Honeyhoney isn’t country. That’s what lead singer Suzanne Santo, one half of the Venice, California, duo will tell you. But the sultry-voiced Santo and her musical partner Ben Jaffe have together created a sound, as heard on their debut album First Rodeo, that if not technically country or entirely country, nonetheless boasts considerably country undertones.
Composed of rootsy, acoustic-driven and uniquely rhythmic tracks, First Rodeo is a point of intersection between modern folk, pop, and country, one which sounds, perhaps, more naturally connected to the genre’s traditions than much of the current highly-polished Nashville mainstream. These are songs of love, of homecoming, of fear and anger, all of which strike a unique balance between the often abstract and poetic lyrical style of indie rock and the realism that defines the core of country’s identity.
All of this becomes less surprising, of course, as Santo begins to list a few of her influences. “I love bluegrass, Appalachian type stuff,” she says. “I listen to a lot of Earl Scruggs and Pete Williams, Johnny Cash. Gillian Welch.”
Earl Scruggs? Those are some solid country credentials being flashed by this supposedly not-country fiddle and banjo-playing former model.
Still, as fitting as it may be that Honeyhoney’s music reflects Santo’s influences (fiddles and steel guitars underline, sometimes prominently, many of First Rodeo’s tracks) so too is it fitting that the duo’s music maintains a certain independence from any particular genre. After all, Santo also cites influences such as rap icons Tupac and Master P. And although you won’t find any hard core gangsta rap on First Rodeo, the album does brush up against jazz, blues, and even ska (on the delightfully frantic “Give Yourself To Me”).
“We weave in and out, like we’re drunk driving through music genres,” Santo says. “Let’s go a little more rock this time, or let’s go a little more cowpunk. And I like to believe that people will take to our music because of that.”
“We’re Definitely Not Named After The Abba Song”
Suzanne and Ben first came together a little over a year ago, then known as Zanzabar Lewis, a title coined from Suzanne’s childhood nickname. It was only after signing with Kiefer Sutherland’s Ironworks Records that the duo flipped to their current moniker, one that speaks more accurately to the tone of their music. “We choose Honeyhoney,” Santo explains, “because it’s kinda southern and sassy.”
“We’re definitely not named after the Abba song.”
Originally from Strongsville, Ohio, Suzanne isn’t southern, but Honeyhoney’s music does exude a subtly saucy twang. And as for the sassy part of that equation? Well, let’s just say that she glows with a confidence that springs, no doubt, from having already lived a life very much in the fast lane.
Santo grew up in a small town, singing in choir and taking violin lessons, and at age twelve she started working in the family business, busing tables at the Italian restaurant that had been handed down from her grandparents to her parents.
It was in those early days the she first started developing a work ethic that she would later call upon for survival as she navigated the harried world of the entrainment industry–an industry that swept her in at the tender age of fourteen.
“Right before I was fourteen I was kinda chubby,” she says. “I sorta looked like a chipmunk. And then I got really tall over the summer.”
After landing a few small-time gigs (she appeared, for instance, in a series of Value City department store ADs), she spent the next summer working in Chicago, and the summer after that in Tokyo. By age 16 she was fully immersed in the modeling world, and had moved to New York City where she attended a private performing arts school–an education which she helped finance with the money she made from shoots. “Pretty much anything I made would go to the school,” she says. The rest was paid for by her parents, “The best mom and dad in the world,” as she describes them.
“Growing up I always needed their guidance. I was really young and I’d be in these crazy situations; you know, in the modeling world you’re exposed to a lot of things at a young age.”
Her parents would make trips into the city to visit their daughter, and to handle her business affairs. But the strain of so much travel became wearing, and so, at age 17, Suzanne was emancipated, living on her own and fending for herself in the Big Apple–a teenager fighting her way up one of the toughest ladders that anyone can hope to scale.
While in New York, Suzanne started acting, and her acting aspirations eventually led her to Los Angeles. But music, she says, was always where her heart was, and when she got her feet planted in California she picked up a guitar and started writing, performing at open mics, and networking. And she hasn’t looked back since—although the road from there to here has been anything but easy.
Finding Her Way, The Hard Way
“When I was seventeen I started illegally bartending and cocktail waitressing. It was a really hard time–my body started to change and I wasn’t landing as many modeling jobs. I had never had to diet before. I had never had to cut back anything that I was eating. When my body started changing and I was, you know, getting curvy, I wasn’t working as much and I needed to pay my rent. And the stress it would put on me would be really scary.”
