Twenty-five years. Man, that’s a quarter of a century! It’s enough to make you feel old. Well, it is if you can remember that far back like it was yesterday. And for those of a certain generation, who grew up in that era when Boyzone first came to the fore and were at the height of their fame all those moons and issues of Smash Hits ago, it’s also somewhat sad to think that their latest album, the aptly titled Thank You & Goodnight, is where the last chapter will close on Ireland’s first boyband.
By now, I think, it doesn’t even really matter if you like their music or if you ever actually did, for that matter. Because from their seemingly shambolic and now infamous Late Late debut, to the glory of sell-out tours, the heights of chart-topping singles, the prestige of number 1 albums, all the way to the incredible heartbreak of losing Stephen Gately so suddenly – and while still so young – Boyzone have been, more than anything, a bunch of Irish lads who knew they hit the jackpot and did their best to enjoy every minute of it. And for the most part, without ever losing any sense of who they were and where they came from. That’s not to say, of course, that there wasn’t bumps along the way, but hey, what road worth travelling doesn’t have its share of ups and downs, right?
Thank You & Goodnight sees the Dublin foursome of Ronan Keating, Keith Duffy, Mikey Graham, and Shane Lynch, going out in style, presenting us with an album that’s insanely catchy from start to finish. But not alone that, it carries at its core the unmistakable confidence of men in control of their own destiny in life, at peace in each other’s company, and following their hearts in putting this album together. That’s the way it should always be, true. But it’s not always the easiest place to reach or thing to do, so when it happens, credit should go where it’s due. Tracks like Because (co-written by Ed Sheeran, hit songwriter Amy Wadge, ace producer John Shanks, and Ronan), and Love (co-written by Gary Barlow and Shanks again) are already as good as anything the charts have seen in the last few years, and easily so at that. But there’s more to come from this album, in the shape of Talk About Love, Loaded Gun, and Learn To Love Again.
The one that’s going to bring a tear to your eye, though – even if you don’t expect it to, trust me, it will – as it closes out the album, and the Boyzone story, is Dream, which features a vocal from Stephen. In fact, his is the last voice you hear, something I’m sure didn’t happen by chance knowing the place Stephen still holds in his ‘brothers’ hearts. The song has a feel of Take That’s Never Forget to it, in that you can easily imagine it being the song that would be the perfect finale for every show they perform for the rest of their careers. Regardless of whatever I may have thought of Boyzone’s music from time to time, I’ll never forget the genuine, completely heartfelt love they showed for their bandmate when Stephen passed away so suddenly almost a decade ago.
Some moments bypass and supersede all others, and one such moment was when Ronan, Keith, Mikey, and Shane, decided they wanted to spend one last night with their brother, and stayed the night with him in the chapel where he lay at rest ahead of his funeral the following day. That simple, yet overwhelmingly powerful and emotional gesture, showed how close the five lads from Dublin had become during the years of their adventures around the world. When it all came down to it, what mattered most was one thing, and it was one thing that no-one could doubt was real: togetherness. They were five lads from Dublin at the start, and with Stephen’s voice being the last you hear on the album, they’re still just five lads from Dublin at the end of it all, too. And there’s something that’s very hard not to like about that.
When you throw in their biggest hits from back in the day such as Love Me For A Reason, Picture Of You, A Different Beat, Baby, Can I Hold You?, and even No Matter What (which I always found hard to take to myself, for some reason), and so many more, well this farewell tour definitely has the makings of a pop-party to remember. So, lest there be any doubt about it, the Boyz will certainly be going out in style.
If they’ve gone out of their way to make sure that Stephen is still seen as an intrinsic part of the Boyzone story, and rightly remembered for his role in making the band one of the pop sensations of their time, it’s interesting to note that nowhere in the album notes is there even a mention of Louis Walsh, a man who, for many, is as much a part of the Boyzone story as Ronan, Keith, Mikey, Shane, and Stephen. It seems hard to imagine that this was something as simple as an oversight. And whatever the reasons for it, that’s up to the band themselves, it’s their decision. But it does slightly leave you with the feeling that there’s still something unfinished, unresolved about it all. In Ronan’s liner notes, he writes, “We made it up as we went along with no one guiding us and look what we created.” In his notes, Mikey writes, “To all our managers…”, but nothing more personal than that.
But it is what it is. Not everything can be perfect, as much as we’d all wish it could be sometimes. And maybe that’s the best way of summing up Boyzone. It was never perfect. But beyond the music, it was never less than real. Watching them take to the Strictly Come Dancing floor for Children In Need last week, it was impossible to feel anything other than proud of what they’ve achieved and who they’ve become, and how much they’ve meant to so many people, of all ages now, all around the world.
And as far as I’m concerned, that’s something well worth acknowledging and celebrating. So lads, THANK YOU, and goodnight.
