it’s ironic that Suki Waterhouse has called her debut album ‘I Can’t Let Go’. The title sprung from her feeling that she would never break free from certain things – nervousness, anxiety, apprehension, shame, pain – but, when it arrives in next month, the record will mark her shaking them off and moving on to a new chapter of her life.
Six years ago, the London-born, LA-based musician shared her debut single ‘Brutally’, a smoky, country-tinged encapsulation of a relationship dissolving. It kickstarted a slow drip-feed of songs at a rate of around one a year, but nothing lengthier arrived – until now – because of concerns she held about being accepted in the music world. To the general public, Waterhouse is largely associated with modelling – she was discovered while out shopping in her hometown aged 16 – or for the column inches dedicated to some of her relationships over the years.
“I think I was more worried about that than I should have been,” the 30-year-old reflects now, smiling from her hotel room in New Orleans, where she’s currently tending to another side of her creativity and wrapping up filming on the TV adaptation of the novel Daisy Jones And The Six. “A lot of the time there’s so much focus on the darkness of the underground but if you really look at it – and I’m good at stalking stalkers – it’s really quite a small amount [of people judging you]. I think most people are cool and open.”
Although she feels that way now, it’s been a process for her to get to that point – and find the courage to share more of her incredibly personal songwriting with the world. “I felt incredibly blocked in my own autobiographical memory of who I was or what I could be,” she explains, experiences from her past lingering on her like stains that refuse to come out in the wash. But instead of giving in to that feeling and letting it stop her before she’s even really got started, she’s doing the opposite – embracing it, exploring it and turning it into something she can use to her advantage.
“Jumping into those anxieties helped me feel free,” the rising musician and actor says. “That’s not to say suddenly everything became super joyous and easy, but I think if you want to stay in that state of creativity, the whole thing is, a lot of the time, it’s not a great place to be at all. That’s what has to be appreciated – the pockets of bliss are small and it’s the muddiness in between and the willpower to jump into the fear [that lead you to them].”
That attitude is helping Waterhouse find the positives in parts of life others might instinctively write off as negatives. The tabloid attention she has sometimes received in the past and which has allowed people to form misconceptions about her used to be something that “crushed” her, but is now something she’s “almost grateful for”. At this point, she’s very used to seeing strangers on the internet “saying the worst things you could think about yourself and worse so constantly” that it’s become like a shadow to her – following her around, always there but, unless she really stops to consider it, no longer a weighty burden. As she sings in a blunt moment on a song of the same name, it’s just “bullshit on the internet”.
Her “deep well of insecurity” that has co-existed alongside what she terms “a delusional confidence” within her is another negative-turned-positive. The notion of true confidence and what form it takes is something she’s been considering a lot lately and she’s come to the conclusion that fear and self-doubt are an important part of it. “I think it’s something to do with an acknowledgement of fear,” she reasons. “It’s when you’re not afraid to show up with the things that you’re afraid of that leads to confidence.”
Making ‘I Can’t Let Go’ challenged Waterhouse to do just that. Although the album will be released on the legendary Sub Pop, when she first approached producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Snail Mail, Waxahatchee), she was still putting out singles independently and on “a long search” to find the right environment to complete the songs that feature on the record’s tracklist. “Brad could see that I was lost in a lot of ways and had a direction that wasn’t complete,” she explains. “There was a nervousness too because it was like throwing all your chips at a wall in a lot of ways – we didn’t know each other and we basically just worked by peeling down the songs like an orange and squeezing them out, looking at the mistakes and things that weren’t working.”
It wasn’t just the songs that were having their layers pared back, but their creator herself too. “Brad’s always incredibly sensitive and he’s always reading me and asking questions that I’m always in my own answers to, and how I respond to someone sensitively asking me things about myself,” Waterhouse says. Looking deeper inside of herself is something she says she’s struggled with a lot and she hasn’t always been encouraged to do, and it seems like Cook’s practice in doing so was revelatory. “Sometimes it can be quite shocking when you have somebody looking at you and coaxing you. It creates a friction in myself that I think is really valuable.”
A sense of vulnerability courses through the undercurrent of ‘I Can’t Let Go’. The gently building ‘Put Me Through It’ is full of regret and the concession that you’re doomed to taking on the risk of heartbreak again in the future, while ‘My Mind’ noisily battles with being trapped in your own head. “Maybe the last year or two, I’ve been able to let go [of this need to have a thick skin] and have a thin, translucent skin of being more open and more vulnerable, because I think that’s really the place where you’re able to be moved and hopefully move others,” she says.
