The Mustangs of The West Bring Us 'Time': Suzanna Spring On Their Return & Recording Great Music

The Mustangs broke ground in LA in the late 80s as an all-female quintet exploring the "cowpunk" sound in the melting pot of exciting music developments at the time. By the mid-90's, band members had gone their separate ways but kept in touch, following their own musical careers.

The band reformed as The Mustangs of the West in 2016, featuring founding members Sherry Rayn Barnett, Suzanna Spring, and Holly Montgomery, as well as adding Aubrey Richmond and Suzanne Morissette. Their first studio album was released in March 2020 as Time from Blue Elan Records where, as the story goes, their "try out" became their record deal.

Additionally, The Mustangs of the West are one of the featured artists in the series of singles and full album release of We Are The Highway from Blue Elan Records, a collection of songs covered by other artists but written by Chris Cornell that will benefit the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation and reach out to improve the lives of children. The Mustangs performed a haunting and powerful version of "I Am The Highway", for the collection which will be released as a single on September 16th. We are very honored to debut a clip from that song in our interview with Suzanna Spring below.

A single has also been released today of Suzanna Spring and Rusty Young, aka Poco, singing a duet for "Waitin' On You" which you will definitely want to check out.

Suzanna Spring joined Tower's PULSE! to talk about The Mustangs of the West recording the album Time with veteran Producer Mark Howard, why recording Cornell's "I Am The Highway" allowed for emotional resonance, and why we may need strong creative work released during this time more than any other.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Right now, live performance is such a big part of making a living in music that it’s been pretty upsetting watching people struggle through cancellations.

Suzanna Spring: There’s no substitute for it, to have the energy exchange with an audience or live listeners. For us, as a band, we had a tour planned that was supposed to culminate in our record release in LA. And we were supposed to play South by Southwest. We had dates in Austin, and dates in LA, and some of the clubs we have booked into have closed permanently.

Then the quandary becomes, how do you make music when you’re based in different parts of the country? Holly, our bass player, is based in DC. I’m in Northern California, and three of the band are based in LA, where we all originally played together. Looking for options online is tricky, and there are synching issues. Instead you have to layer and build, which is very different from getting your basic tracks down live.

HMS: It can also be a tremendous amount of work, with lots of editing.

SS: I think with a lot of bands, the look of everyone in their rectangle is getting to be ubiquitous. I’m getting used to seeing people that way, but I don’t think I like it! People are talking about the “new normal” but I don’t want to accept that, because it can’t be normal that you can’t hug each other or look each other in the eye, just as human beings, let alone artists. There are so many things that we learn from people in their actual presence. I know that things have changed, but I want to feel like people will eventually be comfortable again with other people, because there’s power in a group. As we’ve seen.

HMS: I watched your video for “How Blue” where the whole band was together, and it really struck me to see a band all together, and it felt like a miracle that you were able to do it. It looked like a really fun video to make, too.

SS: I wrote to a friend, “I think I’ve finally made it. I’ve been dancing on white, seamless concrete in high shoes for five hours to the same song over, and over, and over again!” But I liked the way the video turned out. It has interesting angles. We were looking for a modern, not quite a 60s feel, but in a way that song has a real Byrds-ish quality to it. The song was originally written under Mustangs 1.0, when we had a different drummer, but now under 2.0, Mark Howard forced us to change it, and put us in the control room, saying, “Just come up with a different feel for this song.” And we did.

It has sort of a Tom Petty feel in that it has a hypnotic, circular feel. We put in some minor chords for the intro and Sherry came up with that really Byrds-ish arpeggiated intro for it. I like it better than the original, now a little more melancholy and moody.

HMS: Is that typical of the kind of input that Mark had on the album, giving you broad directives and seeing how you might work it out?

SS: He was such an inspiration for us. He tends to just let his own creativity run wild, and he brought in a bunch of vintage instruments to try. He’s not a Nashville, Country guy, though he worked with Emmylou [Harris] on Wrecking Ball. I loved that album. He also worked with a lot of artists who we admired, and in the song selection process he’d say, “Nope, that’s not a strong song.” He’s a very strong Producer, and I felt that we needed that because we have five strong opinions.

Once he said, “I like that song, but it’s kinda hokey. In fact, it’s hokey pokey. Why don’t you try it as a Rock song? Why don’t you try it as a Hip-Hop song?” It was actually that song, “How Blue”. We brought in that Byrds-ish, guitar-driven version and slowed it down, and that worked.

There’s a song in there called, “You Haven’t Seen That Part”, and we had a Country demo for it. Mark was particularly good on endings and beginnings and he had us sit in a circle and rework that intro, making it more of an accappela chorus. Now it has an intro that makes you sit up and listen right from the beginning. I loved working with him, and it was a musical highlight for us. We did the album in five really long, long, long days, getting home at two in the morning. I remember standing in that parking lot really early one morning and thinking, “This is one of the happiest times I’ve ever had.”

