Earning justifiable rave reviews from both sides of the Atlantic for her stunning self-titled debut album, Atlanta-based Avery Sunshine is feeling understandably positive about her musical journey. David Nathan feels the glow...
David Nathan: I want to welcome to Soulmusic.com, a new recording artist, well from my perspective a new recording artist, whose debut album has just come out in the UK on Dome Records. I do get quite a few records from people, and some I listen to, and some I like and some I think are just okay, and when I listened to this one, I said, “Who is this?” It’s a really great record, and I knew I had to do an interview for Soulmusic.com. I want to welcome today, Avery Sunshine.
Avery Sunshine: Oh, thank you honey! That means a lot to me. You haven’t even asked me anything yet, but I have to say, after seven years, my partner and I worked on that album, and we didn’t know what the world was going to think, we just did it kind of blindly. God, whatever songs you give us, we will do them, and whatever happens happens. To hear you say that it’s good is a great feeling.
DN: Thank you. I should say that I did get a little bit of a heads-up from one of our Soulmusic.com contributors, Soul Jones here in London wrote a wonderful blog piece on Soulmusic.com and he mentioned it before I even got the record. I take his opinion quite seriously, and he considered it to be a great record, and when I heard it I absolutely agreed with him. I’m sure that our readers and those who are going to be listening to this audio stream probably don’t know too much about you, so I’m going to ask you about the history that came before making this album. Tell us about when you first got involved in music, and how that all transpired.
AS: I started playing piano at 8, I was directing choirs when I was 13, and by the time I was 17 or 18, I joined a recording choir made up of people from the Tri-State area, and that was my first experience with the industry, records and labels and all. I was part of a choir, so it wasn’t really me, but I think I knew then that I needed to be in the industry. I left at 18 and went to Spellman College, majored in piano, and met my children’s Godmother, her name is Maia Wilson, she’s on Broadway, she’s incredible. We met at Spellman, and started a group. We said, “Here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to sing and make beautiful music,” but she ended up getting the role in The Wiz and I was so glad for her, but it left me here, and my current partner Dana Johnson said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know if I want to be an artist by myself,” and one day we wrote a song and I called him and said, “I need you to write this song with me. All I have is a hook.” The song was called “Stalk You”, and the hook goes, “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind (singing)” The record was picked up by a guy named Chris Brann, who produced the song. He said, “Listen, we’re going to be travelling to Japan to promote this thing. What do you want to do?” That was the beginning of my real taste of the industry, looking at a record with my name on it and a song that I had written on it, and that was seven years ago. I can go to Japan and people see me singing, and it’s absolutely wonderful. I walked on the stage, and we were on top of some mountain for some huge festival…
DN: Mt Fuji?
AS: Yes! It was a festival, and I walked out on the stage and there were people as far as I could see. Nobody knew me, but when I walked out on that stage, people went bananas before I even sang. I looked behind me like, “Maybe there’s somebody else behind me,” but they heard the song and I think that’s the moment I knew I had to do this. There was just something I could give that they wanted.
DN: What was the name of the song again?
AS: “Stalk You” as in stalker.
DN: Had it only come out in Japan, or had it come out in the US too?
AS: I think they released it here on King Street Records a couple of years ago. It’s part of a project called the Ananda Project. There are some other artists on there as well.
DN: We’ll look for it. After you got a taste for that…
AS: I said, “Dana, we gotta do it!” I had no concept of how to do an album, and he had much experience. He worked with India.Arie and actually won a Grammy, so he was familiar with the process. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do something. He said, “Let’s just do a record,” and we did. He had a full-time job, and I still had my job working at the churches, and in the in-between time, we would get together and write music. We would record in my closet, and wherever we could record, we recorded. We recorded in the kitchen with my Dad frying pork chops, and then seven years later, we had an album.
DN: What was the first song you started out with?
AS: It was “Afraid”, and it’s actually not available here in the States, but it’s the bonus track in Europe. Dana wrote that, and I was actually on the road with Tyler Perry for one of his shows, and Dana said, “Listen. I wrote this song and you gotta hear it.” I hated it, but we recorded it and now I love it.
