Trying to sum up Isy Suttie’s career in a handy nutshell is a tricky, if not impossible, task. She’s been a film, TV and stage actress, script writer, stand-up comedian and now an author following the publication of The Actual One, her new book on the perils of life in your late twenties and the basis of her show at Belfast’s Out To Lunch Festival this Sunday. With music playing such a large part in her material she’s very much a comedian in the State mould, although she could have ended up on a very different path if she’d been granted her original wish of learning the saxophone…
“I was bored of the piano and my mum said you have to learn the clarinet first, but that wasn’t nearly as cool as the sax. I was really into bands like Simply Red at the time and I wanted to play those kind of solos. When I realised I’d have to learn the clarinet first I thought that sounded like quite a lot of work so when I saw a guitar in the window of a charity shop I went with that instead and really loved it”.
Did you play in any bands?
“A lot. My first band was Isy Suttie and the Muppets. Some of those people have gone onto be in band called Pest, who are signed to Ninja Tune. They were more funk musicians than I was but were all into people like Frank Zappa and a lot of hip-hop. I spent a lot of summers from the age of 13 playing with those guys. We didn’t do any covers, I started writing songs as soon as I could play three chords. We didn’t stay together that long, partly because I got so hammered at our first gig that I couldn’t remember any chords, and my next band was called Eraserhead – that was more improvised songs. Then I was in Infinite Drift with two guys who were very into prog rock. I actually listened to one of our tracks the other day and it wasn’t bad. We were only fifteen and listening to lost of Pink Floyd so most of our songs were seven minutes long. There were a few others as well, until I was about 24 when I went solo”.
What were you writing about at the time?
“Sometimes I’d write songs that I thought were serious and people would laugh. It was a real buzz when people laughed but it wasn’t always expected as I thought I was being meaningful. I look back at songs I wrote when I was 13 or 14 and the roots haven’t changed that much, they tended to be stories. I did write a lot of bad love songs either about guys or generally that can go on the bonfire. The more interesting ones were about specific people. You do the thing that’s most natural to you. I was listening to the Divine Comedy the other day and thinking about how amazing Neil Hannon is. He’s fantastic at using language to convey images and impressions of people, as is Tom Waits. That’s always been more important to me than the music itself. The lyrics should always be at the forefront for me”.
When did the comedy element come in?
“I was at drama school and wrote a song called ‘A Million Faces’. It was supposed to be reasonably light hearted. I was living with some people from my course and I played it to them and a French guy said ‘why don’t you try singing it in a French accent?’. I did that at the songwriting competition and it got laughs, the lyrics somehow seemed to fit the accent. It was such a buzz getting that reaction to something that I’d written. I’ll always remember that feeling. After that I started to write songs with that in mind, but it was a long time before I started doing stand up. At first I was doing music venues, the open mic circuit. It was hard work, you had to pay to play and bring along so many people. I did a couple of industry showcases that felt quite brutal. When I started doing the comedy circuit at the same level I found it so much more friendly”.
How was it making the move from a musician to a stand-up?
“At the start I didn’t want to go on and just do the songs but not know how to talk to the audience between them. I had to put myself through not doing them to find out who I was onstage, rather than just relying on the songs, saying thank you and starting another one. I remember seeing Rufus Wainwright and he was brilliant between the songs. People always want to hear that. It doesn’t always have to be funny, you just want to hear your favourite bands speak”.
You enjoyed it a lot more though…
“It was immediately exciting. With comedy, you’re bound to be shit at the beginning. You have to work out who you are and the only way is by doing it. At first you’re trying to be funny in a general way, it’s so much harder than it looks. It was far more supportive than the music open mic circuit. You bumped into the same people at gigs immediately. In 2002, when I started, there were relatively few of us doing it but I’d still say there are likely to be far less comedians than musicians around at that level”.
Watching you perform now, the music seems to be more about setting the mood?
“That’s happened over the years. When I started it was a routine and then a song but that’s evolved into a story, then a song or underscoring something with finger picking but it’s taken me a long time to settle on that. Even stuff like starting a song without an introduction, you don’t have to be able to see the join. That helped me become just a person on stage with a guitar rather than a musical comic. What happened with my Edinburgh shows was that they became much longer pieces about two people and I could sing a duet with myself as long as the voices were different enough. I could start telling a story and play both characters, which helped me a lot”.
That late twenties period is an interesting topic isn’t it? Why did you decide to write about it now?
“It’s nice that I have a bit of distance now that I’m 37. I needed that perspective to make the book as funny as it could be. If I’d written it at the time it would have been too emotionally charged. Now I can see that I was a bit of a dick but my heart was in the right place. My best mates were having a baby and I’d just come out of a long term relationship. I was pleased for them but was wondering what happened to me now. In my head I’d thought we’d do all this stuff at the same time but human beings aren’t like that. The book’s turned out to be a celebration of friendship and the adventures I had, whether I was single or not”.
Isy Suttie performs at the Black Box at 3pm on Sunday 31st January. Get tickets here.