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Interview: Sugar & the Hi-Lows Channel the Classics On New Album ‘High Roller’
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week, Band of the Week, Features, Interviews

“The first writing session that we had was the easiest and most comfortable co-write you could ask for,” Trent Dabbs told me on a warm day in February in Nashville sitting inside his publicist’s office on Music Row. He, of course, was talking about his Sugar & the Hi-Lows bandmate Amy Stroup.

Dabbs, a well-known solo artist and producer, formed Sugar and the Hi-Lows with Stroup in 2012 after several productive co-writes where he recalls the songs were practically writing themselves.

“The more that Amy and I would write, the more inspired we felt, the more the songs were taking shape and getting better,” he adds. “I personally never felt like we plateaued as writers. We were only gaining momentum.”

Meanwhile, Stroup remembers her first co-write with Dabbs as being one of her favorite co-writes ever. One of the songs they wrote, “This Can’t Be the Last Time” appeared on their self-titled debut in 2012 after both artists decided it was time to start a band together.

While they’ve been together for a few years now, Sugar & the Hi-Lows’s sophomore album High Roller marks a new journey. The duo have further cemented their reputation as a must-see live act and dates opening for Kacey Musgraves continue to get their music out to a much bigger audience. The title track they wrote with Barry Dean, who Dabbs previously wrote Ingrid Michaelson’s “Girls Chase Boys” with, which also happened to be the first co-write for the duo.

 

“When he wrote with us, I could just feel that he was bringing out any shamelessness or quirks or anything that we had that we were hesitant to bring,” Dabbs admits. “I think that’s what makes a cool writer. We wanted to do a song that’s a straight up dance move that you can’t help but move around to. We played it at the Grand Ole Opry and no one was in their seat. There were people in the aisles. I felt like I was in The Blues Brothers.”

Stroup is quick to add that while writing “High Roller” she wanted to create a specific dance for the song inspired by her bandmates’ fancy footwork which is often highlighted at their live shows.

“I remember thinking, there are dances in the ‘60s, there are all these titles of songs, the shimmy and some of the ones we use in the second verse that we call out. ‘The Macarena’ was a huge song in the ‘90s. We were like, ‘Let’s try a modern day one that fits Sugar and the Hi-Lows.’”

So what exactly does that dance look like? The band show off some of their moves in the music video for the song above.

Highlights on the album include “Bees Love the Trees,” a title that Dabbs says was all Stroup’s idea. “I don’t know where in the world it came from,” he laughs, adding that it was a certain feeling they were chasing in their co-write.

“We were playfully calling out Music Row,” Stroup admits. “If you think about Johnny Cash style, if you remember, he released the Billboard article flicking off Music Row. There’s this badass sentiment, ‘We don’t need Music Row. Let’s be ourselves and see what happens,’” she says of the song.

While Stroup admits that they’re not flicking off Music Row per say, the song instead gives a nod to the rebels and artists who have forged their own path like Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, Jack White and Johnny Cash.

“There’s still something to offer when people seemingly don’t have all the attention of the corporate world looking on them. There’s still room for greatness coming out of these people time and time again,” she adds.

The album also includes “I Don’t Get High,” a song Dabbs says was an original way to tackle a love song, as well as “Right Time to Tell You” which is based around indecision. “If you listen to it, it feels like it has no finality but in the very last line it does,” Dabbs says. “It is about not wanting someone to leave, not letting them go. It’s a conversation I got from others.”

While Stroup admits that it’s scary to be so honest in co-writes, she says that writing with Dabbs allows her to say what she’s really feeling.

“There is some form of overcoming that, ‘Alright, this is how I feel and I’m just going to say it.’ Those are the songs that get me. I hope we can do that.”

Having frequently been compared to Carla Thomas and Otis Redding, it is this compliment that the duo don’t take lightly. In fact, Dabbs grew up listening to these classic singers and credits Redding and his father for influencing the band’s music.

“Listening to the classics like we did growing up and having a father say music isn’t good unless you can dance to it, helped us try to write songs that were more upbeat,” Dabbs said.

As for the comparisons to Redding and Thomas?

