Catch up with San Francisco-based Sugar Ponies (Suzanne Kramer and Michael McGovern) and watch the video for their single "Give This Girl A Break" off their It's A Sign album, out now.
What brought you together and made you decide to start Sugar Ponies?
Suzanne: Well, what's funny is we actually met at a jazz club in Oakland called Yoshi's - and this was like 10 or so years ago - and we didn't actually form the Sugar Ponies until probably 2008, and we did go through a long list of names before we decided on Sugar Ponies. But basically, when we met, I had written this song, "Shine Again", and I wanted to record it and Michael said that he had a recording studio and he could help me out, so that's really what kicked the whole thing off.
And why did you decide on the name Sugar Ponies?
Suzanne: [Laughs] Okay, I'm going to give the G-rated version, Michael.
Michael: Yeah [laughs].
Suzanne: So, we were playing music with some other people at the time and one of the women - it was a pretty amateur set-up - and one of the women that we were playing with - we all had long hair - and she was nervous and didn't want to have attention drawn to herself, so she said, "let's wear ponytails and then, if we really flop, everyone will say, 'oh, it's just a joke, 'cause they're all wearing ponytails'". So we were going to be the Ponytail Girls and I said, "let's just be the Pony Girls," but, as it turns out, that's a lesbian S&M fetish [laughs] and so when I said to my husband, "hey! Michael and I are thinking of calling ourselves 'The Pony Girls'," he said, "oh really, have you Googled that?" [laughs]. So I Googled it and, sure enough, that URL was taken [laughs] and I was like, well, we better not name ourselves that. And then, a friend of ours who lives in Australia - he had helped us produce the first EP that we had that we put out in 2008 - he said, "why don't you be the Sugar Ponies?" and I said, "oh my god, I love it, that's perfect," and it just stuck. Actually, everyone hated it. They were like, "oh, it's a terrible name," and I was like, "you know what, it's going to grow on you" [laughs]. So that's how the Sugar Ponies' name happened.
Which musicians have you been influenced by?
Michael: I personally do a lot of the music - Suzanne does the lyrics - and my heavy influences are Kate Bush and Andy Partridge from XTC along with Pete Townshend from The Who, and I've always liked early '60s pop, I thought that there was an intelligence to it that some of the later '70s pop - although '70s pop is candy sweet - just didn't have to it, I didn't think. So, anyway, I really liked that. And, of course, The Beatles and The Beach Boys and I loved surf music, so those are my big influences.
Suzanne: And then, especially for "Give This Girl A Break", you'll hear I have a very heavy, country music influence. I spent my entire 20s listening to country music [laughs] so that definitely comes through in both the melodies and the lyrics in a lot of our songs, but especially "Give This Girl A Break". And then - like Michael - The Beatles, The Beach Boys, we both were really influenced by artists like Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Simon & Garfunkel. Me personally, I spent a lot of time listening to, like I said, country music, but I've also spent a large part of my life involved with jazz standards. And then, also, pop music from the '70s and '80s - not so much recent pop music - but the older stuff I really like. My mother and father had this collection of music from the 1950s in our house and I used to listen that pretty regularly, too. On one hand, our music influences are pretty different from each other, but there is definitely crossover.
How would you describe your sound to someone who had never heard your music?
Suzanne: I usually say pop rock to someone who's never heard it before if I just want to give them a really simple answer. We jokingly describe our music as alt-pop-country-folk-rock [laughs] because it really is all those things. It's not that we can't decide on anything, it's just that we're not too concerned about what genre we fit into when we write a song; we'll just start to write a song and we like it, we don't care what genre it is.
Michael: Yeah, it's been very interesting because the songwriting process for us has not always been easy because we come from different places musically, so there definitely has been a big process of presenting ideas and having to change them and taking the other persons' tastes into consideration. It's really been a very challenging but growth-oriented process because, if you just do what you're comfortable with, you stay in that box you're in. Suzanne and I come from different places and both of us have had to grow to become what the music we're producing right now is.
Suzanne: And I think that, also, that's why our songs don't all sound the same. Each one is just a complement of musical tastes coming together.
What were your inspirations behind your single and the video for "Give This Girl A Break"?
