Having a sixth sense is something Pisces people take for granted. But March-born singer-songwriter Suzanna Choffel’s latest album, Hello Goodbye, contains one song that proved remarkably prescient even to her. When Choffel wrote “Go Forth,” an inspirational ballad whose lyrics seemingly impart advice from a loving parent, she thought the only thing she was trying to hatch was the album. A week later, she learned she was pregnant with her first child.
Several of Hello Goodbye’s songs could be associated with major events in Choffel’s life. She’s had many in the last few years, from appearing on season three of The Voice and moving from her Austin hometown to New York for three years, to earning a major grant from Black Fret, an Austin artist development group, and performing before thousands of January 2017 Women’s March participants at the Texas State Capitol.
But just as that song predated knowledge of her pregnancy, many tracks on this album — an earthy, lush folk-funk mélange of blues, jazz, soul, dreamy electro-pop and her unique vocal colorings — predated those experiences, along with such events as a scary brush with mortality after leaving her baby for the first time to perform in France. (Fortunately, only possessions were lost when the chateau where she was staying burst into flames.)
Ironically, those post-recording experiences serve as detailed illustrations of the album’s central theme: How to reconcile the push-pull of opposing desires? For Choffel, that manifests as a struggle to balance the seemingly conflicting pursuits of family life and musical adventures. But swimming in opposite directions is what Pisceans do
Even the album itself reflects that duality; its vinyl-oriented sequencing creates a distinct mood shift from side A to side B
“Side A is more low-key, sweet and soft, and side B is more of the funky dance tunes,” Choffel explains. It’s not a concept album, but she notes, “As we laid
Without her journey to New York, it would have been a different story musically. “I think it took me moving away to embrace some of the rootsier, funkier sounds that found their way on here,” Choffel says. “Especially in ‘Sinkin’ Down,’ ‘Lately For You’ and ‘Keep on Movin’ — some of the grittier, bluesier ones.”
On that last one, a swampy rocker, the Greyhounds’ Andrew Trube slithers slide guitar riffs around Tedeschi-Trucks Band drummer JJ Johnson’s cymbal taps and New Bohemian Brad Houser’s bass notes as Choffel casts a spell with her breathy alto. She starts low and slow, but as she sings Your blood is hot from your head down to your soul/It’s hard to stop a fire once it’s out of control, her smoldering passion intensifies. As syncopated hand claps and Johnson’s relentless rhythm strokes finally send her over the edge, her voice explodes into Patty Griffin territory.
Boyle, who’s worked with Griffin, Bebel Gilberto and several other Choffel favorites, encouraged her to connect with her rawer blues/soul/R&B side. “I absolutely adored R&B and hip-hop in high school,” she recalls. “I really do feel like that’s my roots — from ever since I heard Stevie Wonder when I was a baby, to getting into Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu and so many others.”
She taps it further in the flowing pop-soul groove of “Hello, Goodbye.” Like “Continental Drift,” the opening track, it examines that afore-mentioned conflict.
“It’s what a lot of what my lyrics end up being about,” Choffel admits. In the title tune, a Beatles nod only in name, she reflects on love and transition, and how some doors must close before others can open.
We never even had to start it, we knew there was a fire there all along.
Laughing late into the night on a stage of changing lights and even now that it’s all gone,
Oh you are the light I’m trying to find, the sight inside my blind blind mind.
Oh you are the hello hello hello to every goodbye.
In that one, her decision is clear. In “Continental Drift,” she’s puzzling it out, her poetic lyrics sounding like an inner voice insisting, And so you have to decide on which plane will you reside/One will rise an empire and the other one will fall. Here, Choffel’s vocals float on the dreamily ambient vibe created by Charlie Sexton’s mando-cello, David Garza’s acoustic guitar and backing vocals and Johnson’s brushed skins. That atmospheric, Zero 7 quality also permeates “Inspire Me,” on which Choffel plays lead ukulele, and “Go Forth,” which also addresses ambivalence.
Side A ends with “I Could Be Loved,” also written when her relationship felt less certain. “It’s basically, ‘Hey man, why are we beating around the bush when we could both be loved?’ Or we could both be gettin’ some, whether that’s a relationship or sex or whatever,” she explains. “Let’s just give each other something. Let’s reciprocate.”
Producer David Boyle kept it uncluttered, with light jazz guitar and understated drum taps. There’s also a slight Bob Marley-inspired reggae inflection that’s drawn some friendly ribbing from pals who recall her Voice stint; her final song was Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.” (Her elimination earned loud protest from Rolling Stone, which praised her as “one of the only singers on anyone’s team … who had the sort of voice you’d want to listen to for an entire album.”)