If you haven’t been feeling at least a little bit stressed out from time to time this year, then I applaud you. And I also need to meet you so that you can let me in on your secret, because if you’ve been livin’ stress-free in 2020, you’re among a very small number, that’s for sure. Most of us, and I include myself in this grand and somewhat sweeping statement, have been stressed out to some extent most of the time. And it’s hardly a remarkably candid confession or revelation to say that it’s not a cool feeling. However, if you’re someone like singer/songwriter JO PETIT, part of what you do is find ways to make life cool. Even in 2020 and with all of its seemingly unending stress!
In fact, not only did Jo turn the stress he was feeling earlier this year into something cool, he turned it into a song! And there was only ever going to be one name for it…you got it…STRESSED OUT. Born in Mauritius, but now living in Dublin, Jo has a wealth of talent and experience to pour into the creative side of his life. From supporting pop giants such as Westlife, Boyzone, and JLS, performing at venues such as the O2, the RDS, and even Trafalgar Square, and rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in pop and rock history at times, Jo has learned to take almost everything in his stride. But this year has been different…
I had the pleasure of catching up with Jo last week, and I began our chat by putting it to Jo that his new single has pretty much perfectly summed up how everybody has been feeling these past few months, to which he replies with a good-natured laugh, “That’s what it’s all about!” But, he’s done so in a very cool, chilled out, and fun kinda way. I asked Jo to tell me how he came to write Stressed Out…
“Basically, what happened is I had a beat, because I do production as well, and I knew that was cool. That was August, I think, last year. But I’d put it aside for a while. Then the lockdown came, and it was really, really stressing. Because all of our bookings and everything were going [Jo also fronts one of the country’s most in-demand weddingand corporate event outfits, The Dream Band], everything was being cancelled. So then I started to feel really stressed out, ya know what I mean. Obviously I wasn’t working, so I was like, you know what, I’ll do a bit of production, that will take my mind off things. Then just before opening up, one of the last sessions I did was that song, I was just singing, [sings] ‘I’m so stressed out…’, you know [laughs]. It took a few little changes to get it right, but yeah, that’s how it came about.”
Stressed Out was produced by Billy Farrell, a man whose name is well-known on the Irish music scene. So how did Jo and Billy cross paths, and what made Jo think Billy was the man for this particular project?
“Well, I had the beat, you know, and I had put it aside. But then I started writing, and it started with one song, then two songs, and before I knew it, I had about ten songs written. And I actually didn’t know Billy Farrell at the time. I’d always comment on his posts and say something. I knew he was a producer, yes, but I didn’t know to what level, to what extent. I messaged him and said I had a couple of songs, and would he mind having a listen and telling me what he thought about them. I used to write for a company in the UK, co-writing, you know. They put the ideas out there, and then I can pitch something from there. But this was my first time writing from scratch. So I was thinking they were probably all rubbish [laughs]. But all I wanted was an insight of what he thought. So Billy said, yeah, send them over. Between that time of sending it over and hearing back from him, I checked out more of his work, and I was like…Oh…My…God! This guy is just gonna trash me! [laughs]. He’s gonna chew me up and spit me out, that’s what I thought, because I didn’t know who he was [laughs]. I started to feel a bit like I probably should have just shut my mouth! [laughs]”
Billy, by the way – just to offer some context as to why Jo was thinking that maybe he should have kept his mouth shut – has worked with artists like Bonnie Tyler, Brian Kennedy, The Corrs, and Westlife.
Jo went on with his story…“But then he came back to me and he was like, ‘Jo, those songs are great.’ And I was like, whaaaaat?! He said yeah, really good. I asked him what did he think of the lyrics, because I’d never written a song from scratch on my own, and he said yeah, they were really well put together, well constructed. I had 80% of the production done already. So as the song is now, that’s the way I originally produced it, we just changed a few sounds, like the drums, made it more modern, changed the rhythm a bit to give it that more tropical vibe [laughs], that feel-good vibe! So we started from there.”
While Jo may well have been impressed with Billy’s bio, there’s a few big names that stand out in his own one as well. Try Lenny Kravitz, Whitney Houston, Chris De Burgh, and Paris Hilton for size!
