Gary James' Interview With Susan Johnston
Of Fleetwood Mac Tribute
Susan Johnston is Stevie Nicks in her tribute band Rumours. We talked about Fleetwood Mac, the tribute band business and Susan Johnston's background.
Q - Susan, how long has Rumours been together?
A - It's definitely over twelve years.
Q - That's a long time for a tribute band.
A - That's a long time for any band. We laugh about it. We really do. We've taken a few breaks here and there, but not much longer than a year or two. And we each have our own little bands going on the side. I love them. What can I say?
Q - Is it profitable to be in a Fleetwood Mac tribute band?
A - It can be profitable. It depends. We go out as a five or six piece band, an optional rhythm guitarist, fifth vocalist. So that makes it flexible for other people's budgets. I think it can definitely be profitable. So the answer is yes. But I don't look at it about whether or not it's profitable. I look at it whether or not it's fun. At some point, yes, you do have to make money for your time away from whatever you come from. It could be our family, your work, your productions. So, it depends. I know, as my players get higher level, then they need more money to get out. We don't really go out that much for a reason. We go out no more than once a month and we've been this way all these years. I think that's why we've lasted. I do think a Fleetwood Mac band could be profitable, but you really have to capture their essence, or don't do it.
Q - What year did you team up with the band members?
A - About fifteen years ago.
Q - That would make it 1997.
A - That's about right.
Q - You portray Stevie Nicks in this group. Do you know if Stevie Nicks has ever made her feelings known about Fleetwood Mac tribute bands? Has she ever caught your act?
A - She has not caught my act. But I've played with Lindsay Buckingham's drummer. The record producer of Fleetwood Mac's "The Dance" has heard me sing. He said he loved my voice and asked to hear a couple of the songs I wrote. He said one of 'em he was definitely going to move forward to a name you would know if I said it. He said "I don't want you to sing on it." I said "That's fine." (laughs) So who he was singing it to, I don't know. Oddly enough, it's not Stevie per se, it's like there's one degree of separation of Stevie throughout my portrayal of her. For some strange reason, and it was fantastic, I ran into the woman who designed her clothes. She actually let me wear the clothes for awhile there. Then it got crazy 'cause she lived way too far away from me. So, as wonderful as it was, it just didn't work out.
Q - You're telling me she let you wear the clothes Stevie Nicks wore?
A - I don't know if I was wearing stuff that Stevie wore or that she was making for Stevie, and I was like her little test bunny. How did it look? I don't know. I didn't ask. I was just grateful. So that was fun.
Q - Before this group. what other groups, if any, were you in?
A - Well, first of all I was a Folk / Rock artist and I had written a song for Greenpeace that they used called "Forgive Me Mother Earth". I was at the coffee houses like Cab. It was a big coffee house in Rhode Island. I would pack the place. And it was really fun. So I went from sort of a duo situation to a band and then the band became the first one with Simple Truth and then I started gigging in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Then I went into another band called Hot And Soul. It's funny 'cause the lead guitar player was the hot one and I was the Soul one. We actually made the Top 5 bands through MTV's search. That was really... We were in The Battle Of The Bands. So, with that band, you can't make a living steadily when you start an original band, so you supplement it. So what we started doing with Hot And Soul was we would go out to clubs and play three cover tunes and then one original tune. That was a good way for us to figure out what worked, what didn't. And we made really good money. We called that a club band. That was actually a lot of fun.
Q - Did the club owners ever catch on to what you were doing?
A - It was so funny. One club said "Let me see your set list. I like 'Maneater'." I went to my guitar player and said "How does he know 'Maneater'? 'Maneater' is a John Oates of Hall And Oates tune." I went "Oh, I just forgot about that." Sometimes we would announce it was an original and sometimes we wouldn't.
Q - This band would play where?
A - This band was strictly New England. We had a challenge. I'm sure a lot of bands run into challenges like this. We had one of our band members that did not like to travel. It was like pulling teeth. But they were an integral part of the band. So we pretty much played New England, all over, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island. I did play in New York as an original and that was when I was with Hot And Soul. We just played there a couple of times in one week and I can't even remember the name of the rooms. But I do remember the rehearsal spaces were so tiny. It was like being in a bathroom with a toilet and hardly a sink. It was that tiny. That was our rehearsal room. I remember that.
Q - How can you get any personal satisfaction from singing someone else's songs?
A - Well, that's a really good question. I think the reason I get personal satisfaction from it is I really love the tunes. I'm not kidding you. Honest to God. I must have heard those tunes two million times, because that's how I learned my songs, hearing them over and over, singing them over and over, with and without music. Just when I think I'm sick of it, I take two weeks off from not listening to it. I think it's a testament to it feels good, it sounds good and it's a lot of fun. I connect with the songs I'm singing and I have other people I'm singing with. We sing five part harmonies. That's cool. That's challenging. It sounds good. I'm not just this front person like David Lee Roth. And I don't mean to pick on David Lee Roth. It's really a collaborative effort. We have that rhythm guitar player I told you about, Mary Ann Rossoni. She is an independent artist in her own right. She was on national public radio a lot, with her original songs, the Americana series. There's a song like "Honest To God" that Mary Ann just does this thing with her strum and then her foot just kicks a certain way that's just really groovy. And, I look forward to that. I'm like, "hear it comes!" My drummer taught me how to play tambourine. It sounded so bad in the beginning and now it's a blast. When their solos are going on, I get to twirl around and then I can interact with my drummer. Sometimes I make funny faces. It's just whatever. I'm having fun onstage.
Q - I see you've appeared onstage as an opening act for some really big names.
A - Yes. Aren't they fantastic? Kansas, Blood, Sweat And Tears, Gary Puckett And The Union Gap.
Q - What was that like?
A - I remember the first time. There were 15,000 people in the audience for Kansas. When you think about it, you are the opening act. You set the tone of the show. What I love about our band is we chose the hardest tune to open with. We opened with "The Dance". I'm theatrical, so I sort of hold a pose. I don't move while the song is happening and all of a sudden on the 31st bass drum kick, boom! I turn around and sing. It's just like full on. A full on performance. What's really exciting about opening is, it's such a big production. Everybody was so friendly and nice. There are green rooms. Pretty much all the acts treated you really well.
Q - As a tribute band, you play out how often?
A - Only once a month. And we do that so we don't get tired of ourselves and other people don't get tired of ourselves and apparently it's working.
Q - So, the other band members are in other bands. Are you in another band?
A - Well, this is what's really funny: I love Adele's music and I asked my band, "Can we do an Adele tribute band?" That would be so killin' to do both. They were not interested. They were not interested because they're older than me. One has a graphics artist business. The other one has a family with small kids, so he's got to stay local. The other doesn't want to travel. The other one is just getting married. He's game for anything 'cause his wife will just come with him. In Fleetwood Mac, everybody sings, everybody plays. In Adele, it's just Adele. So I understand why they didn't want to do an Adele band. So, I am still considering doing an Adele tribute band. I'm also, I don't want to say the band's name yet, but I am starting a new band. I have to find the voice I want to sing about now. That's the point.