In 2003, at age nineteen, songwriter Suzanne Santo followed her boyfriend to Los Angeles. They broke up during her first week in the city, leaving her with "nothing but sadness and my dad's guitar," she recalls.
She funneled her emotions into songs and began releasing music with the band honeyhoney in 2008. After nine years, the members were ready to explore solo careers. Santo put out her first album, Ruby Red, under her own name in 2017. A few years later, she was picked up by Irish folk star Hozier to play in his band on tour.
When you're playing someone else's music, especially for crowds like those at Glastonbury, the pressure to be perfect during each song is intense, Santo says. "It was such an honor to be asked to be a part of that band and such a huge opportunity, but a lot of it was really painful, because my biggest passion was my own music, and I felt I had abandoned it. I felt like that part of my career was over."
Feeling pulled back toward her own music, she left Hozier in 2019, cherishing the skills she had honed on tour. She started making Americana defined by deep-country twang and rock-and-roll sensibilities. Her lyrics paint a picture of growing up in the Rust Belt, as well as her journey out of it. She looks back on her youth in Ohio, where she developed her skills putting on a show and keeping people happy and entertained while working as a hostess at her family's Italian restaurant.
While on tour with Hozier, the pieces of her upcoming record, Yard Sale, came together. The album is about "the things I've left behind and the things I'm holding on to," says Santo. As she worked on the project, she went through multiple relationships and began focusing on herself and her career. Along the way, she let go of a longstanding fear that she had not married and had kids on the normative timeline. Instead, she says, she's embracing "my values and my love for myself and my standards for creating genuine and great music."
The opening track, "Over and Over," confronts a toxic relationship that Santo kept returning to. Always leaving the door open for someone to come back into your life is a frustrating cycle, she concedes. The song describes the tiring routine of always being the one who can't move on, or the one giving out love like pocket change. A choir of harmonious vocals heightens those feelings.
Then the album dives into familial relationships and life lessons on the track "Mercy," which Santo describes as "upbringing come full circle." Stories of mercy and forgiveness come to light; she explores how darkness can be hidden in clever places, and how change is a constant in life.
On tour in Byron Bay, Australia, Santo penned the first lines of "Since I've Had Your Love" while looking out on the water. The song is about falling in love with someone, and the way the world suddenly looks different when you're in love. Sunsets burn brighter, cities are more vibrant, and every moment is filled with intense passion and emotion. Life moves a bit slower as happiness engulfs a person; new love feels like floating through warm, calm waters. The newly in love might ask: Have I been asleep all this time?
"Bad Beast," a powerhouse song that already dropped as a single, starts with an unnerving growl. The track showcases Santo's vocal range, hinting at the outstanding singing on the rest of the album.
The track "Common Sense" tells the story of how music has guided the singer-songwriter throughout her life — but at a cost. She notes that there are downsides to having a career as a musician: loneliness, lost relationships, exhaustion and being broke.
"There’s been a lot of sacrifice in following the call I’ve never been able to not answer," Santo concludes. "But I still wouldn't trade it for anything."
Catch Santo at Lost Lake, 3602 East Colfax Avenue, on Saturday, July 3, and at the RIDE Festival in Telluride on July 5 and 6. Yard Sale comes out on August 27.