easier to get yourself out there, but harder to be discovered. I'm so amazed by FameCast, because it's difficult to get your voice heard with so much music being made in the world."
That's a potent statement and relevant to those who wonder the point of contests. Choffel believes that for her generation of musicians in the post-golden-age of record companies, the Internet is the DIY ethic come true. Few artists are beholden to labels or corporations, and fewer still will become big enough to partner with Wal-Mart in a distribution deal. Contests offer painless gambles.
Choffel's coming-of-age story reflects a generation of musicians born around the time of the Chronicle's 1981 founding. Hers is a demographic that was barely in its teenhood when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. She and her musical peers were born into an MTV generation with its do-it-yourself ethic borrowed from punk even as the original music-industry infrastructure was issuing its death rattle.
The Cosmo StarLaunch competition ended Nov. 2 without Choffel among the top names, but she beat out 400 other acts to win first prize in September's FameCast Pop competition. Taking career in hand is the new model for younger artists calling their own shots, cutting the label strings, and still feeling appreciated, because deep in the heart of every musician lies the unquenchable desire to be adored.
I'm From Texas
For most musicians, the multigenre sound is best left to singer-songwriter types comfortable in their own folk skin. That's a gross generalization, because the folk tradition incorporates myriad genres and generously embraces outside influences. Being somewhat elusive comes with inherent problems, however: How do you describe your sound? A lucky few boast the get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to holding the mixed bag by boasting, "I'm from Texas."
That phrase says it all to fans of Texas music as much as it mystifies non-Texas music lovers. Most non-Texas music fans believe Texas music to be simply country and cite Willie Nelson. Yet Texas music is a richly embroidered tapestry of sound. Its threads interlock in vivid flag colors: red for rock & roll, blue for R&B, white for country. What is woven with those aural strands is closely knit within the patchwork of American music – soft yellows of folk, the green of jazz, pink of Mexican, purple for classical, and all shades on the color palette in between. Choffel's music is a bright orange, a bold, sensual color guaranteed to elicit warm responses when she says, "I'm from Texas."
Suzanna Choffel can take that statement one step further: "I was born in Austin."
"Born and raised in Austin, and from a young age, I knew I was going to do music," she explains, stirring her fork in the salad bowl. "I grew up in the suburbs of North Austin, back when 183 was a two-lane highway. When I was 12, my parents split, which was traumatic. We moved first over by the Drag, at 31st and Guadalupe; that was a trip. It was so cool for me, having lived in the suburbs, to be exposed to the urban style. Six months later, we moved to South Austin, and my formative years were spent in South Austin, by Barton Hills.
"My parents listened to music, but they didn't listen to a lot of local music. When my mom met my stepdad, he was really into Omar & the Howlers and the Austin bands thriving in the 1980s and 1990s. We lived close to the Saxon Pub, Broken Spoke, and South Austin venues. So my mom got turned on to that, and as I listened, I was like, 'Wow, those people are from here?'"
Famous or Not Famous
That little epiphany by Choffel is the unstated goal of Austin's music community: for local talent to nurture and inspire local talent and preferably cultivate it at a young age. The capital city version of who can grow up to be president is Stevie Ray Vaughan. This makes perfect sense coming from a generation of parents who grew up wearing "Sex and Drugs and Rock & Roll" T-shirts.
Choffel didn't try to be a blues slinger, but she's the poster child for what happens when kids are exposed to a self-generating music community and shown the power of music from a local point of view. The act of remembering this makes her stop eating, freeze-framing her fork in midair as she reaches into the past.
"It was such an unusual concept for me, because let's face it, I was into Mariah Carey," she acknowledges. "But once I realized singer-songwriters from Austin could make and put out CDs just like her, it seemed cool that it could be done on a smaller level. When you're a kid and think of being a singer, you think of being a pop star. You're either famous or not famous; there's no other way about it.
