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Sunny Sweeney Interview: Singer-Songwriter Gets ‘Provoked’ on Her Latest Album

Sunny Sweeney
Jon-Paul Photography

Sunny Sweeney‘s third studio album is an instant classic.

After releasing her previous albums via major labels, the singer-songwriter crowd-funded part of her latest project, ‘Provoked,’ and partnered with Thirty Tigers for her own imprint, Aunt Daddy Records. The resulting album is an undiluted shot of Sweeney, ranging from playful, attitude-laden songs to somber tracks, without a single filler song in the entire collection. Readers of The Boot overwhelmingly voted ‘Provoked’ our Album of the Month for August 2014.

Sweeney drew on her own very personal ups and downs over the last few years for the new songs, including a divorce, a new marriage and all of the emotional peaks and valleys that go along with those changes.

Highlights include the first single, ‘Bad Girl Phase,’ a duet with Will Hoge titled ‘My Bed,’ ‘Front Row Seats’ — which features the unbeatable line, “We all just sing along while the world goes to hell in a feel-good song” — ‘Backhanded Compliment’ and ‘Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass,’ which probably deserves a special Grammy for Best Country Song Title of the Year.

The Boot caught up with Sweeney recently to talk about the new album, taking control of her own career, the environment for female artists in the current marketplace and more in the following wide-ranging interview.

You crowd-funded part of this new album and have your own imprint now. What made that the right choice this time around?

I’m with Thirty Tigers now, and I love their creative department so much. I just had a blast making the record with them.

Part of the record was funded by my own label in conjunction with them. I’ve always trusted my fans; I trust their opinions, and they’re really honest and very deliberate in telling me what they want, what they like and don’t like. So I thought, “Well, I will try to do the PledgeMusic thing with my portion and see how it goes.”

And at first it was a little scary, because I thought, “Oh God, what if nobody pledges?” But then we went over the goal, which was amazing. And that’s partially why I put some of the songs on there, because my fans were so significant in coming forth to fund it that it was like, well, they’ve been asking for some of these songs for years — like ‘My Bed’ and ‘Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass’ and ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband.’

So I thought I’d kinda thank them, because my fans are extremely important to me. I thought of it as kind of a thank you to them, which actually I know now they appreciate because they’ve been telling me, “Thank you so much for putting these songs on there.” They’ve been asking me for years, so I’m very excited that they’re happy. [Laughs.]

"You can pretty much tell, actually, the point in my life in which I was when I wrote each song."

So some of these are older songs, and some are newly written specifically for this album?

Yes, Some of them — like, ‘My Bed’ I think was from 2008, but a lot of the other ones like ‘Front Row Seats,’ ‘Uninvited,’ ‘Second Guessing’ — you can pretty much tell, actually, the point in my life in which I was when I wrote each song. It literally bridges, I think, the last record to this record. Like, ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband,’ I’ve been joking that that’s a prequel to ‘From a Table Away,’ which was on the last record. But it’s the first song on this record, so it kinda bridges where I was writing last time in my life to where I am now in my life.

And then toward the end of this record is ‘Used Cars,’ which is the first love song that I’ve ever had. So it’s just kind of unintentionally a chronological telling of, kind of a diary sort of thing.

Was that deliberate, as far as, did you have that intent when you went into the record, or did that thread appear as the songs came out?

Of course, everything’s deliberate. Everything is for a reason. But picking the songs, there were a ton more that we had to pick from, and then as we started narrowing them down, I was like, “Huh. Well, looky there. If you start the record with this, and then go to this, this, this and this, it kind of tells a story.” And then as we went along even more, I was like, “Well, if you move this one up here, and then move this one here, this actually is a story.”

And it was the story, as it turns out, that I needed to tell. I’ve needed to tell this story in this order, musically, for a while. And if I had 14 songs, I don’t think it would have told the same story, and if I had 12 songs, I don’t think it would have told the same story. I think everything happens for a reason, and these 13 songs came together so that I could kinda say what I needed to say.

This is a great record, and what’s especially cool about it is, there are no weak tracks. Even on great albums there are usually some filler songs, but this is all just really great songs.

