Suzzy and Terre of The Roches share stories and memories of their sister on her 70th birthday
There was a moment in time – 1979-1980 – when The Roches – Maggie, Terre and Suzzy – was the improbable “it” group, a quirky folk trio comprised of three sisters in their 20s, who emerged from the Greenwich Village scene.
Their appeal crossed over into the post-punk/art-rock world as well, possibly stoked by the production – and subtle, snaking electric guitar contributions – of one Robert Fripp.
There was justifiable media hype and an eponymous debut album that catapulted these Roches into a spotlight, The New York Times called it the best album of year to date (that being May ‘79) and in the Boston Globe, I wrote The Roches was “a stunningly simple yet evocative record. Unadorned by rock trappings, it’s a pure folk delight as their three voices and guitars mesh to expand the conventional limits of the folk genre. Their lyrics work on several levels – stinging, sly humor, frighteningly observant jabs and deft commentary on love’s highs and lows.”
I remember first seeing them at the tiny Cambridge, Mass. club the Inn-Square Men’s Bar (Ladies Invited), sitting maybe three feet from the front of the stage. I was thoroughly charmed and enraptured by Maggie’s alto, Terre’s soprano and Suzzy’s mezzo, the way they effortlessly shifted lead and harmony vocals within songs, the slightly edgy joking, the obvious sisterly camaraderie, the simple, yet grand, tapestry. And them harmonizing on Suzzy’s “The Train,” an observation sung harmoniously, as she surveys the cabin of the commuter train: “He is miserable/I am miserable/We are all miserable.”
All that media attention stunned them and, at some level, discomfited them. They weren’t aiming to anybody’s Next Big Thing. Although, I remember talking to Maggie about all the hoopla back then and she stressed the upside: All the attention created more “work” opportunities. “We have performing running in our veins,” she said.
Maggie, who would have turned 70 Oct. 26, died in January of 2017 after a long battle with breast cancer.
I’d argue that even if the “it” moment passed – as it always does – the Roches remained one of the recording and concert-going delights of ‘80s and ‘90s. Bruce Springsteen apparently concurs. He cited Maggie’s “The Married Men” on his Sirius XM show about Love Songs. The Roches released their 12th and final album, Moonswept, in 2007.
We emailed Terre, now 68 and Suzzy, now 65, questions about life and work with Maggie and The Roches.
Rock and Roll Globe: Terre, I know you and Maggie were a group and recorded an album before Suzzy joined up – if I didn’t know it before I learned it in your song “We.” What were your thoughts about that duo, what she brought to the table and what you brought?
Terre: The best way to answer this question, Jim, is for you to hear Maggie and me doing the arrangements we made when we were teenagers, before there was any production involved. Recently, I was sent some live recordings of us that were made back in the day. I’m planning to release a project featuring a selection of these in 2022. Along with the recordings I’ve done 19 interviews with people who worked with us or remember hearing us back then.
Hearing the songs now, more than 50 years after they were made, I’m struck by the remarkable relationship Maggie and I shared. We spent two years touring around the U.S. by ourselves, playing on the Coffee House Circuit, an agency out of New York City that sent “national acts” to college campuses.
We had never had a music lesson. There was no Internet. A kid in Idaho had probably never met a kid from New Jersey. Our repertoire when we were a duo came out of this experience. Maggie wrote the songs and I fit my voice and guitar into them. We had all day at these college campuses to write and arrange the music. At night we could try them out, playing in the makeshift coffee houses students set up in their student union buildings. At the time I didn’t realize what an unusual opportunity this was. It was a cauldron from which emerged some amazing songs!
Maggie had an uncanny ability to transmit her inner experience to the outside world using music and words. I’ve never heard anything quite like it before or since. She had this gift early on and continued to express it throughout a whole career.
And same question for both of you after Suzzy joined. What did the Roches gain as a trio?
Terre: Suzzy didn’t “join” the duo. Maggie and I had quit the music business after the making of our album Seductive Reasoning, which was released in 1975. The record had taken a year and a half to make and involved many producers – Paul Simon, Paul Samwell-Smith and David Hood. Our lack of musical education collided with the advanced musicianship of the male session musicians we were working with. This collision left us feeling as if we had no business playing in the deep end of the pool with the big boys.
We gave up our New York City apartment and went down to Hammond, Louisiana to live in a Kung-Fu temple run by someone we’d met during our wandering years. Maggie wrote “The Hammond Song” when we were down there. After about a year we returned to New York. Suzzy was in college at SUNY Purchase studying acting. She and Maggie moved into an apartment together and that’s when we started singing together as a trio.
Suzzy: I think they were two completely different bands. Not easy to compare. A lot had happened between the release of Seductive Reasoning and the formation of The Roches. Maggie & Terre didn’t call themselves The Roches. So, it wasn’t like an add on.
Were you surprised by all the out-of-the-box attention – at least in my world – and the idea that your folk-rock connected to the art-rock world perhaps via Robert Fripp’s input? (For that matter, Tony Levin’s and Larry Fast’s, too).