“I was born in, and grew up in Mauritius, where they’re are loads of high-profile, big-name hotels. And I used to sing in different ones. And I love what I do, so I would work seven days a week! Even if I had three days off! I’d call somebody up and ask if I could come in too, that’s the way I was, I wanted to learn. I would have been seventeen or eighteen at the time. So over time, I was getting better, and obviously getting involved with bigger bands. I’m a quite powerful soul singer, so I was going with these bands to do massive shows, funk and soul, and I loved it! At that time I was doing acoustic trios and part-time with bands too. There was a hotel called the San Geran, which was a massive hotel, and this is where all the celebrities would be going to. One time we were gigging there, and I noticed a familiar face! [laughs]. And I was like, I know them from somewhere. And I was asking the musicians and they said, oh, he’s here every year, and I thought then well that’s why he looks familiar. I probably saw him last year or something. But it was Chris De Burgh! [laughs]. We ended up exchanging a few words, and I met Rosanna Davison at the time, she was young herself too. The whole family. We started chatting, and it became a kind of every night thing, going in and saying hello. But back then I didn’t know he was from Ireland. And I met Whitney Houston out there as well, at the same hotel. Then, I was performing at the launch of the Hilton Hotel in Mauritius, and the Hilton family was there, including Paris. And Lenny Kravitz was performing on that night as well. I’ve also performed for the Prince of Dubai, too.”
I suggest that Jo is obviously not a man who gets nervous in front of a famous face?
“Well, it helps when you don’t know them at the time! [laughs]. I’ve been very lucky with those types of things. Once, I was just doing my thing, and this guy comes up to me and he says, ‘Hey man, you have a really good voice.’ And he looked like a rocker guy, you know. Then somebody said to me, ‘Do you know who that is? That’s Lenny Kravitz!’ That blew my mind! I actually felt nervous after that [laughs]. I went to say goodbye to him later, to say it was nice to meet you, you know, and I was literally so shaky! [laughs].”
As well as being a solo artist with his original work like Stressed Out, Jo is also a part of The Dream Band, as previously mentioned. But before The Dream Band…came the boyband! Once upon a time Jo was a member of the Irish boyband The Boulevard, supporting the likes of Boyzone, Westlife, and JLS. I wondered how Jo looks back on those times and experiences now, and how much did he enjoy them at the time?
“I absolutely enjoyed them, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was difficult at the time, because it’s not a nine-to-five job, it’s a twenty-four hour job, seven days a week, flat-out. Between rehearsing, keeping fit in the gym, all of that. It took literally every minute of my life. That’s the part that I probably would have changed if I could have [laughs]. But I really wouldn’t change a thing, because I learned so much from it. I’m somebody who’s very observant. If there’s a situation I’m in, I’m gonna learn from it. So that time taught me a lot of things. Observing the managers, the way they work. It wasn’t only the music for me, and the fans and the screaming girls, it was observation. How do they work? What are they doing? Why are they doing that? That taught me a lot for my career up to now. Now I’m able to manage certain situations better. And if I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have been able to approach certain people. After that time, I went to Scotland and worked with some extremely good songwriters and producers, through my experience in The Boulevard.”
What was the most important thing Jo learned from back then, from observing everybody and what they were doing?
“Professionalism. Professionalism. There’s nothing else I can think of that was that important. It might have been that people would manage a certain situation in such a professional way, that I would have thought, oh my God, this is something I need to remember. And even now, The Dream Band, which I founded, I founded based on those experiences of that time. So I know how to manage my own business on a much more professional level than if I never had the experience of being in The Boulevard and doing everything I did in that time.”
This has been a crazy year for everyone, and it’s still really crazy for most people in the music business because any kind of normal – nevermind the normal we knew – still seems so far away. As an artist, and a creative person, and also just on a purely human level too, how has Jo been dealing with the strangeness of 2020?
“Well…2020 is definitely a year I’m pretty sure everybody will remember! [laughs]. Especially artists. Because everything – all the bookings we had, everything that was set in stone – just literally…I mean, you would think that the entertainment industry is one that cannot break. Because as long as there’s music, we’ll be working. And then reality kicks in and says look, everybody else is now back working, and we’re not?! We’re not untouchable. There’s lessons to learn there. And it would be better for Stressed Out if there was gigs and I could perform it ‘live.’ That would have been great. Because with The Dream Band, we do a lot of weddings and corporate, and we travel all over Europe performing. You could put the song in your set to let people know it’s out. But there’s absolutely nothing. It’s a stand-still. The song is out…but now what? [laughs]. So yeah, it’s had a major impact on that side of things. Musicians are addicted to what we do. And not having that is hard. Not even talking about just paid gigs. Like sometimes, you’ll just do a gig for fun. And not even having that hit…that’s why so many musicians I’ve been talking to are stressed out. Actually, I was talking to one who said he was out of his mind, and I said yeah…that’s a good line for Stressed Out [laughs]. If you think about it, this industry is so big. There’s the musicians, but then the P.A. Hire, rehearsal rooms, dancers, singers…it goes on and on. That impact is just so huge. But at the same time, I don’t think the people who make the legislation have thought about it that way. They’re like, ok, no musicians are working. But what about the rest? What about event-planners? Venues? Everybody else is this huge industry that’s now just at a stand-still.”