Thanks! That’s really great of you to say, I appreciate that. I kinda feel like that, anyway. I’ve always said that the best song wins, and I don’t care if you wrote it or your mom wrote it or my dad wrote it or I wrote it. I just want the best songs, and I don’t want filler tracks. So that’s actually a huge compliment.

I feel like, if you just let the songs do the work for you and listen as a fan instead of as yourself — because there’s definitely songs, like I had this one song that I freakin’ love, and it’s a totally kick-ass song, but it just didn’t fit. It wouldn’t have fit in the middle or the beginning or the end of this record. So hopefully that will go on the next record, or maybe I’ll build a record around that song.

But for me, I think choosing the songs, first and foremost, is the most important thing, and truthfully, if there weren’t songs, then none of us would have jobs. You wouldn’t have a job, I wouldn’t have a job, publishers wouldn’t have a job. So I kinda feel like sometimes the songs get lost, or the importance of songs gets lost. But for me, that’s very important. So thank you for saying that, because ultimately that was my whole goal, was to have really cool songs.

"I think choosing the songs, first and foremost, is the most important thing, and truthfully, if there weren’t songs, then none of us would have jobs."

Obviously the music business is a for-profit business, and the business tends to market female performers more visually. Do you ever fear that your music is going to get lost in that sort of marketing?

I try to be a female that can kind of speak for females. So I hope that whatever it is goes above that aspect of it. Because I do know that speaking for females should, and hopefully will, count. Hopefully my music will be able to relate to other females, and men. The thing is, I’ve had some of the most hilarious tweets ever from these guys that have been writing me saying, “Hey, Sweeney, you got any of your friends that are hot, going through a bad girl phase that are looking for someone to hang out with?”

And I’m just cracking up. I write them back, and I’ll say, “Yeah, here’s her number.” And I’m kidding — I would never give out my friends’ numbers. But it’s funny, because it’s not just girls — even with ‘Bad Girl Phase,’ there’s men relating to it, too.

That song particularly, I didn’t even write. My producer brought it in. We’d already picked out a lot of songs for the record, and I said, “Man, we need one more with some sassitude, something that’s funny, but also true and kind of hell-raising.” I was pretty specific about what I was looking for, and when he brought that in, it was like, “Oh my gosh, this is perfect.” And then I said, “Who wrote that?” and he told me, and it’s three of my friends, and I said, “Did they write that about me?” [Laughs.]

I truly did feel like it was written for me. It wasn’t — I’ve actually asked them, “Did y’all write that about me? Because it sounds like it was me.” And they were like, “No, we didn’t write it about you, but it does sound like you.”

I think you find the songs that you’re supposed to sing and be a part of. Hopefully that was all, again, for a reason. I’m a huge believer in that everything happens for a reason, and if one thing were different, then you wouldn’t be where you are. So you have to take the good and the bad, which, sometimes it’s hard to digest the bad, but you have to realize that it’s because of something else that either is going to happen in your future or that does happen currently. I’ve just had too many instances of that happen to me, where something good will end up happening, but it wouldn’t have happened if something bad hadn’t happened right before that.

You worked with Luke Wooten as a producer this time. What does he bring to the tracks that is different than you would have done without him?

He was the associate producer on my last album, when I worked with Brett Beavers. And I love Brett, he is so amazing, and I love Luke. And whenever it came time to start looking for a producer for this time, we were kinda tossing different names around, and Luke’s name got brought up, and man, he is literally a genius, musically. He is one of those people that hears things that other people don’t hear. He’ll do random instruments that you wouldn’t think would go on a certain track.

And then mostly it’s his attitude. He is so cool to work with. He’s super opinionated musically, and he knows what he wants, but he’s also open to other people’s opinions. I’ve always lucked out with producers, actually, because every one that I’ve ever worked with has let me be opinionated. And I am. I’m a female singer-songwriter, I have a band, and I have opinions, and when it comes to music, I have really strong opinions. I know exactly what I want, but I too am open to hearing other people’s opinions.

He let me suggest having accordion on ‘My Bed,’ which at first he said, “I don’t know, you think?” And I said, “I don’t know, just as a padding it might be cool and kinda sound creepy and sad.” Then we put it on there, and now it’s, to me, the most significant part of that track. I love the accordion on there. So I think both of our personalities meshed really well together, and I truly look forward to my next record, because I do want to work with him again. He is one of the best producers in Nashville, in my opinion, and I feel extremely blessed that he would want to work with me and that my record turned out even better than I wanted it.

