A week before the June 9 release of honeyhoney's third full-length album -- a winning number appropriately titled 3 -- the hot-blooded duo was 75 minutes into its biggest headlining date in Denver when lead singer Suzanne Santo let loose:
I am yours to bear
You're mine to share my days with
I am yours to bear
You're mine to share my days with now
Though "Yours to Bear" is one of 12 songs on the new album, the acoustic ballad that costars Santo's searing vocals is not new. But after hearing it a number of times at previous shows, the pensive message took on a deeper meaning that night.
Their words were particularly compelling after listening earlier in the day to the self-described "passionate woman" and multi-instrumentalist Ben Jaffe, honeyhoney's man for all reasons, go where they've never gone before publicly -- to lunch at the Buckhorn Exchange.
Many who watch their concerts and buy their records probably wonder if there's more to the platonic love connection that a midwestern daughter and New England son made to become Los Angeles-based professional musical partners in 2006.
"God, we've never ever talked about this," Santo said when presented the question near the end of the meal on June 2, several hours before she and Jaffe would take the stage at the crowded Bluebird Theater (capacity: 550) on Colfax Avenue. "Ever," she emphasized, "with anybody like this."
The animated Santo, who plays banjo, violin and acoustic guitar while commanding the attention of guys and dolls in a concert hall with that powerful and sensual voice, followed up with a slight laugh. Yet it was nothing like the boisterous bombs she set off earlier while hilariously depicting the dangers of Nashville during their two-year stay there, then playfully taking on Jaffe for his misguided fashion choice a few years ago with one act of athletic betrayal.
Turning reflective and sounding almost relieved, she let Jaffe do most of the talking about their status and its fluid (sometimes on/sometimes off) nature. Meanwhile, hardcore fans at shows can keep asking -- "Are they or aren't they?" -- while watching the pair stare intensely into each other's eyes as they display a charismatic chemistry usually reserved for head-over-heels lovers.
"Our relationship is crazy," offered Jaffe, a virtual one-man band (guitars, vocals, piano, percussion and more on 3) whose scorching licks on his Gibson might be the only thing that matches their electrifying stage presence.
"It's two people, her and I, with some incredibly similar passions and energies. Especially when it comes to humor. When it comes to just like ... I don't know, there's a similar vibration that we share. And then we go through all ... the result of that, of those similarities in our relationship, has been our band. Our band is the result of our relationship. And the consequences of those results is a huge spectrum.
"Sometimes it's fucking amazing. Sometimes we're in Paris, France, and we just played a show at L'Olympia and we're getting to tour the world and we're doing these incredible things and sometimes people pay us a lot of money to do things. So we have that end of the spectrum. And then at the other end, it's kind of like a crushing pressure. One, to keep things going to somehow find a way to agree enough. And that pressure bares open some of the sides of ourselves that aren't as similar. We're forced to confront a lot of our differences through this pressure, which is natural. But it's difficult."
Ben Jaffe (left) and Suzanne Santo of honeyhoney at the Buckhorn Exchange.
On the menu
Making an album or ordering a buffalo burger are decidedly less complicated than sharing details bout your private life. Yet, at the historic eatery that harkens back to the Old West, it was the polite but curious Santo who, after enthusiastically choosing the grilled salmon lunch special and a cup of tortilla soup, had the first significant question of the day -- for the waitress:
What's a Rocky Mountain oyster?
Talked into trying a half-order, Santo feigned nervousness while still wondering what part of what animal this "land oyster" came from -- "Is it a squirrel? Is it a prairie dog?"
Finally told they were breaded and fried bull's testicles, she said, "You know what, I could stand to be a little more ballsy these days."
That's never seemed to be a problem for honeyhoney, which is clearly on its way to becoming HONEYHONEY -- an upper-case designation that Jaffe and Santo seemingly enjoy seeing on a festival lineup as much as when Dirk Diggler envisioned his porn name on an exploding movie marquee in Boogie Nights.
Promising not to abandon the banjo like Mumford & Sons did on their latest album, Santo's huge appetite on this afternoon carries over to her taste in assorted genres.
