by Darka Dusty
Photo by Miri Stebivka
I sat down with Portland singer, songwriter and musician, Little Sue, aka Susannah Jean Weaver, just a few short months after the release of her latest album “New Light.” I found her not afraid to face her demons, as excited about letting go of the past as she was of embracing the future. Her journey has brought her to a very exciting time in her life, balancing her life as a musician with a new teaching career, and a young son.
D: Let me start with something light. What is your favorite guitar chord?
S: Really? It used to be B 7. It was jazzy and bluesy and it sounded complicated. But now I don’t know. Since I’ve started to play the ukulele, I no longer have favorite guitar chords.
D: When did you know music was something big in your life—or is there an early memory that you can recall as a child, when you knew you were going to be a musician?
S: Well, just sitting in front of the stereo for hours and hours and hours playing Queen, Harry Nilsson, or ELO. I was alone a lot as a kid and it was my saving grace. As far as playing it, it was also my saving grace when I played the flute. I was obsessive about it. I would play it until my hands would cramp up. I started playing the guitar when I was 16 and I would play so much it would hurt to wash my hands because my fingers were so sore. But I didn’t write a song for ten years.
D: You wrote your first song when you were 26?
S: Yup. I wrote 13 songs in that first year. I couldn’t write at all. I learned chords. I know theory, because I took it in college, and I aced it. Then I promptly forgot it… I never wanted to know that stuff, I never wanted it to inform what kind of musician I was. I never wanted theory to rule my songwriting or even my musicianship.
D: You were alone a lot as a kid. There is an occasional sadness to your songs, a mournfulness, even within your major-key songs.
S: Yes. Maybe not on this last record, but a lot in my early writing, a bit accidentally but somewhat intentionally, I would use music that sounded happy to sing about sad things. For a couple of reasons. Because a lot of why I wrote those songs was to make myself feel better about whatever or whoever they were about. A lot of my songs are about people. The people in my life.
I wrote three songs by the tail end of being in [the Crackpots, my band in Michigan]. We did them, but they never felt right to me. So that’s when I took myself out of that band and started being Little Sue. It originally started as a nickname. There’s a Big Sue, whom I met in college. Big Sue lives in Portland, too.
D: She’s a musician?
S: No, she’s a teacher. She’s a school teacher.
D: That’s interesting, because I just did a Facebook post asking if anyone has any questions for you before I come to this interview and my friend Pamela just asked, “Do you like being Little Sue? Are you ready to be Big Sue now?”
S: No, I’m Little Sue. It wasn’t a name I chose. It wasn’t a musical moniker. It was my nickname. It wasn’t my professional name at all—my friends called me Little Sue because I was so often with Big Sue. It was my idea to call us that. She’s a little shorter than me, so I thought it was funny. I wish I hadn’t done that (laughs) ‘cause, you know, who wants to be called Little Anything their whole life. At one point, I decided I wasn’t going to be Little Sue anymore, so there’s one album I put out with Lynn Conover, so it’s “Lynn Conover and Susanna Weaver,” and then I put out the “Long Goodbye” and said to myself, “Fuck it. I have to be Little Sue.”
D: Right. You’ll be Little Sue for music and Susanna Weaver at school. So, talk about that a little bit—your metamorphosis from Portland musician, songwriter, and performer to elementary school teacher.
S: When I first registered at Eastern Michigan University [at age 18], I knew I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. I wanted to teach children how to love themselves. That was my big thing. It was something that I struggled with so much. I took all music classes and all elementary education classes. Then I dropped out. All the Crackpots are at least five years older than me, so when they graduated, I just dropped out, too. (That’s another long story, how we got out here.) So, I put myself back in school here, at PSU, eleven years ago, and took elementary ed and music and Spanish. Got my BA, finally, and took all the pre-requisites to get into this program. Then…I decided to go to Mexico and lived there for four months. I was 32 and decided I should not be a teacher yet, and that I should keep playing music until I was 40 or 50 and then I could always go back and get my masters and be a teacher later… I want to be a teacher now. I feel like I’m finally at peace with being a musician and a teacher. And now I can do both.
D: Wow, this was like a grand plan. So now what do you think of the current state of the music industry, with music being such a commodity?
S: A few years ago CD Baby was a locally owned business [where] I would sell music and I would get a check from them every month. Now, five years later, I have an eight-page list and I get one cent per song. And now they’ve been bought out. It’s so confounding and sad for me. It’s just one reason why I wanted to stop performing.
