Interview: Suzi Quatro

Elisa Bray

By Elisa Bray

on 08.29.11 in Interviews

In The Spotlight

Suzi Quatro

There’s no stopping Suzi Quatro. One of the first female rockers (since 1964, when she formed garage-rock band the Pleasure Seekers with her sisters back home in Detroit), she’s inspired Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett and the Runaways. At 61, and with a world tour in mind for 2014 to mark 50 years in music, it’s clear that Quatro sticks by the motto of her song “Rock ‘Til Ya Drop.” Based in Essex, U.K., her new studio album In the Spotlight embodies her enduring rock ‘n’ roll spirit.

Celebrating her first U.K. hit single with “Can the Can” in 1973, she became a staple of the U.K. charts over the next couple of years while glam rock rode at its peak. Not content with selling 50 million albums worldwide, she has starred in television shows Happy Days and Absolutely Fabulous, and on stage in Exonerated, about six people on death row. Her last television role, in Midsomer Murders, saw her electrocuted. “I did a wonderful death scene,” she says.

eMusic’s Elisa Bray chatted with her about being one of the first female rockers, inspiring Chrissie Hynde and giving Rihanna a rock edge.

Your last studio album was autobiographical. What was the intention behind In the Spotlight?

Back to the Drive was made up of songs I’d collected for about 15 years, and it was a real personal album. That led me, a couple of years later, to putting out my autobiography, Unzipped. So I’d done the whole life journey, and then Mike Chapman, who I’ve worked with since 1973, said, “Now that you’ve got that all out of your system, I want to produce your next album. I know exactly what to do. Trust me.” He had a real burning vision of what it should be.

After taking the autobiographical route, it must’ve felt quite different making In the Spotlight.

It was a totally different experience. Because I’d dumped everything, I felt like I was starting my career again. I felt like I was in the studio for the first time. I was working with young musicians between 18 and 30, and it was a real fresh approach, we were actually in the studio playing the music together. It just felt very fresh, very vibrant and I think that’s what the album sounds like. It doesn’t sound like I’m an artist who started in the ’70s making another album. It sounds like I’m starting now, doesn’t it, it’s got that kind of approach to it.

Did you worry about the younger musicians not having that rock ‘n’ roll vibe?

Well, you know, I kind of wondered, because you can have musicians and singers who are just brilliant and know every note, and for some reason it just doesn’t feel right. So of course when I saw these youngsters coming to the studio I was going, “Oh my God, I hope Mike knows what he’s doing.” But then we started to play, and I just went “Wow.” We started the last track, “Hard Headed Woman,” which as you know is an old ’50s/’60s-feel song, and I gathered them around and said you guys have been playing absolutely great, but now we’re talking old-school with this next track. And oh were they challenged, but they played their asses off. [Laughing] I was peddling to keep up.

So Mike really picked the right musicians.

He got the right people 100 percent. We respect each other, we understand each other. Although we hadn’t made an album together since 1980 we have always done tracks. Have you read the bit from him on the front of the album?

I have. I was going to ask you about that. [On the sleeve notes he says "I have always felt that Suzi Quatro is a more important part of the rock 'n' roll music world than she is given credit for... There is a little bit of Suzi in every female artist who takes the stage."]

That’s how he feels about it. He always says that I was the first one and everybody’s followed since and he feels very strong about that. There had to be someone that started. It kind of fell my way, the right person at the right time. That’s how it goes in history.

How does it feel to have influenced female artists such as Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett?

It’s very, very nice when girls from all walks of music come up and tell me this. But I didn’t go into the business thinking, “Hey, I’m going to do this and be the one,” which is probably why it worked because it wasn’t pre-planned and calculated. I was always a rocker. I was in love with Elvis from the age of five, started my band at 14, I was always the one out there screaming my rock ‘n’ roll and being quite androgynous. Nobody said to me, “Put your bass on and wear it like this, put your legs like this and look like this,” so because it was all natural to me, I think that’s why it fell to me to be the one that broke through. There was no other female I could look at so I was an original. And of course if you’re the first one, then people after you are going to take a little bit of inspiration. I take that as a great compliment.

How did it feel being one of the first female rockers?

I didn’t think to myself, “I’m going to be a woman rocker and show those guys.” I was just doing what felt natural to me. I took myself seriously, and therefore everyone around me took me seriously, and that’s the key to it all. And it’s only when you look back on it that you realize, “Hey, I was a girl and that was weird.” Because I started off with my sisters in a band and we were all girls, so we didn’t think that we were weird for doing what we did. It was what we wanted to do.

When you were growing up, how did friends of yours respond to your music career?

Well it was a strange thing, because I started when I was 14 and we went straight on the road. I remember coming back, and all my friends were at school and I’d left school, and I called up my girlfriends to say, “Hi, I’m back,” and nobody talked to me. It was so strange; it was like I was a traitor. I guess I dared to be different, so therefore maybe they thought I wasn’t one of them anymore. And it’s kind of a lonely feeling, but nothing that I would have changed. That’s what I was born to do as far as I was concerned.

Can you recall anything that Chrissie Hynde said to you in the early days?

Oh, God, yeah. When I first met her she was a journalist for the NME in England and she interviewed me and I remember sitting on the floor in the toilet at the gig because it was the only quiet place and after she did the interview she said, “I’m going to do what you do,” and I said, “Really.” And she played me a little tape recorder of some of her stuff and I thought to myself, “You’re dreaming.” I didn’t know if she was going to make it or not, and then she did, and I sent her a telegram when she had her first No. 1. We’ve since talked about it. She kept that telegram and she came on my This is Your Life and read it out: “I thought you were a dreamer and now you’re a winner. Congratulations.”

And Joan Jett?

Well, Joan, bless her, I’m real proud of her more than anybody else, because she took such a page out of my book and she’s done very well with it; she feels almost like a little sibling. She was my biggest fan, I would say, and before she started her band she would sit in the lobby of the hotel in L.A. and wait for me to come in. Every gig she was there and she would have her little jacket on and Suzi Quatro haircut.

The covers on In the Spotlight are mostly female artists: Rihanna’s “Breaking Dishes,” Goldfrapp’s “Strict Machine” and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Turn Into.”

They were songs from people that I admire. That Goldfrapp track is great. It was so close to my sound as you probably heard with the little tongue in cheek “Can the Can” [riff] at the end.

Of course — you had to make that reference.

I just had to do it [laughs]. And Rihanna’s song I love, I think she’s great, and I’ve had comments from a lot of people that I put a bite into the lyrics that wasn’t there. It’s nice to twist it around and have that real rock edge. We tried to pick people who we could put me into or indeed have taken something of me so it’s like a creative circle. Old artists can be influenced by new ones and vice versa.

I hear that you perform 100 shows a year. That’s a lot of shows.

About that, yeah, and I would like to do more. I love what I do. 2014 will be my 50th anniversary as a professional. That’s pretty special.

What, for you, makes a good show?

I like to be able to take the audience on a journey. We have in the business something called the Saturday-night crowd, and they’ve paid their money, they sit there, fold their hands and say, “Entertain me.” I love those crowds.

You do?

Yeah, because by the end they’re begging for mercy. I love to turn them on their heads. I am an audience performer. This is what I’ve always been. I’ve been told by people you feel like I’m doing it just for you, which is a big compliment.

Will you continue performing forever?

When it’s over, it’s over, and I think I will know. But saying that, my father stopped gigging at 89. I will stop when I turn my back on the audience and shake my ass and there’s silence. Look at people like Mick Jagger and Chuck — they’re still out there doing it. I’m 61. I’m not as old as them yet.