“You realize that you’re a ripple on a wave in an ocean and you’re just lucky to be in the ocean. I am thankful to be in the ocean and have influence on anyone,” he concludes.

Sugar & the Hi-Lows sophomore album High Roller is available now.

June 23, 2015 | | (0) comment comment
Artist of the Week: Kristian Bush
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week

Kristian Bush

Not many people have heard Kristian Bush‘s upcoming solo album Southern Gravity, which is due for release April 7. So, when I sit down with the country singer in Nashville for an interview and tell him I love what I’ve heard, he jumps out of his seat, a smile beaming across his face, and gives me a big hug.

“So very people have heard it, and I’m freaking out because fans are pre-ordering now, and it hit me two days ago,” he says excitedly. His voice is softer now, like he’s sharing a secret between friends. He’s genuinely excited about getting his new music out into the world, but also, understandably, a little anxious. This is, after all, his first solo album since his band Sugarland went on hiatus.

Fans, apparently, are excited to hear the music, too. As Bush relates, “When all those orders came in, they called me and said, ‘We’re out of the pre-orders. We need to reorder again.’ And I was like, ‘OK! That’s good news.’ And 20 minutes later I was like, ‘Oh no, they’re all going to hear it!’ It’s all starting to sink in.”

While country fans know Bush very well as one-half of Sugarland, many aren’t too familiar with his voice (his Sugarland partner Jennifer Nettles handles lead vocals). This fact is not lost on him. And the excitement for an album release isn’t, either.

“In a weird way, this is my third first record,” he says with a laugh. “I remember the first record with Billy Pilgrim, and I remember the first record with Sugarland, and this has the same energy. Most people who hear the music now, they don’t know it’s me because they’re not very familiar with it, because I didn’t sing very much in Sugarland. So it truly is, ‘Hello, my name is Kristian.’”

Bush says his new music will be a discovery process of sorts for people, as they’re now just figuring out what part of the DNA of the band he is.

“If you’re just a complete stranger and you’re like, ‘I love that song. Who’s that?’ That’s fun for me,” he admits. “It’s nerve-wracking and kind of fantastic.”

Interestingly enough, Bush said not even his closest friends have put his voice and his current single “Trailer Hitch” together.

“They don’t connect the dots yet,” he says. “That’s the piece I think that’s interesting about that song. As soon as they start to go, ‘Oh!’ Then it’s the fun and the stories and the grooves you expect from Sugarland, except it’s me singing.”

 

 

Read my complete interview with Kristian Bush on Radio.com. His debut solo album, Southern Gravity, will be released on April 7.

March 31, 2015 | | (0) comment comment
Artist of the Week: Mat Kearney
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week, Band of the Week

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(Courtesy: Republic Records)

On his fifth studio album Just Kids, which hit stores last month, Mat Kearney gets reflective. Throughout much of the album, the singer-songwriter looks back on his childhood and the beginning stages of his career.

As the Eugene, Oregon native explains, his parents moving the family away from his hometown when he was in middle school had a significant impact on him and influenced who he would become as a person.

“You’re mourning the loss of your hometown,” he reflects regarding that move. “A lot of Just Kids was written about that season of my life.”

Just Kids, however, reintroduces Kearney’s hip-hop side, something fans haven’t heard much of since his debut album Bullet in 2004.

“I think as an artist, maybe this is good or bad, but whatever I did before usually the opposite interests me the next time around,” he admits with a laugh. “The whole spoken word thing, maybe it’s reflecting on that season of my life and when I first started.”

Kearney admits that Just Kids is very autobiographical. On “Los Angeles,” he tells the tale of picking up and driving 29 hours from Nashville to Los Angeles when a friend offers up his studio to record.

“I think that was the season when I realized how important music was to me…that I would drive across the country, basically move for six weeks to be in a creative environment with people,” he reflects. “It was really becoming my first love, true love at that point.”

In between the nostalgic songs like “Los Angeles” and “One Black Sheep,” where Kearney likens himself to being the black sheep in his family, there are ’80s and ’90s pop-influenced love songs inspired by his wife, including his first two singles off the record, “Billion” and “Heartbeat.”

