Rock ‘N’ Roll Professor : Sue Ennis wrote songs with Heart, attends the Grammys and brings industry knowledge to SCC students

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By Coral Nafziger
Photo by Martin Musialczyk

Tucked away in SCC’s secluded music building is Sue Ennis, the school’s almost hidden gem.
Did you know that one of Shoreline’s teachers has been awarded a platinum album? Well, Ennis has earned multiple platinum albums.

Ladies Rock Camp

I first became aware of Ennis through Ladies Rock Camp, where she volunteers twice a year. As a camper of the weekend-long program, I participated in a songwriting workshop with Ennis. She told us about song structure, how to grab listeners and keep them from skipping to the next track.

After the workshop with Ennis, rock campers worked with newly formed bands and wrote their own songs. The next day, Ennis came back and met with each band individually to consult. Natalie Walker, the executive director of Rain City Rock Camp for Girls described Ennis’ feedback as master advice served on a humble platter.

Walker said of Ennis, “She’ll give her advice, which is very diplomatic and useful and concrete, and then add in an amazing compliment and words of encouragement that for the bands that she is working with at rock camp… for some of them it’s what helps them turn the corner with their songs and with their process – not just for the weekend, but I think they carry it with them.”

Ennis said that in her “giving back years,” she doesn’t feel obligated to teach and volunteer, but she has something to offer and it allows her to work with other musicians. Ladies Rock Camp appeals to Ennis primarily because she loves collaborating, especially with women.

Heart

Ennis is best known for her work with Seattle’s female-fronted classic rock band, Heart.
She met the Wilson sisters, the driving force behind Heart, in high school. Ennis said that at the time, they were all obsessed with the Beatles’ “Revolver” album.

Ann Wilson invited Ennis over to listen to records and play guitar with her and her sister Nancy. Ennis had played the guitar some before this, but said she was blown away by the Wilson sisters, who had already learned to play the entire “Revolver” album and had formed their own folk band.

“I’d never met people my age who were that accomplished and they were just high school girls … I immediately was drawn to their phenomenal talent.”

The Wilson sisters and Ennis became close friends as they played and wrote music together.

According to Ennis, although she found playing music fun, she never wanted to perform in front of people. The Wilson sisters, on the other hand, loved performing and passionately pursued it.

Ennis continued to make music and write songs with the Wilson sisters as they formed Heart and gained notoriety. Through her songwriting work with the band, she earned ten gold albums, four platinum albums, one triple platinum album and one quintuple platinum album.

In the ‘90s, Ennis joined the Wilson sisters in a band called the Lovemongers. She had a great time making music, but was never comfortable playing for an audience.

Music Industry

Even as a teacher, Ennis maintains an active presence in the industry, as she has since the early days of Heart. She worked on a variety of projects including the score for “Art Dog” at Seattle Children’s Theater, a short musical for an exhibit at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, collaborations with songwriters and commercial jingles. She noted that because people no longer buy albums, songwriters like her now piece together their work from several small jobs.

Ennis is also the president of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Recording Academy, which has taken her to the Grammys, a distinction that is not lost on her students.

Teaching

Knowing that she didn’t want to perform, but that she loved language, Ennis studied English and German literature in school. As a grad student at the University of California, Berkeley, she taught a German literature class and realized that she loved teaching. She said that she did not continue teaching at the time, though, because she never found a subject she truly wanted to teach. Once she became successful with Heart, other opportunities in music came along and she focused on those.

Before the Experience Music Project opened, she was asked to do work on a lesson for the vocal booth in their Sound Lab. Her contacts at the EMP told her that Shoreline Community College was looking for someone to teach their vocational music seminar class. According to Ennis, Shoreline was desperate to fill this position because classes were starting the next week, and they took a chance on her.

Her students appreciate her experience in the industry. Roderick Rodriguez, who is studying Musical Instrument Digital Interface production said that Ennis is able to give very practical advice because she has had success in the industry her students would like to enter.

Another one of her students, Corey Stephens, said that when he signed up for the career development class that he is required to take as a MIDI music production and digital audio engineering student, he thought it would be boring. However, it turned out to be one of his favorite classes. He noted that he is having fun learning about the sometimes sordid history of the music industry.

What impressed student Nova Clark, who is in her first quarter of the digital audio engineering program, is that Ennis was there with Heart in the ’70s. Clark is interested in classic rock and appreciates being able to talk with someone who has first hand experience.

Ennis is more than you might expect from a teacher. Reese Tanimura, the director of Ladies Rock Camp may have said it best with an offhand comment: “We Heart her.”

Google It
Vaudeville Etiquette – Members of this band came through Ennis’ songwriting class. They mix the genres of folk, blues, rock, jazz and country. According to Ennis, this band is really good, and their hit record is coming up.

Sue Ennis’ Playlist
“Way Down We Go” – Kaleo
Grateful to one of my songwriting students for turning me onto this fantastic blues-based Icelandic group. The singer is a young guy with the raw textures, sublime and heartfelt commitment on an old blues soul. The band is old-school: a four-piece with real players with serious chops.

“Red Rain”– Peter Gabriel
I return to this deep-cut from Gabriel’s “So” album from 1986 occasionally to bask in the dense, layered production by Daniel Lanois. When Gabriel sings, “Red rain is pouring down all over me,” all I can think is THIS SONG is pouring down all over me. And please, never let it stop.

“Girl Crush” – Little Big Town
I don’t regularly listen to “country” music but I would file this song under “greatness” and leave it at that. The title alone caused an uproar at country radio stations until they listened to these clever lyrics — sung by a woman! — which provided a huge surprise and never-saw-it-coming twist. Wonderful harmonies from this vocal band. I saw them rehearse this song three times in a row one afternoon for last year’s Grammy Awards show and haven’t been able to shake its musicality and power to this day. Any songwriter would be so proud to have written this.

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