This is another record in a long line where female singer-songwriters are turning out some of the strongest music that’s out there right now, and yet the commercial side of the business is being dominated by so-called bro-country. What’s your take on that trend?

Well, first of all, I personally don’t have a problem with what’s going on in the country music world, because I feel like there’s room for everyone. I really do. Just with country music, think of how many different kinds of country music there are. There’s pop country, traditional country, rap country — it’s not all the stuff that I grew up on. I listen to old country right now. It’s what I enjoy, and it’s what I grew up on.

"I’m a huge believer in that everything happens for a reason, and if one thing were different then you wouldn’t be where you are."

But then again, I also totally get into Eric Church and Randy Houser. There are certain artists that I just adore what they’re doing. But for my listening, I would prefer Brandy Clark, Miranda [Lambert] … and then for songwriter stuff, Lori McKenna, Gillian Welch and that kind of stuff. But then even further back — like Loretta Lynn is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, in my opinion, just because she writes what she knows.

As far as why the industry is doing what it’s doing, I don’t know. I’m just doing what I do, and I truly believe that there is room for all of us. And I do love a lot of the females that are coming out right now, and I love the truthfulness of those songs, and I love that there’s so much depth to the songs and they make you feel something, which is why I love music in the first place. Because I am a music fan, first and foremost.

So when I find something that’s super cool — like I think Eric Church’s song ‘Give Me Back My Hometown,’ that’s a killer song, and it’s one of those songs … I grew up in a small town, and we went to football games and made out under the bleachers and stuff like that, and whenever I hear that song, even as an adult, it takes me right back to my high school boyfriend and skipping school. And I don’t know why Eric wrote it, but it’s a song that brings up emotions in me.

And Brandy Clark has so many cool songs, and it brings up emotions, and that’s honestly what I think music should be. Which is why, if something comes to me and it might be kind of a touchy subject, oh well. It’ll probably bring up emotions. And there will be people — just like there’s songs that I hear, and I’m cringing because I don’t want to feel that right now, or I don’t want to be reminded of that. But then again, I’m thankful, because it’s an emotion.

Before I’d ever heard your album, I was just going through the song titles, and I saw ‘Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass,’ and I thought, ‘That’s got to be a great song.’ I hadn’t even heard it at the time, but any song with a title like that has to be great.

[Laughs.] We were joking, kind of, when we wrote it, and it’s just become hilarious to play at shows. Whenever I did my radio tour, I was going around to these conference rooms in radio stations, and I would go in at eight o’clock, nine o’clock in the morning, and I would always take beer with me and be like, “Hey, have a beer. Take a load off.”

And then I would sing that song, and I would have these radio people just screaming, “Everybody else can just kiss my ass” in the middle of their conference rooms. And it’s like, “Doesn’t it feel good just to scream that in the middle of the conference room?” And they’re kinda laughing and looking around to see if everyone else is excited, and then they’re like, “Yeah, it’s really exciting!” [Laughs.]

To me it’s funny because it’s a girl singing it, but it’s also a complete let-everything-go-and-have-a-good-time. That’s a light-hearted song, nothing too in-depth. You don’t have to think about what you’re hearing — you just hear it, and then it’s like, “Yeah, damn the man! Screw work tomorrow, I’m partying tonight!” It’s just funny.

It’s the perfect way to end the record.

That’s what I thought, too. I was like, “This cannot go anywhere but last on this record.” [Laughs.]

Is there anything else you want to say about the record or anything else? Are you going to be touring around it?

Yeah, we’re working on some dates right now, and I played with Alabama last weekend for the first time, and that was so freakin’ cool. Their fans were so amazing. It was awesome. Their fans were insane. There’s certain gigs you do, and they just get it. They don’t know who you are, they never heard your name before, but then they’re super accepting and welcoming, and it’s just cool. I love it.

And I’m obsessed with Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, so people can hit me up on there if they want.

NEXT: Read The Boot's Interview With Brandy Clark

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