“She appreciates it but she isn’t affected like maybe someone would be,” he says, when asked if his wife enjoys being his muse. “It doesn’t get me out of taking the trash out. When I write, she’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a cool song.’ I’m like, ‘People pay to see me sing these, babe.’ She’s like, ‘OK, that’s cool.’ She’s very unimpressed, which is a healthy thing in our relationship.”

 

 

Read more of my interview with Mat Kearney at Radio.com.

March 8, 2015 | | (0) comment comment
Band of the Week: The Bros. Landreth
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week, Band of the Week, Interviews, Q&A

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(Courtesy: Shore Fire Media)

On a cold Friday night in January, silence came over a packed crowd at New York’s famed rock club Mercury Lounge. Not the norm for the often sweaty and loud venue, the Bros. Landreth were halfway into their soulful set when lead singer Joey Landreth began to sing “Let It Lie,” the poignant title track off their debut album released earlier that week (Jan. 27).

While the character in the song tells his lover that it’s time to move on, his voice tells a different story. Quiet, full of regret and endless questioning, Joey urges her to let things go while standing alone at the edge of the stage. Soon after, the band joined in. They lessened the quiet, but the crowd remained mesmerized.

Who are these people who can instill such quiet reverence among a normally rowdy audience at an NYC rock club? What is their secret?

The Bros. Landreth hail from Canada, made up of brothers Joey and Dave Landreth and longtime friends Ryan Voth and Ariel Posen. Taking influences from Americana, country, blues and rock, the Bros. Landreth feel like a combination of the Allman Brothers Band and the Eagles, with their blues-inspired guitar licks and memorable harmonies working alongside the pop sensibility and guitar virtuosity of a singer-songwriter like John Mayer.

 

 

“Those bands and artists are people who we have definitely spent a lot of time listening to and appreciating,” Joey Landreth says of the comparisons to the Allmans and the Eagles. “When someone picks out your influences like that, it’s pretty touching and very encouraging.”

As far as John Mayer’s influence, guitarist Ariel Posen said the singer changed his outlook on guitar music. “He opened my palette to a whole new style of music I wasn’t really listening to,” Posen confesses.

Bandmate Dave agrees, recalling his former band having played many Mayer covers. But what he most respects about the singer-songwriter is that he stuck to his guns and did his own thing musically.

“He put out a very pop record, and then he built on it, and then he abandoned it to chase down another thing, and then he put out Continuum, which was incredible,” Dave says. “Then he put out that blues record, which was so much fun and he got to shred all over it. And then his last two records are totally beautiful, grown up mature records. I respect the music, respect the man, respect the arc of his career and commitment to his integrity.”

Not unlike Mayer, the Bros. Landreth blend all these influences and passions on their debut album Let It Lie. While Joey admits it is a breakup album, he said it wasn’t intended as such.

“I think it’s served a purpose for some listeners to hopefully be catharsis for them as well. I think it has been,” Joey reflects. He adds, “We met a really drunk, brokenhearted dude one night, and he pulled me aside and was like, ‘Man, number 7.’ He was talking about the seventh song on the record. It was all he could muster.”

Dave Landreth explains that while the writing and recording process is an emotional catharsis for them, it is also a way to connect with music fans.

“When you hit those real poignant moments and connect with someone and their story, and you know that you’ve struck a chord, and for just a second that makes them feel better or pause to think, that’s really cool,” he says. “It’s a neat way to connect with complete strangers.”

For my complete interview with the Bros. Landreth, visit Radio.com.

February 22, 2015 | | (0) comment comment
Artist of the Week: Joshua Radin
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week

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Nearly six years ago, I interviewed singer-songwriter Joshua Radin for Marie Claire. I remember being struck by his honesty about the music industry, his former record label and songwriting. In December, I had the opportunity to catch up with Joshua again before he released his sixth studio album, Onward and Sideways. Just like in 2009, he was extremely open about his recording process and I learned that he first picked up guitar at 30, never with the intention of making a career out of it. Below is an excerpt of my interview.