"I saw other ways to do this, that you could play and get your stuff out there and don't have to be a crazy-big pop star. That really influenced my thinking about music in the sense that I realized I don't have to be a megastar and get signed by a label. I just wanted to develop my craft and do what I love, to get experience, perform.
"But the way I developed, the way I rounded it out, took a more organic approach because of living in Austin. It was from the roots up. Austin had a huge influence in my development of a stage show because I had so many opportunities to perform."
At 17, Choffel grabbed those opportunities, which meant having the guts to go sing Bonnie Raitt and Bessie Smith blues jams at Babe's on Sixth Street. The budding singer then attended college first in San Marcos; transferred to a small liberal arts college in Santa Fe, N.M., where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in music technology; and finally returned to Austin. San Marcos' scene of funky, folky blues-rock appealed to her, so she auditioned for local outfit the Humblebums and got the gig. So began her career, playing the town's favored venues, Triple Crown and Lucy's, plus a memorable summer night venturing into Austin.
"We opened for the Scabs on July Fourth at Antone's in 1999 or 2000. That was superfun. It was the biggest crowd I'd been in front of, and I was like: 'Sweet! I'm at Antone's! I'm onstage! It's crowded! Life is good!'
"There are a lot of subtle ways Austin influenced me that I don't think about until I compare it to other cities and wonder what I would have done there. I would've done music anywhere, because I have a sincere belief that that's what I was meant to do. I was born with a gift and love it. There's nothing else I'd rather do. I know I am talented, and I know I have something great to offer, but I find it amazing that I have made it to the top of these various competitions that hundreds of people have submitted to. It feels like something's on my side."
Texas Songbird Style
Choffel has much in common with Austin's classic female singer-songwriters – Eliza Gilkyson, Shawn Colvin, and Sara Hickman – as well as the modern rung with the likes of Terri Hendrix, Shelley King, and Carolyn Wonderland. Her smoky voice bears a resemblance to Edie Brickell, the 1980s MTV sweetheart from Dallas who ruled as the Texas songbird of indie rock. Choffel's own willowy soul developed while she was still a stripling.
"Though I didn't pick up the guitar until I was 17, I was making up silly little songs when I was a kid, constantly writing lyrics, and took piano lessons at an early age so I could write melodies and play little things in between. The turning point was when I got a Casio keyboard when I was 9 or 10. I'd shut myself up in my room and play it and try to develop hooky little pop songs. I had a notebook 2 inches thick full of little love songs. I came across it recently – I'm a pack rat – and found a song about the Gulf War from 1990 or '91. It's cheesy, 'Please bring home the soldiers!' but it's very heartfelt.
"I had my first heartbreak at 16 and was so depressed. My mom said, 'We gotta get you out of this; let's get you a guitar.' I'd been bugging her forever about a guitar. So I wrote about a million heartbreak songs and was able to move on. I look back, and one thing that's stayed with me is this interesting rhyming scheme. Even from an early age, I was all about finding the perfect rhyme and the perfect rhythm. Even if the lyrics were hokey.
"I'm the same songwriter I was when I was 8, only different."
Choffel finds good humor as well as auspice in a current tour that lists San Antonio, South Texas, Phoenix, L.A., Santa Fe, Marfa, and Alpine on the itinerary. The latter two seem like trick questions compared to the other more common tour answers, but their odd presence is what defines Choffel's quirk. In that broad horizon, the sky's no limit.
"October was odd because I'm not normally out of town this much, and this year has been daunting because of the amount of shows I've been playing. I still teach voice and guitar three days a week at Austin School of Music. As much as I love teaching and its support financially, I want to live the dream and do music full time. So as far as the whole 'making waves this year' thing goes, it's been a big adjustment for me. I used to feel like I had a lot of free time, and now there's no such thing as free time.
"This has been a learning year with stress management, time management, dealing with people, communication conflicts – and I hate conflict. I'm a let's-everybody-be-happy person, but I had to get a thicker skin this year. I want my career to be superfun, and it always has been fun, but I work my butt off."