So she worked as a nanny, a building manager, a server at a barbecue restaurant, all as she struggled to keep things together and map out a new path for her future—one that, for the first time ever, focused on making a living with music rather than modeling or acting. It wouldn’t be long until she had an opportunity to do just that…an opportunity that came at the hands of a recording engineer mysteriously referred to in Honeyhoney’s bio as “The Double.”
I was able to coax Suzanne, for perhaps the first time ever, into publically revealing the identity of The Double, the man who introduced her to Ben and thus, who was the initial spark for what has become Honeyhoney. “His real name is Todd,” she explains. “But we call him T-O-Double. So his nickname is just ‘The Double’.”
The Double had worked with Ben on a solo project credited to Black Tie Society, and introduced the New England native, a Gershwin-bred classical music fan who was previously Sonya Kitchell’s guitarist, to Suzanne. It didn’t take long for a new partnership to bloom.
“We started singing each other’s songs and mushing ‘em together and then we started writing together,” Suzanne says. After the two new co-writers completed their second collaboration, “Come on Home” (which appears on First Rodeo), the pair realized that something special was brewing. “After we wrote ‘Come on Home,’” she says, “we thought, wow, this is great, let’s keep doing this.”
“It was like fate, Jim,” she declares, in a tone obviously knowing of the statement’s cheesiness. “It was really like fate.”
“I Can Smack His Ass Around”
That half-faux cheesiness is just one of the many parts that make up the character of this tough-as-nails yet still-charming young woman. Suzanne Santo is likely, at any moment, to bust out a sarcastic or downright silly, off-the-wall remark. But she’s equally likely to open herself up and tell you something deeply personal, often oscillating between the two as she stitches together her own unique story.
Never is this more apparent than when she talks about her relationship with, and obvious (though completely platonic) adoration of, her musical partner.
“We’re married without the candy,” she says of her relationship with Ben, not really jokingly. “Sometimes Ben and I forget to hang out because we’re so busy. But he’s hilarious. I freakin’ love that kid. But no nookie. Uh uh.”
Besides, she reminds us, “I’m about six months older than Ben, so that means I can smack his ass around.”
Suzanne and Ben’s relationship is one that translates to the duo’s music, of course; despite the fact that Ben plays only a minor vocal role on the album, there is a readily apparent interplay that takes place between primary singer and primary musician, each taking turns front-and-center while all the while remaining seamlessly tied to each other–Ben’s churning rhythms and musical sensibilities perfectly compliment Suzanne’s sultry vocals, and it’s hard to imagine either of the two producing anything quite as engaging without each other’s support.
“But our relationship had translated for me personally, also” she adds. “I’ve never had to live or work this closely with a person before, even with my boyfriends. This is such a different relationship, and it is so important for me to keep it healthy. Passive-aggression doesn’t work for us. We’re very confrontational and we communicate a lot. The lessons this relationship has taught me has made me closer with my boyfriend and my family. It’s has helped me learn how to just get over it and be good to yourself and each other.”
Creativity is at the crux of Honeyhoney’s music. They have crafted a sound that, from the panache of Suzanne’s delivery on First Rodeo’s opening track “Black Crows” all the way to the mellow sway of closer “Under The Willow Tree,” is the product of a merging of influences and styles that sounds like nothing else. The first single from the project, “Little Toy Gun,” which boasts a smoky, dangerous vocal, sounds like modern country-western gunslinger music–like some inconceivable union of Quentin Tarantino and the Grand Ole Opy–while “Sugarcane” brings together the subtle moan of a steel guitar with unforgiving but sharp-as-a-pin lyrics like, “You say you’re fine and sigh, sigh, sigh/So when I fuck around, don’t ask me why.”
And while Suzanne and Ben know that their music isn’t entirely classifiable in any genre, Suzanne says that’s just fine by them.
“When we signed our deal, Ben was teaching music at a store in Redondo Beach, and I was doing all these different day jobs,” she explains. “Before we signed it was really hard to keep our jobs and continue to be busy with music and have time to write and practice. And when we finally signed and got our advances, we were able to live off of music as a job, which still blows my mind. I’m like, holy shit, I don’t have to sell barbecue anymore. I don’t have to watch babies to pay my bills. When you work in the service industry or you’re a teacher it’s consumes a lot of your time and at the end of the day you’re really tired and exhausted and it’s harder to be creative. I feel like we have more room now to be creative.”
“We just wanted to be creative. We made these songs because they came from our hearts, and we just wanted to make them sound good.”
And, given how successful they were, it’s not hard to think that this first rodeo won’t be Honeyhoney’s last.
This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2017.