"Something that is really fun about the records we're making is you kind of have the whole menu for you," she said. "We'll have rock 'n' roll, we'll have some more intimate ballads, we'll have folk music, we'll have a little more country."
Such a wide-ranging direction has been on honeyhoney's GPS while maneuvering some rough terrain. After departing Ironworks (2008's First Rodeo was their debut), Jaffe and Santo got lost in the shuffle with Billy Jack in 2011, the unappreciated gem that was the last release by Lost Highway, the alt-country branch of Universal before it met its demise.
Still standing, they seem hungrier than ever to make it.
After borrowing money from their parents and attempting three times to deliver the goodies -- recording an album in its entirety once over a two-week period in Los Angeles during the summer of 2013 -- Jaffe and Santo weren't satisfied with the product.
"We would never release a subpar record, especially at this juncture," Santo said. "It's like, 'We've been in the shadow for a while; we should come back with something that we're proud of.' "
In the past year, they have gone from supporting act to headliner, hired a new manager (Jon Leshay), signed on with reputable Rounder Records and tracked down one of the hottest producers in roots music to up their already high-stakes game. Now, as Santo put it before a raucous Bluebird crowd on what was then Denver's toastiest day of 2015, honeyhoney is offering a variety of deliciousness "like a buffet at a casino, like the good kind."
Revenge of the nerds
It was at the end of last summer when the duo got on a conference call with Dave Cobb, who already has worked wonders as producer for artists like Jason Isbell, Stugill Simpson and Houndmouth.
"We just nerded out about music," Santo said. "He literally knows everything about music. And he's just like an encyclopedia. Anywhere from gear to artists, the man is just brilliant."
Added Jaffe: "He's the most freakishly confident person I've ever met."
While they didn't agree with everything Cobb suggested (Santo said the tempo on "Bad People" was sped up so fast "that I honestly couldn't sing"), honeyhoney benefited immensely from Cobb's presence, even when it involved one chord change on Santo's "Whatchya Gonna Do Now" that they said affected the entire tonality of the song for the better.
Real strings layered on top of Jaffe's mellotron on tunes like "Burned Me Out" and "Back to You" provide an elegant touch, but the signature sounds of Santo and Jaffe remain, bolstered by a studio rhythm section that included Adam Gardner (bass) and Chris Powell (drums). (See honeyhoney's live performance of "Big Man" in the video premiere below.)
There was so much respect and trust for one another in the room," Santo said of the recording sessions in Nashville. "I don't think we've ever recorded with such support and excitement and fun without an ego in the room. Like everybody was there just to make good music and appreciate each other and ...
"Drink," Jaffe interjected.
"We drink a lot," Santo said, laughing. "But when you record sometimes you get ... people want to come up with the idea or something. But we didn't have that. It was really cool. It was an even playing field."
Life is a lost (and found) highway
Only a few weeks into a torturous road schedule that takes them cross country until at least Aug. 1, the honeyhoney couple have upgraded their mode of transportation, too. And they've taking tour drummer Conor Meehan (introduced to the Bluebird audience as the "Rocky Mountain oysters of this band") and videographer/sound man Sage Atwood along for the ride.
As show openers for about eight years for artists including Sheryl Crow and, more recently, James Morrison, Jake Bugg and Trampled by Turtles, they got the needed exposure, but 30- to 40-minute sets left fans with just a little taste of honeyhoney.
After leaving their previous agents and management, "We were totally on our own," Santo said. "It was a scary place. We were selling haikus (on Etsy). And we were like, let's book a tour," the impetus being a fundraising event for the Mount Greylock arts program that included a concert with the school's symphonic band.
That was certainly gratifying, but it was an April 2014 date at the Beat Kitchen in Chicago that turned out to be what Santo called "a seminal moment" for honeyhoney -- a sold-out house that demanded an encore.
"You don't get encores as an opener," she added. "
That's not part of the protocol. And I remember kind of feeling caught off guard and we played our song 'Don't Know How,' and the whole room was singing the song. Like I couldn't believe it. It's making me tear up.