What It Is, Right Now
So what do you do when you're the new darling of YouTube, your in-box is jammed, the tour itinerary is stacked, and fans are just discovering a CD nearly 2 years old? Make a new one, of course, yet on Choffel's schedule, it's a balancing act guaranteed to keep her on her tippy toes for months.
Keeping her musical equilibrium is tricky; keeping it among the seasoned vets she surrounds herself with is a high-wire act. It's not a typical lineup of musicians, former Patrice Pike upright bassist John Thomasson plays to keyboardist Laura Scarborough on vibes and accordion. Drummer Eldridge Goins – the previously described Internet freak – lays down rhythms for Johnnie Johnson and Carolyn Wonderland while baritone-sax man Brad Houser played with Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians.
"They've been in some of the best bands in Austin over the last 15, 20 years," enthuses Choffel. "So when I first got with this band, I was supernervous until it became apparent they liked playing with me. They loved the music, and we loved each other. We're all best buds.
"But it's definitely been an interesting year learning to be bandleader. It's different from being friends or co-musicians. You have to step up. You make the decisions and the calls. You're kind of the boss. You're paying them for gigs. I have a certain amount of power that I don't have to use very much, because I respect them so much as musicians, and I love what they do. I am okay with it being what it is, right now.
"My name's on the marquee – 'Suzanna Choffel' – but the music includes everyone. We're a band. We've tossed around the idea of having a band name, but that's a big thing. So for now, we're sticking with my name, to keep that current going under 'Suzanna Choffel.'"
The psychology to Choffel's decision about staying with her own name keeps the audience focused on her music among her well-known bandmates. Scarborough, in particular, has an established solo career, yet her presence in Choffel's act is very organic. It's Scarborough's ethereal vibes and secondary vocals that give the irresistible "Raincloud" its cheeky edge, especially live.
"That's been another lesson this year," nods Choffel. "In my effort to make everyone feel like they're a part of the band, it's free game for them to write their own part and do what they want. I love that they're jazzy and great improvisers, and Laura brings that electronic thing to the table. I want them to stretch and do what they want.
"With Laura, it's kind of the female thing. I've always looked up to her because – wow! – she's such an amazingly strong female performer. She really brings that vibe to our show. People say they like watching two women in the band together, instrumentalists, not just singers. So I get to share the femininity, so to speak, and it takes a little of the pressure off me. Let's face it, to some degree, women are always put in the role of sex symbol or object of desire, object of beauty. To have her onstage, we get to share that role, and it becomes more about the music."
In the interim, fans are happy with the Brown Bag Special, a live, 10-song CD that neatly captures her songwriting zeitgeist and exuberant presence onstage. The atmosphere surrounding the renditions of "Hey Mister," "First Breath," and the ubiquitous "Raincloud" is joyous and spirited, the call of a new voice reminding the audience that more's on the way. The CD sits on the restaurant table in the titular brown bag as Choffel spears the last bite of her salad.
"Releasing Shudders & Rings did fantastic things for me. The last two years have been boom boom boom, build up, come up the ladder," concludes Choffel. "Now the big weight on my shoulders is doing this second CD. The main struggle is that we've found ourselves with so many great live opportunities, and we started recording in April but got superbusy with gigs. When we return from the tour, we will resume."
As of Nov. 18, "Raincloud" (www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRbzthI440Q) boasted nearly a half-million hits on YouTube. 459,709 to be exact.
Top 12 Influential Albums (or the Ones That Blew My Mind)
Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder
Blue, Joni Mitchell
The Rhythm of the Saints, Paul Simon
Mama's Gun, Erykah Badu
Revelling/Reckoning, Ani Difranco
A Ma Zone, Zap Mama
Tanto Tempo, Bebel Gilberto
Black on Both Sides, Mos Def
Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, Wilco
Let It Die, Feist
Top 6 Voices That Influenced Me
Marie Daulne (Zap Mama)
Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star)