Well one thing that Jo has been able to do, thankfully, is put together a video for Stressed Out that’s every bit as cool as the song itself. And indeed, at the time of our chat, views of the video on YouTube had already gone well past the 100,000 mark. Jo told me all about putting that side of things together…
“We were obviously planning that in advance, but then the government said we were going to shut down for a month or two, and then everything was going to go back to normal. So we were planning to have a bunch of people at the beach and have a real tropical vibe with it. So myself and the director, we had designed a full set and started getting people involved, we needed about fifty people there for the end, all clapping and dancing and singing the song. And we were going to do a bit in a venue as well, on stage, you know. There was a whole plan going ahead. But then, about ten days before we were due to shoot the video, they announced that the lockdown was not going away, nowhere was opening, no weddings happening, no groups of people meeting, and all of this! [laughs]. So we had to literally strip everything then to the bare minimum. But it was very enjoyable. We were like, ok, cool, let’s make it like a kind of scenario where you wake up and the minute I leave the apartment that we hired, from that time until going to the beach, it’s just me trying to get away from all the craziness! It still works! There’s just a lot less people involved. Because we couldn’t have done it the way we planned it, and then have everybody see that we’d done it at a time when people were not meant to be together that much. This is why we ended up really stripping it back, and having less people in isolated places.”
To bring our chat to an end, I asked Jo what’s next on his schedule for 2020, in as much as it’s even possible to plan anything right now…
“I’m just hoping that we will see more consideration given to the events industry. Up to now, there’s been no thought or emphasis on it. I think they just need to consider the thousands and tens of thousands of people who are out of work right now in this industry. Music, at the end of the day, and entertainment, it’s something that people look forward to. If there’s a show, people plan weeks in advance. Even musicians as well, knowing that something is coming back, that would lift our spirits. We were meant to have a gig this week, but then they were saying that Cork might be locked down, and that’s where our gig was. We’re literally working on a day-to-day basis not knowing what’s happening. For 2021, I just hope that everything goes back to some kind of normal [laughs]. So that we can go out gigging and promoting. Because what I’ve found out is that it’s so hard to promote anything if you’re not able to go out and show it to people. Ok, I can do so much on video, so much on Facebook, but then…there’s nothing else I can do. And then it’s destructive for the art itself. Because you start questioning yourself, am I doing the right thing? Because it still costs money to do a song.”One thing is for sure, though, and that is that no matter what happens, Jo will remain addicted to the music.
~ STRESSED OUT, the brand new single from JO PETIT is out now, available on all platforms and to request from radio.
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.”
Just a few weeks back we had the pleasure of introducing readers to the fabulous singer/songwriter ZOEE. We caught up with the Australian native not too long after the release of her most recent singles, Break My Heart and The Song We Sing. In Part 1 of that chat with Zoee – a weaver of dreams through the beautiful magic of her songs, but also very much a dreamer herself, and chaser of those dreams – we took a bit of a deep dive into the story behind Break My Heart, as well as into Zoee’s songwriting in a more general sense.
And, believe it or not, we also got to hear the story behind how this Aussie songstress who’s now based in Scotland, managed to end up smack bang in the middle of Sean’s Bar in Athlone, in a session and carrying out an interview for her role as a presenter on the tv show ‘Nashville Meets World.’ Sean’s Bar, by the way, for those of you not in the know on these matters, is the oldest bar in the world.
Zoee and her family now live about two hours out of Glasgow, “way out on the coast”, having also lived in Edinburgh. As she says herself, “we’ve lived in a little bit of everywhere!” But how exactly did Zoee end up in Scotland?
“Long story to that one! I went out to the States a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it out there. Did my first show in Nashville, and decided pretty much from there on out that I wanted to do music. The family said to me when I got back to Australia, ‘You’re really good at this, why don’t you think about doing it?’ I was already leaning on that idea anyway, so I said alright, let’s do it! And they were like,’Well how can we help? What can we do to get behind you?’ And I was kinda blown away at that point. But I thought, well, we always have loved travelling, and we’ve never been to the homelands, we’ve never been to Scotland and Ireland and England, where it all kind of started for our family, so I said well, how about we go there? We’d been to Canada, we’d been to Mexico, all around Australia, so let’s go there and see how it is with music. Lo and behold, after that conversation we bought our one-way tickets and boarded a flight to London, Heathrow. That was four and a half years ago, and we haven’t been back to Australia since. It’s kinda crazy. We started initially in London, and that was super-expensive and very, very competitive for an artist very new to the scene here. So we ended up saying well let’s head further north, let’s go to Scotland and see what the scenery is like up there [laughs]. And it’s been lovely ever since, we haven’t looked back.”
Zoee’s dad’s name is actually Dundee…well…kind of! I wondered if that fact harked back to her family’s Scottish heritage?