Suzanne: The song came about because, and this is a while ago now, but a friend of ours was going through just a bad relationship. She was really hung up on this guy and he obviously did not return the feelings, but he was just leading her along. And the story goes - and this is true, but it's just become this funny story now - I was in the shower [laughs] and the lyrics started popping into my head and - you know, it comes to you and you can't even control it, it just starts forming in your brain - I literally had to keep running out of the shower to record the line that I had come up with and it was a really long shower [laughs] because it kept getting interrupted. I was like "oh my god this is great" [laughs] and I would run out again to record the next lyric that came into my head. So, later that day, Michael came over and I presented the song to him and then we came up with a melody and Michael did the music and then, probably very quickly, like over a week, it became the song that it is today. I shouldn't say that, it was a pretty stripped-down version of the song because it was probably a year later that we finally went into the studio to record it and, the producer we were working with - his name's Ari Rios and he's with Laughing Tiger Studios, he owns that studio in San Rafael, California - and he actually composed the cello and piano parts in that song and then we worked with those musicians to record those parts. But it is a pretty straightforward song: it's just vocal, guitar, cello, and piano and so it is a 'what you see is what you get' kind of song. And I should say that I don't actually know the status of the relationship with the friend and the guy because I've lost touch with the person.
I wanted to have [the video] be part where we're in the studio playing music and then part acting, like having a dramatization of the story. And the guy who plays the leading man in the video is Tony Glaser and - we really didn't know him when we made that video, I just was looking for somebody who I thought could act and be charismatic and look good, right? - since then, he's become someone who plays bass in our band. He's a great bassist and he plays with us on bass; he's actually on another recording on the album, playing bass. We became friends after the video but he was great and we hired Dan Foldes who owns Pint of Soul to shoot it and the idea was just to show a sort of flashback to the first date and the first kiss and so it's sort of a flashback type of thing; she's going back and forth in time and, in the song, she's texting him, so she's talking to the guy who broke her heart, basically.
Could you tell us more about your album, It's A Sign, and how it compares to your previous releases?
Michael: The biggest difference is definitely that the first EP and the first album, I produced them and recorded a lot of them in my studio or in, sometimes, my bedroom and things like that. The last album was produced by Ed Stasium, who did almost all of The Ramones' albums and Talking Heads, Smithereens, Living Colour - a bunch of other famous artists - and he was incredible to work with and really eye-opening for me, because I'd been producing and recording music for a long time and so it was great to see somebody who had been through all that and how they worked and the ideas that they brought and what a producer can actually bring to your music. It was a great collaboration. I think with the last album, too, we have definitely grown with the dynamics in our songs and leaving in what matters and taking out what doesn't and that type of thing, so I think those would be the major differences between the three albums.
Suzanne: Also, I should mention that, that sign that we're holding on the front cover of the album - or, actually, even on the inside of the album - that sign was made for us by a local fan and we decided to use it in the photo shoot and then we were trying to figure out what to call the album, and my husband actually said, "why don't you call it 'We Say It's A Sign' or something like that?" and then we decided just to narrow it down to 'It's A Sign'. So the title of the album is simply that we're holding a sign [laughs] and that it's a sign, that's it, it doesn't mean anything deeper than that; but what we like about that is just that it's got that two meanings and double entendre; a lot of people do interpret it as 'it's a sign from God' or whatever but, for us, it was just, we're holding a sign. So we're just kind of tongue-in-cheek.
In one sentence, how would you sum up It's A Sign?
Michael: I'd say, very personal songs and a result of the learning and growing process we've been through since starting.
Suzanne: I might say something like energetic, originally presented songs about love and life and friendship; I think the album is very energetic and it's fun to listen to and it's the kind of album you can sing along to.
You're performing at Rockwood Music Hall November 15th, do you have a favorite song to perform live?
Suzanne: I think, right now, my favorite song is a new one that's not on the album and it's called "Forget". We've been practicing a lot for the show and I'm really digging how that song is coming out. What about you, Michael?
Michael: Yeah, same here, I think it's really fun. There's a couple of new songs that we're working on that we're really excited about, but that song has got a great feel to it and we're really looking forward to recording it and playing it live.
What do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music?
Suzanne: I hope that they're able to consider, at least, one of the songs to be their special song, something that is a soundtrack for their life.
Michael: Yeah, we couldn't really ask for anything more than what's been happening with "Give This Girl A Break" because there's been so many people who have heard the song and immediately associated it with their own situations, and they have poured out their hearts about what type of things are going on with their relationships and you can't ask for anything more than that; to provide a palate for people to put their own experiences on. That's the biggest thing for me.
Is there anything you want to add?
Suzanne: If they take time to listen to the song "Give This Girl A Break" - or the whole album - we'd love people to please let us know; get in touch and let us know how it affected you or if you liked it or not or if you want to keep in touch or if you want to know more. We would love to hear from people.