Susan Jacks interviewed by Brian Greene
Everybody knows Terry Jacks' 1970s tear-jerker hit, "Seasons in the Sun." But not enough people know that prior to hitting in big with "Seasons," Jacks, along with his then wife Susan, recorded some mind-bendingly innovative and infectious trippy soft rock, under the name The Poppy Family. Fewer still realize that, after the demise of The Poppy Family (and the couple's marriage) Susan Jacks released four solo albums – warm records with that 70s AM radio sound so many contemporary indie bands cultivate.
Susan Jacks is a raving beauty, with flowing blonde hair and beguiling, feline eyes. She is also a gifted vocalist, some kind of cross between Karen Carpenter, Tammy Wynette, and Dusty Springfield. Whether delivering The Poppy Family's warped pop lyrics, crooning classics, or belting out a heartfelt Country and Western number, Susan brings a combination of tenderness and strength to the mic every time.
Susan, who is currently in the process of getting back to her singing career after a long hiatus, had the following chat with me over an e-mail exchange:
SCRAM: You were singing on the radio at age 7 – did you come from a musical family?
SUSAN JACKS: I was the only one who sang at that time. Later, one of my brothers dabbled in singing but never made a career out of it. Another brother became a bass player and played with bands in the Vancouver area. He played bass in my band when I appeared at the World’s Fair in Vancouver in 1986. One other brother, in my opinion, should have pursued a career but never did…. he had a beautiful voice.
SCRAM: You had your own radio show at age 13, and were a regular on a TV show at 15. Did you feel that you were destined to be a public performer? Was there someone (family member) steering you that way? Did you ever feel that you just wanted to be a “normal” little girl or adolescent?
SJ: I was never fixated on being a public performer but I was always singing and it was a very large part of who I was and my way of expressing who I was. My mother was the one who steered me into public performing. To be honest, initially I was more interested in climbing trees than becoming a professional singer. But more and more as I began to sing in front of people, as soon as I got a taste of that connection between me and the audience I knew it was what I wanted to do.
SCRAM: As a young girl and a teenager, did you expect to make a career out of singing? If so, did you see yourself as a solo performer or as a member of a band?
SJ: I had never thought of being a part of a band. When Terry and I started performing together, I had asked him to accompany me on guitar for an Elk’s Club Meeting I was to perform at. It eventually evolved into a “band” situation.
SCRAM: Please tell me your memories of the formation of the Poppy Family. Reading about the band, one gets the impression that things came together pretty quickly, but was it really that way?
SJ: It happened fairly quickly but there was a process. After initially performing with Terry as my guitarist, we appeared for a while as a duet, later bringing in a lead guitar player, Craig McCaw. We decided we should have a group name and went through a number of names but finally settled on “The Poppy Family”. Later, Craig introduced Satwant Singh to us. Sat played tablas, East Indian drums, which gave us percussion other than the tambourines and other percussion instruments I played in the group. Sat’s tablas, along with Craig’s guitar/sitar (a sitar is an East Indian “guitar-like” instrument), helped give us our unique sound.
SCRAM: The Poppy Family scored a major hit with the song, “Which Way You Going, Billy?” In his track notes to the Poppy Family’s A Good Thing Lost compilation, Terry mentions that the two of you fought over your vocal delivery on that song, and he suggests that the performance of yours that went on the record was, in part, a result of that friction. Do you remember it that way?
SJ: Unfortunately, I didn’t have control over any part of the release of the A Good Thing Lost CD, including the track notes. When I read them, I called Terry and expressed my disapproval of the “re-writing” of our history. He told me his versions made better stories… sheesh. At any rate, he is correct in that I didn’t end up recording the vocals on the day we laid down the band tracks. I believed the song was going to be very big and wanted to give it everything I had. We had gone all day, I was tired and just wasn’t nailing it. We both knew it so we decided to leave it for the night and come back fresh the next day. There was no fight.
SCRAM: After the success of “Billy,” the song and the album, a lot of odd changes took place within the band. For one, your next album, Poppy Seeds, was quite different from the debut record. The first album was psychedelic pop, and the second had more of a country feel – you did a Merle Haggard cover, and some of the originals had a country sound and style. Was this a conscious decision on you and/or Terry’s part, to change your sound and style in this way? Weren’t you afraid of losing the audience you had gained with the single and the first record?