“Absolutely! And that tied in with the Australian heritage obviously, because he’s got a super, super Australian accent. My dad is my lead-guitar player, by the way, for anybody who doesn’t know. So whenever we’re in the States, whenever he starts talking over there, he’s got a very, very thick accent – and his first name is actually Mick – so everyone’s calling him Mick Dundee! [laughs]. And obviously with all of the family coming from Dundee and Scotland and everything else, it stuck! And now it’s his stage-name. Everybody just knows him now as Dundee! [laugh].”
Zoee would have been writing in Australia before moving to Scotland, where she’s lived now for four years. I wondered if there was anything about the way she writes, or how she approaches songwriting, that has changed from living in Scotland?
“That’s a great question, I like that. I think yeah, I definitely think it has. I wrote a lot more folky stuff when I was in Australia. And I think that was because I wasn’t playing shows like I have been while I’ve been living in the U.K. So the ‘live’ scene has definitely influenced my writing style. I tend to write songs now that are crowd-starters. I always try to write stuff that’s going to be fun to play on stage. When I was back in Australia, I was writing stuff that was more or less for myself, just sitting around quietly to just play. And they were the sort of songs that you sit by the camp-fire and play, they’re the real stories. And they’re the ones that you wouldn’t necessarily get away with playing at a festival so easily! The audience might think, ‘What’s goin; on here?!’, ya know [laughs]. So, there is a bit of contrast. And obviously as a person, I’ve grown. I’m four and a half years older. I’ve been getting to see the world through different cultures and places, that definitely helps you grow and helps you see things differently. The music [you write] is so in touch with you as a person, there’s no real separation between the music and the actual person behind the music. So yeah, to answer that honestly, I would say that there’s been a lot of change in me personally, and musically. And vocally, quite a lot of change! [laughs]. I was listening back to some stuff from a couple of years ago only a few weeks back, and I thought, wow! It’s amazing how some changes happen and you don’t even notice. I’m always striving to grow every day, to always do something a little bit better, change this or change that. It’s just about constantly trying to make yourself the best version of yourself.”
Speaking of festivals, and indeed, speaking of Nashville which Zoee had already mentioned, I wanted to talk about another amazing song of Zoee’s called Nashville. She had been in Nashville last year for CMA Fest, so I was wondering if the song came before the visit – from wanting to get there – or from the experience of having been in Music City?
“Well I’d been to Nashville once before I got to play CMA Fest. I grew up listening to country music, and songs from the seventies and eighties especially. And not even so much country, rock ‘n’ roll, AC/DC, Meat Loaf, so many different sounds, Paul Simon as well. So there was a lot of variety. But whenever I heard something that was country, I’ve always had this warm feeling, and just connected with it. And I can remember vividly watching a documentary on Neil Young when he was talking about going to Nashville, and that just stuck with me as a kid growing up. I was like, gosh, I want to go to Nashville someday, that sounds amazing there! And when I finally got there, I underestimated the power of the southern culture! [laughs]. And the warmth of everybody there, I didn’t expect it to be quite as lovely as it is. I got there and I was just completely overwhelmed by it, I just fell in love with the place. The fact that everybody’s just so supportive of each other too, ya know. You would think that an industry that’s so driven on competing against each other, and climbing on top of each other to get where essentially you’ve got to go – and I mean, that’s such an awful mindset to have, by the way – but you would expect a city that’s full of musicians to be very driven by that attitude. But they’re not. It’s the complete opposite. From my experience, it’s been warm and welcoming, and everyone’s like, ‘Well I’ve got a show, come and join me, I’ll get you up with me, we can play some songs. We should write a song!’ [laughs]. There’s this energy, and this loving, embracing feeling, and I just fell in love with it.”
Zoee continued, “So the song ‘Nashville’ came about when I was flying to Nashville to go play CMA Fest, and it had come to me a little bit before. I was thinking, yeah, I ‘m going to Nashville, and thinking about how it’s always felt like home, and I was thinking about it and thinking about it, and by the time I actually got to Nashville, the song was finished! So I actually played the song in Nashville before it was even recorded. And the reaction was…crazy! And wonderful. So I recorded it when we got back to England. I was going to do it while I was there in Nashville – we did record a little bit there – but time-wise, I just didn’t have enough. I was on tour in the U.K. at the time and I had a three week gap, so we went to the States and we did CMA Fest and the Bluebird Cafe and a bunch of other places. I had three weeks there, but I just didn’t have enough time to record everything. It’s kind of like my love-letter to the city, and the adventure of getting there, ya know.”
Zoee had mentioned earlier in our chat that she’d been doing a lot of songwriting during lockdown, and I’d heard that she also had plans to release a new single each month between now and the end of the year. True?
