Musician Susanna Hoffs
Susanna Hoffs has a bad case of the guilts. The founder member of 1980s all-girl pop guitar foursome The Bangles glances away to her right in the spacious, airy, Californian home from where she is Zooming, and looks momentarily perturbed.
“It’s my guitar,” she explains. “It’s just sitting there, kind of… staring at me.”
If Hoffs’ guitar is feeling a little neglected, it’s because she’s temporarily swapped it for a keyboard… but not one to make the music which has made her famous for more than four decades.
Instead, she’s been writing her debut novel, This Bird Has Flown, which has catapulted her into a whole new career at the age of 64.
“I will write more songs again soon, I promise,” she says, half to me and half to the out-of-sight guitar. And, to be honest, she’s hardly abandoned the music. In the same week her novel was published, Hoffs also released a new album of cover songs, The Deep End.
She leans in closer to the camera on her laptop and confides: “I also need to… well, get over the fear of songwriting. I suppose that fear is of not writing something brilliant, but it’s also an odd feeling to admit that a person could take several years to write a novel and yet be afraid to write a three-minute song.”
Hoffs was born in 1959 to a Jewish family in Los Angeles, her mother, Tamar, a film-maker, her father, Joshua, a psychoanalyst. She studied art at university and there formed her first band.
Then, in late 1980, aged 22, she placed an advert in a free paper asking for bandmates, which led her to Annette Zilinskas and sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson.
At first they were called The Bangs, but they changed it to The Bangles after another group turned out to have dibs on the name.
Although they released their first EP in 1982, it wasn’t until their second main album, Different Light, in 1986, that they hit the big time.
A slew of top ten hits followed – Manic Monday, which was written for them by megastar Prince, Walk Like An Egyptian, Eternal Flame, a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter, and many more – propelling the foursome to international stardom.
The band split in 1989 (though reformed and toured in the 1990s) and Hoffs embarked on a solo career, releasing several albums.
Her 40-plus years in the music business have helped to launch this new phase of her career, giving her the raw material for her first novel.
In This Bird Has Flown, her main character Jane Start is an American singer who had one hit a decade ago. She’s trying to claw her way back up the fame ladder, but it proves tricky.
Then, on a flight to London, she’s seated next to a charismatic but reserved Oxford professor (think Colin Firth rather than JRR Tolkien), and that’s when love blossoms.
Susanna Hoffs at the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Although The Bangles’ hit Eternal Flame has no doubt soundtracked thousands of weddings over the years, switching from writing love songs to a romantic novel can’t have been easy.
However, Hoffs had already penned several screenplays. Some had even been optioned by film studios but somehow they always ended up in “development hell”.
“So I was sitting with my husband, Jay, and our two sons a few years ago, and our older son said, ‘Mom, why don’t you write that novel you’ve always wanted to write?’. And I thought, yeah, why don’t I? It seemed the perfect way to get over this sort of grief of having worked on all these screenplays and projects that never happened.”
Hoffs’ husband Jay Roach is a film-maker and director whose latest project is the Patricia Arquette series High Desert, which was released on Apple TV Plus this week.
He’s also the director of the three Austin Powers movies. Hoffs met him at a dinner party in 1991 and earlier this year they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.
In the acknowledgements to her book, Hoffs says, “Our partnership has always felt like a creative collaboration: in raising our children, in supporting one another in our work. My love, respect and gratitude are more than I can possibly express.”
It’s natural that Hoffs has poured a lot of her own experiences into the novel. At the beginning of the book, Jane is doing a “private” – a paid-for performance for an elite audience, in this case for a stag party who simply want to hear her one and only hit
The Bangles did a few “privates” themselves during their career. “We did some in Vegas,” Hoffs remembers. “I’ve always had a fraught relationship with Vegas. You know, it’s not exactly Paris, but it’s some people’s favourite place on Earth. I’m not a gambler, so…”
However, the private performance in the book was in fact loosely based on personal experience. As she recalls: “I can picture us now, getting in the elevator to do a show like that, all standing there, tarted up, like we were back then, and just thinking, ‘This is our job, we have to dress the part’.”
Looking back, now, Hoffs still feels awkward about that Las Vegas private gig. But she won’t be pressed on details of who commissioned it. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, it seems.
In fact, much of what happened in the 1980s, by and large, stays in the 1980s.
Hoffs is – always charmingly – circumspect about much of the gossip that inevitably surrounds her band.
There’s a character in her book called Jonesy, who wrote the one hit that Jane Start had enjoyed a decade before.
He’s an enigmatic, global pop superstar, in the mould of David Bowie or, perhaps, Prince.
Singer Susanna Hoffs, founding member of The Bangles
Prince, of course, gave The Bangles their greatest hit Manic Monday, and there were rumours that Hoffs and Prince – who died in 2016 – were an item at the time.
“I suppose Jonesy is a bit of Bowie, and maybe David Byrne from Talking Heads,” Hoffs explains. “And of course Prince. Obviously, in my own life, I knew Prince; I was witness to the supernatural talent he had on stage…” Unfortunately she chooses to keep her own counsel on anything more personal.
Earlier this month, the actor Michael J Fox, promoting his forthcoming documentary, Still, which charts both his Parkinson’s battle, said that he doesn’t recall a lot of what happened in the 1980s.
“I dated Susanna Hoffs from The Bangles, and I can’t even remember it,” was one of his comments.
Hoffs says she’s also “kind of dim on some of those memories”.
She adds diplomatically: “There were so many occasions, so many fabulous people to meet in the entertainment industry.”
Despite her former superstar status, Hoffs is very unassuming nowadays. After a few minutes of chatting to her, it’s easy to forget she was once one of the most recognisable women on the planet. She looks back on those halcyon days with fondness.
“Reflecting on it, everything was so eclectic,” she says. “You had bands like the Human League, say, and The Bangles, and we were so different but we were being played side by side.”
“At the time, I kind of wrote the Eighties off but, looking back, it was a really interesting era.”
“Interesting” is perhaps an understatement. For example, Hoffs famously recorded the song Eternal Flame completely in the nude. Which begs the question, just how debauched were the 1980s for her?
On a scale of overindulgence, for example, where wholesome Cliff Richard would be ranked at one and hedonistic Doors frontman Jim Morrison at 10, where did Hoffs and The Bangles sit?
“I definitely wouldn’t be at the Jim Morrison end, by any stretch,” she laughs. “I liked a bit of white wine back then, yeah, and I would have a little bit of liquid courage before sauntering on stage. But now I’m full Cliff Richard.”
She BRANDISHES her mug. “My drug of choice these days is caffeine, black coffee.” She pauses a moment and then adds, “There were some wild and fun times, for sure, but because of my upbringing, my parents gave me this idea: ‘Be creative, be wild; your thoughts can be anything you want, but live life well.’”
All this talk of creativity makes Hoffs cast another glance towards her sulking guitar. Music will always be a huge part of her life, but the Rickenbacker might have to wait a little longer. This Bird Has Flown has already been optioned for a movie adaptation by Universal, and she’s hard at work in the early stages of her follow-up novel.
Once again she’s facing the blank page, urged on by her sons. It was eldest son Jackson who pushed her to start writing the novel she’d always wanted to, and his younger brother Sam who gave valuable cheerleading. “I read the first few pages to them and Sam just kept saying to me, ‘Mom, keep going!’” she says resolutely. “So that’s what I’ll do.”
- This Bird Has Flown by Susanna Hoffs (Piatkus, £9.99) is out now. Visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK postage on orders over £25.The Deep End is available on CD and streaming platform