by: Thomas D. Mooney
“We all just sing along while the world goes to hell in a feel good song.”–Sunny Sweeney, “Front Row Seats”
When I spoke with Sunny Sweeney a few weeks back, she was having a difficult morning. 15 minutes before our
first phone call, she had Instagrammed her desire for a coffee IV drip, 10 minutes before, she had spilt something in her back seat, and five minutes after, had driven off with her iPhone on the roof of her car.
She was in a better mood than the majority of us would have when our thirty-minute conversation would come later that morning.
She mentions just finishing up a song with fellow Austin-based singer-songwriter Brennen Leigh. It’s called “But You Like Country Music.” It’s right up the Sweeney and Leigh alley. Like Hayes Carll’s “Someone Like You” before it (coming before the 2012 Election) it’s as relevant as it is quick-witted and bright. It has this honky-tonk heart chalk full of slick-witted comments on the extreme in both political parties.
It’s smart and humorous.
Sweeney has a way with blending. Her songwriting often blends multiple ideas, feelings, and degrees of attitude that bounce on a sound scale that goes from classic country to modern contemporary. She sets the tone within the first line. Whether it be a bad girl phase with a bad girl phrase or a place of vulnerability filled with second guesses and exposed heartache, it’s a genuine reflection of Sweeney.
Often, artists pursue a sound that’s both a nod to the classics and a desire to push the genre forward in a modern fashion. Just as often, that pursuit can be a misguided and convoluted endeavor that just doesn’t resonate with the masses or in a personal and individualized way. There’s something missing.
With Sweeney, the blend comes natural. That’s not to say she hasn’t worked on her craft as a classic country revivalist and modern chic songwriter.
On 2014’s Provoked, her third album, she hits the right buttons in the right combinations. It’s her hitting her stride and not just finding her sound and style, but banking on that blend time and again.
Songs such as “My Bed,” the Will Hoge duet, “Sunday Dress,” and “Find Me” are where Sweeney takes hold of your hand and leads you down those darkened corridors detailed with doubt, risk, fleeting optimism, and tough responsibility. You get a look in on the subjects that have kept the songwriter up at night. Still, it’s balanced with anthemic attitude on the prancing “Bad Girl Phase,” the honky-tonking “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass,” and the comedic “Backhanded Compliment.”
The reason it works is simple. They all come from an honest, sincere spot from Sweeney. They’re sang with the same conviction. It’s real.
It’s fresh air that’s familiar, but not stagnant or soiled with time.
As mentioned before, we caught up with Sweeney a couple of weeks back to discuss the current state of country music, songwriting, and her superb last album, Provoked. She’ll be performing tonight (Friday, Oct 30) at The Office with local opening act, Dix Hat Band.
Listen to the Sweeney and Hoge duet, “My Bed,” below.
New Slang: Your last album, Provoked, what I liked so much about the album was that there was this mixture of vulnerability and attitude song to song. When putting this album together, what went into making sure there was this balance to the album when it came showing off these different emotions?
Sunny Sweeney: That’s kind of how my music is generally. I do have a lot of “attitude” songs along with some funny songs and serious songs. I like having an even mix because I don’t want somebody to come to my show and think that I’m going to do a whole set of just serious slow songs or funny songs. The mix is the fun part of performing. It’s fun making the setlist and deciding on where and when you’re going to sing certain songs. I think when you make a record, it’s the same thing–it’s just a permanent setlist [laughs].
NS: On this album, what song was the most difficult to write? What took the most amount of time to get out, written, and finished?
SS: Probably “Sunday Dress.” I had tried to write that about six or eight different times with different people. Nobody would bite on the idea. Then two of my close friends were over at my house and we were writing. I had actually asked both of them before if they wanted to write that and they both had passed. It was one of those ideas I had felt strongly about. When I said it that time, they both thought we could it. It was Monty Holmes and Buddy Owens. I think if I had written it years before, it wouldn’t have been the same song–the idea would have been there–but the song just wouldn’t have been. Songs come out when they’re supposed to. I feel like that is how it was supposed to happen.
NS: Are there songs in your back catalog that you wish you’d have written now rather than when they were?
SS: Oh gosh. Everyday. I’m not going to give you any examples though [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. The song “Bad Girl Phase,” you didn’t write it, but I’ve read that felt that the song was written for you to sing. Do you think there’s a double standard when it comes to bad girl phases and bad boy phrases?
SS: Oh yeah. I’ve always thought that. There’s certain things. Girls need to act a certain way. Boys get away with a lot more stuff. I do think there’s a double standard. Girls want to cut loose just as much as guys do. I’ll be damned, sometimes that just happens.
NS: How about in music?