“True! Yeah [laughs]. I mean, this is the thing. I had planned for 2020 to be on the road most of this year. We were going back to Sweden, we were doing another U.K. tour, we were going to Ireland, back to the States, to Nashville, Germany and a few other European countries. But obviously with everything that all got wiped out pretty quick. So plans had to change pretty quick as well. So instead of focusing on touring this year, I focused on recording and shooting, and doing a whole bunch of other stuff to get new music out. Prior to this year, I’ve only had officially three songs released, three singles. One was for a film soundtrack for a feature film called 19 Willock Place, that was called ‘Town.’ I had an acoustic folk song out called ‘This Time’, and I had one very early song I wrote called ‘It’s The Weekend.’ But my style has changed so much from when I recorded that. So I was kind of edging at the bit to release new stuff. So this year I decided to focus on getting in the studio, and getting some stuff recorded. And by the studio, I mean at home recording, working with a producer closely, and getting a whole bunch of new stuff ready to release. So yeah, I can officially say that I have a single coming out now every month until the end of the year, and then maybe a few surprises at the beginning of the year as well.”
Given that Zoee and her band are so accustomed to being on the road, what has 2020 been like for her in that regard, having to put a full-stop on ‘live’ music?
“For the first months, it was awful. I had C2C that I would have been playing, and other festivals lined up as well this year. This year, for me personally, would have been a real jump-ahead in my career, because I’d worked so hard the year before. So this was going to be the next step, if that makes sense? Because I’m independent, you’re essentially your own record label, you’re taking care of all the bookings, and the social media, the visuals, the editing, the content, the creation…there’s so much stuff you have to take into consideration. So this year, 2020, was a big one. And the team and I had a lot on the agenda. The team is obviously my family. My mum’s my manager and my booker. And my dad and my brothers. they’re my band. This year, we had a lot on the table, and we had worked hard last year for it. To see it all kind of vanish into thin air was really heartbreaking for the first months. But after that, it almost became this sigh of relief in a way, to almost say wow, this is all that we’ve achieved in the last few years. And it was nice to take a break and just re-evaluate things, I guess. To help take more precise and accurate decision making going forward. And that next step has been to record and get more stuff out, and get more stuff ready. And also giving people a chance to listen to some of the music that you wouldn’t have heard unless you’d come to a show. With everybody being at home and locked up [laughs], and nobody able to go to concerts and things, it’s been really nice to be able to connect with people online as well, and share some of the stuff that I’ve been playing and working on for years. I mean, ‘Break My Heart’, for example, I’ve only just brought that out…what was it… a month ago? But I wrote that three and a half years ago. And unless you’ve come to a show, you wouldn’t have heard it. And I’ve got so many more songs like that. Plans for touring are out of my control, they’ve been taken from underneath me, so now it’s time to turn my attention to focusing on giving everybody some music.”
C2C is obviously a huge event on the country music calendar. So as an independent artist, how did Zoee make that happen?
“Actually, funny enough, they reached out to me about playing! And I was blown away. It came through Live Nation, I’ve worked with them a few times. We’ve done quite a few things in Glasgow together. Yeah, they reached out to me. They said, ‘We know your stuff really well, and would you be interested in playing C2C?’ And I was like, would I?! OF COURSE! [laughs]. And it was the week of C2C, when it was meant to be happening, that everything got cancelled and the official lockdown happened, and I was so heartbroken, ya know. It was this close, this close…[laughs]. But ya know, I think everything happens for a reason, and it has given me a chance to just sit back and take a look at everything, and plan for 2021. My plan is to come back stronger than ever in 2021.”In keeping with her plan to release a new single every month for the rest of the year, Zoee dropped the beautiful Take Me Away on Friday last…
“The song ‘Take Me Away’ is an empowering song about the process of finding yourself. I’ve learned in order to move forward in life, you have to let go of the naysayers, the negative, and begin doing whatever it is that gets you leaping out of bed in the morning. So this is one of those songs that no matter what mood you’re in, as soon as you start playing it, your energy shifts. It’s such an uplifting song and I’m excited to be able to bring that kind of energy to everyone. The world seems to be a bit of a madhouse lately and I think we all need a balance-shift right about now. As a songwriter, I try to write from a personal place of experience.”
Earlier this month, on September 6th, Zoee also released an acoustic song I Am Your Friend, to Facebook and Instagram, a song she wrote for a friend who was suffering with suicidal thoughts. “I know the magic of music and how it’s helped me through tough times in my own life. I can only hope that my stories and songs can help lift someone somewhere through their dark times. After all, we need to be smiling and happy. It’s a short life.”
Zoee is also nominated for 12 Awards at the Fair Play Country Music Awards in Holland, with the winners being announced in November.
~ TAKE ME AWAY is out now, available on all platforms and to request from radio.
