susan anway: I’m presently listening to the wayward bus/distant plastic trees cd for the 1000th time – give or take a hundred. it’s the first magnetic fields collection that I fell in love with, and the record I’ve shared the most with close friends and passersby. (back in the day, I think I bought a handful and gave them away in an effort to impress its brilliance upon everyone I could.) susan anway’s voice was a huge reason why. like many fans, my introduction to the band probably came via the “100,000 fireflies” single. not long before – or after – I saw the ramshackle orchestra that was the magnetic fields live band at the time, with stephin singing. I remember really enjoying them, well enough to buy the cd when it became available and was completely blown away by the songs, the instrumentation, but most of all – feeling deeply moved by susan’s voice. she had the perfect mix of sweetness and world-weariness – so well-suited to the diversity of songs. it would be impossible for me to pick a favorite vocal performance from this record – all of it: the mournful appalachian ballads (“tar heel boy”), the synthetic disco pop (“tokyo a’ go-go”)…resonates equally. there’s magic in the songwriting and recording for sure – but for someone i’ve never met, the impression she left on me is deep and long-lasting.
michael nesmith was the singer of my favorite monkees songs (“don’t call on me” & “what am i doing hangin’ round”) – but I never heard those songs when I was young. the song of his I knew and loved best for years and years was his 1970 single “joanne.” I think mainly because I’ve always loved melancholic & melodramatic songs and singers – that song affected young me as much as anything by roy orbison. I don’t remember exactly how i got there – but at some point I discovered his 1972 album, archly titled and the hits just keep on coming. life is full of little sonic discoveries that leave you wondering how you had not heard a thing before now? from the haunting opening chords of “tomorrow & me” to the stomping closer “roll with the flow” – it’s a packed record in every way except for the instrumentation, featuring just michael and pedal steel player red rhodes. a record full of deep observations and seemingly simple songs that in a fairer world, would be given equal reverence to gene clark, or gram parsons’ best work.
I still remember where I was when I first heard “100,000 Fireflies” in 1991. I remember my first Magnetic Fields show at CBGB in 1992, when I was confused by the fact that Susan Anway wasn’t singing. I grew to love all the other TMF singers but there is something calming and otherworldly about those first two albums, perhaps made more mysterious by the fact that we didn’t see her perform.
I (or we) tried to interview Susan Anway a number of times for chickfactor and the documentary Strange Powers, but it never quite came together. I was more in touch with her in the 1990s, when I was the Music Editor at Time Out New York and assigned her to write reviews of Celtic albums. She never performed live with the Magnetic Fields. Susan was honored to be associated with the Magnetic Fields but was also very busy with her “powerful atmo electropop” project Diskarnate, which featured German composer-producer Armin Küster and her partner, Jack Andrews. After decades living in Arizona, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2015. She died on September 5, 2021. This brief interview is from 2011.
chickfactor: How did you first get involved with the Magnetic Fields? Susan Anway: Claudia called me and said she and Stephin had heard my extreme psychedelipunk band V; and did I want to audition? She sent me a tape of “Crowd of Drifters”—Stephin said it was a song about vampires. First listen I thought, O NO-O, this sounds like a Kris Kristofferson song, a Kris Kristofferson song…ABOUT VAMPIRES! I actually laughed. Joke’s on me. How am I supposed to interpret this? But at the same time, it had a strange and wonderful quality I had never heard before and I fell in love with it musically.
The audition was in Stephin’s Boston apartment. The room was pretty bare except for a lonely mic stand, keyboards, MAC, rug and HP Lovecraft book on the floor. I thought, He is going to hate what I did to his song, I sound just like a Judy Collins clone. But after the first few lines, he stopped me, and we started working on realizing the song together. Just a typical day in a studio, like we had done it for years. Kismet.
Describe a typical day recording with Stephin back then. When we recorded Distant Plastic Trees, Stephin seemed to be living on chocolate milk, cigarettes and bagels. I was commuting from Arizona, so we were fairly disciplined. We put in a typical eight-hour day, broken by a walk to Kenmore Square for “lunch bagels” and more chocolate milk. Sometimes we went out for supper afterward, because there are only so many bagels you can eat in a week.
In session I was always testing a variety of voices—Shirley Bassey, Debbie Harry, Aretha, Mary Travers, Mary Black, too many to list, even Sinatra. Vocalists often sing in character. There has to be some kind of back story. Stephin would say, “Don’t sing like you know how.” That was new. And it worked. But I still had to visualize. I think you can hear it most in “100,000 Fireflies,” “Candy” and “Tokyo A-Go-Go.”
Little-known secret: in one session Stephin handed me a hand-written lyric sheet for Tangerine Dream’s “(Further Reflections) In the Room of Percussion” and asked if I could sing it like Marlene Dietrich! I did. It was off da chain! Wish we had done it. “My god! the spiders are everywhere!” LOL Verzeihen Sie mir, liebe Marlene.
What is Stephin really like? When Ridley Scott was directing Gladiator, someone asked him if it was true that Russell Crowe was difficult to work with. He laughed and said: “The good ones always are.” Stephin is not difficult; he is simply a maestro. When you work with a maestro, you must view yourself as an instrument. The mutual goal is the execution of a shared musical intent, beautifully and descriptively, shaped by the choice and nuance of instrumentation. Ego falls away. It’s all about the music.
What were those early shows like? And the Boston/Cambridge music scene in general? Ican’t speak about the early shows or the Boston scene in the ’90s because at that time I had moved to Arizona, and was starting my love affair with EDM/electro/industrial/Europop.
Have you seen Strange Powers? I finally got a chance to view the film a couple of nights ago! I enjoyed it greatly. You might be interested to know that when the clip of “100,000 Fireflies” came on, the whole audience started singing it—including me! The film has some wonderful rehearsal/ arranging scenes and, of course Stephin’s (and Claudia’s) wry comments.
Thank you for all your many kindnesses re: TMF and my contribution to the early band sound. I am happy my disembodied voice is in the film. As a vocalist, I feel in some ways that’s perfect.
These responses were for our 20th anniversary issue (CF17, 2012): What was the best record / live show / artist in 1992? Record (other than The Wayward Bus) Magnum Force Performance: Sielwolf
What is the best record / live show / artist of 2012? Record: looking forward to Delerium’s Music Box Opera. Performances: The Roots & Combichrist, for sheer sustained intensity and crowd motivation