SJ: By the second album, Terry had let Craig and Satwant go from the band. What had become our signature sound was no longer there. Terry made the decisions in terms of the songs we recorded and, although we worked closely together as far as production goes, the musical direction we took was his decision also. At the time, I had very little influence over Terry. I missed Sat and Craig immensely, as well as the musical “edge” we had developed in the formative years as a group. Nevertheless, Terry was my husband and I trusted him to do the right things for us.
I’m not sure why Terry made many of the decisions he did. I hated the fact that we weren’t touring very much. I loved it on the road, being in front of a live audience. We were asked to appear on the last Ed Sullivan Show but Terry declined. I’m still trying to figure that one out….
SCRAM: What was it like to be a female recording artist in the early ‘70’s? Did you feel discriminated against, or isolated, in any way?
SJ: I was the “chick singer”….and I was married to the “leader of the band’. Women hadn’t yet made it out of the stereo-typical role as supporter and the “weaker sex”. Nothing made that more clear to me than when I left Terry and applied for a gas credit card. I was declined because I had no husband listed on the application. By the way, I ended up getting the card because I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I don’t remember having any specific role models but that experience, along with having to face the music industry, a predominantly male driven industry, as a single and inexperienced woman, I learned quickly that it really was a “man’s world” at that time.
Being a woman in the music industry has always been a challenge but things started changing for me as time went on. I was earning respect as a songwriter and a producer. In a business that’s run predominantly by men, you learn to adapt to the rules of the game. I ultimately found it to be a fun challenge.
SCRAM: Were there other bands or artists that you and Terry felt a kinship with during the Poppy Family years, or did you feel more that you all were out on your own?
SJ: At the very beginning of the Poppy Family days, we went down to Los Angeles to try and get a record deal. We didn’t get one on that trip, but we ended up meeting the Beach Boys and became friends with some of them. Years later, we went back down to Los Angeles to produce a single for them. Al Jardine and I wrote the vocals and Terry took them into the studio. Unfortunately, it was never finished due to the lack of availability of some of the guys so we came back to Vancouver. The song was "Seasons in the Sun."
SCRAM: In 1973 you and Terry divorced, and in that same year you released your first solo album, I Thought of You Again. But Terry wrote many of the songs on the album, and he produced it – wasn’t this really just the third and last Poppy Family album?
SJ: Shortly before I left our marriage, Terry and I had recorded two separate solo albums. Mine was “I Thought of You Again” and his was “Seasons in the Sun”. After we had returned from our attempted recording session with the Beach Boys, I convinced Terry to record the song with his vocals. He was a little reluctant but we went into the studio with me producing his vocals and, as we had always done with the Poppy Family sessions, I assisted in the production and mixing of the song. In a way, nothing was different than it had always been. Terry made the decision that we would drop the group name for my releases but he had always released the songs he sang solo on under his own name.
SCRAM: Then you made the album Dream in 1975, and this time Terry was not involved at all. Was it scary to go out on your own like that? Tell me about the legal struggles you got into with Ray Pettinger, Terry’s business partner, and how it affected the distribution of the Dream record.
SJ: I was unbelievably excited to do the Dream album. I was anxious to move on as a vocalist and explore new musical territory. Terry had formed the Goldfish label with Ray Pettinger while we were still together. When I left the marriage, our two solo albums were to be released on that label. As time went on, Pettinger wanted to buy out Terry’s interest in the label and I loaned the money for him to do so. He changed the name to Casino records and began to recruit artists for the label. However, I never received the money back and my Dream album became a casualty of the lawsuit that ensued.
SCRAM: You next released an album in 1980. This was Ghosts, and here you were back to working with Terry. He wrote some of the songs, he produced the record, and you did a new version of an early Poppy Family song, “Beyond the Clouds.” How did it feel to be working with Terry again? Was there any talk of you two working together musically regularly? Any talk of reforming The Poppy Family?
SJ: Working with Terry again was interesting but rather stressful. He was never easy to work with and I now had a new life with a husband and son so my patience was definitely stretched to the limit. A few months before, he had approached me to sing a song he wrote called “All the Tea in China”. He had put another vocalist on the song and told me he wasn’t pleased with it. I agreed to sing the song and Terry later informed me that he had negotiated with CBS records to not only release the song as a single but also to have him produce an album for me. Regarding a Poppy Family reunion concert or tour, there has been talk but nothing has come of it yet.
SCRAM: Also on the Ghosts album, Ted Dushinski, a former CFL football player, is listed as your personal manager. Ted was your second husband. How did the two of you meet? Was Ted involved in the music business, or artist management, before meeting you?
