Reacting and Responding: Bruce Sudano
"Dolly is a bundle of joy, and what you see is what you get, you know?"
Playing his first paid gig at the age of 12, it was always going to be a life of music for Bruce Sudano.
What he perhaps hadn’t imagined at this tender age was that he would end up enjoying a five-decade career writing songs for his own acts as well as A-list pop royalty including Dolly Parton, Michael and Jermaine Jackson, and his late, great wife Donna Summer. Here, OX Magazine’s Jack Rayner talks to Bruce about melody, Michael and musical evolution.
Hi Bruce. I’m sure you’ve heard this question a million times, but what was it like working with Michael Jackson?
Well, it’s a very sad story because I didn’t exactly get to work with Michael Jackson, as such. He did sing on a song that I co-wrote, ‘Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming’, but I wasn’t there for the vocal. But, that’s not to say that there weren’t other times when I was around Michael – I remember one time in the late 80s when I took my kids to Wembley to see him in a big show, then we went backstage and said hi. My daughter Brooklyn, who was then about three years old, actually went on stage and danced with him, so that was a huge highlight. After that I would see him at the recording studio every now and then, and all I can say about Michael is that he was always kind, always a gentleman, and obviously super talented. That’s the guy who I knew.
How about Dolly Parton?
Dolly is a bundle of joy, and what you see is what you get, you know? She’s very genuine, very down to earth, and it’s such a great piece of flattery for me to have written a song that she sang and took to the top of the country charts.
You’ve written for a wealth of stars over the years, and of course in 1991 you started releasing music in your own right. Which is the more challenging job?
Writing for somebody else is more challenging, to me. Writing for myself just comes from the heart and soul – it’s what I’m feeling or thinking in the moment. It’s still a challenge, but it’s like making a pair of shoes for yourself, as opposed to a pair that’s supposed to fit somebody else. The songs I’ve written for others have been very successful, but it’s a bigger challenge for me to do that. What I to do when I have the opportunity is sit down with the artist and pick their brains a little bit, get a sense of where they are and embody that in my own creation. With a song like ‘Starting Over Again’ for Dolly, that was a personal song that I was writing about my parents’ divorce, and by accident she heard it and called to do the song.
Your releases over the years have been incredibly diverse, musically. Do you tend to appreciate music across the board or do you have a preferred style?
I didn’t set out to be an across-the-board guy. I started out wanting to be a songwriter, and I’m a big believer that if you write a good song, you can ‘dress’ it in any style. That’s a matter of production, not always, but frequently.
A good melody is cross-genre.
Yes, absolutely. I think that explains more than anything my ‘across-the-boardness’. Also Brooklyn, where I grew up, is a very eclectic place, so just walking down the street you hear all sorts of styles and sounds. You assimilate it all and it’s a mixed community.
How have you seen the inner workings of the music industry change over the decades?
Well, now I see it as a completely new landscape. It’s especially new for me because I was so involved in the old landscape, you know? Many of the younger artists have no other point of reference. I don’t think the new way of doing things is even complete yet, but I’ve always thought that the music industry is incredibly resilient, and I’ve seen it evolve and shift a few different times. For me as an artist, my goal is just not to worry about the business and always be inspired and have something new to say.
Out of all the stars you’ve written for, who have you got on the best with personally?
Well, Donna Summer was my wife for 30 years, so she obviously affected my life more than anyone else. Not just for the obvious reasons, but also because of who she was, how much I learned from her, and her talent as a singer and songwriter. There are people around the world who all have their personal Donna Summer story of how she blessed their life through who she was.
Did she inspire you in a musical way?
When we met, we were both very driven, young artists, both coming from our own worlds and with our own sense of where we had to go. We were also both mildly successful already. It was on an equal footing, but after a while it became apparent that Donna’s sound was so immense...she gave me places to aspire to and I like to think that conversely, there were things in me that inspired and encouraged her.
Where do you see your career going in the future? What your plans upcoming?
Well, I just see my life as one grand experiment. I’ve now taken this life as ‘singer-songwriter’ out with me and my guitar, and it’s a new revelation every night. That aspect of who I am continues to grow, challenges me, and forces me into trying to write in ways that I never would have done before, stylistically.
Is your new album 21st Century World a departure from your normal songwriting style?
Not a departure, more of an evolution. When you’re an artist in motion, you want to keep evolving, and it’s not something that I force but if you keep living then you have to keep reacting and responding. For this record, I decided that I wanted to create a more ‘basic’ record, that’s essentially just acoustic guitar, bass and drums. I wanted to focus on the cultural message, and I got my friend Mike Montali to produce the record. There was a time in my life where I thought three months was the perfect amount of time to make a record, but we did this one in just a couple of days. It’s back to basics, knocking them out, coming back to that idea of a ‘good song’. Find the spirit.
Couldn’t put it better myself. Thanks Bruce.
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