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 out the tracks, I realized it kind of told a story — not intentionally, but that’s how it fits together. You want to take people on a journey.”
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.
Producer David 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. 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.”)
She began using that voice at a young age, writing songs and playing piano before kindergarten. She played sax in her high-school band, then added guitar, and performed in various bands while attending Texas State University before earning a degree in musical technology from the College of Santa Fe. After a sojourn in Brazil, Choffel released Shudders & Rings, her first album, in 2007. In 2008, the track “Raincloud” earned 350,000 YouTube hits in 24 hours, causing the Austin American-Statesman to crown her the city’s first YouTube superstar. In 2009, she was named Indie Artist of the Year at the Austin Music Awards; she’s also scored several songwriting competition wins. In 2011, Choffel released Steady Eye, Shaky Bow; it was later released in Europe as Archer.
Hello, Goodbye flows naturally from those works while exploring new territory. Case in point: “New Word,” the product of a writing-group exercise in which participants must use a particular phrase in a song, is rendered as sophisticated, Madonna-influenced club-pop.
But the album ends on a different note with “Wish You Well,” a lovely benediction in which Garza’s harmony vocals and acoustic guitar counterpoint Choffel’s dusky alto as she sings, Oh we are the hearty and we are the weak/We are only as good as the words that we speak/If my heart is a temple, my tongue will be the bell … And I wish you well.
With a spare, yet elegant arrangement in which every note, every breath has its place, the gorgeous duet is both a gentle lullaby and an enthralling finale — one that leaves you thinking, so what if Hello, Goodbye took its sweet time getting here? Like that other bundle of joy, its arrival is certainly welcome — and unquestionably worth the wait.
*All images by Todd Wolfson.