DN: You said you were on the road with Tyler Perry’s plays. Which one was that?
AS: I was the lead keyboardist for Meet The Browns. That was an incredible experience.
DN: At that point you were living in Atlanta and going to Spellman, so how long have you been an Atlantan?
AS: I’ve been here since ’93, so 17 years. I came here, came to school and fell in love with this place. Believe it or not, I wanted to move to LA or New York, but then I ended up falling in love and having two babies, and I just stayed. I’m so glad I did. I’ve since been divorced, but I needed to be here.
DN: After you did “Afraid,”, which you hated, what was the next song that came along as part of the album?
AS: I don’t know! I think the songs that came next didn’t make the album.
DN: Do you have a whole bunch of songs that are finished, but not on the album?
AS: Yes. We put them together and said, “This is great”. Here’s an example: the song, “Pinin” on the album, my good friend Christian McBride, a superb bass player, we grew up together, and I called him up and said, “I’m doing an album. Please come and do something on this.” Anybody that knows Christian knows that he’s one of the premier bassists in the world, and I had two tunes for him to play on. He was on the road with Chick Corea at the time, and Chris took his vacation time and came here to play on the album. While he was on the way, I readied in the studio like, “We’ve got to have stuff for him to play,” and it was only two tunes! I could not have him come all that way for two songs, so I sat down, and we had already decided what was going to be on the album, and I’ll tell you, I laid my head on the Rhodes keyboard and said, “God, you gotta give me another song. I don’t know what it is, but you gotta give me something.” It’s the strangest thing, I put my fingers on the keys and I started playing “Pinin”. That was it. I never did any of the recording stuff myself, Dana would do that, but this particular day, I recorded it, I sang it, wrote it and everything. I called Dana and said, “I did this song. I don’t know if you’re going to like it, but I recorded it, and Chris needs to play on it.” Needless to say, Dana really liked it, and he made it radio-friendly, because the way I recorded it, it was a hot hell. There were songs that were supposed to be on there, but through Divine Intervention, we got some other tunes, some great tunes I think.
DN: At what point did you have the lineup that’s on this current album? At what point did you say, “This is it.”
AS: I think our partner Ernest Davis was like, “Look. What are you doing? You have to make a decision.” It was about six months ago, so not long ago. They talk about the Gemini in me, and I vacillate. “That’s not the song. Let’s do this one. Let’s do something new.” It took me a minute to really feel like this was the album. I didn’t really feel like this was the album until I hooked up with our mix engineer, and he was like, “Look, you’ve got to decide.” Between he and my partner Ernest, they were like, “You can’t keep adding songs,” So it was not that long before the album was pressed, not long at all.
DN: You do have someone on here who is quite legendary, I’m referring of course to Roy Ayers, so how did that situation evolve?
AS: Divine Intervention again. As you know, I am a graduate of Spellman College, and Dana went to Morehouse, the brother school of Spellman, and every year for homecoming, they have the Alumni come back and perform, and they’ve had me back to perform. Our partner, Ernest Davis about a year ago, he heard our song called “The Most”, the one that’s about our children, and he said, “It would be something else to have Roy Ayers on this album, so I said, “Let’s pray. Let’s ask God to make this happen.” Well, about a year later, we got a call from a Morehouse brother who said, “We’re doing a show with Roy Ayers, and we want Avery Sunshine to open for him and be his MD.” Wow! Are you kidding? And that was it. We had one conversation over the phone before we met, and we met at the rehearsal and it was magic. I call him Uncle Roy now.
DN: That’s amazing.
AS: It is, and I don’t think I really understood the gravity or who he is until after I met him and he told me he’s done 80 albums! How amazing! What a blessing to have him featured on the album, not only singing but playing the vibes too, it’s amazing. Between having Christian McBride and Uncle Roy on the album, I couldn’t ask for more.
DN: You obviously accompany yourself on the album, is that correct?
DN: I’m sure it makes this a little easier for people who are just straight-up singers, correct?
