Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Avery*Sunshine: Starlight express

Avery Sunshine
Avery Sunshine Avery Sunshine Avery Sunshine Avery Sunshine

One of the most acclaimed and talented artists to have emerged in recent years from Atlanta, Georgia’s thriving underground soul scene, singer/songwriter/pianist Avery*Sunshine this month releases her eagerly-anticipated sophomore album “The Sunroom” through respected UK soul indie Dome Records.

Mostly co-written by Avery herself alongside her long-time musical partner-cum-producer Dana “BigDane” Johnson (who impressively co-wrote/co-produced many of the tracks on India.Aire’s 2002 Grammy-winning LP “Voyage To India”), “The Sunroom” once more blends elements of soul, gospel and jazz naturally on a diverse array of authentically-written songs ranging from the swaying, Al Green-inspired “Love (Won’t You Try)” and Motown-influenced, singalong shuffler “I Do Love You” to such downtempo ballads as the reconciliatory Quite Storm-flavoured “Call My Name” and hypnotically-seductive “Sweet Afternoon”. While in contrast to some of its more rhythmic moments like the joyously-stomping “Time To Shine” and funkily-loping “See You When I Get There”, a more back-to-basics/stripped-down feel arrives on the set’s straight-up gospel closer, the acoustic-piano-accompanied “Safe In His Arms”.

Born Denise Nicole White in Chester, Pennsylvania 38 years ago, Avery’s early gospel roots are currently evident in her long-standing role as choir director at Atlanta’s renowned Ebenezer Baptist Church (where Civil Rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King used to preach), while past credits include working with Eighties soul/Broadway icon Jennifer Holiday as choral director for her 2007 touring production of “Dream Girls”; singing on the soundtrack to the 2003 romantic comedy film “The Fighting Temptations”; and even being featured vocalist (as Avery Johnson) on The Ananda Project’s 2007 international dance/club anthem “Stalk You”. Meanwhile, more recent engagements include singing at several private events during the 2009 Inauguration of President Barack Obama as well as the following year playing a principal role in the history-making “I Dream”, the first-ever musical stage-play based on the life of the aforementioned Dr. King.

All of which ultimately led to the 2010 release of Avery’s self-titled debut album. Whose widespread critical acclaim was particularly evident in the UK - where in 2011, in addition to opening for blues legend B.B. King at London’s historic Royal Albert Hall, Avery headlined two sold-out shows at the capital’s Union Chapel as well as appearing on BBC2’s flagship live music show “Later... With Jools Holland” on which her well-received performance was publicly acknowledged by fellow guest Ringo Starr, no less.

…Cue an ever-upbeat and chatty Avery - whose happy disposition lives up to her surname! - calling up “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss her aforementioned new second album, while also reflecting on her early, church-oriented musical background.

Avery’s thoughts on how “The Sunroom” does at times differ lyrically from her self-titled 2010 debut, and how making it impacted on her as both a person and artist

“Well, Dane and I are always very concerned about what we TALK about. So while on the first album we did speak a lot about romantic love, on this one I did also want to talk about OTHER aspects of life. Which is why for example on the song “See You When I Get There” I started thinking back to when I was around 17/18 and how, when my brother told me he was gay, I was like ‘OK, COOL - so let’s have DINNER!’. You know, to me personally it wasn’t a big deal and it didn’t change who he WAS. Whereas in terms of society in GENERAL, while things are different from how they USED to be, we do still have problems with how it treats people who are different to what we say they SHOULD be. And so on this album that was one of the things I wanted to ADDRESS. You know, whether it be your sexual orientation, the clothes you decide to wear, whatever religion you decide to have or NOT have, I wanted to encourage each of us to live the way we wanna live and love who we wanna LOVE. And then from there it so happened that while we were actually in the process of making this record that theme in itself kinda also began tying in with our OWN situation, in that at the time we were having a lot of external voices telling us ‘OK, now that you’ve had some mild success with the FIRST record these are the kinda songs you oughta be MAKING - they need to be radio-friendly, the hook should be this way, you don’t need a bridge…’. And so because, when you get those kind of notes from people that you respect it can really bother you and have you questioning what you’re supposed to do, between wanting to break outta that AND encourage other people to live their lives in their own way I feel what ultimately happened was I did eventually find MYSELF! In that I’m now finally in a place where I’m comfortable in my own skin, I’m comfortable making the music that I wanna MAKE, I’m comfortable with my RELATIONSHIP, I’m comfortable with the SIZE that I am... So yeah, to answer the second part of your question, through doing “The Sunroom” I have finally come to realise that you absolutely have to make your own BLUEPRINT! Because nobody else can do that FOR you and the voice on the inside should definitely be louder than the voices on the OUTSIDE, and you won’t be happy until that’s the CASE! You know, the only way to be truly happy is to do the thing that you’re CREATED to do. And if other people don’t like it then hey, let the chips fall when they MAY - it is what it IS!”

Avery’s early background

“Well, I grew up in the inner-city in Chester, Pennsylvania, which is right outside Philadelphia. You know, there was a corner-store and a church on every corner - and I guess I’d say my parents were working-class. My father made toilet paper and paper towels; my mother was a beautician... And in the home music was ALWAYS present. My parents loved The Spinners, The Four Tops, Nina Simone… So I think it was when I was around eight years old that I first told my mom I wanted to play the piano. And though at first she was like ‘OK, whatever’, I just wouldn’t let UP! Then eventually she saw me sing “Silent Night” at a school function, noticed I had some talent - and so they got me a PIANO! And, by the time I was 13, I had my first GIG - playing at a Catholic CHURCH! You know, I think the service was for an-hour-and-15-minutes and for that I was getting paid 175 DOLLARS! And to be honest I think that’s what first got me hooked on MUSIC! Because I was like ‘WOW, are you KIDDING me?! Playing piano and singing a little bit - and making 175 BUCKS?!’!!”

How she then went on to a full-time career as a church musician and how that gospel grounding is still evident in her music today

“From that first gig at the Catholic church I went on to play at a black Baptist church, a United Methodist church, an African Methodist Episcopal Church… And then I also began singing with a choir called The Wilmington/Chester Mass Choir, which is the (award-winning) choir that propelled the artist Daryl Coley onto the gospel map. You know, they had some amazing songs, they had a couple of hits... So yeah, I sang with them through High School and then I moved to Atlanta to go to Spelman College where at 19/20 years old I not only ended up SINGING in the choir but also getting a cheque for DIRECTING it! You know, I just could never get away from gospel MUSIC! Not that I ever really WANTED to, it was just something that was always PRESENT! There was just something so real and genuine about it that I was somehow always able to relate to and still CAN. So as I say, if you listen to my albums then yeah, you’ll hear the jazz and you’ll hear the soul - but at the core of what I am is always that GOSPEL, that SPIRITUAL thing.”

Avery performs at Islington Assembly Hall, London (June 20) and Old Market, Brighton (21)

The album “The Sunroom” is out now through Dome

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