Susan SurfTone, a surf/rockabilly singer/songwriter living in Portland, Oregon gifted us with her seven song EP, aptly titled “Making Waves Again,” on April 17th. You might not guess it from the sexy, romantic vibes on the album, which is available on CD Baby, but SurfTone, a self-described news junkie and global private citizen, is a lifelong LGBT advocate and rebel. I recently caught up with her to talk about a career spent making waves.
AE: Before becoming a rock star, you were an FBI agent. You’ve spoken about how the choice to leave that career path was influenced by the pressure to be in the closet and the low chance of advancing up the career ladder, not only because of your sexuality, but also because of being female. What did it feel like to take the first steps into rock music as a career? Did this happen at the same time as your coming out?
SS: It was a bit scary but it was what I wanted to do. The financial impact was great. I was only 28 years old with no savings at all and I had significant debt from school loans. My parents were not at all supportive about my decision to pursue music and even angrier about my being gay. I, of course, had ruined their lives. However, it is my life and I knew I would not be happy if I did not make the move into music. I had to try and that was it. I was out during my senior year at Smith College (1976). I had to conceal the fact to get the Special Agent position with the FBI and I could not be out at work or do anything in my private life that would inform the Bureau of my homosexuality. Believe me, there were rumors about me at the Bureau.
AE: When you were in the FBI, there were restrictions about you being in a band and performing on stage. Did you feel like you were in the closet about secretly being a musician? How did you express yourself in that time? How did you woo women without the help of a guitar?
SS: Music was fine with the Bureau if it was a hobby. It was playing in a rock and roll band at clubs like CBGB that was the problem. If it had been a classical string quartet the feeling might have been different. The problem was the consorting with the “bad elements” at the rock and roll clubs. I wasn’t expressing myself at that time. That was the problem. Women….it wasn’t a problem. Actually I think the guitar has made it more difficult. There are a lot of misconceptions about a relationship with a “rock star”….really.
AE: Your sound is so classic. I immediately hear the influence of Blondie and rebellious, gender-defying rockers. And yet surf rock has an undercurrent of machismo (as does most popular music). I wonder if you could speak to the experience of being a visible lesbian in rock and roll. Have men in bands, venues, radio stations, the media tried to fence you out because you are an unapologetic lesbian?
SS: I have had the support of many men in bands, venues, radio stations and the media. I also have been shut out by many. Most of that coming from the “traditional” world of instrumental surf music. I mean the bands and fans who want the music and culture to remain in the early 1960s. The male surf musicians who are secure in their own abilities have treated me as a welcomed colleague. Not so much for the guys who doubt their own ability. I’ve learned to find my friends and surpass my detractors.
AE: Are there commonalities in the sort of sexism and homophobia you experienced in national defense and rock music? Has your exposure to lesbophobia in rock changed with the gay liberation/feminist movements throughout the years?
SS: It’s the same in national defense and rock music. Sexism and homophobia will block opportunities and make it more difficult to open doors. You just have to keep coming at them by getting better and more determined. A stiff upper lip is required. Never give up because you will get those doors opened. Lesbophobia is not as obvious now, but it can subtly show up. Again, step over it by getting better at what you do. People eventually respect hard work and determination no matter who it comes from.