AS: I would agree. There’s a level of control that you have when you’re able to play. There’s something going on tonight and I have to perform. I’m actually doing an Opera, and I have to tell you about that, and Dana said, “You didn’t get the material in time for the lady,” and I said, “Don’t worry about it. Do they have a keyboard?” and they said, “Yes,” so I said, “Don’t worry about it. We’re straight.” We just make it happen from that and not worry about it. If I couldn’t play, that would be a problem. I’m glad my mother made me take lessons, because I wanted to stop. I’m so glad she made me keep it up.
DN: Many contemporary artists don’t play an instrument, and I think it’s an advantage to do that, and that’s a tradition that goes way back.
AS: Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack…
DN: Nina Simone, yes. It’s a great tradition, and there aren’t many people that honour it today.
AS: I’m honoured.
DN: Let’s talk about a couple of the songs. Anyone who picks up the album for the first time, without hearing it is probably going to look at some of the song titles and say, “That’s interesting,” and one of the ones that they’ll look at first because of the interestingness of the title, and I know that’s bad English…
AS: I know what you mean, and I love it. I make up words all the time.
DN: ‘Ugly Part of Me.’
DN: For those who have not heard it, would you like to tell us a little bit about that song and what it is about?
AS: Absolutely. I’ll try to keep it short, but Dana and I were sitting in the living room and my mother was mulling around the kitchen, and Dana and I usually just sit until something happens, and we started talking, but nothing was coming to us and I started talking about this relationship that I had. I said, “I don’t know what happened,” and he said, “It’s like that ugly part of you,” and I said, “Huh,” and I started playing, and the hook came just like that. I was like, “Dana, let’s do it! Let’s record it right now!” That’s the good thing about having someone else to work with. I feed off other people’s energy. It’s not like I’ll take your idea and make it my own, but it really supports the reality that we need each other. There is no way that I could do this by myself. There’s no way. We need each other so. All of these songs, I guess they’re a testament of being able to feed off someone else’s energy and experience. That’s where “Ugly” came from; I was acting crazy, and I didn’t know how to say it, and Dana said, “It’s that ugly part of you.” I said, “You’re right! Let’s write a song about it.” I don’t mean to be that way, but it’s that Yin Yang thing; with the light, there’s also darkness that exists in everybody. Even Jesus said, “God, why have you forsaken me?” Even Jesus questioned God. Can I say that?
DN: Well, you said it now.
AS: I did! It’s really interesting how I can talk about Jesus sometimes, just like I can talk about Mohamed or Buddha. It’s interesting because of my upbringing and the industry, and having to decide what I’m doing. At the moment that Dana and I said, “We’re going to let God do this,” I wasn’t worried about God, if I sing a song about my man, if I sing a song about Jesus, whatever, I’ll just let it come out. I was afraid of that initially, because I thought people were not going to get it, but all these things are in me, so how could they be wrong? They make up Avery Sunshine, and they make up Denise, because that’s who I am. It can’t be wrong, so we’re going to go with it.
DN: Since you made that reference, I’m going to ask you about the song “Blessin’ Me”, because that is in keeping with what you just shared with us. It is an inspirational song and very much about what you just referenced, so I don’t know if there’s any more you want to say about it, but if there is, please do.
AS: It’s a reminder that we can’t do anything by ourselves, that we are spirit and man. Just like I need people around me to feed into me, I need God too and I acknowledge that it is God that has allowed me to be here, it is God that has given us those songs, and it is God at the center of all this, so there is no way that I could do an album and not make that very clear. The other side to that is, to tell somebody, “Don’t worry about yesterday, don’t worry about tomorrow, right now you’re blessed.” I don’t care if you’re sitting in jail, you’re blessed because you’re sitting somewhere, and your eyes are open. The CEO of a Fortune 500 company is blessed. Don’t worry about tomorrow, and yesterday is gone, so don’t worry about that. Right now, I’m blessed. I believe you are that which you meditate on day and night. If I say I’m blessed, that’s what I am and that’s what I’m going to seek out if I keep seeking. A good friend of mine is playing on this album named Takana Miyamoto and she is again one of the premier Jazz and Classical pianists in the world. She was giving me a piano lesson a couple of years ago, and she is just amazing. She said to me, “There was a study done where there was some rice put in two bowls with water, and whoever did the experiment, they would speak nicely to one of the bowls like, “I love you, rice,” and the other one, they’d say terrible things to like, “I hate you.” The one that they said the terrible things to, over a course of a couple of days, it started to turn dark and disgusting. The other one did not. The most amazing thing, I’ll never forget. The conversation with her changed my life. We decide, God has given us that power, to decide how wonderful we’re going to be, or not. I think that’s the power that God has given us. I can speak life or I can speak death, and I didn’t need to get into that whole thing, but I’m grateful. Even with you saying you liked the music…
DN: Loved it. I did say love.
