“I Don’t Subscribe to That Way of Thinking”: The Inimitable Sound of Suzi Analogue
From celebrating imperfect vocals and crafting impromptu love songs to childhood tape recordings and the influence of her mother, we retrace the path of a talented multi-genre artist.
Long before she was a highly respected DJ, producer, vocalist, and the creator of Never Normal Records, Suzi Analogue’s fascination with audio equipment started in a rather A-typical setting. Growing up in the tiny town of Petersberg near Richmond, Virginia, her mother oversaw a local mental health residential facility during her childhood. Living in a different area of the building than the patients themselves, she began recording her ideas on cassette tape at age ten. Though the recordings started as feminist spoken word instead of actual musical compositions, this early exposure to recorded sound sparked a lifelong love of music equipment, singing, production, and experimentation.
In addition to giving her the freedom to capture her thoughts on tape, Suzi credited her mother with being instrumental in teaching her about black art and black culture, another key influence in her artistic evolution. “I was raised knowing about the heritage of black culture, starting from the Black Arts Movement,” she explained in a 2016 interview with Emerson College’s Ploughshares blog. “It’s mostly during the seventies, post-Civil Rights, where the youth that had encountered the Civil Rights Movement were starting to be able to create more space and opportunities for themselves. I was raised with a mom who went through that.”
As Suzi entered her teenage years, she developed a growing appreciation for electro and rap. This — combined with her early exposure to the Black Arts Movement and her cassette tape creations — eventually evolved into an interest in music production. Reflecting on her 16-year odyssey of artistic and musical immersion in a recent interview, she noted how starting out at a young age helped her develop confidence and a strong sense of self. “I have been listening to rare electronic and hip-hop records since I was about 14 years old, and making beats since 15,” she told AFROPUNK in a 2017 interview. “And I feel really strongly about my musical choices as a producer.”
“We live in an age of Auto-Tune, in the age of ‘the vocal has to be perfect.’ I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking.”
Like many artists of her generation, Suzi’s earliest instrumental compositions were crafted on her computer, with her later adding inexpensive keyboards to her repertoire to help expand her sound. “Whatever little keyboards I could get my hands on, I’d record those,” she told The Miami New Times in a 2018 interview.
In addition to making music with whatever tools were available, Suzi utilized her own visual art to work in tandem with her musical prowess from the very beginning of her production career. Looking at the results of her creative efforts after taking the time to draw something often sparks a strong desire to compose a beat. “I would write songs and make my own comics,” she told The Miami New Times. “It’s something about seeing the visual stuff that really compels me to go harder when I create music.”
Interestingly, it isn’t just drawing that helps awaken Suzi’s inner musician — she also uses words as a creative springboard to help her composition process. “To jog my creativity, I keep a notebook of words or phrases that have inspired me at some point,” she told Ableton in a 2018 interview. “I always have a notebook with me, and I love Japanese stationery — I’m always looking for cute notepads, just these really special containers to put these ideas in.”
“My goal in all this to bridge the world of technology, music, and street culture, to give not only young women of color but everyone the chance to believe it can happen.”
For Suzi, it seems the process of making instrumental music and songwriting are more interconnected than some people might realize. In fact, the two go hand in hand. “Even though I’m a producer, I still consider myself a songwriter, and even if I don’t say or sing words on a track, I still turn to certain words and concepts that exist in my notebook and I just try to tap into those words once I do sit down and go to work,” she told Ableton. “For me, there’s a relationship with words and sounds — it’s kind of like a type of synesthesia, but with words.”
Suzi is also quite capable of telling stories with her own voice, as evidenced on the 2014 Swarvy-produced collaboration Love Affairz V.1. Far from an intricately planned out endeavor, the entire album was born out of an organic process with a trusted collaborator. Swarvy explained how the record blossomed over time in a 2015 Never Normal Records interview. “She had some records at her studio space and we just went in and made a few of the instrumentals on the tape together from those sessions. On some of those late nights, Suz recorded some freestyles over those tracks we made, plus some more I was working on at the time.”
By the time they were done, this free-flowing method of recording left them with an album’s worth of refreshingly pure tracks. Serving as an antithesis to the sometimes over-sterilized music of the modern era, Love Affairz V.1 demonstrates the benefits of spontaneity and resisting the urge to overthink the art of music making. “A lot of the joints ended up being raw love songs really, so she expanded on those ideas down the line as we chose/wrote more of the tracks,” Swarvy told Never Normal Records.
“We would record whole verses, and then I would chop it up based on what I felt like was the coolest, strongest thing that they said.”
From raw love songs over Swarvy beats to her live shows, Suzi has a refreshing outlook on the flawed beauty of the human voice. Instead of trying to hide the imperfections of her singing, she sees them as something to be celebrated. “It’s really just me communicating raw,” she told The Miami New Times while describing her concerts. “There’s something about manipulating my voice live, on the spot, that I want people to take away. We live in an age of Auto-Tune, in the age of ‘the vocal has to be perfect.’ I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking.”
Another against the grain approach utilized by Suzi is her decision to bring inexperienced artists to the studio for collaboration and feedback, a creative tool she found especially valuable while putting together her ZONEZ V. 3 project. This tactic might leave some artists scratching their heads, but her willingness to beta-test songs in intimate settings with studio novices helped inform much of the album. “I’d have friends in the studio that had never cut songs before in their lives,” she told Ableton. “I would just say, ‘Hey, come on the track. I have this track built up to this point, tell me what you hear on it.’ And I was very down for whatever they did next.”
Harkening back to her earliest days of recording her own voice with a tape recorder, Suzi even sampled the voices of her friends during the making of ZONEZ V. 3, obtaining the majority of the album’s vocal samples from them. “We would record whole verses, and then I would chop it up based on what I felt like was the coolest, strongest thing that they said,” she told Ableton.
Whether sampling her friend’s voices and slicing them up, manipulating her own voice during live shows, or recording straight from the heart love songs with Swarvy, Suzi has already crafted a wide-ranging and impressive body of work. And despite her commendable achievements thus far, she has her sights set on much bigger goals in the coming years. “My goal in all this to bridge the world of technology, music, and street culture,” she told Vice. “To give not only young women of color but everyone the chance to believe it can happen.”
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