When singer-songwriter Joshua Radin sat down in his hotel room in Stockholm to write a song to make a new flame fall in love with him, he had no intention for anyone else to hear the music.

“My motivation was to woo her in the old romantic sense of the word,” the 40-year-old singer told me during a phone conversation from his home in L.A. “I would lay in bed all day with the BBC on mute and I would just write, thinking, ‘Will this song make her fall in love with me?’ I wasn’t even thinking of recording the songs for anybody but her.”

Soon enough he had a full body of work, and since the songs did what he set out to accomplish (she fell in love with him and now lives with Radin in L.A.), he decided to release them into the world as his sixth studio album, Onward and Sideways, which was released earlier this month.

“If they had not been successful I might have scrapped them. They are in the true sense a love letter,” Radin says.

Recorded in Stockholm and L.A., Onward and Sideways is 13 tracks of Radin’s delicate singing and vivid storytelling. From the early stages of a relationship on “Another Beginning” to the uncertainty of how to tell his sweetheart how he feels on “Blow Away,” it is as if the listener is inside that Stockholm hotel room as Radin performs the songs.

Which is exactly what he intended. “It’s like I’m telling a story to one person and they’re eavesdropping in a conversation,” he says. “There’s no way I would have been able to tell this woman how I truly felt about her, unless I wrote it in song.”

When asked if the songs from Onward and Sideways convinced his girlfriend to move to L.A. with him, he laughs.

“Hopefully it was not just the songs,” Radin reflects. “That’s why I really, really love this album, because what it accomplished is exactly what I wanted it to accomplish. Even if it sells just 10 copies, it’s OK. If it doesn’t do well at all commercially, it’s not the end of the world. It’s already achieved what I wanted it to achieve.”

Read my complete interview with Joshua Radin at Radio.com. You can hear his music in the latest Subaru commercial below.

 

January 26, 2015 | | (0) comment comment
Artist of the Week: Hailey Tuck
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week

hailey tuck

On Friday, (Jan. 16) Hailey Tuck made her New York debut to a packed crowd at Joe’s Pub. Taking the stage shortly after midnight, in a vintage dress and with a mesmerizing voice, it was evident from the very first song that Tuck would leave the crowd wanting more jazz in their lives.

She kicked the night off with a jazzy cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Standing in front of a piano, drum kit and upright bass, it was as if Tuck transported the audience to the roaring 1920s with her voice and jazz-styled songs.

 

 

Whether it was the classics or her own take on Maroon 5′s “Sunday Morning,” she impressed. Prefacing “Sunday Morning,” Tuck dedicated the song to the guitarist of Maroon 5 who dated her sister. “I was in love with him. I hope if he hears it he’ll realize he dated the wrong sister,” she said of her childhood crush on James Valentine at the song’s close.

Other highlights included a cover of The Zombies “Tell Her No” as well as Tuck’s own originals like “So In Love.” While she admitted that she planned to get by as a jazz singer by just performing the classics, she said multiple people urged her to write her own music and she soon thought otherwise.

Tuck got her start as a singer at 18 when she bought a one-way ticket to Paris with the dream to become a jazz performer. The Texas native is now readying a new EP, which is due out later this year.

 

January 20, 2015 | | (0) comment comment
Artist of the Week: Caitlyn Smith
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week

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(Credit: Spencer Combs)

Caitlyn Smith has been writing for as long as she can remember. As a kid, she’d sit in her bedroom for hours coming up with stories and songs.

“I started writing when I was 8 years old,” she told me over coffee during a recent visit to New York. “And instead of doing the normal kid thing of sports, I would come home from school and go into my closet and push the dresser all the way to the side and sit in my closet and write. I would write poetry. I would write songs. I would just make stuff up for hours.”

All that practice came to fruition last year when the country singer-songwriter heard a song she had written on the radio for the first time. It was a song she’d written with her husband, Rollie Gaalswyk, over a bottle of red wine called “Wasting All These Tears,” which was recorded by Cassadee Pope.