AS: I appreciate that. I’m elated, I am. I’m a talker, too.
DN: That’s okay. I want to now switch to another side of life that I think you expressed in a song called “Just Not Tonight.” We went from the spiritual to the physical.
AS: To the center! I’m kind of kidding.
DN: It’s interesting, I want to give you a little P.S. because as I eluded to before we started recording this interview, one of the people I interviewed yesterday in fact, was my good friend Sandra St Victor, and in the course of that interview, she talked about the challenge that she used to have as an artist between her spirituality and her sensuality, and how she would occasionally get emails from people asking, “Why do you have to sing about sex?” and she said, “Well, because that’s a part of me, a big part of me, and I can’t act like the only part of me is spiritual, because yes, it is, but I’m also here in the physical form,” so it’s interesting to hear what you said. P.S. You and her are the same birth sign.
AS: We’re both Gemini’s, you’re right. Our birthdays are a week apart. I sent her a birthday message. I love that.
DN: Tell us about “Just Not Tonight” after that little segue.
AS: I found myself in a series of relationships that may seem toxic or wrong or whatever, and you’re in it and it’s hard to get out of it, without saying too much, forbidden love, I’ll call it that. You’re judgmental about things, I know I had been before I had experience. You know, “I would never do that,” until it happens to you and your perspective changes. Even your perspective of God changes, like, “You made me. How could this be wrong, you know sex and all that?” Well God made me, and I have these desires, so they can’t be all wrong. Maybe we defile them in some way, but they can’t be all wrong. That song, towards the end of that, it was so intense, I teared up during the recording, and Dana said, “Let’s just leave it alone,” and we did. What you hear, I didn’t go back and fix anything. It’s a little bit flat in places, but that’s how we left it in that moment. I want to be right, I don’t want you to leave me, but I know it’s wrong. Wait a minute, or is it? Maybe someday I’ll tell you the story, in 20 years when my children are all grown (laughs) I’ll write a book. You can hold me to that. I’ll tell you who he is. I’ll do that.
DN: In terms of once the whole thing was finished and you actually had an album, how do you feel about the Avery Sunshine album?
AS: I don’t know yet. It’s surreal. I remember when CDs came out, and I remember looking at them. One of the first CDs I had was Kenny G. I remember looking at the CD cover and thinking, “This is amazing!” It was different from records, it was something else, but looking at a CD, now some 20-some years later, I have a CD and people are going to be holding it like other artists’ CDs, it has not hit me yet. It really has not. Again, we’ve been working on it for so long, it becomes more real when I’m doing an interview. “Wow! I’m doing an interview because of that CD! I got a gig because of that CD! This is really interesting.” I guess I’m getting used to it. If I had to use a word, trite as it may be, I’m happy.
DN: That’s a good thing. I have three more questions for now. The first question is, this record has come out in the UK, now is it also out in the US, or is it about to be?
AS: It’s about to be, on June 21st. We have three singles out here, “Pinin”; “All In My Head”; and “Ugly” and it’s funny, we’ve had a bunch of people hit us up like, “Okay, it’s available in the UK. We’re about to buy it over there,” but it’ll be available through iTunes, Amazon and our website on June 21st and if you run into me, it’ll be in my trunk and my purse.
DN: Question number two: where did the name Avery Sunshine come from?
