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Interview: Susan Herndon brings French sound to the Blue Door, new album

by Brandy McDonnell Published: January 31, 2014
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Red dirt singer-songwriter Susan Herndon performs at the 2013 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah. Photo by Vicki Farmer.
Red dirt singer-songwriter Susan Herndon performs at the 2013 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah. Photo by Vicki Farmer.

A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.

Susan Herndon brings French sound to the Blue Door
The Okemah red dirt singer-songwriter, who is playing Saturday at the Oklahoma City listening room, just wrapped a Kickstarter campaign to make “Vagabonde,” a new album of songs in French or about France.

Susan Herndon looks the quintessential Oklahoma singer-songwriter when she takes the stage, guitar in hand, to perform her original red dirt music.

But the Tulsa native first picked up her guitar in an unlikely place: France.

“I grew up playing piano, but I didn’t really learn how to play guitar until I went over there and lived,” Herndon said in a phone interview. “That’s really where I started playing guitar and just taught myself how to play and joined a couple of bands. We’d play out and busk on the streets.

“It is weird. That may be why this is kind of a dear project to me because that is where I started.”

The longtime musician is wandering away from her signature red dirt sound for her sixth studio album, “Vagabonde.” The work-in-progress will be a collection of 18 to 20 songs in French or about France.

“I’ve been planning on this album for, I mean, gosh, maybe half a dozen years,” Herndon said. “It almost feels like a full circle sort of thing.”

The Okemah musician will celebrate finishing a successful Kickstarter campaign for the project this week with a show Saturday at Oklahoma City’s Blue Door. She and fellow Oklahoma musicians Tom Skinner, Terry “Buffalo” Ware and Jack Abraham will preview songs from “Vagabonde” at the show.

Okemah red dirt singer-songwriter Susan Herndon is working on a new album of songs in French and about France titled "Vagabonde." Photo by M. Tim Blake.
Okemah red dirt singer-songwriter Susan Herndon is working on a new album of songs in French and about France titled "Vagabonde." Photo by M. Tim Blake.

French connection

Herndon majored in French while at the University of Oklahoma, and she still can’t really say why. But an Oklahoma City healer she once visited claimed she had Francophile tendencies because she had lived at least two past lives in France.

“Why I’m attracted to French, why people have the tastes they have, I don’t know,” she said. “It is a beautiful, beautiful language … and the country is beautiful and the people. It’s a charming place. I do feel like I sort of belong there, like my soul is French or something.”

As she was working her way through college, she scraped together extra cash to spend her summers backpacking through France. She was about to graduate with her bachelor of arts in letters when she got the chance to do a teaching exchange that would send her to University of Clermont-Ferrand to teach in their business school.

“I was really fortunate to go over there for one year to teach. I was over there working and getting paid and getting to be in France and work on my French. And then they asked me to stay the second year,” she said. “I needed work anyway, and it was good to be over there working. It was very lonely to start with.”

That loneliness prompted her to pick up a guitar, eventually changing her life and sound.

Okemah red dirt singer-songwriter Susan Herndon plays a 2013 show at the Blue Door. Photo by M. Tim Blake.
Okemah red dirt singer-songwriter Susan Herndon plays a 2013 show at the Blue Door. Photo by M. Tim Blake.

French in the Boohatch

Each of her five previous albums has included one or two French songs, a testament to the country’s lasting influence on her. “Vagabonde” will include her past French releases as well as about a dozen new originals and covers.

“I’ve had several people say ‘oh, do you have a collection of just your French songs?’ That may have been where I got the idea,” she said. “They all have to do with France in some way. They’re either French or in some way deal with France and the francophone world, the French-speaking world.”

Back in October, she spent a couple of days recording the new songs with esteemed red dirt musician and producer Mike McClure in his Ada studio known as The Boohatch.

“It does seem a little paradoxical or something, the juxtaposition of the French and the Boohatch,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a lot of fun, though.”

In November, she accepted an invitation to return to France to perform at the Amiens International Film Festival, an opportunity that only fueled her passion for the project. Soon after, she launched her first Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $11,000, or about half the cost of making the album. After raising the funds for her previous records through working and playing gigs, the crowd-funding campaign was kind of a leap of faith.

“I’ve been wanting to do one for two or three years, I was just not fully comfortable asking for money. So I think when I finally got a grasp of it being ‘really, you’re just preordering something’ … I felt more comfortable. And I finally started getting into it,” she said. and looking at what the rewards would be, realizing I’m not asking for money. There’s a service rendered and music offered.”

On Tuesday, she wrapped her campaign with 87 backers pledging $12,129, ensuring her project will receive the funding. She plans to head back to the Boohatch next week to do more recording and hopes to release the album in October.

“I feel just so blessed, really, really, really grateful and fortunate. These people’s generosity, it does feel so good,” she said.

IN CONCERT

Susan Herndon and Tom Skinner

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Blue Door, 2805 N McKinley.

Information: 524-0738 or www.bluedoorokc.com.

Oklahoma music on Kickstarter

Red dirt singer-songwriter Susan Herndon wrapped this week a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund her new album “Vagabonde.” Several other Oklahoma-based musicians are currently raising money on the crowd-funding site. For more information or to pledge, go to www.Kickstarter.com.

Matt Stansberry & The Romance.

Who: Oklahoma City retro rock/R&B band.

Project: New album.

Goal: $10,000.

Raised as of this week: $6,076.

Deadline: Feb. 16.

Pillar

Who: Tulsa-based Christian rock band.

Project: Reunion album.

Goal: $50,000.

Raised as of this week: $51,690.

Deadline: Feb. 16.

Jenny Faiella

Who: Oklahoma City worship singer.

Project: Debut EP.

Goal: $2,000.

Raised as of this week: $0.

Deadline: March 26.

Callum Roxborough

Who: Oklahoma City singer-songwriter.

Project: EP.

Goal: $300.

Raised as of this week: $420.

Deadline: Feb. 9

“Repossession: A Christmas Album”

Who: Owasso-based Metal Blessing Radio.

Project: 2-CD Christmas metal album.

Goal: $1,750.

Raised as of this week: $75.

Deadline: Feb. 28.

-BAM


by Brandy McDonnell
Entertainment Reporter
Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more...
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