Much like the music she creates for children, recording artist Suzi Shelton is at once happy, energetic, and fun. We spoke with Suzi about blended families, and how her latest album, Hand in Hand, is truly the most her.
How did you get your start in music?
Even before I had my son, I moved to NYC from Ohio, and I got a job at the Children’s Museum of the Arts in SoHo. That’s when I started doing art for kids; I was doing music and dance. We started doing music, and I was singing. We added a guitar player, and an upper bass player, and that became the band Imagination Workshop, where we wrote songs for kids and sang them there. I had never done this work before. My background was in early childhood education, so adding music to it was a challenge. I didn’t have to worry about playing an instrument other than a drum to keep the beat.
That’s when I met my son’s dad, Albert, since he was the director of that museum. Our son, Sebastian, who is now 20, became the material for a lot of my songs. After he was born, I felt like I needed to go out on my own. I learned how to play guitar very minimally, and I was writing songs about him as a little boy. His favorite word was ball, so one of the songs was about a ball. Another song was “So Long, Chocolate Cake,” and that was because he had such a sweet tooth and always wanted his dessert before his dinner.
So when I met my husband and we had our daughter, Emma, the next album was about her. She was doing amazing things and always dressing up like a princess.
How has your music changed over time?
I have had this huge cycle of growth. Surprisingly, the music that came out of the last album I feel was the most like me. In college, I used to listen to Liz Phair; very indie. But I also like a lot of current indie, sort of pop music. So those influences were what we tried to make this album sound like. Going back to my first album, it was very much folky. I wanted to sound more like a pop artist, but it was easier for me to play folk music.
Which are some of your favorite songs from this album?
The song that I didn’t expect to like so much which was the first song written on the album, and it’s called “Raindrop.” It’s a basic song about being caught in the rain, and holding onto your little one’s hand and running in the rain since you don’t have an umbrella. The song has a very funky beat and I love it, and it became one of my favorites. Another song is written by my daughter when she was in middle school for a project. It’s called “We Shall Walk” and a lot of the kids like it. It’s about walking together hand-in-hand every day.
Are your kids musically inclined?
My son is; he plays mandolin and fiddle. He played violin all through high school—it was his steady A. [laughs] He would play with me all the time. My kids would come to a lot of my shows; it was definitely a family affair.
You play ukulele. What do you like about it?
I like how versatile it is. It’s so much lighter to carry around than a guitar. The ukulele that I use has the same chords as the guitar, so I didn’t have to learn how a lot of new fingering. And I just like the sound; it’s bright and happy.
Where do you see your career going?
You know, it’s funny that you ask me that. I’ve been doing this for a long time—for 20 years, since my son is 20. I’ve had some highs and lows in my career. In 2008, I signed a record deal, and because it was 2008, it didn’t quite work out. So I feel like whatever happens is really awesome. I’m really grateful for these opportunities that have come lately. I was just asked to play at SiriusXM Kids Place Live and perform in the Rumpus Room for the first time ever. I love that songs that I’ve created are on the radio; that’s a huge gift. And lately, I’ve been able to use YouTube space to make these videos called Sing with Suzi, and if you get enough subscribers, you can use their space and their top-of-the-line equipment.
I feel that these things lately that have happened I didn’t expect, so I don’t know what the future holds. I definitely want to make another album. I love it, so it’s hard not to make another one. I want to keep going. My husband and I have travel plans when our daughter goes to college. We’re thinking about jumping in the RV and traveling the country. Maybe I’ll be writing songs on the road or making videos on the road.
You’re not done.
No, I’m not done. I definitely don’t feel like I’m done yet. I think that’s the most fun part of life is when things happen that you don’t expect.
Let’s talk a bit about family. You have a cool blended family.
So family life started when I had Sebastian and I was with his father, Albert. We were always very good friends, but it didn’t work out so we decided to amicably split and raise him in two homes. We stayed close in proximity; they lived literally down the street. So since he was 3, Sebastian has had two homes. There were challenges along the way; obviously it’s not easy. But it was the right choice for us and we became much better friends this way.
And then I met my husband who at the time was living in Ohio where I’m from. He ended up moving to NYC and we got married and we had our daughter. So Emma is 14 and Sebastian is 20. And then Albert met his wife, Jen, and they have Cole who is 11 and Julia who is 4. I consider them my stepchildren –we just decided to make it work. We celebrate holidays together and we make it so that the kids are the center of it all. His kids call me Mom, and I get along great with Jen, and it all somehow works out.