A Conversation With Suze Lanier-Bramlett
A story that has taken her on a journey that’s included time in the theater, television, movies, music and photography.
Chances are, if you’ve been exposed to any of these mediums you’ve most likely encountered her and may not have even known it.
Horror fans know her as Brenda Carter from the first “The Hills Have Eyes” movie. The cult classic that made her the original “Scream Queen“.
Television enthusiasts might remember her for a number of roles she’s played over the years including a stint as John Travolta’s girlfriend on “Welcome Back Kotter”.
Musicians know her for her soulful voice and being the wife of Delaney Bramlett, one of the greatest songwriters ever.
But dig a little deeper and you really get to know what makes this amazing woman tick.
Suze’s latest album, “Swamp Cabaret” is the story of her life thus far. Its also a reflection of her own one woman show in sequence. From her life as a “B Movie Star” to the day she almost made it to Woodstock. With enough blues and cabaret mixed in to appeal to a variety of music lovers.
In my interview with Suze, we’ll discuss “Swamp Cabaret”, her loving relationship and songwriting partnership with Delaney Bramlett, her love of photography and of course “The Hills Have Eyes”. She even dishes on her latest movie project: “Cut!” where she has the challenge of playing herself.
goJimmygo (gJg): It is such a pleasure to speak with you! How are you and how’s your new CD doing?
Suze Lanier-Bramlett (SLB): I’m doing really good. You know, we’re getting some very nice airplay both here and in Europe. The European enthusiasm is surprising and exciting.
gJg: When I first wanted to speak with you it was about the 35th Anniversary of “The Hills Have Eyes”. Then I started digging a little deeper and found out that in addition to your TV, film and music careers, you’re also a successful photographer too. Tell me a little bit about your photography.
SLB: I’ve always kind of been led through the universe in a spiritual sort of way and photography was actually a blessing. My acting career had been slowing down a bit in the 80’s and I had a son to raise. So I started thinking about other things I could do besides act because I hadn’t really done anything else since I was fifteen years old.
One night I fell asleep and actually dreamt that I was a photographer. That dream reminded me of when I was a little girl and the day my Dad had bought me a Brownie camera. I would go around and shoot Girl Scout meetings, birthday parties and friends. I suddenly remembered how much I loved taking pictures.
Following the dream, the very next day I went out and bought myself a camera. I read the manual, invited a few actor friends over and started shooting. Believe it or not within about three weeks I started making a living as a photographer. It happened that fast.
gJg: It sounds like you had the knack for it right from the start.
SLB: The real trick about photography is understanding light. I think my time spent being in the theater helped me with that. I’ve also always enjoyed looking at fashion magazines. I think because of those two things I had been subconsciously studying light for years.
gJg: Amazing that it all happened for you because of a dream.
SLB: Yeah, and the thing about photography for me is that it’s a fun career. It’s like anything else though, you have to work at it. You have to promote. I think that’s the hardest part of being an artist. There are so many people I know who are fabulous in their art but they can’t make a living of it because they don’t know how to promote themselves. How you get it out there and get people to acknowledge it. That’s the hard part, whether it’s music, acting, painting, etc.
gJg: It’s not an easy road that’s for sure.
SLB: Everyone wants to be an artist, a singer, a rock star, an actor but they have no idea how challenging and difficult it can be. It looks so easy and so glamorous but it’s not. There’s an element of luck involved too. Being in the right place at the right time and finding the right people who can help you take it to the next level.
gJg: When did you first start writing songs?
SLB: The first song I ever wrote was when I was about 10 years old. I had a crush on a boy named Mike and I wrote a song about him called “I Like Mike”. <laughs>
You know, even though it was awful it still gave me the feeling of a creative rush and ever since then I’ve dabbled in songwriting. I found out later that my love for it went deeper than just “dabbling”.
My mother passed away last April and as I was going through some of her things I found poems that she had written all through the years that I never knew about. Her father was also a poet and was actually related to Tennessee Williams.
gJg: Really? Tennessee Williams?
SLB: My grandfather was Thomas Lanier and Tennessee Williams’ birth name was “Thomas Lanier Williams”; cousins of some kind. I got to work with Tennessee. He was so gifted and intense.
SLB: Yes it does. But the music didn’t really come full circle for me until I met Delaney in 1977. He was always in the recording studio and I occasionally would toss out a lyric or two. That’s the way it started and then we eventually began working on songs together.
Later, in the mid-80’s, I formed my own band and performed regularly at The Palomino Club in LA and a bar called The Rose Tattoo, which at the time was the second most popular cabaret bar in the US. Both of those places are closed now. I had a great West Hollywood following.
Around 1991 I decided to stop performing in clubs. It’s hard keeping a band together and I was doing well as a photographer. So I put music on the back burner.
gJg: How did the “Swamp Cabaret” project come about?
