Talking about music in scientific terms comes naturally to Suzanne Galal, the bandleader of the San Francisco psychedelic pop outfit Suzanimal. Galal, a doctor of pharmacy, is a professor at the University of the Pacific by day. When we meet for tea to chat about her new EP, Body, she launches into a passionate discussion about a video she recently saw on NPR, about the brains of musicians.
“They looked at the brain when someone was playing an instrument, and it has more neuronal firings and connections than any other activity," she says with a bright smile as her iridescent earrings catch the light. "There was a lot of firing on the right side of the brain and on the left side of the brain, and they were able to connect the two."
Galal continues, referencing her pharmacy profession: "I feel that when we’re so focused on just one part of it — on the left side — in the sciences, we don’t have access to that other side of the brain. Maybe music could be a catalyst, and having experience and exposure to more creative learning would have a [positive] effect.”
As a professor, Galal teaches and conducts research on the science of learning, striving to inspire her students to use both sides of their brains — both for problem-solving and maintaining a human connection to their patients.
And as a die-hard music fan, there’s nothing Galal likes better than going out to a live show and immersing herself in the rhythm. Although she sang in choirs in high school, it wasn’t until her musician husband, drummer Andrew Laubacher of Con Brio, gave her a bass guitar that she seriously considered making music.
Galal started a practice band with a few friends who were also new to music-making and eventually played a few house shows. She then began connecting with more established musicians, including R&B singer Katie Day and indie rocker Tracey Holland of the Old Grey Whistle Test (both are on the bill for Suzanimal's EP release party at El Rio on May 3).
Spurred by her belief in the importance of creativity for brain functionality and emotional development, Galal proposed a sabbatical from her professorship to study music and its effects on learning. When her plan was approved, she packed her bags for Portugal, Bosnia and Croatia, spending four months creating multi-track music with her bass, voice and Ableton production software.
It sounds like a daunting undertaking, but for Galal, it all progressed according to plan.“I tend to be someone who, once I have it in my mind that I’m going to do something, I see the steps in how you get somewhere, and just try to knock them out," she says.
To record Body, Galal assembled a solid crew of Bay Area talent, including several members of Con Brio on guitar, drums and keys along with multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Kelly McFarling and Kendra McKinley. In rehearsal, Galal played her software-recorded tracks for the musicians and they translated the sounds to their flesh-and-blood instruments with an ease that Galal still marvels at.
"It was just, 'This feels good, so let's do this,'" she recalls.
Body — subtle, evocative and precise — swings with an attitude that’s breezy yet grounded. Galal's voice is sweet but confident, with the barest whisper of PJ Harvey husk about it, blending seamlessly with the backing vocals of McFarling and McKinley. Throughout the project, the drumming provides uncomplicated, sturdy support for the more adventurous explorations of the keys and their attendant effects, as well as the funky counterpoint of Benjamin Andrews’s guitar. Each song is a study in maintaining a balance between minimalism and shimmering layers.
Galal favors deceptively simple lyrics over belabored metaphors. (One song, “Naps,” is literally about taking naps; “Train” is a single repeated line that builds to a wild crescendo of vocals and keys.)
The breezy, hip-hop-inspired “Ideas” seems especially resonant with Galal's curiosity about the mind, painting a musical portrait of an artist in search of his or her next breakthrough: "Where do ideas come from? / Where do they live? / And will they answer when I’m knocking at the door?" Its lyrics speak to Galal's unending exploration of how creativity works, as well as her belief that ideas are strongest when incorporating both sides of the brain.
“My research and music playing have a very symbiotic relationship," she says. "I’m grateful to find this sweet spot in my career, and I want to see how they play into each other. If anything, I hope to encourage others to do the same. It’s never too late is what I’ve learned!”