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Hard Work, Unadorned : Susanna Hoffs put her all into ballet, then the Bangles. Now, free of the pressure she'd felt to duplicate her former band's stadium-size successes, she's put out a more personal CD

May 17, 1997|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — Susanna Hoffs stands in her kitchen, slips off a sandal and points her toe. Before the Bangles, long before she went solo, there was ballet.

"See? I never had the arch," she says.

She started studying ballet when she was 8 and found that it "really does give you a sense of discipline. And work ethic." Indeed, her old band, the all-girl, double-platinum Bangles, was described more than once by the media as "hard-working." "I've always been," Hoffs says, "and I really attribute a lot of that to that [ballet] background.

"You realize you can get good at something, even though ballet almost felt like you could never be good enough. No matter how hard you worked, it was so hard to be a great dancer."

So, between the harsh regime and the unfortunate feet, she left dance--without regret, she says, even after spending two years as a UC Berkeley dance major.

Now, eight years after the Bangles, she says she doesn't regret the pop-rock quartet's breakup, either. She comes to the Coach House on Sunday night to promote "Susanna Hoffs," her second solo disc. "I just feel great," she says, "to have a record out there I believe in."

*

I remember "Susie" Hoffs as an intense fellow student at International Ballet School West, a now defunct academy in Santa Monica. We all strove to meet our teachers' impossibly high standards. But, boy, she didn't look like she was having fun yet.

She was hell-bent on getting it right, especially because her feet didn't bend the right way. She had a compact, squarish little body, even after puberty, and she wore one expression: effort.

She didn't seem to want the spotlight.

All of which made it wild years later to witness her transformation into the kittenish, sexy lead Bangle, with the giant brown eyes and bee-stung red lips. Her hair, which always had been trapped in a tight bun, suddenly was liberated, and she was up there singing lilting, catchy tunes with a jangly guitar. She was scoring Top 10 singles, one of them penned by the artist then known as Prince.

*

During a recent interview at her home, Hoffs, now 38, still looked much more Bangle than baby ballerina, even though she wore no lipstick and a loose-fitting shift and baggy work shirt. Relaxed, happy with motherhood (Jackson is 2), she remembered her fervid approach to ballet's intensity. She recalled that she once took a grueling advanced class, "and I, like, almost fainted."

Throughout those same years, she also was playing guitar and singing. She took up theater in high school and painted for a time at Berkeley, but rock 'n' roll represented a "huge rebellion for me."

"In theater and dance, I was trying to win someone's approval, trying to get in, trying to be good. It felt out of my control, whereas music suddenly felt like this free expression. It was fun."

She placed a classified ad in L.A.'s Recycler, through which she met sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson, and the Bangles were born. They broke up in 1989 over the difficulties of art-by-committee. Hoffs' solo albums still reflect the group's '60s-tinged pop sound.

She doesn't think her true voice was heard on her first solo CD, "When You're a Boy" from 1991. She hadn't begun to risk forfeiting approval, she says. She still doubted her instincts, was still "traumatized" by the Bangles' breakup and felt pressured to achieve the band's stadium-size success.

A change of labels and management helped. She says her current team understands her aims. "I really wanted to make a more personal record instead of interpreting other people's songs. It was important for me to get over any inhibitions I had about writing about my life very specifically, instead of disguising it in abstract ways." Her current album "has more specific details and stories from my life" than the first one did.

"At the end of the day, my name is on the record, so it better be my record."

Hoffs, who co-wrote most of the songs, is especially happy with "Beekeepers Blues," about a masochistic love affair, and "Eyes of a Baby," about the blind date--M. Jay Roach--who became her husband. He directed "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery"; she sings on the soundtrack.

The album, released in November, isn't selling especially well (25,000 copies as opposed to the first album's 72,000, according to SoundScan), but Hoffs doesn't seem concerned. She hopes her monthlong tour will call new attention to it.

Though she is scheduled to join the East Coast leg of the Lilith Fair, a major all-women music fest, most of her tour dates are at intimate clubs like the Coach House, a far cry from the giant places the Bangles used to play.

Does she miss those giant places? "Oh, well, I'd like to have commercial success," she answered. "I guess. But I feel like I'm on this path, and I'm just trying to spread the word that I'm here again, and here's the record.

"My whole goal was just to make a record that I was proud of, so that no matter if 10 people bought it or a million people bought it, it was something I was proud of."

* Susanna Hoffs, Aunt Betty's and Lincoln play Sunday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $12.50-$14.50. (714) 496-8930.

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