Amanda Carr sits down with soulful songstress Suzanne McNeil
- Suzanne McNeil
At what age did you know you wanted to be a professional singer? Did it begin in Nova Scotia?
I remember strutting around the living room in a diaper, wearing my mom’s high heel shoes, using the extension chord as a microphone, belting out Tanya Tucker. For as long as I can remember! It all began in Framingham, MA where I was born.
Have you always played guitar? Did you start singing first or playing first?
I started singing first. All the girls in my family were expected to play the piano. All the boys seemed to gravitate toward the guitar. After my first few piano lessons, I remember telling my mom, “I want to rock on the guitar like Greg, Mark and Paul”. At 9 years old that’s when I started my private guitar lessons.
Has your attitude changed after being in the business for a number of years, and if so, in what way? How difficult is it to keep your thinking positive and how do you maintain that?
I started thinking the other day about my first professional job as a musician. It was 10 years ago. I toured with a country rock band in the Midwest. An agent got me the gig. I basically lived in hotel rooms. We played 6 nights a week, 5 sets a night, and my pay was $200 dollars a week. I thought I died and went to heaven I was so happy, getting paid to sing.
Well, my attitude has changed since that time. The reality of “making a living” as a musician has been a challenge at times that’s for sure. I think if you choose this life, you have to be versatile, open to change, and thick skinned. Looking back 10 years, if I knew then what I know now, would I do it all over again? Hell, yeah!
Do you find audiences more appreciative in your home region in Canada or in one place over another?
The support I have received from New England audiences has been overwhelming at times. I definitely am appreciated here. That is a good feeling. In Canada my profession was primarily Social Work, so there was never the opportunity to receive that appreciation. My career in music blossomed in Boston!
How important is it to be an entertainer as well as a musician?
For me it is very important. It all depends on what kind of musician you strive to be. I like to think of it as, I’m the host of the party, and I want to make sure everyone has a good time. These are some of the things I am thinking about in between the music.
Before I became a professional musician, I worked aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as a Cruise Staff member (that’s right, Julie McCoy) where I hosted the events onboard. Looking back at being forced to speak to people on a microphone day in and day out, that experience really prepared me to be at ease on a microphone. I am thankful for those 2 years on the ocean.
Can you talk a little bit about the incarnation of “Lipstick & Laughs?” and how is that being received? Do you feel there’s an advantage in having a group rather than being a solo artist?
Five years ago Diona Devincenzi (Nashville), Jill Miller (Iowa), and myself (Boston) met at a songwriting conference in Nashville, TN. Five years and a reunion lunch later, they decided to come together as a cooperative to perform a Nashville “in the round” style show and bring that intimate, acoustic, listening experience to other parts of the country.
All based in separate cities and all having their own solo careers, they bring their own twist to the party. Separately, their musical influences run the gamut from folk to pop to jazz to country to rock. Together, their sound is a sonic confluence of those American styles and textures…with the additional “fairy dust” that comes from three artists who love what they’re doing.
Lipstick and Laughs combines stories and songs to inspire, motivate and empower women. Acoustic arrangements, rich harmonies, meaningful lyrics, and a good dose of humor are what sets Lipstick and Laughs apart from the same old keynote experience. Exploring topics unique to women, they can touch an audience in a unique way…. through the power of music. Their message is delivered in a way that is honest, sometimes irreverent, sometimes serious and oftentimes funny, but always entertaining!
Can you describe what you feel about the advantages or disadvantages of being a women in the music business?
I think the role of women in the music business is changing. More and more women today are running their own careers. The advantages women have in the business of music are our communication skills, teamwork approach, and multi-tasking abilities to name a few.
It can still be an intimidating place to be at times, but when you run your own music empire, you can choose what kind of people you want to surround yourself with. I try to get rid of any negative influences as soon as possible.
Since most independent artists are ‘self-managed’, can you talk a bit about your learning curve in this area and what you would say to younger women who are just getting into or want to pursue being a professional musician.
Self-managed musician, in a nutshell, means that you pretty much do everything. I think it’s important to figure out what your strengths are and outsource the rest. Create a support system for yourself. If you don’t have the money you can barter with people. People usually want to help (especially fans).
For example, I have learned a ton in the past few years about maintaining my own website, writing my blogs, sending emailers, press releases, social media campaigns etc…
What I don’t have time for is to learn how to engineer my music. I’d rather be writing music than learning how to be an engineer. Therefore I know that I need people like Ducky Carlisle to work his magic.
“You can do anything, but not everything”
If you could turn the clock back 10 years, what would you change to your approach in what you’re doing now?
If I could go back in time, I would have probably started writing songs right away. Your authentic voice is the key. You can groom your craft but “your sound is your sound”. I find songwriting to be such an incredible journey that the more I write the better I get, so I wish I had started really taking it serious right away. That is the only thing I regret.
Oh, and that one horrible band I joined too!
How has the landscape changed over the years for artists promoting original material?
The good news is that it is all at your fingertips. The bad news is, that there are a million people out there wanting to be heard, so the market is almost saturated. Your music has to stand out from the rest. You also have to brand yourself and connect with people authentically.
How important do you feel having a college education is when entering the music industry? What other skills besides just playing music do you feel are crucial in this business?
I do not think you need a college education to make it in the music industry. I don’t think it will hurt you either. If you can figure out how YOU learn best. Can you teach yourself? Is private instruction better for you? Right here in Boston we are so fortunate to have a wealth of master musicians from Berklee College of Music. We also have people like Mark Baxter, (a world class voice teacher). The list goes on and on. Being a solo artist oftentimes means that you are a lone ranger. This is where emotional intelligence comes in. Figure out how to support yourself, and who you can talk to when you need to vent, celebrate, talk about things like rejection, and then just keep on keeping on.
For me, I think of my music as a service. I want people to connect my songs. If they don’t, then I need to go back to the drawing board until I get it right.
What are some of the pitfalls or mistakes you see young musicians/singers make who are just starting out and what would you like to say to them?
Hone your craft as best you can, and don’t be afraid of constructive honest feedback. Be honest with yourself and your development. Know where you are and what your goals are. Success means different things to different people. Musicians need to stick together and support each other. I often feel this competitive attitude from new musicians. If you respect everyone you work with, then you will have tons of opportunities. Boston is a great music scene, but a small world at the same time. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But, people will never forget how you made them feel.” Just be you, nobody else!