Seattle Music Commissioner Sue Ennis is Seattle-based songwriter who has co-written more than 70 songs for the Seattle band Heart (30 million records sold and 2013 inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame). She has co-written songs for feature films including The Golden Child starring Eddie Murphy and Thomas and The Magic Railroad. Her hobby band, The Lovemongers, also appeared on the soundtrack of Singles. Sue teaches Music Business, Career Development and Songwriting at Shoreline Community College and Songwriting for Film for the Seattle Film Institute. She also serves as the Pacific Northwest Grammy Board’s national Trustee on the board of the Recording Academy.
We spoke with Sue about her career in Seattle’s music industry, how she approaches her work, and what advice she has for songwriters and musicians.
Tell me about yourself and your career in music.
Songwriting is the biggest force in my life. When I look back at various paths I’ve taken, which included getting a Master’s Degree in German Literature [laughs] at Cal Berkeley—a little sideroad there—I’ve always returned to songwriting. I was lucky to meet some musical young women when I was in high school, [Heart’s] Ann and Nancy Wilson, who became my best friends and still are. I found amazing common ground with them through music at a time when I was a lonely, sad teen. They had already written a couple of songs, I added a third harmony here and there and, voila, we became the songwriting team. For a while, we all split to the four winds. I went off to college to pursue literature and writing. Ann joined a band and Nancy finished up high school. But, no matter whatever else we chased individually, we always stayed super tight.
Heart had two big records right out of the gate and they needed to write their third album on a very short deadline. Ann and Nancy had been on a grueling tour for nine months straight, and one day they called from Davenport, Iowa and said, “We gotta get back to the fun in music.” They came to my tiny apartment in Berkeley and we wrote a song without even trying. I’ll never understand how it was so effortless; it felt like we were the same person! They took the song back to Seattle and received a strong thumbs up from the producer and the band. It ended up as the title track to Heart’s third record, called “Dog & Butterfly.” We co-wrote all the songs for that record and, amazingly, it sold 3 million copies.
I co-wrote about 70 songs for Heart over the years which has. by far, been my biggest commercial success. Since then, I’ve loved working with other writers as well. I’ve written quite a lot with Hummie Mann, a great film composer here in Seattle. We’ve written jingles, a musical and had song placements in a few feature films.
The great Seattle treasure, Linda Hartzell, Artistic Director for the Seattle Children’s Theatre, commissioned me to songs and underscore for a show a couple years ago, called “Art Dog.” What a dream job! I loved going to rehearsals with the hilarious actors and teaching them my songs. The songs burst into living color when the actors got hold of them.
These days I’ve gotten into music production as well as writing. I love writing a song and building the record at the same time, right there in the studio. Right now, I’m helping produce three young Seattle female artists, helping them put together their first EPs.
I’m curious about your songwriting process and what that looks like in different situations, whether you’re collaborating with someone, or if you’re writing a song for theater versus a movie versus something else.
I love co-writing. Depending on who I’m writing with, I wear different hats. In the partnership with Hummie, I wear the lyricist hat and he supplies the most delicious chords. We hash out our melodies together. I love writing in the same room with him because we really get revved up and the songs seem to sail into the room. I can’t imagine writing with him over Skype.
I ask younger artists I work with to bring what we just call a “start” – a concept, some lyrics or a few chords, or just a title to a writing session. Because I really want the core of the song to come from them. My job is to coax out a little more focused lyric, to ask questions to draw them into more efficient story-telling. I want to make sure that their voice, their heart, is there in the song. Then I help fine tune it.
I love writing songs to specific parameters. Give me a song title! Tell me your concept, the genre and how long it should be. I love having a direction, an assignment. It’s so much easier than generating something from scratch, although lately, I have plenty of ideas, mainly reactions to the current political climate. I have a lot of rageful rock songs in the hopper right now [laughs].
Your songs have been used in various different contexts, from Heart to commercials—how did that come about?
