Those who tuned into the Local Show on Sunday night likely caught the radio debut of Andra Suchy’s new song “Little Heart,” the title track off her Red House Records release out later this month. For those who missed the show, fans can stream the track here on the blog, as well as read some of Andra’s thoughts about her about the new record, her musical childhood, and her recurring role on A Prairie Home Companion.
Growing up in rural North Dakota, Suchy says she started making music from a very young age thanks to her father, Chuck Suchy, who actively toured the folk circuit. From the age of four, she would join her mom and dad on stage, traveling around to county fairs and larger gatherings like the Winnipeg Folk Festival to perform as a family.
“It definitely gave me a different outlook than I would have just being a plain old farm kid from North Dakota,” she says, chattering warmly over the phone from her home in Minneapolis. “It opened my eyes to a lot of things, and it also gave me this feeling of — like, I don’t ever feel like I started doing music, I just feel like I always have been doing music.”
She laughs, remember some of the chaos that ensued while her family traveled around to play shows. “It would get a little hectic. One time, I think my mom was pregnant and we had two county fairs that day — we showed our cattle at the country fair at one, played at that county fair, and then had to get to another county to play. And by the end of the day it was hot, and my brother and I were like 10 and 11 and we were probably scrapping in the back of the car, and my mom had just had it. Dad did his set, and my mom came over to us and she said, ‘You need to get it together right now. When I look over when we’re playing you guys better have smiles on your faces.’ And she says she felt so bad later, because she looked over and we were all dirty from showing the cattle so we had tear stains going down our face through the dirt, but we had huge grins on our faces.”
If Suchy’s childhood sounds like a picturesque, Normal Rockwell-ready slice of Americana life, the narrative doesn’t stop there: Suchy continued playing music and started writing her own material throughout her teenage years and adulthood, and her evolution as a professional musician eventually led her to the set of A Prairie Home Companion, where she appears weekly beside Garrison Keillor as his duet partner.
Suchy says she got a call to appear on the show with her vocalist friends Kari Shaw and Joanna Jahn, who perform with her as the Dollys, and chocked it up as a fluke. “It came off fine, we had a great time, and I just thought, well that was such a cool experience, I’m so glad I got to do that,” she remembers. “And then he called me the next week. And the next week was Emmylou Harris. And I have to tell you, you know on South Park — which is the one that throws up everytime he sees that girl? Kyle? Yeah, I felt like Kyle from South Park. I went in the back door and I was like, please don’t let her be on stage, please don’t let her be on stage. I just wanted to run and hide. And she and Garrison were on the stage, and he did not let me walk by — he grabbed by the arm, pulled me right over and said Andra Suchy, I’d like you to meet Emmylou Harris. And she took me, put her hands on the face, and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and I thought I was going to die. So he was like ‘Why don’t you sing with us?’ So there I am, in a matter of two weeks, there I am singing on A Prairie Home Companion with Emmylou Harris, one of my heroes of all time, and Garrison.”
Working with Keillor, whom Suchy refers to as “a genius,” has helped her to develop her own skills as a performer and songwriter. “He has this ability to be completely unafraid of change and to let things go. He’s totally fearless in that respect,” she says. “And to me, to be able to write something and then let it go so fast, that ability to let go — I’m kind of just learning to incorporate myself. Because I hold onto things that I’ve written so hard. I feel like it’s scary to just throw it away or let it go. For him, he’s so forward. I just find that really interesting.”
“With the show, it’s the same way,” she continues. “At first, it started to hurt my feelings if something that I liked would get cut or one of my lines would get cut out of a script, but then I just started to realize: this is not about me. You can’t be self-centered, you can’t be — well you have to be self-centered enough to want to do a good job, but you just can’t hang onto things. And it’s great for just sort of getting over myself, and being able to be open to a little bit of chaos and change. I can get a little control-freaky, and just to have to relinquish that control and just trust the universe — that’s been pretty cool. I think that allowed a change in myself, it’s helped me mature as a performer, definitely.”
Some of that newfound self-editing and self-control can be seen in the differences between her two solo albums: 2010’s Patchwork Story, as the name suggests, plays more like a mixtape of scattered ideas, while her latest, Little Heart, is a more cohesive, polished effort, despite the fact that its songs were written over the span of a few years. Suchy says her songwriting approach on the new record was actually inspired by a series of 36-hour songwriting competitions hosted by Rift Magazine, which would challenge local songsmiths to expound on a theme and perform a brand-new song live over the course of a day and a half.
“‘90 MPH,’ ‘Shimmer and Glow,’ and ‘You Can Keep It’ are all from that,” she says. “‘Shimmer and Glow,’ the subject was snow, and ‘You Can Keep It’ was money. Then all of a sudden it was like, well, we’ve got three songs now, let’s keep going and make another record.” She adds that trying out a new approach to songwriting helped her to uncover a new side of her craft. “I never thought of myself as that kind of writer. I always thought of myself as an emotional kind of writer, that it comes from within, that cheesy stuff. But it was such a different exercise that I think it changed the way that I thought about writing the rest of the songs on the record. It just changed my idea that I could actually think of a theme and then write about it, or create a story.”
The title track for the record was constructed using a similar method. “‘Little Heart’ was inspired on a Memorial Day when we went to visit my grandma’s grave way out in western North Dakota,” she explains. “It’s up on the top of this sort of butte, and you know Memorial Day in North Dakota is still kind of touch-and-go with the weather, and the roads are really bad, it’s bad to get there and you have to drive up this muddy little road, and you get there and it’s super windy. I was thinking about like, god, we have cars and four-wheel drive and it’s still hard for us to get up here, I can’t even imagine — just thinking about my grandparents farming and what they went through. That’s out by the Little Heart Creek. So that — I don’t think I would have had the thought process of writing a song that was so inspired by an actual story, if I hadn’t had that practice of the 36-hour songwriting contest.
In addition to gearing up for the release of Little Heart, which will be celebrated at the Varsity Theater on Tuesday, March 27, Suchy will be staying busy with her work on A Prairie Home and exploring collaborations both new and old. Publicly, she’ll appear to sing with the Honeydogs this Saturday, March 10, at First Avenue and with Hookers & Blow (the frontman for both projects, Adam Levy, also appears on her new CD and will perform at the release show), and privately, she and her husband and guitarist Andrew Pierzina have started collaborating on a project with Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum.
“And then I want to write another record,” she enthuses. “Playing with different people generally inspires my writing, and I’m so inspired by the people I have been playing with.”