The Roches - Biography
By J Poet
The Roches - Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche – grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey, singing in Catholic choirs and harmonizing at home. Their parents were musical, especially their father John, who wrote his own funny lyrics to the tunes of popular songs. At one point John Roche offered his services to various local political candidates, again adapting popular melodies to carry his political messages. When he discovered daughters Maggie and Terre could naturally harmonize, he enlisted them to sing his political ditties. They were singing on flat bed trucks for local campaigns by the time Maggie was 14 and Terre 12.
In the late 60s, the sisters, along with younger sister Suzzy, were sitting in their bedroom singing, playing guitar and making up songs all through high school. As a duo they played street corners, coffeehouses and at talent contests. In 1970 Maggie heard that Paul Simon was offering a songwriting class at New York University. The sisters didn’t have the money to attend, but they showed up anyway. Maggie introduced herself to Simon and he invited them to audit the class. In 1971, encouraged by Simon’s positive feedback, they dropped out of high school and went on the road for the summer, playing the college coffeehouse circuit.
Back in New York they called up Simon, who was interested in starting a publishing and production company. He hired them to do backing vocals on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1971, Columbia) and got them a contract with Columbia. Simon produced one track and let the Roches use his backing band for their debut Seductive Reasoning (1975, Columbia). They wanted to make a simple folky songwriter album and got pushed in a more pop direction. Although the songs already show their trademark combination of highly literate lyrics loaded with ironic humor and their amazingly askew harmonies, the young women were overwhelmed by the experience. They left town, didn’t return calls and wound up in a Buddhist temple in Hammond, Louisiana studying kung fu and tai chi. They supported themselves with waitress jobs and slow made their way back to New York.
Sister Suzzy, who got her odd nickname when her grandfather sewed an extra “z” onto Suzy’s Christmas stocking, had just graduated from the State University of New York at Purchase with a drama degree and joined her siblings on New York City street corners to sing Christmas carols for tips. She convinced her sisters to carry on, this time as a trio. Maggie and Terre got jobs tending bar at Gerde’s Folk City and the club became their home base. One fan of the trio was Robert Fripp, in between incarnations of king Crimson. He started joining them on stage and when Warner Brothers signed them both, he offered to produce their eponymous “debut,” The Roches (1979, Warners). Fripp’s light hand maintained the timeless vibe of their harmonies and acoustic guitars capturing their magic in one or two takes. The album got critical raves and although it didn’t sell well, Phoebe Snow covered Maggie’s “The Married Men” later that year and got a hit.
The sisters became celebrities, but not successful. Warner rushed out Nurds (1980) again produced by Fripp, but with a folk rock band behind them. The subtle new wave influences help it briefly graze the pop charts. For Keep On Doing (1982, Warner) Fripp brought in Tony Levin (bass) and Bill Bruford (drums) and put his Frippertronic effects on the sisters’ acoustic guitars to give the tunes a modern sheen. The set includes their stunning version of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Another World (1985, Warners) did well commercially but the synthesizers and drum machines often overpowered the vocals. Still, it includes “Face Down at Folk City” a Roche standard.
The Roches made No Trespassing, a one off deal with Rhino in 1986, to have something new to sell at concerts. Its four tunes showcase the group’s strengths - angst ridden, almost suicidal melancholy, romantic summer fantasies and poetic musings on the human condition. In 1989 the Roches made one of their strongest albums, the jazzy, poppy Speak (MCA). They supported it with a tour that featured a full band and while fans loved it and the concerts sold out, the album sold poorly. Even the use of the album track “Nocturne” in the movie Crossing Delancy, didn’t help, although it did give Suzzy her first film role.
A 24-track Christmas album, We Three Kings (1990, MCA) and another pop/folk album A Dove (1992, MCA) completed their major label tenure. Their next projects were a children’s album Will You Be My Friend? (1994, Baby Boom), which won a Parent’s Choice Gold Award, work on Steven Spielberg’s Tiny Toons as a trio of singing roaches and songs for the soundtrack of The Land Before Time 2 (1994, Universal).
In 1995 The Roches cut Can We Go Home Now (Rykodisc) a mature look at life and love from women in their 40s who nonetheless retain their endearing quirks and slightly skewed harmonies. In 1997 the trio took an 11 year break, and produced five solo and duet albums: Suzzy’s Holy Smokes (1997, Red House) and the old fashion songwriter album Songs From An Unmarried Housewife and Mother, Greenwich Village, USA (2000, Red House); Terre’s Sound of a Tree Falling (1998, Earth Rock) and Maggie and Suzzy’s Zero Church (2002, Red House), a collection of hymns and Why the Long Face? (2004, Red House). The reunited trio resumed touring behind Moonswept (2007, 429 Records), an ambitious album that somehow manages to sum up the entire history of American popular music, and perhaps the Roche family, in 14 stunning tracks.