SS: Yeah, but I think there’s certain girls who can. There’s some stereotyping of women. “Girls aren’t supposed to talk like that.” That’s not how I was brought up. My parents always taught me to speak my mind. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Boys though, they do get away with more when it comes to the drinking and the partying.
NS: With this last album, you’ve seen success on the radio charts–especially here in Texas. But still, the charts have been dominated by men for so long. Obviously there’s a lot of talented female singers and songwriters though. Why do you think there’s not that radio and massive commercial success though?
SS: I really don’t know. Everybody asks that and I truly don’t have a reason. There are a lot of kick-ass women out there. I wish I knew the answer because it’d be different. Maybe it’s quantity. There are a lot more boys so maybe that’s part of it. I even made t-shirts that said, “Breaking Up the Sausage Party.” It’s all boys and just a couple of girls. I’m playing this weekend at this festival and there’s something like 22 acts and I’m the only girl.
NS: Yeah. Just talking with people, I’ve heard girl fans say that they don’t like female artists.
SS: What were there reasons?
NS: It’s always that they don’t like their voices or that they don’t like the lyrical content. And this may be generalizing the subject, but I’d think that, just in the same way some male artists resonate with me because I’m a guy, there would be some female artists who resonate with females fans on the same basis.
SS: Yeah. I feel as a girl, I can say things that a boy can’t say. I can sing about the things a girl goes through that a boy just can’t. I also drink and party so I feel like I can sing about those things as well.
SS: I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I hate chick singers but really like you.” I take it as a huge compliment. As a female, I tend to gravitate towards other female songwriters like Loretta Lynn. She’s one of the greatest storytellers of all time. Lori McKenna is one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard in my life. I 100% relate to her music.
NS: I was speaking with someone about there recently being a lot of songs written by men that are either from a female perspective or about women and there’s a disconnect between them and subject material. I get that there are examples of guys writing from a woman’s perspective perfectly. Like “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine. And I get that it’s always good to expand, grow, and experiment as an artist. But, the main point was that songs in this recent wave often came off as preachy.
SS: I think that a guy can write from a woman’s perspective just like I can write from a guy’s, but a woman writing about a woman, it’s definitely easier. You’ve probably been through those situations. It’ can be more genuine.
NS: You’ve written with a bunch of great songwriters in the past. Provoked had a bunch of great co-writers. When you’re going into a co-write, I’m assuming that most of the time, the song is intended to be sang by you. With that, do you typically have final say on the song? Are you mindful of how it will sound coming from you or do you just write without that mindset?
SS: I do write a lot from first-person. I’m always thinking, “Is this something I would sing or I would record?” Then I go from there. There’s plenty of songs that I’ve co-written where after I think, “I couldn’t sing that.” I start to think about who could though.
NS: Who has surprised you most when it came to a co-writing situation–by the way they craft a song?
SS: Natalie Hemby. She’s one of my favorite people to write with. We had known each other for a while, but had never written. We had done a show together one time and had just the hugest girl crush on her. When I got in a room with her, she taught me about writing to drum loops. I didn’t know what to think about that at first. I had never done anything like that before. She writes killer songs so I thought I had to try it out. Now I’m obsessed to writing to drum loops. She is brilliant on so many levels. She’s a master at melodies. Open to strange ideas. The stranger the idea, the more I want to write it with her.
Lori McKenna is the same way. I have lists on my phone for both of them [laughs]. A lot of the songs I’ve written with both of them, they came from ideas that I had from a long time ago. Not all the songs we’ve written came from my ideas, but the ones that were my ideas, they were old ideas.
Like “Bottle By My Bed” is this song I wrote with Lori. I had tried writing that with different people for years. It’s about wanting a kid. I sent it to Lori and she wanted to write with me. I feel like the song, it ends up being written with who it’s supposed to be written with. I feel very fortunate to be in a room with all the people I’ve had the opportunity to write with. They’re such teachers and can pull things out of you that you wouldn’t normally think of on your own.
NS: Are you one who scratches out lines when writing or do you tend to keep everything? Are there notebooks just filled with spare lines, phrases, etc?
SS: Oh yeah. I keep everything. I’m like a pack-rat [laughs].
NS: Yeah. Some people want that clean slate when writing, but I’m with you. I think I’d keep everything.
SS: Yeah. I mean, there’s been songs where there’s a line that we didn’t end up using that will be the start of another song. I feel like if you keep everything, there’s more to work with. There’s been many times I’ve thought of something when I’m half asleep. I’ll write it in my phone. Then the next morning, I’ll read it and think, “What was I thinking?”
SS: But then, six months down the line, that line or phrase may be something perfect for a song. I’d forget otherwise. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve kicked myself for not jotting it down.