Elliott Sussman plays a guitar, yes, and he often plays without the aid of a backing band. But he's not your average singer-songwriter. Your average singer-songwriter doesn't keep a kazoo on his harmonica rack, for one thing, and probably doesn't ... run around quite as much as Elliott Sussman.
"What struck me about Elliott was that he's the ultimate showman," says Jo Albright, recalling her first encounters with Sussman. Albright first met Sussman when she was booking bands at Howlers, in Bloomfield; now the two work together at Hambone's in Lawrenceville. "He's like the old-time showman who can entertain a crowd with the silliest things: songs about the 54C, and pierogi races."
And like any good showman, Sussman is getting ready to take it on the road. While much of his time in the past five years has been spent honing his chops close to home, in Pittsburgh, the old-timey multi-instrumentalist signed earlier this month with Reltone Records, a New York City-based label, and will be setting off on a two-and-a-half-month tour this spring.
Sussman, 27, grew up in Cincinnati and moved with his family to the North Hills as a teen-ager when his dad got a job with J&L Steel. A musician since he was little, he attended the creative and performing arts high school in Cincinnati, then went to North Allegheny when he came to Pittsburgh.
In Cincinnati, he had played in a ska band. ("I was kind of the guy who just got to dance around onstage, like the guy in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and occasionally got to sing," he says.) He spent time in the early 2000s playing drums in the Pittsburgh punk band The Caulfield Principle. After a brief stint at the Art Institute, he took up at Blackberry Studios in Lawrenceville, where he worked for a time as an engineer. Now he teaches ukulele lessons at Backstage Guitars, in Lawrenceville, in addition to tending bar at Hambone's.
Sussman began playing solo -- sometimes backed by standup bassist Chuck Shreve -- in 2006, and released his debut album, Ruth, in 2009. It's a charmingly kitschy collection of old-timey originals that kicks off with a rather literal introduction ("My name is Elliott Sussman, and I live on Ruth Street," begins the first track) and, yes, includes a tune about the divine origins of the 54C bus route. ("During rush hour, the ride lasts four and a half hours, yes it does," goes the lyric.)
Though he just signed with the fledgling Reltone earlier in December, Sussman's associations with the label's artists go back further: He's played with the label's founder, Brownbird Rudy Relic, and has toured with label-mate Alison Self, whom he met early in his days as a solo artist.
"It was around 2006," Self recalls. "I came up to Pittsburgh with some friends to visit a friend of ours who went to the Art Institute, and there Elliott was, strumming a ukulele on the porch. I said, "Hey, I play a ukulele too!' and my friends were like, ‘Uh oh, here it goes.' It was like friends at first sight."
It was Brownbird Rudy Relic who taught Sussman some lessons about performing -- in, of all places, a subway station.
"I had played with Brownbird on my last tour, but we didn't play an official show; we played in a New York City subway station, busking together," Sussman says. "He would give me some tips: when to busk, and how long you should play. I think that really influenced my live act, because I love the challenge of it. You have about a minute-and-a-half to five minutes to get somebody's attention and earn their dollar. And when you're on tour and just trying to get money for gas, you basically play your ass off for three minutes, then you take a little breather and do it all again."
With his punk roots, Sussman feels welcome on the label, which is more of a DIY artists' collective than a traditional label.
"I think all of the people on this label were raised as punk-rock kids, then they eventually got into 78 [rpm]-era music," he says. "Where they chose their 78-era music from makes them different, but it's certainly got a punk-rock swagger to it."
Albright, from Hambone's, sees that attitude as part of what helps Sussman fit in with the crowd he's most associated with locally. "I think it's true with him and bands like The Armadillos, that they all came from that punk scene instead of old-time bluegrass and Americana music. You can see it injected in what they do. It's all about having fun."
Sussman finds that locally he's a strange fit with most bands because his ethic and interests don't necessarily jibe with the "guy with guitar" aesthetic. "It's kind of hard because I love punk rock -- I'd love to play a show with Kim Phuc and The Fitt. When I go to a show I typically like to go to a punk show. But obviously I'm not going to fit in very well playing one. I certainly like all the bands I've played with, but I don't think I fit in very well with singer-songwriter types. I'm first and foremost an entertainer, or try to be."
It's fair to say he succeeds, by and large: While he may not be quite a one-man band in the traditional sense, live, he's liable to bring out anything from a tenor guitar tuned like a uke to that kazoo. ("I think once you learn to control it, you can really play it with feeling," he says. "But I don't expect people to take it seriously -- actually, I hope they don't!")
For now, Sussman is ramping down his local show schedule to concentrate on recording his first album for Reltone, which he'll be doing primarily from his Bloomfield home. It'll be a project in which he juggles some of the heavier topics that have affected him recently -- including a break-up with his ex-fiancée -- with his generally rosy outlook and good-time music.
"I look at music as escapism," he says. "I don't really do sad stuff or political writing -- there's a time and place for that, but it's not what I do."
He's got until March to finish it; that's when he heads out for a 73-day Reltone tour around the country. While he's been out before to some other cities, it'll be his lengthiest tour by a long shot.
Albright is confident he'll do well for himself.
"Elliott has this incessant positivity, a ‘We can do this' attitude," she says. "I tend to get jaded because of what I do, working non-stop on the less fun side of things. There are times when I'm tearing my hair out and worrying that things aren't going to work out, and Elliott just says, ‘We'll make it happen. It'll all be fine, Jo. Let's just have fun.'"
ELLIOT SUSSMAN with SPINSTER. Lili Coffee Shop, 3138 Dobson St., Polish Hill. Fri., Dec. 30. 412-682-3600