In the Wilson sisters’ 2012 autobiography Kicking & Dreaming, Ann Wilson described Sue Ennis as “the dearest friend Nancy or I have ever had.”
Sue has not only been friends with Ann & Nancy since high school, she also co-wrote more than 70 songs for 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Heart, including the title tracks to their albums Dog and Butterfly , Bebe le Strange  and Private Audition , and well-known Heart favorites “Straight On” and “Even it Up.” Let’s not forget, also, that back in the late 1990s, Sue was a member of Ann Wilson’s side project, the Lovemongers.
Of course, as you’ll find out in this interview, there’s more to Sue Ennis than being collaborator and best friend forever to the Wilson sisters. We asked Sue about her work with everything from a children’s musical to the advertising world to a couple of major motion pictures, as well her take on the art vs. the competitiveness of music. But we started with a question about Sue, the teacher…
GGM: First, Sue, what inspired you to impart your songwriting expertise on future generations through workshops and community college courses?
Sue: I started teaching undergraduates when I was a Teaching Assistant in grad school at UC Berkeley, working on my M.A. in German literature (of all things!). I found that I loved teaching, which definitely has a performance component to it.
You get up in front of a group and try to make your “show” educational and engaging. My teaching style is energetic, quick-paced and built around a dialogue format. My students talk to me by asking questions, and they challenge me when they don’t agree with what I’m saying. I actually grade them on participation in the class. I was thrilled when they offered me a place on the faculty at Shoreline Community College in Seattle. I love the community college population, which has many students who are trying to balance work, families and school in a heroic way.
GGM: How did you talk Thacher Hurd into adapting his children’s book Art Dog into a musical that premiered earlier this year in Seattle?
Sue: The Seattle Children’s Theatre put this musical adaptation of Mr. Hurd’s book together and invited me to do the songs and underscore for the project. It was an incredibly rich experience working with the gifted team at SCT, in my view the top children’s theatre in the country.
My greatest reward was attending school shows, watching 5-8 year olds watch our show. My happiest moment was watching little kids jump out of their seats, lift up their arms and begin twirling with the special swirling lighting effects projected onto the theatre ceiling. I cried every time.
GGM: Since you’ve also written a few advertising jingles, can you elaborate on what products or services your jingles promoted, and whether writing those are as fun and productive as any other form of songwriting?
Sue: I co-wrote a jingle with film composer Hummie Mann for a company called State Roofing. It was a rather tough assignment for a company with a boring name. They wanted us to mention “State Roofing” in the jingle and also to convey that the roofs were made of metal and came with a lifetime guarantee. All in 30 seconds! It was a fun puzzle.
Jingle writing is “assignment writing” – with specific, required content laid out right out of the gate. The jingle writer’s job is to make it entertaining. We hired a team of male singers to play the roles of the manly roofers, chanting “Roof, roof, roof/ We love to roof!” and couldn’t stop laughing in the recording session. Luckily, the owners of State Roofing have a good sense of humor and were willing to go with an idea outside the mainstream. I still hear that jingle all the time on a talk radio station here in Seattle.
GGM: Last spring, the championship round of American Idol was watched by only 10 million viewers, compared to 30 million a decade ago, while The Voice was already outdrawing them. Do you think TV singing competitions have worn out their welcome?
Sue: I think the luster has worn off these shows. Simon Cowell’s unvarnished, spot-on feedback to the contestants was one of the reasons so many people tuned into American Idol in the early days. Even with the string of young talent on those shows, Simon was the star. Once he left, the show lost steam. It seems only Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have been able to carve out blockbuster careers.
Things have shifted in the culture since then and the winners of these shows are having a hard time launching careers that are going to last. They have to make a hit record immediately or they are over. Very tough to resurrect a career, once you have tanked.
GGM: On the other hand, Sue, there’s this show that’s been running on VH1 entitled Make or Break: The Linda Perry Project. Do you think it offers that sense of creativity and originality which, from my perspective, Idol and The Voice seem to be lacking?
Sue: From the previews I’ve seen, the show is entirely built around Linda and her “take-no-prisoners” personality. She’s like the female Simon Cowell, a force of nature. Tough as nails, but also nurturing for singers who work hard enough to develop their talent. I don’t think the show is about the aspiring singers except as they fold in around Linda’s studio dictatorship.
People will tune in to watch Linda shred overly-confident people to ribbons. Let’s not pretend the show is about music. It’s a soap opera. Then again, I’ve only seen the previews. In the end, it will all come down to how good the songs are. By the way, Linda Perry is a wonderful songwriter.
GGM: I’m sure we’re all too familiar with the struggles Ann & Nancy went through on their way to being famous. Are female singers and musicians today still, in your opinion, going through more or less the same kind of struggles, and does the saying “women have to work twice as hard as men in order to get noticed” still hold true?
Sue: I would say that it depends on the genre. Female singers dominate the pop charts now but there’s a short list of criteria most of these stars need to meet. You must be very young, you must be videogenic. In most cases, you must transmit adorability (Taylor Swift) and sexiness (Katy Perry and many others). You must be a naughty vixen (Miley Cyrus) or be outrageous (Lady Gaga).
