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VMP Rising: Suzi Wu

On April 30, 2018

VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring Teenage Witch, the debut EP from Suzi Wu.

No one was surprised when Suzi Wu rolled up to Whisler’s—a rustic, chandelier-in-an-old-barn Austin bar—on the morning of her third day at SXSW in a cowboy hat with a pin-up devil standing atop a scroll reading “Bad Girl” emblazoned on the front. Although the hat lacked touches of her signature overall “cyberpunk witch” aesthetic, it shared many descriptors with her 2017 debut Teenage Witch: cheeky, charming, fiery, impossible to turn away from and expertly toeing the line between ironic chic and genuine cool.

Despite a tendency of some young artists—like 20-year-old Suzi—to try to sound older than they actually are, Teenage Witch sounds like it was written by an artist in the period between 15 and 17 years old. And that’s because it was. Not in such a way that it sounds novice or inexperienced in the least, but in the same way you love someone or something in your teens: hard, fast, confused, reckless and with no regard for the possibility that you might fall down. The collection of reigned-in gorgeous messes of electro punk rock tracks ungulate between benzo-level laid back and cellular-level angst. It’s enough to throw even the oldest of listeners back to the signature stamp of teenhood: having absolutely nothing under control, but getting high on the conviction that you do. “She asked me who’s taking care of me. I said, ‘I take care of me,’” Suzi says in the intro of “Taken Care Of.”

She sat down in the cramped, dim Mezcal tasting room that looked straight off the set of a high-budget spaghetti western, turning down the bartenders offer for a shot of her choice from the expansive wall of Mezcal behind him. It was before noon and she admitted to going a bit too hard the night before, a right of passage at your very first South By. Her first time in Austin, she gushed about its beauty, hearing drums from every window, the smell of weed and spices wafting through the air.

After we talked about growing up, witchcraft, teenhood and Tom Waits for a bit, she reconsidered and took up the bartenders offer for a shot of Mezcal. Because, why not? “We’re all just young / We can’t be perfect.”

VMP: You said in an interview with Pigeons & Planes that you wanted to create a show that’s really gonna freak people out. Do you feel like you’ve been able to do that?

Suzi Wu: I feel like we’re on our way. When it comes to freaking people out with a show, I want to add more theatrical elements to it, and some more artistic stuff, but we’ll see how that goes. I think my vocals alone can really freak people out, so that helps, but from then on, we’ll build on that.

My band’s awesome. The people I tour with, they’re all guys, but they’re like the gentlest people on the planet. They’re really passionate about what they do, to the point of obsession, and they correct you a lot, but you’ve just got to remember to take the piss out of them. Aside from that, they’re the best people I’ve got. Otto’s my keyboard player, and he’s still finishing Uni at the moment, so he’s actually writing essays in a cafe right now, but he is a goddamn genius. I see older guys who’ve been doing this for 15 years, they see him play and they’re like, “Yeah, he’s probably gonna be really big in like three years.” And what that means is “Goddamn it, he’s better than me already.” So that’s great. And we’ve got Dan; he’s our tech, and he’s in a similar vein, just passionate, it’s great.

You grew up in North London, right?

I certainly did. Yeah, I grew up in North London. It’s an interesting place. I’m actually from the north of England originally, which is a little less, um, pretentious—there’s no other way to put it. North London’s better; it’s where the art is. It’s a bit like when you have to move to New York here—or any big city—to get shit done. It’s just the way it is. But there’s some really, really great people down there. Good scenes.

Do you remember the first time you wrote a song?

First time I wrote a song, I was five. But I wrote “Taken Care Of” when I was 15 and produced it when I was around 16 or 17, so that was when I first really started making stuff that was like what I’d been hearing in my head, which was nice.

Do you remember the very first one?

Yeah, it was a song called staring into space. Which was just me—I was five—open string, just like [pantomimes strumming and sings] “I’m staring into space / A century away / Ooooo—” It wasn’t good. But my parents thought it was the best thing they’d ever heard. They were like, “Oh my God, she’s a genius!” That helped. That helped a lot, because they actually wanted to listen to that shit. I don’t know why.

You started super young and you’re still relatively young. Do you ever have trouble with people taking you seriously?

Oh yeah. And it’s not just because I’m younger, it’s because I’ve always had problems with people taking me seriously. Just because I can be a mess sometimes, but that’s one of the best things about singing. Once you sing, even if people don’t take you seriously, they have to respect that. So that’s one of the reasons I’ve always been so deeply into it.

"I think that whole EP is about, for me, is about what my experience of what this teenage period of life was." This image and above by Amileah Sutliff

You told Pigeons & Planes "I’m a 19-year-old female from the future trying to make America cyberpunk again.” Do you want to elaborate?

