Forget the ‘Backseat’ – Give Susannah Joffe the Steering Wheel
By Ty Marsh
Susannah Joffe is an artist just as down to earth as you expect someone raised in Austin to be. After a bit of digging for a contact number online and sending a long-winded text message asking to interview the Austin-based musician, I was surprised when Joffe herself responded, “Hi! Yes I’m super down.”
After a bit of planning, scheduling and rescheduling, Joffe agrees to video chat and discuss her upcoming headline show at Antone’s, her experiences growing up in the city’s live music scene and coming out during quarantine.
Before the call, Joffe sends another text, “Can we just ft,” she asks. I usually try to keep online interviews over Zoom, but I can already tell my talk with Joffe will be different. We’re both 21 years old. Our interactions thus far have been entirely over text, and after sending messages of initial introduction to each other, we quickly reverted to the short, punctuationless and slang-heavy communication that we are both used to. She’s OK with being casual. So am I. Sure, we can FaceTime this once.
Joffe greets me on the call with a smile and a hello. Behind her hangs a small, rotating disco ball hanging from her ceiling, and resting on the windowsill in sight is a single piece of greenery.
A myriad of golden chains with different lengths and charms hang around her neck. After complimenting the necklaces, she smiles and thanks me. “They’re kind of my pride and joy. I have this neon pink vulva necklace that I’ve been wearing as well, but I’m getting it fixed right now,” she says, dramatically posing her hands around the accessories.
Joffe is a student at the University of Texas at Austin double majoring in Radio, Television and Film and Plan II. She also happens to have years of musical experience, a voice made for indie-pop and over 28,000, and counting, monthly listeners on Spotify to show for it.
Raised in Austin, Joffe was immersed in the city’s bustling music scene from a young age – her family moved to the city when she was four to support her dad’s career in songwriting, and she’s been here since. “Growing up here is something I think I really took for granted, especially because of how much of the city’s older music scene has diminished recently,” she says.
She reels off a list of her favorite, now closed, childhood venues. Alongside her father, she frequented spots like the recently closed Threadgill’s, which often had songwriting competitions and was notorious for the live music sessions that a young Janis Joplin frequented before her fame.
“I would just sit and watch everyone perform,” Joffe says. When it came her turn to take the stage years later, she notes she particularly cherished playing at the Strange Brew Lounge Side, a coffee shop/music venue hybrid from days of Austin past. “It was the best little venue ever. It’s closed now, but it was amazing while it lasted.”
It was her father introducing her to spots like these that Joffe credits for exposing her to the Austin-specific “singer-songwriter, almost folky music scene,” that influences her sound. Fittingly, Joffe and her father also regularly cowrite on her songs together. You can hear his singer-songwriter influence in 2018’s, “Lonely” and “I Learned It for Myself,” released when Joffe was still in high school. While she still occasionally collaborates with her dad, it wasn’t until the quarantine of COVID-19 when Joffe focused on songwriting on her own.
“I was so, so self-conscious of everything I wrote by myself at first. I’ve been cowriting with my dad since I was 14, so it was definitely an impostor syndrome moment for me at the beginning,” she said.
The first time she posted a fully solo verse online, Joffe says she was convinced that friends would message her to take the embarrassing post down. Instead, she was met with support that still gives her confidence today.
“It’s really freeing to write songs by yourself. Sure, I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing at times, but it’s become one of the most important things to me. I’m a pretty closed-off person and it’s hard for me to be genuinely vulnerable with people at times, but I feel like solo writing has helped me be able to talk about how I feel and what I’m going through, which helped especially during quarantine,” Joffe said.
As with most of us, 2020 was a year of profound changes in the indie-pop musician’s life and career. The pandemic’s months of solitude are when she began solo songwriting. It was when she was first inspired by new musical influences. It was when she began exploring a new sound. Perhaps most notably, it was when Joffe first came to terms with the fact that she is queer.
“My coming out story is really odd. Before quarantine, I would just tell people that I thought girls were hot and that was kind of the extent of it. I just refused to think about my sexuality. I somehow convinced myself that I was making all of this up,” she gestures up and down towards herself. “During quarantine was the first time I was able to sit down, truly come out to myself and realize, ‘Oh! I’m really obsessed with women,’” she says with a giggle.
Alongside the realization her own queerness, Joffe also realized there was an entire subgenre of artists who she now shared community with: other queer musicians. She notes discovering Clairo’s debut record, “Immunity” during quarantine, and credits the songwriter’s unapologetically queer lyricism in helping her to come out. When asked about who she’s inspired by, she mentions the songwriting of queer artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Leith Ross. For Joffe, it was artists like these that gave her the courage this year to release the single “Backseat,” her first song about a female love interest.
“I thought things would be less hard ‘cause girls are so soft,” Joffe whispers in the first verse of the single, “Especially because we’ve been friends for so long.”
“Maybe you feel bad for what you did, Or maybe you’re just manipulative, Adele, did you think of me? Kissing him in the backseat. Kissing him instead of me,” the song’s chorus questions over an upbeat, indie-pop instrumental.
“Backseat” explores a common experience for newly queer individuals. Often, the first time someone realizes their sexuality is because of a close friendship turned into something more. And often, these experiences end the same: a betrayal, a heartbreak, a loss of both a friend and a lover. I’ve got a similar story, as do a lot of other queer people, as evidenced by the fact that “Backseat” is Joffe’s top song on Spotify with over 273,000 streams currently.
“I hadn’t even come out to either side of my family when I put it out,” Joffe admits. “I didn’t tell anyone, and I don’t plan on it. I guess I realized that I don’t really care how they find out. Releasing it like that was a little scary, but more so exciting because I kept thinking about how I really needed queer music growing up. When we were kids it existed, but queer music was so inaccessible in the mainstream.”
She notes that a week ago she mentioned “Backseat” to her grandmother, a conservative and Christian, who told her she had yet to hear the single. “She asked me to send it to her and I was just like, ‘You know what queen, if you haven’t heard that one yet maybe the universe doesn’t think that you should.’”
“Backseat” isn’t Joffe’s only queer endeavor, though. Of the music she has written on her own since quarantine, it’s safe to say that most lyrics pass the Bechdel test. “I think the very first song I wrote on my own was about my ex-boyfriend, and every song since then has been about girls,” she said with a smile.
Joffe played “Backseat” for her headlining show at Antone’s on Nov. 14, which was more than just another gig for the musician who grew up in the Live Music Capital of Texas.
“Headlining Antone’s is just crazy to me,” Joffe said before the show. “I feel like it’s the heart of the old Austin a little bit, at least old Austin music scene.”
For her hometown headline, Joffe played the parts of her discography most influenced by musicians of Antone’s performances past, but it’s easy to see that she was itching most to introduce her new sound to the stage. A young artist who grew up watching Austin’s music scene change, Joffe is ready to show the city what she can add to it.
“It’s going to be a great night for music,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”