First Published November 2014
A SUNNY DELIGHT
As hard as it is to believe it now, there actually was a time in Ireland when Garth Brooks was unknown. Same story with Brad Paisley. And same again with Carrie Underwood. And even – going back to a Garth connection again – Trisha Yearwood. But if you think about it, every famous and well-known name in country music, or any other genre, was at one time or another, an unknown. So some of you folk reading today’s column may never have heard the name Sunny Sweeney before. But maybe a few of you will have. What’s for certain, however, is that over the next few years, you will ALL be hearing plenty about this astonishingly talented Texan singer/songwriter.
I first came across Sunny’s music a few years back when I was passing the time of day in one of the most enjoyable ways known to any music fan; just thumbing through shelf after shelf of albums in my then local music store, Heartbeat City. It was the title of Sunny’s album that first caught my attention, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. It could hardly have been more country sounding! And when I checked out the songwriter credits inside and saw two from the pen of the renowned Jim Lauderdale – Refresh My Memory and Please Be San Antone, plus he dueted on another track, Lavender Blue – and one from the inimitable Iris Dement, not to mention three of Sunny’s own compositions, I was won over in a matter of heartbeats!
That 2006 album remains to this day one of my all-time favourite country albums. So when I learned earlier this year that a brand new album from Sunny was on the way, my excitement was difficult to contain! But getting the news that an interview with Sunny had been given the ‘green light’, well, there was definitely no containing that! There was some shouting out loud done on my part, I can tell you.
Provoked lands every punch it aims and sees Sunny living up to the standards she set herself with Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. Just a few weeks back she became the first female artist to top the Texan country music charts in 11 years with Bad Girl Phase, the brilliant lead-off single from Provoked. And at the moment, she’s on tour with none other than Miranda Lambert, winner of 4 major CMA (Country Music Association) Awards for 2014; Album of the Year for Platinum, Single of the Year for Automatic, Female Vocalist of the Year, and Musical Event of the Year for We Were Us with Keith Urban.
The fact that Sunny is keeping this kind of company right now is no coincidence, folks. It’s years of working hard and tons of talent getting the recognition it deserves. Here’s how our chat turned out when we crossed paths a little while back.
Sunny, the first thing that caught my eye, and kind of surprised me about your new album, Provoked, was that you said in another interview I read somewhere that Used Cars was the first time you’d ever written a love song?! Is that really true?
“Well, I have written a couple before, but none that have ever been recorded for the world to hear! This was just an idea I had that I thought was kind of strange, but thought it would make a cool “love song”… I asked multiple people to write it with me. Everyone I mentioned it to didn’t seem interested. I asked Natalie Hemby what she thought, and she said, ‘Please don’t write this with anyone else.’ So, a month or so later, me and Natalie were writing in the back of the bus at a gig and put it all down.”
If it’s not too personal a question – but I think it’s one other writers in particular would love to hear your answer to – what was so different in the emotion of love that inspired this song, in comparison to the kind of love you’ve experienced before?
“Well, I think as we mature, we realize that love’ is much more than just one thing. When I met my current husband, I just ‘knew’ he was different. I loved him almost immediately.”
Does it ever feel a little bit scary, or make you nervous, to put so much of yourself into your songs and out into the world?
“Oh yes, but I always say, someone’s gotta do it!’ Actually, I am a music fan first and foremost. It’s what has always made my world go round. I always related, even as young child, to the real stories that happened in country music. That type of music has been the center of my universe since I was a child, so when I started making my own music or singing other peoples’ songs or whatever, I always leaned towards the truthful ones… or ones that COULD be truthful… I just love stories that say something.”
When you’re actually in the process of writing a song, Sunny, is it difficult to ‘go back’ to a very emotional time in order to ‘get-the-song’, so to speak?
“No, I always keep those events in my arsenal, and quite honestly, I am a very emotional person anyway, so reliving things and trying to figure out what could have gone differently is something that, just by nature, I do.”
Do you relive those old feelings in real-time or have you found a way to go back, but at the same time, keep your distance from the actual hurt or pain of the original moment?
“No, the feelings always come back too, but that’s part of the process, and I‘ve had fans tell me that this song or that song has helped them through a similar situation. Quite frankly, if a song touches one person or helps one person, I feel like I’ve done my job. It’s why I don’t mind putting some personal stuff in there.”
To change tack just for a moment, I read somewhere once that you used to have three dogs. Are they all still with you? If so, what are their names and do you still paint their nails and brush their teeth?
“Yes, I still have two of my dogs. Unfortunately, I lost one in the divorce. Her name is Merle. I still have Nash and Dolly who are both fourteen. They both walk a mile every day and although Dolly is blind, they really get along well. They are quite spoiled and each have their own beds and get covered up at night. Nash even has her own buzz fan! Needless to say I am a huge dog person!”