AS: This is a terrible story, and Dana hates it when I tell this, but it’s the truth. When we were doing the Stalker song, and the guy Chris Brann said, “Who do you want to be on the album? Do you want to be Denise White, or what do you want to do? Dana and I left the studio that night and he said, “Why is it necessary to do that with your name?” I said, “No! Avery Sunshine.” I don’t know where it came from. I assume it came from my love of two characters. The first character is Shug Avery from The Color Purple, and the other character, Sunshine from Harlem Nights. If you have not seen that comedy, Eddie Murphy does it, and that character Sunshine, okay. I snatched those names from the air. You know about Shug Avery, but that other character is a little bit special. It’s not a great story. It’s so simple. Dana told me I should come up with something more elaborate, but it’s the truth.
DN: The truth works.
AS: That’s what I thought.
DN: Final question for now, which I probably would have asked you at the beginning of the interview but I didn’t ask you then is, who would you consider to be your primary musical influences, growing up.
AS: There are so many, but the primary I would have to say are Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the Stylistics, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Michael McDonald, Earth, Wind & Fire, that’s who I listened to, and that’s who my parents listened to. Nina Simone. My mother was listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and she said, “I don’t like that album,” but I like that album. My parents always had parties every couple of months, and all the aunts and uncles would come over and turn the radio on and get the records out and we’d be listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” all night long, that was his favourite tune. My parents deserve a lot of credit for who I am. Musically, they probably wouldn’t think so, because neither of them play an instrument, but they both sing a little bit. They made sure I listened to great music, and I don’t think they knew what they were doing.
DN: This is the final question: What is in the immediate future for you, in terms of plans and what you’re up to?
AS: On the 21st, we are having a listening party here in Atlanta at a record store called Moods Music, and I’m excited about that. On the 24th, I have another performance here, but the biggest thing that’s going to occupy June and July is, I’ve been cast as the principal lead in a musical called I Dream, and Chaka Kahn is one of the producers. It’s bigger than what I thought it was going to be. Most of the stuff, I just bump into it somehow. I was flown to LA to perform some of the numbers for Chaka and her friends in March, and I thought I was just going to do that, and it turns out that I was offered a role, and she will be sharing the role with me; she’ll come and do a couple of dates and then I’ll do the rest. July 9th-31st at the Alliance Theatre. It’s Divine Interviention. There’s no other way I could have gotten this. One of the writers and the producer are from the UK. Dounglas Tappin is the writer, and Cedric Perrier is one of the producers.
DN: Are you coming here to the UK?
AS: I hope so! I have not been to the UK> I’ve been in Heathrow, and that’s it, on my way to Africa.
DN: Hopefully if we get enough people interested in the music, that dream will be fulfilled.
AS: When I get there, I want to hear them say, “Mind the gap,” and I’ll be fine (laughs).
DN: For our American friends who might not know what that means, on our tube systems, or the subway, on certain platforms, there is a gap between the train and the platform, so when you get on the train, at those platforms, an automated voice will say, “Mind the gap, please.”
AS: I should write a song called that, but I don’t know what it’s going to be about.
DN: It could be about the gap between people. Gap could be the gap between…
AS: Where you are and where you want to be.
DN: See? You’ve got all kinds of ideas.
AS: I’m gonna write a song about it.
DN: It would probably be popular in London. I just want to say, Avery it’s been great talking to you. Thank you for sharing with us about your life, your career, and all I can say is that, if you haven’t yet checked out Avery Sunshine’s album, anyone at Soulmusic.com, click on the link at the bottom of the page of the interview, if you’re in the UK, go buy the physical album, if you’re not in the UK, go buy some MP3s, because we have links for both, and support this artist who is really bringing us some great music, especially in a year where I haven’t heard a great deal of good music. I really consider, and this is a little bit of a pun, and forgive me for it, you’ve brought me some musical sunshine.
AS: I like to hear that. Thank you so much, honey You’ve been so kind. It was a delight to talk to you, and thank you for all your support. You’ve given me so much, and it means so much.
DN: You’re most welcome.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.