The third full-length effort from L.A.-based duo HONEYHONEY, III is an album born from fascination with the sweet and the sleazy, light and dark, danger and magic. Working with Dave Cobb (the producer behind Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music), lead singer/banjo player/violinist Suzanne Santo and vocalist/guitarist Ben Jaffe twist their gritty, harmony-driven brand of Southern-flavored rock & roll through tales of lost souls, broken boys, girls with gold in their spit. Equal parts inward-looking and endlessly curious, the two songwriters also take a mirror to their own experience in lust and heartache and never shy away from revealing the messy truth. And whether they rattle or soothe or joyfully inspire, HONEYHONEY instill each song with a straight-from-the-gut honesty and elegance of storytelling that make III both cathartic and electrifying.
The follow-up to 2011’s Billy Jack (named one of the top albums of the year by American Songwriter and hailed for finding “the common pop thread between alt. country, spaghetti western soundtracks and swampy blues” by Paste), III was recorded in HONEYHONEY’s one-time home of Nashville with a lineup of locals that includes musicians like Robbie Turner (a pedal steel guitarist who’s played with Johnny Cash and The Highwaymen). And while the album finds HONEYHONEY offering their most finely crafted melodies and richly textured sound to date, the band also embodies a loose and scrappy energy drawn out with some help from Cobb. “Dave never let me obsess over my vocals,” says Santo, whose sultry but tender voice intensifies the intimacy of each track. “He’d just be like, ‘Nope, that was raw, we got it, we’re good.’” Adds Jaffe: “He didn’t really allow us to overthink anything, which is great for what we do—the more barriers you can remove to get to the soul of it, the better.”
Throughout III, that soul gets channeled into songs both gorgeously unhinged (such as “Mary Rich,” an epic R&B number that amps up the moody tension of its lyrics with some sublime and frenetic guitar work) and quietly piercing (a la “Burned Me Out,” a wistful ballad about “the loss of idealism, and how that can be really painful but also beautiful,” according to Santo). On the brash and bluesy “Bad People,” HONEYHONEY seesaw between scorn (“Tried your best to be your worst/You must like it that you’re cursed”) and empathy (“We all got some darkness up our sleeve”) in their meditation on the origins of ugly behavior in everyday life. Built on a lilting and lovely string-laced arrangement, “Father’s Daughter” devastates in just two lines at the song’s achingly delivered chorus (“You know I’m in hot water/If I’m my father’s daughter”). And in the one-two punch of the brooding “Numb It” and the steamy, groove-heavy “Sweet Thing,” III looks at the torment and bliss that can come from giving yourself over to pure desire.
For HONEYHONEY, the balance of sophistication and heart that the duo strikes on III has much to do with their closeness as songwriting collaborators. “Writing is about trust—trust in yourself and trust in your partner—and with us there’s a level of trust that you can only get from knowing someone for years and years,” says Jaffe. Forming the band in 2006, Santo and Jaffe first crossed paths at a costume party (she was a cheetah, he was Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid), felt an instant creative connection, and soon started making music together. Although Jaffe learned to play violin and drums as a little kid in western Massachusetts and joined a local jazz band in high school, the Ohio-bred Santo initially pursued work in acting and didn’t think of music as a possible path until early adulthood. “I was new to L.A. and I’d just broken up with my first love,” she recalls. “I started writing these awful songs but I just kept going with it, and after a while it hit me that this was what I was supposed to do with my life.” Making their full-length debut with 2008’s First Rodeo, HONEYHONEY saw their sophomore album Billy Jack climb to #15 on Billboard’s Folk Albums chart and soon began earning praise from the likes of The Onion’s A.V. Club and LA Weekly.
Though Santo and Jaffe consider their continued growth as songwriters to be the lifeblood of the band, their live show also makes for a major element of the HONEYHONEY experience. “The reason we write songs is to express something real, and being able to engage with people directly the way we do onstage is a really important part of that,” Jaffe says. Fueled by their easy chemistry and between-song banter, the duo’s stage presence adds a whole new level of spirit and passion to their sound. “If there’s any kind of goal to what we’re doing, it’s to shake things up for the people listening,” says Santo. “Whether they need to dance or get happy or get angry or whatever, we can make that happen for them. We’ll make you cry and then make you laugh in under ten minutes.”