As the country singer/songwriter Sunny Sweeney started to work on her fourth album, Trophy, last year, she found herself in an unusual and potentially dangerous predicament: She was composing love songs which she describes as "too stereotypical."
"The biggest fear being a songwriter is being happy -- sometimes if you're happy, you can't really write songs," she tells Billboard. "I got married to the second person, which should've been the first person as it turns out, and he's great. I was writing these songs, like, 'I'll never make a record with these.' I don't do love songs; I just never have."
Sweeney is speaking on the phone from Austin, where she lives, sitting in her car in the parking lot of a local Starbucks during the midst of SXSW madness. She just finished a short tour of the East Coast, including a stop in New York City, Sweeney's home for two years, where she smoothly parallel-parked her band's van and trailer on 26th street as her musicians looked on in awe. Trophy came out last Friday, and Sweeney will perform music from the record multiple times this week around Austin.
Trophy is Sweeney's fourth full-length and second as an independent artist. After releasing a record on Big Machine and another on Republic, she parted ways with the majors and made Provoked, a playful, penetrating record that sported contributions from crack songwriters like Ashley Monroe, Natalie Hemby, Brandy Clark, and Angaleena Presley.
Joining the ranks of country's independent artists meant that she didn't stand a chance of being played on her genre's mainstream radio outlets, but she was embraced by programmers in her native Texas, where two singles, "Bad Girl Phase" and "My Bed," went to No. 1. This marked Sweeney as the first-ever female singer to send two consecutive singles to the top of the Texas Regional Radio Report.
"You want to get on radio," she admits, "because that's where the money is, and as an indie artist, that helps everything. We're traveling down the road in a van and trailer; we're not high-falutin' at all. [We're] just trying to get to the next show, and every penny helps."
But Sweeney dispensed with the radio promotion budget this time around. "We made a record and were just like, 'Whatever, I hope y'all like it,'" she says. "[Producer] Dave [Brainard] did an interview the other day and said, 'This is my don't-give-a-shit record.'"
To find a way around the "stereotypical" love song problem that plagued her initial writing efforts, Sweeney mined ideas from friends, family, and co-writers; she also found things to speak about from her own life that she'd previously been less willing to touch -- the regret she feels about being married to the wrong person for years ("Grow Old With Me"), and anxieties around being childless ("Bottle By My Bed").
"I do wish I would've found my husband 15 years ago," Sweeney says. "But I normally wouldn't talk about that. And the baby [song] -- I spent my 20s trying to not get pregnant. And then the 30s roll around, and you want a kid. My sisters have a kid, my brother's got a kid; it starts to hit you in the face. Am I not going to have one? Is that not in my cards?"
She co-wrote these two songs -- as well as two others on Trophy -- with Lori McKenna, who has helped pen the Grammy winner in the best country song category two years running. "There's a lot of people that I've been fortunate enough to write with that bring out something in me," Sweeney explains. "[McKenna]'s a hard-hitter, that's for sure."
Sweeney came up with the first line and title of "Bottle By My Bed" years ago; the song revolves around a devastating, simple misdirection -- the listener expects the bottle in the title to be filled with booze, nodding to a common country trope, but in fact the bottle is of the infant-friendly variety. "I'd mentioned it to a couple of people, and most of the people were like, 'it sounds like a drinking song,'" Sweeney remembers. "That's the point."
Though the concept initially faced resistance, she's been pleased with the reaction to the "Bottle By My Bed." "There's a lot of things that people [I know] have been through, that my husband and I have been through, and yet we never talked about it until they heard that song," she says. "It's something you don't want to talk about, because it makes you feel like you're broken."
Trophy is Sweeney's first collaboration with Brainard, whom she had wanted to to work with ever since since hearing his production on Brandy Clark's debut, 12 Stories. "Her voice is out there -- as a female singer, your voice in the mix is everything, and I feel like your voice needs to be out front." Sweeney says. She ran into Brainard at a bar in Nashville and asked him to grab a coffee; when they met again, Sweeney offered him a no-nonsense proposition: "I was like, 'So you in or you out?'" she recalls.
Brainard came aboard, and Sweeney is a total convert to his recording process. "Usually you track everything, do basic scratch vocals, band plays it, the producer's like, 'Try it this way,' the band plays it one more time, and then it's tracked, and you're stuck with it." Instead, Brainard "starts backwards," building songs around acoustic sketches, gradually adding various stringed instruments, eventually putting on lead guitar, and then bass and drums last.
"I've tracked things before and left and been like, 'Damn, that wasn't exactly what I wanted," Sweeney says. "[This approach] allows you to change things. I'll never make another record not like that."
Trophy is a purposefully rugged album -- on "Why People Change," Sweeney and Brainard left in a false start by the band, so the track begins twice -- though more subdued than Sweeney's last release, tending more towards ballads than slashing country rock. One of the finest moments is "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight," which proceeds like a waltz and praises country as functional music: "When I'm real high I play rock and roll/ I play country when I'm losin' control/ I don't play Chuck Berry quite as much as I'd like/ I feel like Hank Williams tonight."
Though Sweeney sells this melancholy number and worries about her happiness potentially smothering her songwriting impulse, she is exceptionally cheerful on the phone. "You'd think after 15 years, I'd be like, 'wah-wah-wah,'" she says. "But dude, what else am I gonna do? I'm gonna go work at a desk? No!"
"I work for myself, I get to wear whatever I want, I work when I want, I can say no, I choose who I work with," she continues. "It's the best job that I could have ever imagined myself. And I get paid for it."