Sunny Side Up: A Q&A With Sunny Sweeney
Sunny Sweeney, spirited Texas singer-songwriter, made a career move not a lot of artists admit to wanting to make, few pull off and even fewer pull off convincingly. She started out a darling of an alt-country world that typically turns up its nose at mainstream country. Then she not only enticed a mainstream label to re-release her honky-tonking debut album, but won the chance to make a follow-up and get even more involved in the songwriting than she’d been the first time around. The result, Concrete, was released last August. You’d know immediately if you heard Sweeney on country radio—in 2011 she was pretty much the only act singing about the heartbreak of being a lying cheater’s other woman, and certainly the only one doing it in the country top ten, backed by keening steel guitar.
I liked your explanation of why you decided on the title Concrete, that you wanted it to reflect the tough, adult content of the songs.
I thought it was pretty representative of it.
In mainstream country right now, there are various markers of country-ness. It could be the singing, the production and instrumentation, the song itself. All three are present most of the time on Concrete. Song-wise, you could strip “Amy,” “Mean as You” and “Drink Myself Single” down to your voice and guitar, and they’d still be unambiguously country songs.
I think the thing is, my love of music is country music. And the kind that I grew up on was the kind of that told stories and sounded so good and so catchy. I remember listening to Merle’s music when I was little. And I didn’t know shit about music when I was little, but I was like, ‘Oh my god! That guitar! I don’t know who it is or what it is or if it’s even a guitar, but it is so awesome.’ And the melodies were so cool. But the stories were what really got me, you know? And they weren’t all ‘Oh, life is awesome, perfect, great.’ It was about real shit. You know what I mean?
You say it was the stories that really got you. The stories I hear you telling in the songs on Concrete are about the effects people have on each other in relationships and how the balance of power plays out, the very real consequences of how people treat each other.
In “Drink Myself Single” you sing about giving a guy the taste of his own medicine. What is it about the attitude that made you want to sing that song?
That song is kind of funny, because I had the worst day on the planet that day. I had a morning writing appointment and I had a night writing appointment, and my night one was with this guy that I’d only met once, but I knew he was cool. He’s older than me. He’s now actually like my pseudo-dad in Nashville. His name’s Monty Holmes.
I was like, ‘Alright, I don’t know this dude. I’ll go and tough it out. I’ll get some beer,’ which I love. I love beer! And I smoked cigarettes like a freight train until December, you know? So I got a pack of cigarettes, a six-pack of beer, went over to his publishing company. I mean, it’s like six o’clock at night and we’re starting a session.
I walked in the door and I was like, ‘Dude, I know we’ve only met once or twice, but I am over it today. I’ve had a shitty day. I want to drink.’ As I’m saying this, I see him get his already-open bottle of wine and start pouring it into a cup, like, a big cup. So I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ And he lights up a cigar. ‘Oh, this is gonna be fun!’ We were just kind of laughing about it, because it turned out to be exactly that. It seemed to be exactly what we wanted it to be, which was ‘Girls can do it too.’ That’s probably my favorite song to sing live.
Both “From a Table Away” and “Amy” come from an uncommon point-of-view of the other woman, catching the man in the middle in his lies. Why did you like the idea of putting yourself in her shoes?
I figured, ‘Why not?’ I do a lot of ‘Well, why not?’ If you have to really question it too much, then it starts being like, ‘Oh, might offend somebody. Oh no. Somebody’s gonna get offended.’ Well you know what? Somebody’s gonna get offended if your song’s cheesy, too. At least those are like real situations. …Guy Clark’s not gonna write something that I’m ever gonna go, ‘That is so cheesy.’ Because he has a method to what he does, and that’s why he does it. Or Darrell Scott. You know what I mean? They have quirky stuff. But I think it’s just about everybody finding who they are as a writer. I don’t mind being cast into situations that I haven’t been in, just so that it’ll tell a story so that people who don’t know about true traditional country music can maybe be exposed to it.
Why do you think “From a Table Away” was the song of yours that’s gotten the biggest response on the country charts so far?
I think it’s ‘cause it’s just real and it connected with people. It’s had like two million views on whatever it’s called.