I think Adele came along as a refreshing exception to these mainstream trends for females. She is a woman with an astonishing vocal gift who writes relatable songs from the heart. I was sad she had to sit down and hide in her video for “Rolling In The Deep.” I met her briefly at the Grammys and she is a gloriously beautiful woman, full of bawdy fun. But the marketing people and video creators are afraid to boldly present the real Adele. In this way, she reminds me of Ann Wilson in the ‘80s, when the age of video didn’t know what to do with her. (They hid her in the shadows.)
I would say nothing has changed in terms of how women are embraced and marketed in the mainstream. Consumers want fantasy women, don’t they? Luckily the digital/DIY world has brought alternative avenues for females to get out there today. Thank God.
GGM: I know you’ve performed with the Lovemongers, but beyond that, have you, over the years, also played solo or in any other bands professionally?
Sue: Nope. Not my thing. I love being in front of people in the classroom or in a workshop. I don’t mind singing in front of people inside of a teaching context but I can’t stand performing music on a stage in front of an audience. All I can think of up there, is “how fast can I get out of here?” I’m so relieved when the show is over. My musician friends who never got a chance to be on a stage with a paying audience think I’m nuts. The only time I ever truly enjoyed performing on stage in front of crowd was when I was 12, miming to a Beatle song in front of my mirror.
GGM: My next two questions, Sue, concern a couple of movies you wrote songs for. Let’s start with “Best Man in the World,” which you co-wrote with Ann, Nancy, and legendary movie composer John Barry, for the 1986 Eddie Murphy movie The Golden Child. A fantastic song, I might add. How did that offer come about?
Sue: Heart was just coming off the biggest selling record of their career in 1986 and Ann was center stage. She was, for a moment in pop culture, a hot commodity. As you know, there was a long tradition of choosing a powerful female singer to sing the theme song from a new James Bond film, going back to the great Shirley Bassey and Goldfinger.
The Golden Child was a spoof of a James Bond movie, but they wanted to stay true to the Bond mythology so they hired John Barry (who wrote the original Bond spy theme). John sent us his simple demo of the music. We were so grateful they didn’t ask us to call the song “The Golden Child,” but weren’t sure what to write about so we asked for a copy of the script.
On Page 1, the narration mentioned that the female lead in the movie believed that Eddie Murphy’s character was “the best man in the world.” Voila!
GGM: Following up on that, in 2000, you wrote “Shining Time” for the movie Thomas and the Magic Railroad, which was based, of course, on Shining Time Station and Thomas the Tank Engine. As with the previous question, how did that come to pass?
Sue: My friend, film composer Hummie Mann, and I had written a number of songs together and enjoyed our songwriting partnership a lot. He landed the gig scoring the film and suggested to the producer that we, as a songwriting team, take a stab at writing a few of the songs. Within moments, the producer called me for an interview in order to verify my writing credentials.
He bought the entire Heart album catalog from the Tower Records down the street and had them delivered to his office. They FedEx’d me a video of the movie in its early stage, before the special effects were added, so we could watch a Shining Time Station sequence and get a sense for its tone. This was on a Tuesday… and they wanted a finished recording of the song by Thursday night. Luckily, we had the title “Shining Time.” I put in long hours trying to craft the story in the lyrics, sent them to the director for her okay that first evening, and received a quick response: she didn’t like one of my rhymes.
Back to the drawing board. Thank God for Sue Young’s great rhyming dictionary. (Songwriters: this is a must have!) I sent the director five new lines by the next morning and got her blessing on one of them. Then Hummie and I hired my friend, and fellow Lovemonger, Frank Cox to come in and sing the demo which Hummie had recorded in his home studio. An incredible rush job to make the deadline, but our song made it in the movie!
GGM: My final question, Sue, has to do with an item I ran across online, and this further follows up on one of my earlier questions. A twin-sister act from the Portland, Oregon area, called the Shook Twins, posted on their Facebook page recently that they were offered an opportunity to audition for American Idol, but turned it down because, for one thing, each of the sisters would have to audition individually; and, for another, it would mean abandoning all their hard work to “sing songs that we didn’t even write.” Do you agree with their argument that music ‘is not meant to be a competition’?
Sue: Music isn’t a competition. Music is an artistic expression that stands on its own, to be judged on its own terms. Competitive singing, on the other hand, has become a silly spectator sport in the media. The more you can belt it, the higher you climb in the contest rankings.
Success on TV competitions today revolves around muscle-flexing power singing. But this mainly applies to a certain, limited kind of mainstream pop music. There are plenty of great singers who would never win singing contests. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain are all unique singers who convey anguish, intimacy, joy in their songs. Their songs are not about vocal acrobatics. The voices are inseparable from their song and the listener can connect to the emotion and find a piece of their heart inside the song. That’s the kind of music I fell in love with as a kid, and the kind that keeps me going every day.
Sue continues to instruct would-be songwriters at Shoreline Community College just north of Seattle, as well as through the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program, among many other projects.
Her website is www.sueennis.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @sueennis.Interview with Sue Ennis: ‘Music Isn’t a Competition’