Her beautiful debut album traverses heartbreak, internet rumour mills and the fragility of life – not exactly monuments to happier times. Instead of running away from life’s darker moments, though, Waterhouse’s inclination is to document them in her songwriting. “I wrote the album in much more of a hurt place, a much more hollow and confused space,” Waterhouse nods. She admits that those feelings haven’t vacated her world, but says part of making this album was driven by her wanting to find out the answer to the question: “Will I feel like this forever?”
Diving into sadder experiences isn’t something she views as purely one note of misery either, instead serving as a reminder that those times can fling open doors to bright new realms in your life. “There have been dramatic points in my life that sunk me at certain points – those points where you feel really spent and empty and hollowed out,” she explains. “But then those moments I think are also incredibly exciting. Whenever anyone’s broken-hearted, I always think that’s a great moment because there’s a whole windfall of new energy. It’s always the moment where you can bring yourself back up and have a personal redemption ’cause it’s so energising.”
“Whenever you’re broken-hearted, there’s a whole windfall of new energy”
During one break-up, Waterhouse was so heartbroken she left LA and headed to the Himalayas in Bhutan in search of her own personal redemption (“It sounds really cringe ’cause you’re in Bhutan searching,” she acknowledges with a wry grimace). Accompanied by her then-new friend Kristen, she hiked up mountains and hung out with monks – and had some unfortunate medical issues. “We found ourselves actually with a lot of food poisoning so were basically just vomiting a lot of the time, and we were also very unfit for the trip,” she laughs. “But I remember feeling very raw and open.”
The experience inspired the recent single ‘Melrose Meltdown’, which combines both her own break-up and texts “a very poetic man” had sent to Kristen. “Welcome to my Melrose meltdown / Nobody ever breaks up; we just break down,” Waterhouse sings elegantly over cinematic minimalism that drips with vintage Hollywood glamour (and a hint of Lana Del Rey). “We really fucked it up in diamonds and drugstores / That’s what we came for.”
On ‘Blessed’, meanwhile, she looks closer to home. “I want you to need me / Still want you to need me,” Waterhouse urges emotionally over the track’s poignant piano and buzzing guitar drone, unearthing both a desperation and a gratitude in her words. “It’s about watching a family member get older and be sick, and those moments where you suddenly feel very clear about how thankful you are for the sacrifice that your parents gave you,” she explains. “Sometimes there are these shifts where you really realise the magnitude of what they brought to you and also thinking about what of them you’re gonna take forward with you and maybe transfer onto the next [generation].”
“Online haters? It’s really quite a small amount of people. Most people are cool and open””
Written while the musician was listening to a phone call conversation, it also details how “everybody starts to deal with loss before it actually happens,” a strange kind of first step of grief that makes you reckon with our own impermanence and constantly shifting existences. “It’s weird when you think, ‘I know that the plane of experience I’m operating on right now… there’s something so different coming for me’,” Waterhouse ponders. “With having kids or something – or even watching your siblings have kids – you just know that there’s something completely different out there that you don’t have any clue about.”
As she captures those fluctuations in her songwriting, in the acting facet of her career, the star can immerse herself in the stories of other people’s ever-changing lives. Her latest role as Karen Sirko Daisy Jones And The Six, though, is a part that is in some ways more in line with her own life – a musician in LA rising up the ranks of the scene. Along with her co-stars, including Riley Keough and The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin, Waterhouse spent six months rehearsing the show’s original songs (written by Blake Mills, who’s previously worked with Fiona Apple, Del Rey and more) in the iconic and much-storied Sound City studio in LA.
“To get to actually play together so much that you genuinely are a band was very unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” she reflects. Although the show is yet to finish filming after being delayed due to the pandemic, work before the sessions for ‘I Can’t Let Go’ were underway. “I can’t [definitely] say that being in the studio all the time and becoming the Daisy Jones And The Six band has correlated with making the album, but they probably have. Maybe it had some kind of subliminal part in getting the album done.”
As if starring in the show and putting out her debut record weren’t enough to keep her occupied over the coming months, Waterhouse is also embarking on a North American tour with Father John Misty this summer. “Like, dying?!” she replies incredulously when NME asks what her initial reaction to that invitation was, before continuing to envision how she’ll spend the time on the road.
“My favourite thing is to be around people that are great and just sit there like a weirdo and watch how their brains work,” she laughs. “It soaks into the fabric of your understanding of the world and how people create so that’s really what I’m excited for. I think I’m going to be a changed person.”