Cait Watters writes:
On September 23, Sunny Sweeney will release Married Alone, her first studio album in over five years, before then embarking on a US tour.
At time of writing, however, she is in the UK, set to take to festival stages and her own gig in London, armed with an impressive back catalogue and exciting new music.
The busy lady was kind enough to take some time before flying to Europe to talk to me about her trip and the new album.
I’m speaking to you a few days before you take to the stage in the UK. You’re performing at Millport Country Music Festival on August 20, and The Long Road Festival, as well as a headline show in London. It’s great that both festivals are, finally, back! How excited are you to perform in front of crowds that have been waiting so long?
My god, it has been so long coming! It’s been wild this whole Covid thing. This is the third year in a row that we’re supposed to be there and so I’m thrilled, I’m so excited. I love being in the UK, the fans there are just crazy cool music fans. It’s going to make me besides myself happy. I’m just so excited.
You’re in Europe for a little bit, ahead of an album release and a US tour. Is this trip also going to be a vacation of sorts before that all kicks off?
Between the two UK festivals, I’m [also] playing a festival in Spain. Then after the London gig the band goes back and I stay and play some acoustic shows in Switzerland and then, yeah, I’m going on an actual vacation for four days to Italy! It’s the first vacation I’ve had in forever.
The new album Married Alone drops September 23rd. Just looking at the tracklisting alone, you get the sense of it being relationship themed. However, it’s not all doom and gloom with tracks like Tie Me Up and Easy As Hello. Was finding this sort of balance important with this project?
It was. I’m always nervous about relationship songs anyway because I feel like you could always go down that road pretty quickly where it’s like (womp womp) doom and gloom like you just said. I think that is a necessity. It’s important to sing songs about doom and gloom and real life because that’s actually real life. But, also, I think finding levity in the situation and the fact that, you know, I did get divorced twice before the age of 40. Am I embarrassed by it? Yeah. But also is it part of my fabric of being? Yeah. So you gotta find levity in that and be able to move on and move forward and write and sing songs about such things.
The legendary Vince Gill features on the title track. How did that collaboration come about?
I wanted a male voice on it. When I got that idea in my head, his was the only voice I could picture singing with me.
I was in the studio and told the guys, ‘I’m just going to ask him. All he can say is no’. I went outside and called Vince like ‘you can totally say no but would you be into this?’ and he said ‘yeah’. He was so matter of fact, I said ‘oh, I wasn’t expecting you to say that!” (laughs). He was just so sweet. We sent it over and he sang on it and we all cried and it was amazing. It was exactly what I wanted and what I thought it would be like. It was great.
Married Alone is one of the few songs on the album that you didn’t have a hand in writing. How did it come your way?
My former manager Arthur, he’s one of my soulmates in this business and I trust him infinitely with pretty much everything even though we don’t work together anymore, he actually sent me that song. He said ‘you need to hear this’. I heard it and I was like ‘that’s mine so whatever we need to do to make that mine, that’s what we’re doing!’. We talked to the writers, they said okay and that was over three years ago. I’m sure they were wanting to pitch it to other people but I kept saying ‘no, I swear I’ll record it, this is my song!’. Then, when we were coming up with a title track I just couldn’t think of a better title for the record. I felt like it encompassed everything titlewise.
The other night it was made evident to me [that] when you hear the title Married Alone, you could think it’s a funny song. Then you hear it and it’s not (laughs). I like titles like that, where they’re misleading.
A Song Can’t Fix Everything, co-written with Lori McKenna and featuring Paul Cauthen, was the first single to be released from the forthcoming album.
Someday You’ll Call My Name features on the record. It’s an old track originally inspired by your early days in the industry and your dream to be recognised by institutions like the Opry. You’ve chosen to rework it with Brennen Leigh to better fit this album. Was this a song you always wanted to put out there? Have you always wanted to go back to it?
Brennen and I wrote that 10, 15 years ago – we’ve been friends for like 20 years. Originally we wrote it [and] the idea was about the Opry, ‘someday you’ll call my name to be a member’ – that’s what we initially wrote it about. It was kinda vague but that’s where the idea came from. As time went on, I kept going back to that song like ‘gosh that song is so cool…I just don’t think I want to be about that’. The lovely part about writing your own songs is that you can change it whenever you want. I called Brennen and said ‘what do you think about changing and reworking this?’ She was like ‘oh, absolutely’. We did this during Covid and as soon as we got done I immediately put it on my list of songs I wanted to record. A lot of it is still the same but there’s quite a bit of it that’s different now.
