--Palm reader at Clinton Street Halloween children's fair,
to Little Sue, Oct. 26, 2002
The clairvoyant didn't know whose hand she was examining. She's obviously not an avid follower of Portland's acoustic music scene, or she probably would've recognized one of its hardest-working stars. The soothsayer was onto something, though: With her new album The Long Goodbye, Susannah Weaver, known as Little Sue, joins lost love to wisdom, creating something mysterious and new.
Three years in the making, The Long Goodbye reveals a rare coincidence of creative and personal growth. It's the sound of a young woman learning how to handle both her talent and her heart, and it's a great breakup album. But here's the twist: Imagine Rumours, Fleetwood Mac's famous child of divorce, with Little Sue as some combination of Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, and the male Buckingham-Fleetwood-McVie roles divided variously between two collaborators, producer-drummer Ezra Holbrook and musician-muse Paul Brainard, Weaver's former fiancé and a prominent contributor to the album.
That's right. Welcome to Portland's own episode of Behind the Music.
"All," Weaver answers simply when asked whether "many of" the songs on the new record were inspired by her on-again, off-again relationship with Brainard, acclaimed pedal-steel player for Richmond Fontaine. "Some of the songs, the title song in particular, I started when Paul and I were happy, and I never finished it until we had broken up, like, four or five times. Actually, we got back together while we were making the record, and 're-engaged' ourselves, and I vacillated between naming it The Long Goodbye or The Longest Night." She says she finally reached a decision about the album's title and "related" matters only this past March, long after recording was finished.
Weaver says creative, as well as romantic, tensions made the making of Goodbye feel, at times, even longer than it really was. Her collaboration with Holbrook required her to surrender an unprecedented (for her) degree of control. "We compromised in some places, but I deferred to him a lot," she says.
But Weaver says she always trusted Holbrook's talent, as well as his vision for the album. "Ezra wanted this record to sound like, as he described it, 'you're sitting on a roof, looking at the stars, drinkin' beer, maybe you're with someone, a friend, maybe you're not, and you're not sad, necessarily, but you're just feeling so much that it's just, like...overwhelming.' And I think he got that. I've never had someone describe something to me like that, and then make it."
Holbrook's dedication made for a perfect match with Weaver's work ethic. Since her last album, she not only completed her college degree but held down two to four steady gigs a week, under a variety of names--including, for a time, a return to performing under her given name rather than a sobriquet.
"When I was in college, it was really hard to balance the two worlds," she says, pondering an explanation for the temporary retirement of the Little Sue identity. "Maybe I was just trying to break from some past shit that I felt bad about. I associated that name with a certain period of my life that wasn't that great." She decided to return to the nickname for the sake of career continuity, having released two previous albums as Little Sue.
In her musical partnerships, continuity has not been Weaver's watchword. Henpecker and Manpower are but the two most colorfully named outfits Weaver's played with, then discarded, in recent years. Currently, she performs as a duo with longtime Portland performer Lynn Conover; in a trio with Tim Acott on double bass and Mike Danner on keyboard and accordion; with a band featuring Tom Nunes on bass and Holbrook on drums (which she calls "the best band I've ever played with... real simpatico"); and as part of Triage, with Dee Settlemier and Marilee Hord.
For her upcoming release party, though, she's taken on what may be her most ambitious project yet: a full-scale reproduction of Queen's immortal magnum opus, "Bohemian Rhapsody," complete with an "all-star choir" harnessing so much local talent, some have joked that every other venue in town may be dark that evening. (Full disclosure: The present writer will sing in the bass section.)
"One thing that inspired me to try this," says Weaver, "is how much fun we had, doing tribute shows with everybody. The musical community is just so great here." As one of its busiest members, Little Sue certainly should know. And with The Long Goodbye, she's crafted one of the most beautiful albums that great community has ever been proud to call its own.
Fez Ballroom, 316 SW 11th Ave., 221-7262 ext. 31. 9:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 16. $8. 21+.
"To me," says Weaver, "country isn't whether you have pedal- steel on your record. It's a word thing and a vocal quality, a kind of keening."