I also saw somewhere once that you have a slight fondness for pigs! Where in your life did that obsession begin, and why?
“My grandmother, Dotty, collected pigs, and she actually started my collection when I was young. She died when I was twelve, and I then inherited all of hers, too. I have a LOT of pigs…on the verge or annoying to my husband, I’m sure.”
Another obsession of yours, but one you’ve called a “healthy obsession” , and I’d have to agree with you on that, is with ‘the Hag’ himself, Merle Haggard! You’ve had the chance to play with Merle a few times in your career, so do you think country music, as a genre, is unique in how often and easily it seems to allow younger and up-and-coming artists to mix with and learn from their heroes?
“No, I think all genres do that. I mean, I hope that people think I’m original, but would love it if they could hear the influences of the music I adore.”
You’ve admitted to being a bit of a procrastinator in life, so I was wondering if that applies or stretches to your writing too? How disciplined are you in your writing? Would you have a set time for it every day or does ‘inspiration’ have to come to you?
“I’m one of those that likes structure. I always save ideas or lines for a song and write them down. But I would prefer to book time with a co-writer to write and then USE those ideas there. I’m not one of those ‘it may come to me at 7am’ types. If it comes to me at 7am, I’ll write it down and then go back to sleep. I’m only half kidding! But I am way more productive in late mornings or early afternoons. If it starts getting to like four or five, I’m ready for a cocktail!”
From both Heartbreaker’s Hall Of Fame and Provoked, it always feels to me that the songs you sing, whether your own or covers, are very much an actual part of you as a person, Sunny. They’re never just something that you happen to do as part of your job. Fair observation?
“Thank you soooo much! That is the best complement you could have given me. My music is so much a part of me that I would panic if suddenly I was not allowed to express myself through it.”
You were nominated for Best New Female Vocalist at the 2013 Academy of Country Music Awards. How big a moment in your career was that, and how did it feel the moment that you first heard the news? But also, Sunny, given that Heartbreaker’s Hall Of Fame was released in 2006, did it perhaps feel a bit strange to be in the ‘New’ category?
“Yes, it may have seemed a bit odd to be called a newcomer. However, I was so honoured to have my efforts validated enough to be nominated that I did not care WHAT they called me!”
How do you personally measure how your career is progressing? Is it through what your reviews are like, how singles chart, the impact albums make, crowd reaction at gigs? What are the signs that reassure you things are going to plan?
“I pay my bills doing the one thing I love. I still cannot believe I GET to do this for a job. It’s sometimes just surreal to me. I definitely love my fans, and my shows, and recording, so as long as I get to continue doing that, I’ll be just fine with my progress.”
To go back to songwriting for a moment, when you’re working on a song, Sunny, and I’m thinking lyrics here mainly, do you pretty much accept the song as it first comes to you or are you the kind of writer who needs to edit and re-write, and who worries over even a small word here or there?
“I hardly ever write by myself, as I have grown very fond of co-writing. Some of the writers I have been blessed to write with – the Warren Brothers, Natalie Hemby, Monty Holmes, Lance Miller, Buddy Owens – they really understand crazy ideas. So, like, the Warrens and Lance together no doubt, if I have an idea, the two brothers always start just playing licks on the guitar and some cool melody happens and then we just start from there. Every write is always different. That’s the beauty. You never know what is going to happen when you go to work that day. I have definitely gone back and listened to a work-tape and wanted to change something, as I’m sure everyone does. Again, that’s the beauty of creating. You can do whatever you want!”
Back to Provoked. Garth Brooks always says that there’s one song on each of his albums that defines that album for him. And in a way, defines him at that particular time. Which song on Provoked does that for you?
“Provoked is simply stated, ‘Just a story I’ve been living and have been needing to tell.’ It wouldn’t have been the same story with twelve songs. It wouldn’t have been the same story with fourteen songs. It’s needed these thirteen songs to say what I was wanting to say.”
So with Provoked now out in the world and finding its wings and flyin’ its own course, what are your plans for the next couple of years? Do you think we’ll have a chance to see you over here in Europe?
“I would LOVE NOTHING MORE! I have been to Europe quite a few times, and would love to come back! I am in the process of renewing my passport as we speak, so hopefully sooner rather than later. “
Last question for you, Sunny! You’ve been through some tough times in your life and career, but you’re still swingin’ and singin’, and doin’ it all from the heart! For others in the same business, either singers or songwriters, what’s the best piece of hard-earned advice that has served you well that you’d like to pass on?
“I know this may sound trite, but the best advice is, ‘Don’t give up’. Seriously. If you believe in yourself and have a LOT of faith, and just keep going, no matter what the critics say, it will work out. Keep your eye on the prize, not on the work. My real theory is to surround yourself with people that believe in you as much as you believe in you. It’s hard to find those people initially, but when you do, it seems that things always fall in to place.”