My mission is still ongoing [laughs]. I think I really respect the cyberpunk aesthetic. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the '90s movie “Hackers?” Angelina Jolie in that is a fox; it’s so good, that movie. I like when people try and be futuristic. I like Y2K. I like old school rave scenes. And I want to bring that all back, it’s always good to have things like that. I like novelty things as well, hence the, uh [tips hat], garms.

You’ve got this cyberpunk aesthetic, of course, but you’ve also got this witch thing going on. Can you talk about your relationship to witches?

My relationship to witches extends back further than I first realized. It starts with a lot of reading I used to do as a kid which was generally Terry Pratchett, he’s a British author a bit like Douglas Adams or any of the other fantasy writers. He’s got a whole world that he’s built. But one of the main things he focuses on is women, and young witches. The witches in his books don’t do spells, they do things like midwifery and medicine, and sort of things in Medieval culture. And I thought it was interesting, because I realized a lot of the people that would’ve been penalized and burned at the stake would actually have just been women with knowledge. So that to me is what witchcraft is about. But then, there’s the other side of it, which is more just like stoner comics. And the witches in that are similar, but modern. They know stuff, and they don’t take anyone’s shit. I think it relates to women in punk and women who express themselves, because I think I definitely would’ve been burned at the stake back in the day; I’m too loudmouthed, it would’ve happened. So I’m definitely a witch, you’re probably a witch. It’s a good thing.

Do you practice witchcraft? Do you have anything that you do that is witchy?

Me and my sister did actually try it. We watched The Craft, which is a fucking great film. And we decided we wanted to quit smoking. So we wrote “tobacco” on an egg—that was our spell—and we went to the crossroads of our university and just shouted at the egg, “Goddamnit, egg! No more tobacco, egg!” And we had to thrown the egg on the ground. There were loads of people walking to class and stuff, and we’re screaming at this egg. I still smoke. So there you go.

And your EP’s called Teenage Witch. You covered the witch half, so where’s the “teenage” part come from? Any reference to Sabrina The Teenage Witch?

I think that whole EP is about, for me, what my experience of what this teenage period of life was. So all the stuff I wrote on this was 15 to 17, so God knows what will be next. But that’s where the teenage part comes from. Sabrina’s cool too, though, no disrespect to Sabrina.

What was going on in your life during that period?

Not great things. Bad things. But out of bad things comes good art, as per usual, and that’s how we save ourselves. Both my parents were really ill at the same time—they’re both fine now—but they both fell like hospitalized ill, and I had to quit sixth form, so a lot of the stuff I wrote on that was me trying to figure out where I was going and what it was I was doing. It’s such a crazy transitionary period of my life. There’s a lot of thought and blood and sweat and tears on that record. Which is good.

Let’s talk about your cover of “Jockey full of Bourbon.” It may be the most successful Tom Waits cover I’ve ever heard. What was your approach?

I’ve wanted to cover that song since I first heard it when I was 14. Because Tom Waits has this lyrical style which is just... it paints these pictures. The problem with trying to cover Tom Waits is Tom Waits… no one can be like Tom Waits. And that’s the thing, I think a lot of people I’ve seen try to do it, they try to do acoustic things and they try to stay true to his style, but I don’t think that’s what any artist wants when you cover them. They want you to do the opposite of what they’ve done and flip it on its head. And I was trying to write a grime track actually, when I did that cover. And it didn’t turn into a grime track, but I started singing that over it and I was like “Oh, finally.” I sent it to my manager and he sent back in all caps—this was like big for him—and he was just like, “THIS IS AMAZING, OH MY GOD.” And yeah, everyone’s so surprised, Tom Waits, I don’t know why. But yeah, he’s great. I love him.

“I want to talk about the beginning of Teenage Witch. First off, can you do the beginning line for us?”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the guys are fuckboys, girls are sluts! ... Is that good enough for you?

That was basically, my producer who I was working with at the time, Billy, we made Teenage Witch together. And he said, “Aw, you should say something at the beginning, something cool and edgy.” So that’s actually where that came from; it was a joke. And that’s why I’m saying, “Is that good enough?” Because it was kind of meant to be a spell, but it was all taking the piss. I think we use a lot of buzzwords today, and it kind of proved my point, because people love it. They love it, the words fuckboys and sluts, I don’t know why. It just sells, but I find that funny.

You’ve got your EP out, what’s next for you?

Big adventures, hopefully. Big adventures on the horizon. Yeah, there’s all sorts of things I wanna do. Largely, I just wanna go to different countries and eat different things. Nah, I’m kidding... not really. Yeah, we’re gonna make tons more songs, and I wanna collaborate with more people, because I think that breeds beautiful things.

Profile Picture of Amileah Sutliff
Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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