Yeah, YouTube. My mom had to tell me that this morning.
I saw the video.
I don’t know. I guess it’s just because it’s a real song. You know, people are still writing [comments] on there. They watch it still. And that was like a year and a half ago that that song came out.
You’ve talked a lot about your marriage breaking up around the time you were writing and recording these songs. I’m sure that might have been one source of inspiration. Is there something of your personality in songs that call a guy out for being cruel, like “Mean as You” and “Helluva Heart”?
Oh yeah. That fits my personality, and probably yours too if you picked up on it. Know what I mean? I’ve kind of found a little bit of a kindred spirit in some of the girls that come up to me at shows and stuff and say, ‘I love blah blah blah!, And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, then, we’re most likely gonna get along.’
Who have you seen respond to those songs?
It’s been usually women that have been through stuff before in their lives, that haven’t led a super-sheltered life. Not that that’s bad. I mean, I had a sheltered life growing up. But then my parents also let me make mistakes so that I would learn from them. I’ve made definitely my fair share of mistakes.
The fact that you have stories with emotional weight to them, stories that make you care about who the characters are, stands out among stuff you see making it onto the country chart now.
I mean, if you look at old country, there was always a character in every single song. And that doesn’t really happen all that much anymore, unless it’s like two people and they’re like, ‘Oh we’re so in love.’ And you know what? I’m in a happy relationship now. …I’m definitely writing some different types of songs now, but the last two days I’ve been in Nashville writing. I wrote three songs, none of which were about my current relationship. They were all about old crap I was dealing with that follows me around like a little ghost.
Last year I watched how “From a Table Away” and Concrete were doing. Then I saw Ashton Shepherd and Miranda Lambert put out their albums, and Kellie Pickler released a single, followed by her album early this year. I wasn’t the only one who noticed that there were a couple of weeks last year when there wasn’t a single solo female act in the country top 30.
Oh, more than a couple of weeks. Like twenty weeks, probably.
Have you gotten the feeling that there’s only a limited amount of space on the charts for artists who happen to be women?
I was really, really thankful to be able to be in the chart for so long. The other two songs didn’t go as high as “From a Table Away,” but they were on the chart for a while. There’s really not a lot of single solo female acts, you know? I don’t really know much, but I know the girls you mentioned, those are the ones I lean towards when I’m listening for my own pleasure, Miranda and Ashton and Kellie Pickler.
Going into Concrete, what were your expectations for what the singles and the album would do?
I had zero, because I didn’t know what to expect. I just kind of kept the bar low for myself, so that I wasn’t disappointed if nothing good happened. But then at the same time I was like, ‘That’s pretty cool. It keeps going higher every week.’ But aside from that, I mean, I didn’t really have any specific expectations. I wanted it to succeed. I want all my music to succeed, but you can’t really count on that. I write the best songs that I can and get the best songs on my record that I can, and that’s all you really can do.
It went well enough that you’ll get the chance to do it again.
We’re working on my new record right now. They haven’t given up on me. They’re just as excited as they were six years ago when I got signed on that record label. It’s exciting. We actually had an A&R meeting this morning. I’ve been writing with some pretty crazy big writers, and I’m like, ‘Dude, we’re getting some cool songs!’
Have you gotten a pretty clear sense of who your audience is and what they respond to hearing from you?
No. I mean, when I first started, I thought it would be a bunch of old men in tank tops with no teeth. But I’ve got little kids that like my music, and old people that like my music, and college kids that like my music. And it’s all for different reasons.
Texas and Nashville can have differences in musical culture and artistic values. What has it been like for you to move between both? What has the response been each place to the songs on Concrete?
You know, fans are fans, so I don’t think it really matters where they live. I live in Texas and I work in Tennessee. And those are choices that I make. Travel time sucks sometimes, but that’s it. I mean, I live here and I work there, and I love both places, and I’ve lived both places, and I’ve worked both places. I’ve been really fortunate to have my fans love me for me. My second record is not as country as my first record, but I’m just as proud of both records. I don’t really have a comparison, except for the fact that I’ve been welcomed both places. I really truly love both places. That probably shows.