Singer Avery*Sunshine might not be a household name, but it shouldn’t be long before more folks are connected to her funky gumbo of soul, jazz and gospel. Having released her self-titled debut outing three years back, her latest, The SunRoom, expands on the singer’s aural ideas about mixing various genres and discovering what kind of sounds can take shape.
Experimenting sonically with musical partner/co-producer Dana Johnson, the two retreated to their Atlanta-based studio and emerged three months later with the scorching tracks (including “Call Your Name,” the moving first single). “Although I grew up singing and playing piano in church, soul music was always a big part of my life,” Sunshine—who hails from Chester, Pennsylvania—explains.
Born Denise Nicole White, Sunshine “can remember being a little girl, and while Mom was making oatmeal or Thomas’s English Muffins, she’d have the radio playing the Whispers or Al Green.” A divorced mother of two, Sunshine’s parents have since relocated to Atlanta to help her with the children.
Citing the soul/gospel musical collision heard in the songs of Jodeci and D’Angelo, it was that same kind of “pure and honest” sound Sunshine reflected on while creating her own music. “Songs like ‘Forever My Lady’ and ‘Higher’ changed my life, because there wasn’t a distinction between soul and gospel; the music became something else.”
Although Avery was raised within miles of Philadelphia during the period when The Roots, Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild were performing at various local venues, Avery never spent much time in the brotherly love city. “People sometimes tell me that my music has a Philly sound, but I don’t know what that means,” says the 38-year-old singer, laughing. “I wasn’t really a part of that scene.”
Moving to Atlanta after high school to attend the storied Spelman College, she soon met musician Dana Johnson, who was then a student across the street at Morehouse. The two worked together at church (though she was his boss, Avery later got fired) and decided to collaborate as part of a larger group. However, Avery and Dana soon found themselves making music together.
“For both of Avery’s albums, the process was very much the same,” says Johnson. “Sometimes we come up with concepts, but more times than not we start with a melody or a couple of words and the song builds up from there.” A classically trained guitarist, Johnson has also worked with India.Aire.
“Me and Avery’s musical relationship is like a conversation,” he remarks. Drawing on influences that range from the Clark Sisters to James Brown, the duo wasn’t trying to make flashy radio hits; they just wanted what felt right.
While Avery*Sunshine’s first project featured the soul singles “All in Head” and “Ugly Part of Me,” it actually crossed her mind to make her sophomore joint completely gospel. “We went back and forth about it, but in the end, we decided to just do the music we liked. We figured if we liked it, maybe one or two other people might like it as well.” “Call My Name,” The SunRoom’s heartfelt single, is a breakup to makeup anthem that urges couples to try communication.
“I wanted to do a song that would urge people who are supposed to be in love with one another to talk, especially during those times you feel as though the relationship is dry and stale,” Sunshine says. “Relationships take work. It’s not all fun and games. We have to learn to be conversational instead of combative.
Since the release of their first project in 2011, the two friends have also been on the road throughout Europe and the States, with Avery behind the wheel. “I drove and Dana played guitar up and down the road,” says Sunshine. Overseas, she fell in love with London and Amsterdam, while stateside, it was all about Fort Lauderdale and Miami. “It was all so exciting, daunting and new.”
In between recording, performing and speeding down the highway, Avery enjoys watching clips of old school singers on YouTube. “I recently found one of Lena Horne and Judy Garland performing together and it was so good!” she says excitedly. “Sometimes artists don’t need all the vocal dramatics, just the simplicity of pure singing is enough. People like Garland and Horne—and I have to include Luther Vandross in there—they knew how to phrase a line and just deliver the song perfectly.”
With The SunRoom released in two weeks, Avery Sunshine and Dana Johnson will once again be on trucking down crowded highways and lonesome roads. With planned performances in New York City, Chicago and Oakland, Avery says, “I’m looking forward to doing shows with the O’Jays and Angela Winbush. She is a two-time cancer survivor and she’s still on stage struttin’ in high heels and playing guitar. I just love her.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.