Since first appearing on the country music scene in Ireland in the last few years, Mayo based band Hurricane Highway have been gathering new fans as fast as they’ve been releasing some top quality tunes. And that’s pretty fast! The music, however, is just one of the reasons why the band have come so far in such a short time.
Another, and one that’s equally as important, is the fact that frontman and lead-singer Ed Holland, and band co-founder Kevin Collins, are two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. And funny, too. What you see is what you get with both men, and what you’ll also get whenever you’re in their company is some good laughs. They take their music seriously, but they know life is to be enjoyed. So they make it as enjoyable as they can for themselves and those around them.
Ed and I had been trying to make our diaries match up for some time so we could have a chat about all the exciting things that have been happening for Hurricane Highway. Sadly, though, we were finally able to catch up on the morning after the terrible events at the M.E.N. Arena in Manchester a couple of weeks back, when twenty-two innocent men, women, and children were murdered in cold blood by a callous, and cowardly, act of terrorism. And equally sadly, our chat on that morning is now published here only a few days after yet another despicable terror attack in London. We began by Ed telling me how he’d become aware of unfolding events in Manchester the night of the atrocity at the M.E.N. Arena….
“Well basically I was havin’ a kind of a sleepless night so I logged onto Facebook, and I hadn’t heard anything at that stage cos’ I’d been watchin’ a bit of a film before I went to bed. I hadn’t even switched over to the news. So I logged onto Facebook, saw what was happening, and my first thought was just shock, horror straight away. I mean, at a concert, such a cowardly attack, ya know. I jumped up outta bed and I switched on Sky News, that’s what I did. It was horrific, such a helpless feeling. Needless to say, myself and Kevin (Collins, from Hurricane Highway), and everyone involved with the band send our condolences and our deepest sympathies to all of those affected and to Manchester.”
Moving on to happier matters, and one of the main reasons why we’d scheduled our chat in the first place, the release of Hurricane Highway’s fantastic debut album, ‘Exposed’, in late April. As the days ticked down to the album finally being released, I wondered what was life like for the band as they prepared for their big day?
“Very nervous! [laughs]. And excited, too. Both. So much work went into it, three years of work and seven singles in that time. There was anticipation, nerves, and excitement all at once. And anxiety, too, I’ll be honest [laughs]. All of those emotions were involved. And we weren’t expecting to hit the number one spot with it, we thought if we charted at all it would be great because there’s so much competition out there. So to actually do that, to get to number one, we were delighted. And the way it’s been received so far, and the airplay it’s been getting, it’s actually given life again to all the older singles. It’s been great.”
What had Ed been most worried about around the album’s launch?
“I suppose any artist’s biggest worry is that it wouldn’t realise the potential you feel it should. Especially when you put so much into something, with no stone left unturned, and that’s really the way we kind of tried to deliver each song and our videos, as we were goin’ along. Doin’ it all to the best of our own abilities anyway. So you’d worry that certain people mightn’t like it, that it might get slated. I haven’t really thought about it like this before, it’s a good question.”
So, for fans who may not have managed to get their hands on a copy yet, what can they expect to find on the album? Will all seven singles be there?
“Yeah, all seven singles are on ‘Exposed’, everything we’ve done since the very beginning. There’s eleven tracks in total on there, so a good few new ones as well. We have the current single, ‘Make You Mine’, which is track one on the album, and we’re hoping to release another single from it in September. We’re already workin’ on new stuff cos’ goin’ into next year we’ll be back in the studio again workin’ on the next album. We’ll probably pick a song to be the new single and test the water with it. That system kinda works for us. A lot of other artists maybe record the whole album then pick the best singles out of it, but we kinda do it the other way round [laughs]. But that just seemed to be the way it happened, there wasn’t any plan. We recorded ‘Your Man’ and that took off with all the regional radio stations. Then we were under pressure to get somethin’ else out after that, and so on it went. Yeah, so that’s kind of how it happened.”
The release of Exposed was one huge date in the diary for Hurricane Highway in 2017, and there’s another coming up in August when the band will be among an impressive homegrown contingent who will entertain country music fans at Harvest Fest.
“Yeah, Aiken Promotions rang us on a Friday and asked would we be available to go to a press-conference on a Monday, the official launch of the festival, so we said absolutely! On the Saturday they rang us again just to confirm everything and say they were delighted to have us as part of the line-up. And we were obviously pretty delighted with that, too, of course [laughs]. So we’re up in Enniskillen on the Saturday, the 26th, and Westport then on the Sunday, the 27th. We have some other good shows comin’ up too in the next while. We’re in the Roisin Dubh in Galway on the 4th of August, we’re in Ballymaloe at their festival on the 1st of July, and a few more cool ones like those, too.”