Like everyone in the music business, opportunities come to me through friends and contacts. I’m part of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Recording Academy and am currently on the national Board of Trustees. I love meeting music people from all over the US. I’ve made some lifelong friends there and some great writing opportunities have come through those relationships. I have made friends with music supervisors who have helped open doors for my songs. And also have met producer pals from Memphis, Chicago and Houston who have called when looking for songs or artist mentoring.
Tell me more about being a Recording Academy trustee and what that means.
The Recording Academy are the people who put on the Grammys, but everyone who gets involved will also tell you about the other amazing things they do beyond the awards show. This includes the charity arm of the organization, MusiCares, which helps people in the music community in need. As a trustee, I attend two meetings a year with representatives from 12 chapters across the country. I’m especially proud of our education and advocacy efforts and am partial to supporting local music communities.
How would you describe Seattle’s music industry and how have you seen it change?
Seattle has such a rich musical history. The early raw, garage sound of the Sonics and The Wailers led to unique moment in the 90s when Seattle became the center of the music universe, similar to Liverpool in 1964. The Seattle music scene was a do-it-yourself philosophy and a music culture of inclusion where competing bands actually helped each other. I was surprised when I met the guys in Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, and found they were all surprisingly far-reaching in their musical tastes. Some of them are huge Elton John fans. And Heart fans! There rose up a supportive community in Seattle that seemed to adhere to an inspiring viewpoint about what music could be. That it could be “art.” That there was power in any individual’s voice! That everyone deserved a shot. It was about authenticity, and not making hits for the radio. Commercial success was fine, but very few embraced the idea of outside producers coming in and polishing your sound so smoothly that it lost its human edge. For a time, record labels descended on the Pacific Northwest and were happy to go along with–let’s face it: pay lip service to–that aesthetic. Those were the “Camelot” years in Seattle.
Remember the line from “Hotel California:” “We haven’t seen that spirit here since 1969?” [laughs] Make that 1992 or so. I don’t feel there’s as cohesive a music center here. The influence of tech companies has changed the musical heart of our city and that close community aesthetic. Wrecking balls came in and took down our gathering places that had real heart where that spirit breathed and thrived. Old brick gave way to clean, open surfaces. And toughest of all, we now face making art and music in an unaffordable city.
What is the focus of your work on the Music Commission?
Youth. I teach part time at Shoreline [Community College] so my world is filled with young people floating on their dreams. Through the Music Commission I’ve broadened my awareness of pro-youth groups in Seattle. I became aware of Daniel Pak’s Totem Star, expanded my grasp of what the Vera Project is up to. I’ve volunteered with Rain City Rock Camp for Girls. I want to bring encouragement and guidance, whatever I might have to offer, to the next generation of music makers. If I’m not helping them write songs, can I teach them to network or how to act in a session? How to be savvy and speak up for their artistic vision and speak out against any kind of exploitation. How can I mentor and encourage the next generation that is facing so many more struggles than I ever did?
What advice do you have for a songwriter who is just starting out?
Don’t live in a silo. It’s so easy to deceive yourself in the little creative hothouse of your bedroom into thinking you’re a genius. Include other people in your creative process; go out and co-write with as many people as you possibly can. Because in each of those sessions you’re going to take away something, even if the song is not that great. Even if it’s not a positive writing experience, you’re going to learn what not to do next time. That’s how you grow as a writer, as a creator. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to find a super match as a co-writer where it’s just so effortless, so positive, so much fun. Where, for one blissful songwriting moment, you think you’re the same person.
I think I read some statistics that maybe 98% of the Billboard Top 200 are all co-writes. Go hustle to find your ideal team. Take the time to hang out for an hour and laugh and figure each other out before you start writing. In my experience, that’s where the best work comes from.
Show up and be positive and go-getter person to work with. Do your prep at home and turn up overflowing with ideas. Be able to pivot. If a session is going a certain direction you didn’t expect, go with it! Try not to be precious about your work—be able to let your “best” ideas go. Fold yourself into a workflow with other people. Be a fun hang and through those relationships, believe me, doors will open.
Join whatever groups you can, do open mics. Put yourself out there! A whole big bunch of us are waiting for you.