SLB: After being away from music for years, Delaney and I started co-writing again. We had been working on some songs for his album.
One night I went to a salon performance party at a friend’s house who was preparing to do a cabaret show in Hollywood.
Her director recognized me from the old days and asked if I’d be interested in performing again. It was truly flattering but I politely explained to him that I thought “that ship had sailed”. He gave me his card anyway and said: “Lets have lunch.”
I went home and told Delaney about it and, surprisingly, he said he thought I should do it. In fact, he offered to help with the music. With his encouragement, I decided to give it a go.
We had a couple of meetings and rehearsals; however, it was halted when Delaney had a gall bladder surgery and developed complications.
Over the next seven months I never left his side. He passed at the end of 2008. After he was gone I was devastated and had no motivation to do much of anything. Then one day the director called me and said: “Come on, let’s put your show up!”
gJg: How did it go?
SLB: I was really nervous to be on stage singing again. When Delaney had been involved, he had asked me to include the song “Superstar”. I kept it in for him. It was tough getting through that first show.
It’s actually still a challenge sometimes to face the day without him here. I stay busy and some of his band members play with me, so we keep his memory alive by working and writing together.
SLB: Thank you. I love being in the studio. I just finished recording a song that Delaney and I wrote that was never released called “Angel In The Night”. We wrote the song on Dec 8, 1980, the night John Lennon was shot. It’s a love song and was written initially with Yoko in mind.
gJg: I love your version of “Superstar” on the CD. I actually grew up listening to The Carpenters version but the song is still one of my all time favorites. The chords and melody are just so beautiful.
SLB: I love it too. Delaney was one of the co-writers of that song. He was such an amazing songwriter. For me to have fallen in love with him and then have him ask me to help him write – you can’t go to school for that. Being married to such a great songwriter and man was a huge gift in my life.
gJg: Another one of my favorite songs on the album is “On The Way To Woodstock”. It’s so infectious. How true is that song?
SLB: The whole thing is actually true. I was living on The Lower East Side of New York and was very pregnant at the time.
gJg: What encouraged you to put that story into a song?
SLB: ABC news did a documentary on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock in 2009 and they had asked me if they could include a segment about my own Woodstock experience. After I saw it I decided that story could make a cool song. So I sat down at the piano and I whipped it out in about a day.
gJg: Are all of your songs written that easily?
SLB: Not always. Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a song but I’ll need to let it stew. I might only just have a title or a rough idea about what I want to say but then I’ll sort of just forget about it and not work on it for a while. Then one day I’ll just sit down again and the song will just come out.
gJg: You can’t rush the process.
SLB: You’re right. I, personally don’t like to force the process of songwriting. There’s a formula to it but I prefer to write when the inspiration hits me.
gJg: So a lot of your songs are about personal experiences but you also tend to write from someone else’s perspective as well?
SLB: I do. Delaney would do that too. As a matter of fact, Delaney would often laugh about how all of his wives or ex girlfriends would always think he was writing a song about them personally. He’d say: “Look, I’m not always writing about the person that I’m with. I might be writing about something that I had heard on the news or I’ll write a song from someone else’s point of view.” I feel the same way.
gJg: I love the vibe of this album. Especially with the last track, “Leave Your Hat On”.
SLB: I’ve always loved Randy Newman’s songwriting. “Leave Your Hat On” is one of my favorite songs so I put it on my CD. I often close my show with that song.
The Hills Have Eyes (35th anniversary):
gJg; You know I’ve got to ask you about “The Hills” don’t you? <laughs>
gJg: Do you remember when they crowned Jamie Lee Curtis the “Scream Queen” because of the movie “Halloween”? Well, I did a little research and it looks like you beat her to that title by at least a year.
SLB: I did?
gJg: If you look it up you’ll see. “Hills” came out in 1977 and that’s when you were screaming. “Halloween” didn’t come out until 1978.
SLB: So I was the first screamer?
gJg: You were the first. You have the title and should be credited with that.
SLB: That’s great. <laughs>
gJg: When you think about “The Hills Have Eyes” what’s the first thought that comes into your mind?
SLB: You know how sometimes you’ll do one thing in your life and it changes your whole life forever? That was what that movie did for me.
SLB: Yes. You see my agent didn’t want me to do it. He thought it was horrible. But I went against his wishes and did it anyway because I liked the script and I like Wes Craven. It was through that movie that I met Delaney. He had seen it at a drive-in the night before we met.
This last January, I worked on a new movie called “Cut!” because of David Rountree, the director, a fan of “The Hills Have Eyes”. In 2009 I also did another project with Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) called “Area 51”, another film of the same genre.
