Sue Garner - Biography
After kick-starting her career with the arty no wave sect Vietnam in her native Georgia—followed by stints with The Last Round-Up, the folk-pop trio The Shams, the guitar-less band Fish & Roses (with husband Rick Brown) and finally improvisational jazz/noise quartet Run On—well-traveled musician Sue Garner was already a stalwart on the indie rock scene when her solo career as a singer/songwriter took off in the late-1990s. Noted as much for helping auger the No Depression movement from her surrogate New York City as for her gentle, natural voice and pointedly honest material, Garner had begun writing and taping songs on her own for years before they found their way to Chicago-based Thrill Jockey Records in 1998. Since the label released that debut, To Run More Smoothly (1998), Garner has went on to release two more full-length albums and has toured extensively in the U.S. and abroad with bands like Tortoise in their support, proving that up front she had just as much pluck as she did playing bass in more esoteric alt-rock bands that she first made her name in.
While playing in groups like The Shams and Run On in the mid-1990s, Garner—a former art student from Atlanta—began doing bedroom recordings on 4 track tape, more personal songs that didn’t fit the scope of her bands at the time. Though it was never fully intended, she was already penning the songs that would end up on her quieter, more expressive, exceedingly intimate debut record. After performing a few solo shows just to try out material as her own entity, Garner’s clandestine courting of the muse turned into Thrill Jockey founder/A&R rep Bettina Richards courting her. The release of the 13-track To Run More Smoothly happened in February of 1998, and Garner began touring as a solo artist that same year. The album was recorded with Garner’s southern-inflected vocals very close to the mic, rendering it confessional and intimate and wholly unique. She did a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” which was in itself a far cry from the avant-garde material of her past.
Looking to collaborate more with her former bandmate (Run On, Fish & Roses) and husband Rick Brown, Garner returned in 2000 with Still (Thrill Jockey), which was produced by Chris Stamey (of The dB’s fame). The album mixed two-part harmonies and sparse instrumentation and was already a small departure from To Run More Smoothly. Recorded in their home primarily playing all their own instruments, the couple went in for post-indie minimalism in spots (particularly the cover of John Lennon’s “It’s So Hard”) and full-on fleshed out sounds in others (notably on the track “Asphalt Road,” which brought to mind Yo La Tengo).
Never predictable and always at the whim of inspiration, Garner’s next album—Shadyside (2002 Thrill Jockey)—came about after having taken in a poetry reading by an acquaintance, Fay Hart. The two had become associated while Garner was still with The Shams, as Hart penned the song “It’s Only Sorta 3am.” Liking the rhythmic cadence and lyrical nature of Hart’s poems, Garner set music to them to comprise the bedrock of her third full-length album, recording them at a home studio (called Mule Yard) in Brooklyn and at Jim O’Rourke’s studio in Chicago. As 9/11 happened during the making of Shadyside, the music is reflective of the times. Besides the four tracks of Hart’s poetry—“Beach,” “Old Woman,” “Tapas Bar” and “Even Now”—Garner also performed a riling interpretation of Michael Hurley’s “Paint a Design.” Shadyside was produced by JD Foster (Richard Buckner, Dwight Yoakam), and there are cameos by Marc Ribot (guitar on “Bleach”) and Yo La Tengo’s James McNew (guitar, bass) on some of the songs.
Garner and her husband Rick Brown continue to perform together as Two Mule Team, while Garner has contributed bass to The Scene is Now and has collaborated with other projects while still living in New York City. She has also produced albums from The Mule Yard, such as Megan Reilly’s Let Your Ghost Go and PG 6’s Slightly Sorry.