It’s also a huge reason why I didn’t want to sell my record. I don’t want anyone to be able to sell my record, for a fucking penny, or for someone else to be making money off of it.
D: So, for this latest album, you did a Kickstarter campaign after which you gave it away and asked people to donate to a worthwhile charity, right? That was your answer to keeping the commercialism out of your music?
S: Even when I was selling CDs and before it got to this point, I’ve never been comfortable with [the way musicians are being paid]. That’s just me. I’m a terrible business person. I understand we all need money to live and survive, but I think money is bullshit. I’m not about profit. So, it wasn’t a huge departure for me to do that. Somebody recently asked me how my album was doing; I think they suddenly got it, that it was a ridiculous question. It’s like, “What do you mean? It’s doing great! It just exists!” (Laughs.)
D: Yeah, it’s not out there doing something except entertaining people. And some folks get some money for their charity. It’s a genius move.
S: Thanks, but I’m broke as fuck. (Laughs.)
D: What would you do now, if someone picked up your record and wanted to distribute it? What if some record company wanted to give the record a greater audience?
S: I couldn’t do it. I don’t want some record company making money off of it. There’s a conundrum there; they’d want to profit from it. I don’t mind being a local musician. What’s wrong with just being a local musician? I mean if you don’t want to tour, and you don’t want to be famous, and you don’t want to make a lot of money, what is the driving force? It would have to be pure ego, since I don’t care about those other things.
Since I went through this change, I’ve been looking at musicians differently and it’s really interesting. I can see when it’s hurting somebody to be a musician. I think, and what I’ve noticed is that being a musician is one of the hardest things to extricate yourself from. If you have some other career, and you decide to change careers, no one would say that you “sold out” or you “gave up.” But if you stop being a musician, it’s like, look out. You know? I admire my friends who … do anything so that they can continue to be musicians.
This last year has been hell. I didn’t know where I was or who I was.
S: It was really hard. And recording was really hard. And I’ll tell you what, the biggest part of that was my alcoholism. And that is a huge reason I had to stop what I was doing. I knew I needed structure… I got so shit-faced during recording. I was so miserable when I should have been overjoyed. I was so confused and I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.
D: You were coming and going.
S: Yes! And it wasn’t until the week before I knew I was going to be in a classroom at least two days a week. I knew I would fail miserably if I tried to go into [teaching] in that state. Now is the time. I have been waiting for this my whole life. I’ve tried to be moderate. I’ve tried so many different approaches, knowing in my heart that I’d have to be done with [drinking] in order to ever really be happy, and really be me.
D: Drinking was preventing you from being you?
S: Drinking was preventing me from doing my best, which is so important to me. So, yes. It was preventing me from being my best me.
D: If your latest record was made under those conditions, imagine what kind of record you could make now? Assuming you want to make another record.
S: Well, I’m going to make a kids’ record, and I’m inspired by my friend’s daughter who is on the autism spectrum. And she’s feeding me ideas: “I need you to write a song about plurals. I need you to write a song about homophones.”
D: You’ve been a teacher for a short time now?
S: I’m a teacher candidate. They’re changing “student teacher” to “teacher candidate.” They also use the term “co-teaching.”
D: You’ve had this desire to be a teacher. Did that get even more exaggerated when you had your son, Vaden?
S: It didn’t change [my desire to be a teacher]; I think it will make me much better at it than I would have been, had I not become a mother. I don’t mean to say that teachers who are not parents are not as good teachers than those that are parents; but for me personally, my experience with my son and my future experience with my son will greatly inform my knowledge of children’s literature, my understanding of language development, of math development.
D: What about teaching excites you? That you get to mold children’s minds? Why are you doing this? Why teaching?
S: I think the world eats children. It makes them into people that are doing things that people do now, ruining the planet and ruining things for everyone else. I want to at least have a classroom where children will be able to learn how to think for themselves and stave off anything like that happening to them—which sounds fucking lofty. And I’d like to teach them to read and write. I just want to look kids in the eye and say, “I see you. I’m here.”
It’s so intense for me to be in the classroom. I have to find my boundaries and who I am as a human, and who I am going to be as a teacher. I need to remove some of the emotionality from it. I’m so new at this. I have a lot of learning to do. What else would I do? I’m so glad I’m finally doing it. I [never felt that way] playing gigs, maybe ever. I enjoy playing music, but I wasn’t on stage thinking, “This is what I’m meant to do, this is where I’m meant to be.” It was never satisfying in that way, to be on stage.
