Suede the fabric is a velvety, pliable kind of leather made from the underside of animal skin.
But Suede the musician is not so easily defined. An independent artist through and through, she’s explored the worlds of jazz, blues, folk, and even comedy for more than 40 years. But the singer and multi-instrumentalist, whose irresistible live shows on the jazz club circuit have won her legions of loyal fans, thinks of herself mainly as a “song stylist.”
“Any piece of music that calls to me, I will put my spin on it,” Suede says.
The year-round Wellfleet resident will bring her signature stylings and dulcet pipes to her one show here this summer, her debut at the Payomet Performing Arts Center on Aug. 21.
She was born in Nyack, N.Y. and her given first name is Suzanne. “Suede is my middle name,” she says. “It’s what I’ve gone by since I was about 10 years old. People assume it’s some clever stage name I made up. Nope.”
From a young age, she loved tinkering with instruments. She’s entirely self-taught and plays the guitar, piano, and trumpet at her shows, “and many other instruments I wouldn’t ask anybody to buy a ticket for” on her own time.
“I remember thinking this is exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “It was either that or be a veterinarian.”
The family eventually landed in Annapolis, Md. Suede attended Wartburg College in Iowa but returned east when she graduated and started out as a street performer in Baltimore Harbor, collecting tips in her guitar case. She also landed a sales job at the Harmony Hut in Laurel, Md., which she was so good at that the suits soon fast-tracked her for corporate headquarters.
“I said, ‘Uh! This is my two weeks’ notice,’ ” Suede recalls. “I’m not going to get comfortable with a paycheck. I came back here to make my career happen.” She started to build relationships with the clubs and bars in Maryland and Virginia, growing a fanbase organically through word of mouth and distributing her music through her own Easily Suede Music record label.
The gospel of Suede has broken into the mainstream at various points, like with “Emily Remembers,” a 1995 song written by Shirley Eikhard that raised awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. Suede took it to new heights on her 2001 album On the Day We Met.
For those in the know, the real gospel is a Suede live show. Channeling classic broads as well as smooth crooners, Duran Duran, and Dylan, Suede can break out a laugh line one minute and a trumpet solo the next. Her natural rapport with audiences used to help cover up a persistent case of imposter syndrome as a self-taught performer.
“I grew up with this horrible fraud conversation: it’s a good thing I’m funny because once people realize that I don’t know what I’m doing, they’re going to be really ticked off at me,” she says. But with “40 years of therapy” and a well of pure conviction, the self-described “big, sensitive mush” says, “I have finally gotten out of my way, you know? Which just brings much greater comfort and playfulness onstage and in the music — and more connection.”
Responding to Suede’s authenticity, audiences get in on the action. “There are certain songs that I absolutely have to put in the show or people will start throwing things,” she says. Wary of getting pigeonholed as a standards singer, she used to avoid covers of songs she loved. “But then I would kill ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I could so make ‘Hallelujah’ work. And now, that’s one of my most requested songs. Everybody’s singing, and it’s church. Why wouldn’t you do that if you have the opportunity?”
An out lesbian since the beginning of her career, Suede first played Provincetown in the summer of 1985 with Michael Greer, with whom she had done a New Year’s Eve show in Washington, D.C. “I was a little baby,” she says. The two put together a music and comedy revue for a summer-long slot at the Gifford House. “As soon as I got up here, I thought, oh my god. I need to figure out how to have this be my home base.”
Thirty years ago, she landed a rental in Wellfleet. The artist tradition of moving from a gorgeous winter spot on the water in Provincetown to “behind somebody’s garage” for the high season seemed too difficult with all her instruments and CDs. She eventually bought the place. “I’m one of those lucky stories,” she says.
Suede says she’s never been “radical” about her queerness. “But I just felt that it was so important to be honest about who I am,” she says. In part, she moved here in search of nonchalance around sexuality. “I wanted to be someplace where nobody was ever going to say, ‘Do you have a husband? Do you have a boyfriend?’ It wasn’t a radical choice, like, oh, I’m going to go live in queer land. We just all want it to be a non-issue, right?”
Suede does “absolutely” think that being an out queer artist was a factor in what doors were opened for her, but she wouldn’t have had it any other way. And musical independence, though difficult, was also a luxury. “I never had anybody telling me you’ve got to fix your hair like this,” she says. “You can’t wear that onstage. Don’t talk about that onstage. It truly has been my work as I want to express it.
“It can be a brutal, brutal business, but I’ve been able to stay true to who I am and make my own choices around all of that,” she adds.
That includes mainstream spaces as well as the women’s music circuit, where she found early success and community but also chafed under well-meaning attempts at drawing battle lines, like objections to her wearing makeup onstage. “Facial expressions are important in what I do, and I want you to be able to see them,” she says.
After decades of touring through the off-season and playing Provincetown gigs all summer, Suede has “slowed down a bit” by choice recently, a privilege of being your own boss.
“I’m playing the places I really want to be playing,” she says. The one-night-only concert at Payomet is a “perfect example,” she says. In Truro, she’ll be incorporating new material into her classic set alongside Fred Boyle, her pianist for the past 15 years.
With a slate of shows on deck this fall, Suede is gearing up for more extensive touring. After 40 years in the business, she knows how to take expert care of her most important instrument and avoids loud restaurants when a show is coming up.
A few years ago, on the morning of two back-to-back sold-out bookings at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston, Suede woke up with laryngitis. Somehow, through sheer force of will, she made it work. To this day, fans tell her those were their favorite shows.
“The show comes from within,” she says. “It’s about your heart. If you got the good pipes, too, like I do, great. But it’s really about your heart.”
It’s About Her Heart
The event: Suede in performance
The time: Monday, Aug. 21, 7 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, North Truro
The cost: $35 to $50 at tickets.payomet.org