It was just a moment of like, 'Holy shit! We can still do this. It's not like we have to wait for something to happen.' And it was really important for us to be reminded of needing to get back to work instead of waiting for the next opening set.
And since then, it's gotten bigger and bigger and more sustainable and it's still something that ... every time we get an encore, it feels so good."
That makes the ride in their used 2007 Cadillac Escalade even comfier, though Santo had to give up her Toyota Camry to make ends meet. But when the easy riders found out the Escalade's previous owner was Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX, they got other ideas. Here's the first of several Ben-Suzanne 1-2 combination punches:
Suzanne: "We're hoping two things. One, the genius residue will wear off onto us and also maybe he'll design our first electric bus. We just call him up. Let's call him."
Ben: "We have his address! (both laugh) We'll just knock on his door."
A much more feistier interplay between the two occurred while they volunteered some fun (and perhaps fictitious) facts about themselves before getting to the nitty-gritty:
Jaffe -- "I can squat about 300 pounds."
Santo -- "34B ... on a good day."
Anyone who follows honeyhoney on Twitter already is aware that Santo is a rabid sports fan, particularly when it comes to the pros in Cleveland, her hometown. And even though the local NFL team hasn't played in a Super Bowl yet ("The Browns have put me in deep depression for days at a time," she said, laughing), the 30-year-old can tell you who played in Super Bowl XIX on Jan. 20, 1985, the day she was born.
"If I were a boy, I would have been named Joe after Joe Montana," she said of the winning quarterback who led the 49ers past Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins 38-16 that day.
This month, though, her attention has turned toward LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who need to beat the Golden State Warriors to win their first championship. Trying to watch the NBA Finals while touring can be difficult, but Santo doesn't seem the least bit concerned.
"I've had this really interesting demeanor that's come over me, which is I'm losing my superstition," she said. "And I just feel really comfortable with being so excited that they got this far. ... I feel so proud of the town for how they came back together after (James) came back to town. And I think either way I'm excited. I'm not freaking out. But I think they're gonna win."
That led to talking about the time Santo busted Jaffe's basketballs for buying a LeBron James jersey at the Salvation Army in Strongsville, Ohio -- after the NBA star jumped ship in 2010 to sign with the Miami Heat as a free agent.
"She was livid with me," Jaffe said, attempting to explain his hoops obsession while Santo ranted, "I was still broken. I was still broken."
Let the Jaffe-Santo comedy hour continue:
Ben: "And I bought it, 'cause it's awesome."
Suzanne: "And he put it on and I was like, 'What are you doing?' "
Ben: "And she was actually really upset with me. Like she was pissed off."
Suzanne: "That would be like me toting around my ex-boyfriend's outfit."
Ben: "No, nothing like that."
Suzanne: "Yes it would be."
Ben: "You've never been with LeBron James."
Suzanne: "You don't know that." (laughs)
Ben: "Yes I do. I know that for a fact because if you were, you wouldn't have stopped talking about it up till now."
Suzanne (laughing): "OK, fair enough."
Ben Jaffe (left), Conor Meehan (center) and Suzanne Santo
perform at the Bluebird Theater in Denver.
Getting it together
If this were a TV sitcom like Mike & Molly, the couple would hug it out in the end to canned applause after butting heads. But there are more personal songs to write, rough patches to smooth over and a number of other land mines to avoid while trying to keep honeyhoney moving forward.
Choosing another glass of water over the Buckhorn's deep dish apple pie, Santo said, "We're best friends," when first asked to describe their relationship before later adding with a laugh, "It's a bit of a roller coaster. And we're just kind of going with it."
Jaffe, who will join the dirty 30 club on July 6, continued:
We have these things that we want to do, these things that we love. Each other being among those things. ... We go through these situations where we travel intensively together. We create intensively together.
And we also represent each other and do it all publicly. Not to a huge degree but to a certain degree. Yeah, so we're constantly having to figure out new ways to support each other without ... 'cause we don't want this to fall apart. We love this thing. And I think that's really important.
It has to do with integrity, for what we're going out for, too. We made this thing that we fucking love, so let's not have it be destroyed in some ugly way. Let's figure out a way to continue and have it be something that is beautiful, which I think it is.