HMS: Five days is so fast!

SS: Ideally, it would have been nice to have ten, but sometimes it works like that, if you’re organized, and Mark is. He had all these stations set up in the studio to get a live feel to the album. We’d do the basic tracks, then we’d change stations, and we’d get things in two or three takes. He doesn’t belabor things, either, which is great. As a singer, I tend to overthink. He also created room to be emotional in the songs. Some of them are really personal, and to be able to bring that out, to me is the mark of a great Producer.

HMS: Thank you for explaining his role so fully. I was wondering if working through a shorter time period produced more of a live feel, which some bands are definitely going for right now. I’d say it’s a trend away from the perfectionistic approach.

SS: You can take the life out of a song and out of a vocal if you’re constantly reworking. Emotion comes in the moment, and if you’re a wise Producer, you’ll know it in that moment. I completely agree. I think there is a trend back toward that, and we wanted that for this record. We wanted to have the energy of a live feel. I think that’s one of Mark’s signature things, too, to have that space and the air of the room.

HMS: That’s a bonus for us right now, since we can’t go to live performances. At least we can listen to music with a live feel. Did you have some specific goals in choosing which songs went onto the album and the order in which they are presented? By the way, I love the cover art.

SS: I love it too! That’s Paul Moore from Studio Moore. To me it has a little bit of a retro flavor, and I love what he did with the booklet that was a throwback to all the great album art. On the inside, there are casual photos that we took while recording, and he put them all together.

For the songs, we all submitted our lists of songs, and we were looking for mostly original songs since we had a lot of them. If we were going to have any outside songs, we wanted to make sure that they fit. Our label-head at Blue Elan Records, Kirk Pasich, is such a music-head, and we sent him lists, and we sent links to Mark Howard. I sent Mark some songs, too, including a demo for “Seven Summers” that I used to play in a band up in Southern California before the Mustangs got back together. We had played it more as a Rock song, so I knew it could be that. Kirk loved that song, and Mark did too, and that’s how it ended up on the album.

Some of the other songs were songs we had played together. Aubrey [Richmond], our violinist, knows Randy Sharp, and brought in that song, “I Blame Love”, which was really a good fit. It has a Bluesy feel to it, and Holly and I did the Gospel background vocals. We chose the song, “In The Real West”, by Tish Hinojosa because we all really liked the song. The other outside song is “This Is Me Leaving”, by Renee Armand which is a song we had played in our live shows, but Mark had us reimagine that one with percussion using glass water bottles, triangles, and a click track. And that’s the percussion loop you hear in that song.

HMS: That’s amazing.

SS: It was fun! It would be fun if when we get to play live, we could hand out percussion to everyone. But, of course, the band hates that idea.

HMS: I have to ask you about a song that’s not on the album, but I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan, so I wanted to know about your cover of “As Tears Go By”. Were you inspired to do that by Marianne Faithfull?

SS: That’s funny that you say that, because yes. The Mustangs had originally played that song, and it worked for us. Even though Marianne’s version of that song is so much faster, there’s something about her there, and the message and the melancholy of it is something I love. In the version of it that we did, we slowed it down, and it has an almost dreamy quality to it. For me, and for a couple of people in the band, it’s always been a favorite song. I would really look forward to playing a version of that in a live show.

I was reading about Andrew Loog Oldham telling Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to imagine themselves locked in a room, there forever, not having any contact with the outside world, and that’s what they wrote. They were really young when they wrote that, too, in their 20s, though the world-weariness about it is what makes it such a great song.

HMS: This is true. Though I have to say that I think that your version strikes me more than any other version I’ve ever heard, and I’m so glad you recorded it.

SS: We’ve played around with some different covers, like “Keep on Trying”, the Timothy B. Schmidt song that Poco had done, but I especially love “As Tears Go By”.

I wanted to mention, talking about what bands are doing right now, that we’ve done some conversations, and put them up on Youtube, like one with Renee Armand. They are all fun in their own way. We did little video livestreams for each song on the record, and I think that the label is doing a compilation of those to put up on Youtube.

Also, on September 16th, one of our songs that’s going to be on the Chris Cornell compilation is going to be released.


HMS: Yes, even though there’s a little time before that comes out, I’m too excited not to ask you about it. First of all, the proceeds from the compilation of Chris Cornell songs covered by bands are going to charity, which is great, and the songs are being staggered in their release as singles. Also, the song that you all did is kind of the title song, which is amazing. And, finally, it’s just such an awesome song anyway! Your version is so moving and interesting. What do you think of the song? It’s so unusual.