Given all you’ve accomplished, including playing the Opry many, many times, did it feel full circle to go back to that song?
Absolutely! Playing the Opry is like nothing else that we do. I don’t get nervous ever, I’m not a nervous person. I don’t get nervous to walk on stage – I should, probably, but I don’t. [But] I get knocking knees nervous on the Opry. I’m so nervous that I’m about to mess up and embarrass and disgrace the people that came before me. I don’t want that so that’s why I put so much pressure on myself.
That song, what’s weird about that song, is there’s a movie that just came out called Vengeance. My publishing admin called me about two or three months ago and she said ‘the music director of this new movie wants to put a song off the new album in Vengeance’. I was like ‘how did they hear it?’ *laughs* So that song has already been in a movie which I think is pretty cool!
Your last studio album Trophy was released in 2017, making Married Alone your first in five years. You did, however, release a live album in 2020 (Recorded Live at the Machine Shop Recording Studio) on which Tie Me Up features. Was that release a stop-gap in the midst of the disruptive pandemic? To get something out in the meantime?
Honestly, do you want to know the real reason? I don’t even care if you print this. When I was on a record label, Big Machine…you know. I cannot get my licensed album back from them, which is my first album. They didn’t pay for it, I paid for it. But it’s a licensed record. I made it, I took out a loan to pay for it. They licensed it and they can’t give me the license back for it. Six years it took me, on that label, to put out one record, which I am grateful for – Concrete is that album. But when I ran out of those, they wanted me to pay seven dollars a unit to print them…not happening. So we recorded [some of] the songs on there. I wish I could do all of them. We put the ones that were on the radio and the ones that are most requested from that record on the live record and voila. I’m not going to pay seven dollars a unit, that’s insane.
There was, of course, a horrible accident that delayed the project and that was your producer Jeff Saenz being electrocuted in a freak accident. How did that change your perspective when something as horrific like that happens to someone on this creative journey with you?
It gave us a reality check. I couldn’t even think about doing anything creatively when I knew that poor guy was laying in a hospital, fighting for his life. I couldn’t. He was supposed to start mixing six days later and I took it as a sign, like ‘chill out for a minute and take some deep breaths, get it out of your head that there’s some timeline you have to be on’, We all stepped back, took a breath [and] we’ll get to it when we get to it. That’s the first time in my life that I’ve done that, I’ve always been like ‘gotta get it done, gotta get it done’. I just stepped back. Okay, cool, take a breath. So we did and it ended up working out way more perfectly than I could ever have imagined.
Jeff survived. He did lose both of his arms and his hands. On the last day of mixing, we went in with Beau Bedford, another one of the producers. We went in with him and he was mixing everything. On that last day he called me and was like ‘I’m going to be a little late’. I said ‘okay, I’m going to stop for coffee, do you want anything?’ He was like ‘yeah, get me two coffees’. I thought ‘he’s going to be late and wants coffee? And two coffees’ I got him two coffees and got over to the studio and he’d gone to get Jeff. It was the first time we’d seen him since the accident. So Jeff was in the studio with us finishing as it should have been. It was awesome.
There’s still time to catch Sunny in the UK:
26/8 – The Long Road Festival, Lutterworth
30/8 – O2 Academy Islington – London
More information/tickets: sunnysweeney.com/tour
Married Alone will be out September 23rdvia Thirty Tigers. Produced by Paul Cauthen and The Texas Gentlemen’s Beau Bedford. Pre-order or pre-save Married Alone at https://orcd.co/marriedalone
Married Alone track listing:
Tie Me Up (Sunny Sweeney/Buddy Owens/Galen Griffin)
Easy As Hello (Sunny Sweeney/Lori McKenna/Heather Morgan)
Married Alone ft. Vince Gill (Hannah Blaylock/Josh Morningstar/Autumn McEntire)
Someday You’ll Call My Name (Sunny Sweeney/Brennen Leigh)
How’d I End Up Lonely Again (Sunny Sweeney/Channing Wilson/Josh Morningstar)
A Song Can’t Fix Everything ft. Paul Cauthen (Sunny Sweeney/Lori McKenna)
Want You To Miss Me (Sunny Sweeney/Caitlyn Smith)
Wasting One On You (Sunny Sweeney/Buddy Owens/Monty Holmes)
Fool Like Me (Waylon Payne/Kendell Marvel)
All I Don’t Need (Sunny Sweeney/Lori McKenna)
Leaving Is My Middle Name (Sunny Sweeney/ Buddy Owens/Galen Griffin/Scotch Taylor)
Still Here (Sunny Sweeney/Lori McKenna)