Terre: I didn’t experience it as “out-of-the-box attention” because Maggie and I had already come to the attention of Paul Simon and Columbia Records, and had worked for years as a duo. But it was the trio, The Roches, that began to attract attention playing at Folk City and Kenny’s Castaways in Greenwich Village. Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow came to see us at Folk City. The following week they appeared on Saturday Night Live and sang “The Married Men.” They talked about this cool group of three sisters they’d seen. We were an unsigned band, and in those days the only path to prominence was signing with a major record label. The SNL performance was typical of the kind of generosity Linda Ronstadt has shown toward many artists who came after she did. Linda was a huge star and along with Phoebe just about handed us a career when they performed Maggie’s song on SNL.
Next came Robert Fripp. He saw us perform at Kenny’s Castaways and asked a mutual acquaintance to introduce us. We had never heard of him. Sometimes that’s best for a collaboration. I learned a lot from working with Robert. At the time his philosophy was work hard – then go into the studio and record what you sound like. One or two takes. This was very different from the more traditional way Maggie and I had worked on “Seductive Reasoning”, where you cut the rhythm tracks, then sing over them. I’m glad to have had the benefit of both approaches.
Suzzy: When The Roches was released, it gained a lot of attention, and suddenly we were in Time Magazine, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, which led to us being able to play all over the country and in England. It was unusual to have a band of three women who played their own instruments and sang three-part harmony almost like a choir. A lot of people used to talk about how we dressed for some reason. The sound of the record – “audio verité” – was unusual and striking. We were so busy that I don’t remember if we were surprised. We were riding a wave and had an enormous amount of energy. Looking back, what I am surprised and grateful for is the amount of listeners for whom our music resonated deeply. Some misunderstood us, thinking we were a “novelty” act. The Roches operated on many levels, and some people really got that.
I saw you, I don’t know, maybe half a dozen times over the years. I have an outsiders’ perspective, of course, but from your point of view what were the changes that went on within the group, positive and negative (if there were negatives)?
Suzzy: We were under pressure from record companies to try and conform to a sound that was commercial. Back then you needed to be on a major label and they held all the cards. So that complicated our situation. We all gave up a lot of personal freedom for years in order to dedicate ourselves to the group. I am amazed at all that we created throughout those many years. So many records! So many shows. For the most part it was fun and fulfilling. It was thrilling to sing live with The Roches. But nothing lasts forever, and at some point, speaking for myself, I wanted to do other things. I also was a single mother, and it was hard to juggle all the things I needed to do. And it was hard financially, though we worked steadily, we were working class artists, and never made much money.
Terre: Any band that stays together for years is going to have its ups and downs. We never had a radio hit song so our bread and butter was touring. In order to have a career as a touring band, you have to pull a crowd. The Roches’ first record received a lot of attention from press. We did many TV appearances. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much this had to do with the fact we were new! Subsequent records had some of our best songs on them, but the lack of airplay from commercial radio was often manifest in dwindling crowds at the shows. This put a pressure on the creative process for all of us. I think it was particularly difficult for Maggie who was allergic to anything inauthentic. She hated doing the TV shows which were part of our job when we were under contract to record companies, managers and agents.
VIDEO: The Roches on WTTW’s Soundstage (1983)
I know you have both kept performing and recording under various circumstances, separately, together, with offspring. Is there some sisterly ethos that carries through your music from then to now?
Suzzy: Speaking for myself, I love singing in harmony, as well as singing alone. But they are two completely different things. In harmony singing, you have to join with other voices to make a sound other than your own. That appeals to me greatly. I sing differently when I sing alone. I don’t think all sets of sisters are the same so it’s hard to know what you mean by sisterly ethos. We were from the same family, and that was certainly relevant in our shared perspective. We understood each other in a way that a regular band might not. Now, when I sing with [my daughter] Lucy, we share a similar familiarity, and that’s really nice, too.
Terre: I don’t hear a sisterly ethos in the projects Suzzy and I have done solo and with others. Siblings by nature are contentious. Siblings teach one another about the outside world by fighting among themselves in the nest. Maggie and I bickered constantly as kids. I was mean to Suzzy and our brother Dave. As adults the three girls stayed together for a remarkable body of musical offerings. We are very different from one another – something again that makes for a great collaboration. Ultimately it was very important for us each to journey outside of the group in order to come into our own as individuals. I have a lot of appreciation for Suzzy’s work with her daughter Lucy, with Maggie and others. And our brother Dave is a wonderful songwriter too.
Humor was, of course, a part of your persona, especially in concert. Maggie’s role always seemed to be the dry, stoic one. And, I guess, shy. Is that accurate and did that come naturally to her or did you all discuss presentation and patter, how you would inter-relate on stage?
