Susan Barth's Wonderland
A Hollywood Dream
"I'm in the pursuit of the perfect pop song," says musician Susan Barth, who has recently released her third solo album, Wonderland, on her own record label, Pink Sox Songs. "I believe in the magic of the perfect pop song."
After listening to Wonderland, it's obviously that this is true. Barth's songs are all exquisitely constructed, with lush guitar interludes and gorgeous synth washes and just the right hooks to make them instantly hummable and impossible to get out of your head. Barth's vocals are pitch-perfect lovely, pleasant and poppy with just a touch of melancholy.
While Barth was (and is) very interested in having major record label representation, she was more concerned with getting her album out on the streets while it was still fresh than waiting to be discovered. She decided to release the album on her own under the publishing name, Pink Sox Songs. "I tried an awful lot of company names, but they were already taken," she laughs. "For a period of time, I used to like to wear these pink lace socks when I played shows, so that's why I called my company Pink Sox Songs."
Her first two releases, This Thing and Romeo and The Beauty Queen, earned accolades from Billboard, merit awards from ASCAP, and airplay on Los Angeles radio, while her music has begun being picked up for television and film. Her song, "Feel Like a Man," received play on the TV show "Smallville," while other music was slated to appear on the now-cancelled WB show "Tarzan." "I wish the show would have lasted one more episode, because one more episode, they would have played my song," laughs Barth ruefully.
"As a kid, I started mimicking the songs on the radio," says Barth of her musical beginnings. "I started singing the harmonies to the songs on the radio, and I started making up different melodies. I wrote my first song when I was about 12 years old." While Barth's East Coast family was supportive of her personally, there was always the thought that she would eventually give up her artistic pursuits and join the family business—working in a German butchershop.
"I was a very sensitive kid, so it was kind of a weird business to have my family involved in," says Barth. "But that's okay. My brother did get into the family business, and runs it today. It's more like a specialty grocery now, a gourmet grocery store where he smokes all his own meat. It's a kind of upscale suburban kind of existence."
Instead, Barth took a job in California and decided to pursue her dream to be a musician - while still working full-time during the days as working in the corporate office of Lamps Plus. "I work quite hard at the music thing. I work all day long at my job, and then I work all night long on my music. It's good discipline," says Barth. "I can make the money so I can continue to create music. I have the financial means to do so as a result. It also gives me a lot of material to write about, because I'm interacting with people all day. But it does suck a lot of energy out of me."
In many ways, Wonderland is a reflection of Barth's own struggles to get a toehold in the Hollywood dream. On the surface, the album is a wonderful collection of pleasant-sounding pop songs, with Susan Barth's distinctively sweet yet edgy vocals being the focal point. When you dig a little deeper, though, you find yourself smack dab in the middle of a story about disillusionment.
In the opening track, Wonderland, the story begins with the narrator still thinking, "I'll just go on thinking everything is going to be all right," only to be disappointed by life and the pursuit of the Hollywood dream as the album goes on. In "Almost Did It," the narrator chides herself that she almost sold herself out in order for that dream, still clinging to the idea that she can make it her own way. In "Over There," the narrator reflects on another person's stardom, wondering how that person became so famous so fast. And then, in "Grammys," the narrator talks about watching the Grammys on television and wondering what one has to do to get on that stage and on TV.
The songs all fit into each other so well and beautifully that they just couldn't be arranged any other way, with each song put in the exact place it needs to be, as though one was following the path of a novel. And, though the subject matter and the palpable disillusionment are both so heavy and melancholic, it never gets too heavy or melancholic, never crosses into being maudlin or too depressing, and always retains a bright ray of hope that keeps one cheering for the narrator to just keep on trying.
"I was pretty disenchanted with the music industry here in LA," says Barth of the making of Wonderland. "It's a very competitive place. There are tens of thousands of songwriters here, and they're all trying to do the same thing. I wrote this song, "Wonderland," as a reflection of when I moved to LA - I was so full of hope and, you know, I thought I was moving to this wonderful place.
"And then I went to the dry cleaner for the first time, and there was this wall of photos there of customers. They were all these second-rate soap opera actors and actresses. And smack in the middle of them was this Robert Blake picture, with the parrot on his shoulder from when he was Beretta? I just remember thinking, 'Oh my God, look at that.' Years later, I was just sitting around one night, and I was remembering that moment when the bubble burst when I saw that. I wrote "Wonderland" as a reflection of my experience here in LA, and sort of what I supposed others' experiences had been like. And then the other songs just fell into suite. It became kind of an autobiographical album."
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