D: Why did you do it for so long if you never felt that it was what you were meant to be doing? What motivated you to make music or perform live?
S: I don’t know. I was so shy. At open mics, I would try to get people to go away or to turn around so they wouldn’t look at me (laughs)… Did I ever tell you this story? The courage story?
S: Gosh, it was 1995 going into 1996. Big Sue and I worked at this coffee shop downtown across from the main post office. Big Sue told me her new year was going to be all about glamour. So, I decided my thing was going to be courage. I was going to write a song about courage. This was going to be my year. One song—that’s all I was going to do. I was gigging all the time anyway. [Then one day], I ended up closing up the coffee shop. It was the last day we were going to be open between Christmas and New Years. And this woman came in. She had crazy hair, braided. We ended talking for like twenty minutes, which I never did with customers. She told me she worked for Monqui, up in Seattle. She was taking the train. I was hung over, and she gave me Yogi tea. She gave me some CDs which I still have. We smoked. You could still smoke inside those places. And before she left, I asked her, “What is your name?” And she said, “Courage.” I’m like, “What?” “Yes, Courage de Leon; it means courage of the lion.” I said, “You’re gonna have to write that down, because my friends are not going to believe that your name is ‘Courage of the Lion.’” I had been telling everyone about my plans for my new year to be all about courage. So I took this piece of paper by the register. We had a stack of scrap paper. I had her write her name down, I turned it over…and look what it said on the back!
D: “Fear no music!”
S: I wrote thirteen songs that year.
D: How are you going to keep music in your life? It sounded like you were quitting music.
S: Remember that hard time I was having, about not knowing if I was coming or going? Well, I bought a four-track recorder. I want to record a children’s record with an accompanying booklet that is specifically geared toward teaching. In the spirit of Schoolhouse Rock.
D: What song have you written that has given you back more than any other song you’ve written, maybe in terms of popularity, or doors opened? Or, let’s say if you had to put one Little Sue song in a time capsule, what song would you choose?
S: I guess it would be “Elephant in the Room”
D: What do you want your son to be when he grows up?
D: So, you’re letting him blossom in his own way?
S: Yes, it’s one of the reasons all of these instruments are all over the house. They’re there, but I’m not forcing them on him. It’s the way we’re doing it, for now. He has wanted to be a couple of things already. He’s going to be nine at the end of January. [That’s the age] I discovered music, too.
D: There were a couple of questions on that Facebook post that I did before I came out here, and if you don’t mind, a few fans have some questions for you:
Jeff Jansen asks, “One thing I notice, as a guitar player, is that she uses the ring finger on her right hand in a way I’ve never seen any other guitarist use. She’ll use it to pick out a melody, across multiple strings, while her other fingers hover. Very unique. How did she develop that style/approach?”
S: I taught myself how to play everything. My biggest influence was Jim Boyer. I don’t do it like him, but I was trying to emulate him in my own way. I wanted to turn a simple chord into something more interesting.
D: Theresa Pridemore asks, “Do you feel that living in Portland influences your writing, style, or process in any notable ways?”
S: I’m hugely influenced by local musicians. Not just Jim, because of the music he introduced me to, but Tim Acott, and Lynn Conover. My biggest influence from all three is what you see today in me, my ethical stance about music. These people I’m talking about, they’re not salespeople and they don’t care.
D: Alex Martinez-Amores asks, “What’s your writing process like?” Do you set out to write a song, or does a song come to you? And is it lyrics first or music first?
S: Same time. Songs come to me… The ones that are really special to me, like “Elephant in the Room,” just show up. Like when my sister was here, it was five in the morning and I wake up and walk in the room and mumble, “Song’s here. And it wants a beer. And a cigarette.” So I go went to the carport and I wrote “The Back Forty” sitting there with a beer and a cigarette. And there it was. It just showed up. And “Elephant in the Room” was the same way. It showed up first thing in the morning.
Little Sue and I ended our interview there, but Jeff Rosenberg had one more question, via Facebook thread: “How does Little Sue justify abusing her students by exposing them to the banjo?”
Sue answered it by posting a cartoon of two guys, one playing banjo and the other one saying, “If you keep picking that thing, it’ll never heal.” Let’s hope that Sue keeps picking at that thing.