Some nice things have come out of me being in “The Hills Have Eyes”. Not bad for a low budget project that your agent doesn’t want you to do in the first place. I’m glad I followed my intuition on that one.
gJg: Do you have any interesting stories from being on the set?
SLB: Well, I’m not sure if I’ve ever told this story before. I remember at one point everyone was a bit on edge about filming the rape scene. Rape scenes weren’t common place back then.
Michael Berryman’s character (Pluto) was going to be the one who raped me first and Michael was a bit insecure about how I would feel about being raped by him.
I was sensing his discomfort so I said to him: “Look, when Wes calls action, let’s just be making out passionately and I’ll act like I’m really enjoying it.”
On “ACTION” they pulled back the curtain and instead of the rape, Michael and I were passionately making out like it was a love scene. It got a great laugh and broke the ice for everyone.
gJg: How was it filming the movie?
SLB: It was fun but it was a hard shoot. It was hot in the daytime and cold at night. We were stuck out in the desert but everyone got along well. It was very low-budget film and probably had more meaning for some of us then others.
I don’t consider “The Hills Have Eyes” a great work of art but its a horror classic and I’m very glad that I did it. It was important enough to make a sequel and a remake.
gJg: I agree.
SLB: Why were you such a big fan?
gJg: I was really big into the horror genre growing up. Just being scared but “safe” in my theater seat. That’s what turned me on to those types of movies.
SLB: Not me. I don’t like to watch scary films. It’s cool to act in the horror genre though.
gJg: Do you plan on doing any east coast dates with your band? I’d love to see you in New York.
SLB: That would be great but it’s quite expensive to take a band out. I could possible make it work playing to tracks but tracks aren’t the same as having a band on stage. Besides singing the songs, I do some stand up comedy in the show. My last gig in Hollywood I had video in the show which adds another dimension to it all.
I want to go to New York sometime in the Spring. I want to catch up on the shows and see some friends. I’ll check out some clubs while I’m there but my focus right now is to stay in the studio until I finish a new batch of songs I’ve written and to release the next CD.
The Changes in the Musical Dynamic:
SLB: I think most artists are having financial problems because of all the free downloads, resulting in fewer CD sales. I’ve even read somewhere that the physical product of a CD will probably not be in existence in a few years.
There will soon be nothing that you can hold in your hand and actually look at except your iPhone of iPad.
One of the things that I treasured the most about buying a new album was the artwork.
gJg: I could not agree more. I feel the same way. I’m really going to miss that.
SLB: All of my musician friends are very perplexed about how they’re going to manifest this new business model into income. All of the music that we’re putting out there does not guarantee that people are going to buy it. Especially if they can listen to it for free. Everybody’s trying to place songs in film or on television.
The only way an artist can make money these days is to tour but being on the road night after night is exhausting. Everybody’s trying to figure it out; how to do your art and make a living from it.
gJg: It’s hard to imagine there being any upside to this new model.
SLB: There is one thing about it that’s kind of cool. You’re not dependent on a major label to put a record out anymore. You can do it whenever and however you. The artist can have full control. That part of it is extremely cool.
It’s the same thing with movies. You can do them inexpensively if you really want to. For about $1500 you can use better equipment than Wes Craven did for “The Hills Have Eyes”. <laughs>. You can go buy a camera with a cool lens and have a better quality than he could get back in the late 70’s.
gJg: Let’s talk about your latest movie project. Is it true that you play yourself in this one?
gJg: How did this role come about?
SLB: It’s not a huge role and it was kind of an after thought. They already had most of the movie filmed and I think they wanted a subplot to go along with it. My manager represents David Rountree as well as Gabrielle Stone (Dee Wallace’s real-life daughter). She pitched the idea of using Gabrielle and me. So I eneded up playing the grown up horror film director: Susan Lanier, former star of “The Hills Have Eyes” with Gabrielle playing my leading lady in the film.
Because we had such a great time on the set, I invited them out to my “Swamp Cabaret” shows and subsequently, they decided to include a scene from the bar into the plot.
The star of the movie is David Banks and he is a very talented actor. He’s also one of the writers.
gJg: This sounds like a very interesting story!
SLB: I’ve seen some of the footage and I think it’s going to be great. I’m grateful to still be working in film. The parts are not that plentiful for more “mature” actors these days.
gJg: Have you ever thought about writing a book about your life?
SLB: Yes I have. Someday I’d like to do that.
gJg: You certainly do! You have a lot to say.
SLB: It’s been a journey that’s for sure. Fame, fortune and stardom was never the goal for me. I just love doing the work. Because a hundred years from now, will any of it really matter? The important thing is to enjoy the process; the ride.
Because… in the end, we’re all just stardust anyway.
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Article first published as Swamp Cabaret: A Conversation with Suze Lanier-Bramlett on Technorati.