Suzzy: Maggie was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. In private, she and I could talk for hours, she was not shy. In fact, it was hard to get a word in edgewise! She was not comfortable socially, and had a hard time navigating the world. Her place on stage offered her the ability to communicate through her music, which is what she wanted to do. The Roches presentation and patter came out of necessity to facilitate the music. Back then, Maggie & Terre were holding down the instrumentation, which made it necessary for me to take the role of MC. That enabled Maggie & Terre to interject when they wanted to. I stood in the middle and saw my job as being hyper attentive to each of them on either side of me. In order to be in a group, you have to care about each member, and be sensitive to everyone’s needs, as well as the group as a whole.
Terre: Our stage act evolved like a play evolves. We had lots of time in the van to discuss what worked and what didn’t onstage. Our presentation and patter would change slightly as the tour progressed but it became pretty much of a script as it found its flow. Suzzy used to decide what songs to do and what order to do them in. She had a very good sense of how to pace a show – perhaps from her acting training. But all three of us were good comedians. Anyone who saw Maggie’s explosive dance in the middle of “The Angry Angry Man” got a shocking glimpse of something other than “dry and stoic.”
Speak, if you can, about the magic tapestry of your voices. We’ve all heard some great sibling singing groups – the Everly Brothers, the Kinks and the Staple Singers – among them. How did you view that weave of similar, but different voices into song?
Terre: I once heard that siblings have that special blend because their vocal cords are shaped the same – much like your noses might be the same shape as your other family members.
Suzzy: We were meticulous when working out the arrangements. We went note by note. We had six elements, 3 voices and 3 instruments. We rehearsed daily. It was very intense to learn the arrangements and then to practice them to the point that we could perform them effortlessly. The Roches songs are very complex. Three-part harmony is different than two-part harmony. There is no room for improvisation with three-part harmony, because one note can change the chord. When I listen back to the songs, I am struck by the sophistication of the music. When the arrangements came together it was powerful to sing and play them.
VIDEO: Tiny Toons x The Roches
And Maggie was, again to my ears (and correct me if I’m wrong), but the one who wrote the more “serious-sounding” songs – “The Married Men,” “Quitting Time” and “Pretty and High” from that first album, say.
Suzzy: I think every song we wrote was serious. We were fiercely serious.
Terre: Listen to Maggie’s song “My Winter Coat”. She was a master at mixing “serious-sounding” with hilarious.
As singers-songwriters-performers were there any major conflicts among you and if so how were they resolved? Did Maggie, being the oldest sister, have more say or final sway?
Terre: Our rehearsals were hardcore. We got together every day from 1 to 5 when we weren’t on the road – like a day job. Some songs were collaborations among two or three of us. Other songs were written by one person. But once there was a song, we got to work on the arrangements and this part was arduous. Finding your part both vocally and on your instrument involved lots of listening to all the possibilities before you settled. Once the parts were all working well, we all seemed to agree they were. There might be one or two things we tweaked – and in performance sometimes things would change. But for the most part once the arrangements were set there they were! Maggie was the one who could hear if notes were out of place. Sometimes backstage, after a show she would mention some chord that had gone wrong or note that was a clinker. She had an amazing ear for harmony.
Suzzy: As I mentioned, it was hard for Maggie to navigate the world. She would often have trouble handling life on the road. I spent a lot of time talking her into things and listening to her talk about how she felt. As often happens with very gifted people, she was so sensitive that it was painful. Terre and Maggie could get into scrapes with each other. Once Terre threw a chair through the wall of Maggie’s hotel room! But they were very close too. Often, I felt like a negotiator between the two. But like I said, we all gave up a lot of personal freedom to be in the group, and I think perhaps it took a toll ~ ultimately “things fall apart the center cannot hold.” But I think we got along pretty well considering what we were up against. And we made so much music together. For me, it was worth it. I feel best when I’m creating something.
What do you miss most, both on a personal and professional level, about not having Maggie with you any longer?
Terre: I miss the Maggie that went on tour with me when we were teenagers. Crisscrossing the country, we developed our own language, speaking to each other with made up words – trying to crack each other up. We had an unusual bond back then. I think it developed because we were so young, traveling alone around the country. Most parents wouldn’t allow their kids to go off on such an adventure. We had some scary shit happen, but an adventure it was, and I’m glad we had it!
Suzzy: I don’t think I’ll ever recover from losing Maggie. I am lucky that she let me into the inner regions of her life. Her privacy was of utmost importance to her, and she trusted me, and I honored it. She struggled with breast cancer for years before telling me and when she finally did, I was able to help her through her death, but it came at a cost for me, as I had to promise to keep it to myself, which was extremely difficult, and navigating through her death was frankly traumatic. Maggie was an amazing person. I dream about her almost every night. I miss her terribly; I could talk on the phone with Maggie for hours and listen to her describe the intimate details of her kitchen sink. She was brilliant, funny, kind, and complicated. But she wanted to be free. She wanted to be herself completely, she didn’t want to compromise. I am a compromiser, and perhaps I pushed her too far in that direction. But maybe now she is free. I like to think of her sitting on a porch in a beautiful place with a cool breeze blowing.
In 2018, Suzzy released a two-CD set, Where Do I Come From, featuring Maggie’s songs. It features four previously unreleased recordings, including the title track.