“He [Gaalswyk] was in the garage and had the radio on, and the song came on and he runs in the house and he’s like, ‘Get out here!’ And so I run out into the garage and we turn it up all the way and dance around our garage. It was just a super magical moment. Really, really fun,” she recalls with a big smile.

 

 

To some, it might sound strange to write a breakup song like “Wasting All These Tears” with your husband, but for Smith it’s just another day at work.

“We’re both writers and we both have crazy ideas and crazy lines coming,” she admits. “I don’t always write from, ‘I have lived every word of this song.’ Sometimes when you write you put on an actor hat and you can play a different character, which makes writing breakup songs with your husband a little easier.”

She says that the two of them “keep doing it because we like writing with each other. Sometimes it ends in a fight,” she laughs, “and sometimes it’s awesome.”

“Wasting All These Tears” became a platinum-selling single for Pope. But it’s not the only song that has helped raise Smith’s profile as a writer. Her catalog also includes songs that have been cut by such high-profile artists as Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (the GRAMMY-nominated “You Can’t Make Old Friends”), Lady Antebellum (“747″), Rascal Flatts (“Let It Hurt”) and even Garth Brooks (“Tacoma”). More recently, Smith has her writing credit on Meghan Trainor’s new album Title where Trainor duets with John Legend on a song called “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.”

In addition to songwriting, Smith has been a performer as well for years. She’s recorded and released several albums on her own—her first at 15 years old—and just this past fall released a seven-song EP titled Everything To You. While “Tacoma” isn’t on the track list, the EP does include Smith’s own version of “Wasting All These Tears,” along with six more tracks that showcase her powerful storytelling.

 

 

For more of my interview with Caitlyn Smith, visit Radio.com.

January 13, 2015 | | (0) comment comment
Artist of the Week: Sam Hunt
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week, Band of the Week

For country fans, Sam Hunt is no new name. He’s the songwriter behind many hits you’ve heard on the radio including Kenny Chesney’s “Come Over,” Keith Urban’s “Cop Car” and Billy Currington’s “We Are Tonight.” But last week, his first song as an artist — “Leave the Night On” — went to No. 1 on the country charts. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it crosses over into the pop world. With slick beats, rapid fire lyrics and his blend of R&B and country it’s easy to picture hearing the country artist alongside the likes of Drake and Ed Sheeran on the radio.

Hunt is now part of these two worlds colliding, explaining that his first love is country music, but the “best way to represent me as an artist is that R&B side…the R&B thing is the strongest for me and I feel like I can do it the best.”

“I never listened to a lot of Drake but I imagine that Drake and I are influenced by a lot of the same people,” Sam told me. “There was definitely a sound that was heard throughout ’90s R&B. I think that influenced a lot of what I’m doing. I remember the first time I listened to Usher. I was blown away by that vibe and I think that stuck with me since then.”

 

It’s taken Sam a few years to pinpoint his own sound, but he’s finally found it with his first album, Montevallo, which dropped on Oct. 27. On his debut, Hunt blends country and R&B to make his own kind of music. For more of my interview with Sam, visit Radio.com or watch the video above. Catch Sam currently on tour with Kip Moore and Charlie Worsham.

November 12, 2014 | | (0) comment comment
Artist of the Week: Angaleena Presley
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week, Band of the Week

angaleenapresley

I had the pleasure of talking with country singer-songwriter Angaleena Presley, known for her role in country girl band the Pistol Annies alongside Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, over the summer while she was in New York promoting her debut solo album, American Middle Class, which was released today. While preparing for our interview, I had her album on repeat and was struck by her honesty in every song. She sang things many of us would never openly admit and in her bio she stated that she has trouble not being honest. I had a pretty good feeling she’d be open to sharing the stories behind her songs as she’s said they are her autobiography, but I never fathomed she would completely let her guard down.

Throughout our interview, Angaleena opened up about her previous marriage, her hometown which is dealing with a serious pain medication epidemic and described the most honest songs on her record in so much depth. I was struck by her honesty and walked away wanting to re-listen to all her songs since I now knew the stories behind so many of them. Below is an excerpt from my interview with Angaleena. For the complete article, visit Radio.com.