Hurricane Highway, for those of you who may not know, are very much a country-rock band with a distinctly American country influence. And to the best of this writer’s knowledge, Hurricane Highway are also the only band of their kind in Ireland. Given that fact, how would Ed describe the journey of trying to establish themselves?
“It’s been a building process, for definite. I’ll have to say that. You’re competing with all the main contenders who are in the charts, and then there’s a certain flavor of country too, so you’re goin’ to be competing with the country stars as well. Ours is more of a cross-over style, though, so there’s a small percentage of the market that we’re lookin’ at in some ways. But look, I suppose it’s about carving out a niche for ourselves in that market, really. And that’s the way it’s been from the start. So we’ve been building it all song by song. So people are getting to like us through the songs, more so than just because we happen to be the only band of our kind or anything like that, ya know. A lot of people have come up to us and said, ‘You’re brave for goin’ down the route you have’, and what they mean by that, I think, is that sometimes you’ll see even some of the big country acts comin’ in from America, the ones that are kind of doin’ what we’re doin’, and it can be hard for them in Ireland, too.”
At this stage, I suggest to Ed that we better bring his Hurricane Highway co-founder Kevin Collins into the conversation, or he won’t be too pleased with either of us!
“[Laughs], I suppose we better! Yeah, it was myself and Kevin that started Hurricane Highway. Kevin’s wife passed away a couple of years ago and he was goin’ through a kind of a hard time. And I was just after breakin’ up from a twelve year relationship around the same time. Now I’d known Kevin alright, but not very well. Anyway, he was playin’ in a bar in Westport and I went in when he was playin’ one night, and he asked me up to sing a song. So up I went, and I sang ‘Sweet Sixteen.’ Now I only found out a couple of months ago that this was actually his wife’s favourite song, which was a bit of a mad coincidence. But we’ve always felt like there was something kinda guiding us along the way, with all of the positive things that have happened. It’s been an amazing journey. So the band helped Kevin in that way, brought him out of that place he was in and gave him a kind of a distraction, I suppose you could call it. We just really bounce well off each other musically. Kevin came to me with ‘Your Man’ and said, ‘Hey, I think we should record this’, and that’s how the whole journey started. We recorded it, and from that Hurricane Highway was born. So out of bad can come good, ya know.”
I wondered if there had been any particular piece of advice that’s ever come Ed’s way, about either life in general or life in the music business, that has really helped to shape him?
“Oh yeah, jeez, that’s a tough one. But yeah, there is, plenty. I suppose one would definitely be to enjoy the journey because you don’t know what the destination is gonna be like! And that really applies to so much in life, including what happened yesterday in Manchester, ya know. Because you just don’t know what’s goin’ to happen, you have to really live in the day, I think. There’s certain things that everybody has to plan in life, but you can’t be livin’ in next August or whatever. It has to be for today, for the moment you’re in right now. We know the work we have to do for Hurricane Highway, and I know the work I have to do for it myself, but it’s still important to enjoy every part of it. And that’s more what we’re tryin’ to do with Hurricane Highway, more so than saying, well we want to reach such a peak, but never knowing if we’ll ever get there, ya know. You have to set standards, and you have to set goals, and try to achieve them all even though there’ll be some you won’t. And in this business it’s very tough because you do get a lot of knock-backs. But that’s the music business, it’s one of the toughest businesses to be in, so you have to be able to take it. I think acceptance is key as well, acceptance of life’s circumstances. Accepting life on life’s terms, I suppose.”
If it was in Ed’s power to change one thing about the country music scene in Ireland, a change that he feels would be for the better and for the greater good, what would it be?
“I’d stop people from jiving!! [laughs]. I’d get them to sit down and then they might go to more concerts! [laughs]. Ah no, I’m only joking there. I know plenty of people who are mad into jiving, they love it. But I think people sitting down to enjoy more country artists, concert style, that mightn’t be such a bad thing either, ya know! [laughs]”
To wrap things up, I decided to really get Ed thinking! So, if a movie was about to be made of Ed’s life, what would it be called? And not only that, but what songs would play over the opening and closing credits?
“That’s a tough one now! I’d have to think about that! I don’t know, ‘Exposed’, maybe, get a bit of promotion out of it for the album, too! [laughs]. I’ll probably be thinkin’ about this later and I’ll come up with a great answer altogether! I’ll ring ya back later! [laughs] And songs? Right, for the opening credits. Well I have to look at this in two different ways if it’s a movie about my life. Are we looking at the happiness, or the sad parts, ya know? I think, Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, is that too cheesy? [laughs] I don’t know really. But there’s a song or two on the album which are very meaningful to us. ‘More Than I Could Be’ is one, track seven, and ‘If This Is Goodbye’, track number ten. Those two songs explain so much actually, they’d be great for a movie.”