SJ: I had been the victim of some pretty despicable characters in the industry and Ted and I felt it was in my best interest to be protected by a “barrier” of sorts. He had never been involved in the industry but I knew that my well being was the most important thing to him, something I had never had before. We had actually met through mutual friends in 1977 while he was still playing football.
SCRAM: What strikes me most on the Forever album, released in 1982, is how well you interpret classic songs, like “Baby, I’m Yours” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Did you ever think of recording a full album of 1950s and 60s songs?
SJ: I loved doing some of the older songs. I’m in the middle of negotiating a recording contract at the moment and one of the first things we are talking about doing is an album of '60s and '70s songs.
SCRAM: What prompted your move to Nashville in 1983? Was it hard to be away from your home country?
SJ: Bruce Allen was managing me for a while and helped to sign me to a recording contract with a company in Nashville. I was excited about being in the center of the songwriting capital of the world and a part of the hottest genre in the music industry at that time. Country music was huge. I was a little concerned that I would be forced to give up my pop/soft rock roots but country music was beginning to be more influenced by mainstream pop and that prospect was very exciting. I missed home very much while I was in Nashville but my music and other business endeavors kept me pretty occupied.
SCRAM: You wrote songs for a publishing company for the next five years. This was new for you, right – you never wrote any of the songs on The Poppy Family’s records, or your own solo albums? Had you been writing songs before, but never recorded them? What was it like to write songs and have other people record them? Did you have a craving to record the songs yourself? What were some of your favorite versions of songs written by you and recorded by others?
SJ: I had been writing for many years but not professionally. When I moved to Nashville, I found that there was a whole system to songwriting and that if you paid attention to what artists and producers were looking for in terms of song structure and themes, you would become a better writer as far as getting your songs listened to and hopefully recorded. I went to every songwriting seminar and songwriters night to learn from the best, and even from the not so good. I ended up getting a writer’s deal with a publishing company and got some minor cuts but nothing major. I produced other artists recording my songs and it was always very exciting to hear another artist’s interpretation of one of my songs. Unfortunately, my catalog of songs ended up being tied up in the dormant company for a number of years until recently when the company graciously released the songs back to me. I’d very much like to record some of my own songs and will probably end up doing just that before too long.
SCRAM: You then went on to manage a publishing company, then you became V.P. of a computer consulting company, before becoming Executive V.P. and part owner of a telecommunications company. You were now functioning at a high level in the business world. How did it feel to be working in an area so different from music? Did you long to record and perform through those years?
SJ: My evolution into the business world is still a mystery to me but it has served me very well. I continued to do some music during the past few years but the corporate world is very demanding and I found myself doing less and less music. It wasn’t until Ted got sick that I slowed down enough to realize that it was the music I wanted to do more than anything. I’m now back into it full time and loving it.
SCRAM: You’re now back in Canada, in Vancouver. What prompted the move? Are you still involved in the telecommunications company?
SJ: I had been wanting to move back home for some time but it was hard to leave when I was the co-owner of a company in Nashville. When Ted was diagnosed with lung cancer, we knew that his prognosis was not good and we immediately started talking about the possibility of moving back. I eased out of the daily routine of the company and we made plans to move back. I’m still an owner in the company but don’t work in the telecommunications side of things.
SCRAM: What are some of the highs and lows you’ve experienced while performing in front of an audience?
SJ: I remember performing in Cyprus in a concert hall that had the Greeks on one side, the Turks on the other side and the United Nations in the middle. Terry told me it was the first time there had ever been a concert with the Greeks and Turks in one building. It was magical because you could hear a pin drop… and it was a fabulous audience! The lows would be the times when personal issues made it very difficult to go on stage.
SCRAM: Have you had any role models in your life, either in the music business or otherwise?
SJ: I’ve had many role models for many different reasons, both men and women. Probably the person I admire most for her tenacity and survival instincts is my mother. She took on the responsibility of looking after the eight of her children when the marriage ended with my father. That meant working two jobs and whatever else it took to keep us fed and a roof over our heads. She’s pretty amazing.
SCRAM: Do you know of any Poppy Family video footage in existence? I saw a clip of you and Terry doing a lip-synced version of “Billy” on a TV show, but other than that, finding video footage of the Poppy Family seems to be next to impossible.
SJ: I was actually sent some footage by someone through my website. It’s wonderful that some of these things are available. I’ve heard that there is also footage somewhere from the national TV show I was a regular performer on in Canada called “Music Hop.” I’m looking into that now.
Visit Susan Jacks online at susanjacks.com
See The Poppy Family play "Which Way You Goin', Billy?" on youtube