“I got introduced to the world as Holler Annie with these two blondes beside me,” she told me. “I feel like I had to get in a band, make history and kick down a door so I could walk through it as a solo artist…I’m an older artist and I could sit there and be like, ‘Oh this should have happened.’ No. If it didn’t happen like this, you wouldn’t have had this story to write or this song that so many people connect with. I feel like everything happened the way it was supposed to happen for me.”

One song that strikes a chord on American Middle Class is “Pain Pills,” which Presley says is a protest song about the struggle coal mining communities face with prescription medication, specifically Oxycontin. It’s something that hits close to home for the singer.

“I started [that song] as I was on my way home from a funeral,” she says. “A friend of mine from high school OD’d [and] at the funeral the mom was walking in going, ‘Oh they had a heart problem. It was a heart issue.’ We knew what was going on. This is when I realized, this is starting to become a problem.”

Presley gets emotional when she talks of the song and the “hush-hush culture” that surrounds prescription drug addiction in her small hometown of Beauty, K.Y., where she says the problem is worse than most other places in the country. It took her four years to finish writing “Pain Pills” and once she did she learned of a family member who was suffering with the same pills she’s singing about.

“Addiction has really changed the face of my personal life and a lot of things in my family. That song just haunts me,” she says. “If there’s anything I would get up on a soapbox for, it’s prescription medication. I just think it’s a travesty how careless doctors are with that stuff. It still happens. You don’t hand a 16-year-old a bottle of heroin and say, ‘Here you go. Just quit taking these after 12.’ Let’s start talking about it, let’s get some resources, let’s get some help.”

Watch Angaleena Presley make her debut on the Late Show with David Letterman below playing the title track of her album, “American Middle Class.”

 

October 14, 2014 | | (0) comment comment
Artist of the Week: Kip Moore
CATEGORIES: Artist of the Week

KipM_JW-10_3315_HIres

I can’t remember the first time I heard a song by Kip Moore but then again I can’t remember not being a fan of the country singer-songwriter. Maybe it was on the radio or perhaps it popped up at work while streaming country music videos on VEVO. I do know though, that last year his 2012 debut album Up All Night was my most listened to album of the year.

In a world where singles trump album purchases, Up All Night is one of those albums you have to listen to all the way through. From the more upbeat party songs like “Beer Money” and “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” to the poignant “Hey Pretty Girl” and “Faith When I Fall,” the album has it all. As does his live show.

On Thursday (Sept. 25), Kip kicked off his first major headlining tour at New York’s Best Buy Theater which also included openers Sam Hunt and Charlie Worsham. Kip’s nearly two-hour performance during the first date of the CMT Up In Smoke Tour left a lasting impression as fans sang along for the hits as well as his deeper cuts. And, when it was time for his new material everyone paid attention.

“How many of you have been waiting for the record to come out?” Kip asked halfway through his set. “I want to give y’all the most amazing record I can possibly give. A new single is dropping the first of the year and a record to follow.”

In the meantime, he told the crowd he decided to release a new EP called Soundcheck. The five-track EP includes his No. 1 hit “Beer Money” as well as four other previously unreleased songs that were all recorded in Nashville. Prefacing “Heart’s Desire” off the EP, he said the song was the loneliest he has ever felt.

Singing of how he “let love slip through my fingertips,” he vividly got his point across with his slowed, raspy yearning vocals and stripped down instrumentals. Listen to the track, along with four others on his new EP below.

Additional highlights throughout the night included the acoustic “Hey Pretty Girl” and a lively performance of “Fly Again,” in which he walked the audience through the three stages of heartbreak before assuring us all that everything will be okay.

“It’s a damn good life hanging out with y’all. Thanks for giving us a life,” he said before segueing into gritty new track “Lipstick.”

Before he closed the night with an energetic performance of “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” and then an encore of “Faith When I Fall” and “Free Fallin’” he once again thanked his fans for sticking with him over the years.

“We were traveling for many, many years before you heard us on the radio. It’s all about you guys. I don’t give a shit except making music for you guys.”

September 29, 2014 | | (0) comment comment
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