SS: I agree. Kirk had talked to us about a year ago about having an album out to honor Chris and support their foundation and he had us listen to Chris’s songs and find one that would fit our sound. That one was such an easy pick for me because it fits well with Americana music, and melodically, it fits really well. It has everything I like about a song. As an artist, in his writing, there’s always the melancholy and I’ve been drawn to that. His voice is just unlike any others, and he was such a passionate singer.

I was a fan of his work with Audioslave, but when I went and listened to his solo work, I was into that too. For the whole band, when playing, “I Am The Highway” and recording it, we were encouraged to go all-out and let it be raw if it was going to be raw.

HMS: That song is so cool, so thought-provoking, so elemental. It takes an ordinary way of thinking and kind of flips it.

SS: I love what the song says about expectations. In any relationship and partnership, it seems like there is always the expectation that someone will come in and be the savior of things, but as you’ve said, that song flips that on its head. There’s a defiance to it, too. It speaks to the loneliness that a lot of us artists feel anyway because of creative isolation.

HMS: That’s a wonderful way of putting it. Because you were such a fan of Cornell’s voice, how did you handle your own interpretation?

SS: It’s probably an advantage not to be a male singer, since automatically it’s going to be different. As vocalists, we try to bring out the best in our own voices without trying to be someone else. Dave Darling produced this song and he was going for the airy quality around the lines, to give room for that. I always say, “It’s the air around the voice.” That’s one of the things that’s lost with over-production, so to be able to still hear that is what brings out the emotion on “I Am The Highway”. The arrangement gave me room.

HMS: I definitely value that sense of captured air on recordings, maybe because I grew up partly on Blues and Rockabilly.

SS: When the Mustangs first started, we played some Rockabilly tunes like, “Rockabye Boogie”. I don’t know if all Country Rock bands start off that way.

HMS: What’s wonderful about all these types of music is that they don’t have to exclude each other. You can be interested in all these things and they inform each other. I think young people are starting to realize that, and that’s why you get so many genre-splicing terms right now. I think that’s really helpful. It’s a great way to make sure that we don’t lose some of these powerful traditions.

SS: I would think, as a young musician, you’d want to explore that. I agree that some of it is moving away from sampling and more towards looking at music history, like the resurgence of vinyl. That’s exciting to me because things sound so different if you go back and listen to the way things sounded in the 1970s. They keep the emotion in the vocal.

HMS: How do you feel about different forms of physical media for music?

SS: I like books! I’m not a good reader of reading on a screen. I like to be able to have a book, with the paper and the smell of the book. I hope those things don’t go away. I feel the same way about music. I would love for people to be able to sit and listen to a record, but I understand the usefulness of being able to get things quickly by digital. That’s not going away. I also think that encourages “skimming” though.

Being able to switch your attention, I don’t really think it’s the way our brain is designed to work, but it’s something we can do. It’s easy to peruse things because there’s so much to look at and listen to. But I love the idea that people write albums with themes to them. The idea that you could want to listen from beginning to end.

HMS: It’s a great way to have an experience where you’re taken out of the world you’re in, and you’re in the world of the album instead. That’s not as common now.

SS: Yes, shallow focus. To use your brain creatively, you have to have that bigger dive into spending some time with something. Maybe sheltering in place gave some people time to do that, if they didn’t have to worry about all the other exigencies of life. But being able to spend time with things builds and nurtures our own creativity.

HMS: Ironically, it may be something that helps us deal with the outer chaos right now. A lot of musicians releasing work right now are hoping their releases help people to do that.

SS: Yes, as an artist, you have a choice of whether to wait, or to put your work out there in the world. I think good writing and good music, and all of the things that inspire people, are what we need. People especially need that, whether it’s a happy element, or even a melancholy element that has some beauty in it.

HMS: Do you have any memories or connections to Tower Records?

SS: Yes! I’m glad you asked. I was so happy to see PULSE! relaunched. Whenever we were in LA, we would all pick up the magazine. I remember visiting Tower Records. I wanted to tell you that I think the website it great!

HMS: Oh, thank you. Thanks for reading.

SS: It’s just to see it again, something with good quality, where you can get introduced to new music, I think we need that. There’s such an inundation of information out there, but when you have something like Tower, people remember that, with the quality of the magazine, and also of the store.

HMS: Thank you so much for the feedback. That’s really encouraging!

SS: I think the choice of the artists is interesting. That’s great that people are buying vinyl, too!

HMS: Oh, vinyl’s been on the rise again for a few years now, and they certainly are. And as we were saying, if you have a vinyl record, you’re much more likely to listen to the whole thing at once.

SS: People are interested in the albums and the credits. It’s a tangible piece of the album that people want. People crave a deeper story.

HMS: That’s a great way of putting it. It’s a memorable experience that can stay with you.

SS: Yes, and hopefully it’s memorable enough to spark someone’s creativity as well. That’s something we don’t want to lose as human beings.

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