Just for the record, though, they say their ambiguous relationship got personal -- "You mean, when did we smooch?" asked Santo -- about four years ago.
"We can talk about it as much or as little as you want, honestly," Jaffe said, addressing his soul mate/band mate.
But to me this is a big part of our band. ... If people are following us and like what we do, things like that, I think it's valuable to know what goes into it. Honestly, most of the work is between us. It's not the music. The music can be the easy part.
All in the writing
Irreverent as ever (if there's any doubt, check out their appearances on Joe Rogan Experience podcasts), Jaffe and Santo are cautiously sharing more personal details as they get older. Many who already knew they were wise and witty might not have seen their tender and timid sides.
Opening up through music -- and interviews -- just might be another sign of growth.
"This is definitely, the whole batch of songs are pretty visceral and pretty ... from the depths of where we've been and what we've experienced together," Santo said.
Songs from 3 like "God of Love" and "Father's Daughter" -- neither of which were among the eight from the album performed at the Bluebird -- allow listeners to get a deeper look inside.
Admitting he often won't go there since "I write from a little different perspective than Suze, generally because I'm not singing lead," the fast-talking Jaffe slowed down before carefully explaining why "God of Love" is the most personal song he wrote for the album.
"What I'm trying to think of is where is there a vulnerability for me, really," he said.
Do I feel vulnerable saying any of this stuff? For the most part, I don't. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that I'm not singing it. I'm not actually the one saying the words. But with 'God of Love,' it is like a poetic song.
At least for me, I felt like I was writing in a way ... I felt like I was going out on more of a limb -- this is gonna sound douchey -- like from a literary perspective. I was going for shit. Writing what I thought might be more poetic.
Santo had no trouble selecting "Father's Daughter" as her example, but choked up during her response. Calling herself a "late bloomer" to music who learned a lot from Jaffe, she took a "real leap" to write the song years ago, then sent an acoustic version to get her dad's blessing, which he gave, to include it on the album.
"You know I think it's important sometimes to put material out there and let it be for the listener to have the relationship to," she said.
And also, maybe that's me being a little guarded, too. I don't want to show all my cards all the time. But this song in particular ... it's very personal. And Ben really kind of gave me confidence with that being an important song that we should put on the record.
I always had it and I could play anything for him. But I was really afraid to put it out there.
Then there's "Yours to Bear," the first song they performed at the first honeyhoney concert I saw (Fox Theatre in Boulder on May 8, 2012) and one of a number of tunes Jaffe and Santo have written together.
Oh I didn't want to make you cry
And use my faults as an alibi
Say you're not when I know you're tryin'
Use the past like it's enemy fire
No I didn't want to make you cry now
"'Yours to Bear' was the purest collaboration that we've ever had in the sense that we came with nothing to writing and came out with pure improvisation between both of us," Jaffe said.
Among other songs that landed on the album, they cowrote "You and I," "Back to You," "Numb It" and "Sweet Thing," but the kindred spirits don't map out a strategic plan to collaborate.
"If we're gonna be totally candid, it's a lot easier to write together when we're in a really good place emotionally," Santo said.
When we're not, just don't even bother trying to write together. It's not fun. It can be painful even. ... But it's also, really, I feel this, even if I wrote the song or Ben wrote the song, we still have one voice.
So with the plates cleared and a soundcheck awaiting, there was time for one final honeyhoney question:
Which song from the album best sums up your relationship?
Suzanne: "Oh, I don't know. Ben?"
Ben: "'Bad People'?"
Suzanne: "Shut up! C'mon. 'Marry Rich?' Definitely not. (laughs) I would say 'Yours to Bear.' "
Ben: "Yeah, it's kind of on the nose, I guess."
Spoken like a couple of besties who just might like to keep everybody guessing. Still, if CBS ever needs that replacement for Mike & Molly ...
Photos of honeyhoney by Michael Bialas. See more from the concert at the Bluebird Theater on June 2, 2015.
See honeyhoney's video premiere of "Big Man":