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Q&a: Avery Sunshine & Big Dane

Avery Sunshine’s sophomore release, “The SunRoom”, is like a deep cleansing breath of fresh air. But it’s not just in her vocals or lyricism, it extends to the musicality of producer/guitarist Dana “Big Dane” Johnson making the project whole with instrumentation and arrangements that assist in encouraging a feeling of freedom.

An organic duo, Avery and Big Dane have been rocking it out in a soulful,  gospel-infused manner since the release of Ms. Sunshine’s 2010 self-titled EP and continue to build their artistic chemistry while releasing music that soothes the soul.

The energetic collective will bring their musical talents to Chicago on Jan. 28 with a performance at the Promontory Chicago and then they’ll join Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds as an opening act for a romantic Valentine’s Day set at Madison Square Garden.

In this interview with JET, Avery and Dane open up about artistic identity, challenging each other, and keeping the music authentic.

JET: How do you keep the momentum and creative energy circulating between the two of you?

Avery: We just allow it to flow freely. I’ll never forget when we were working on the first record and everyone had a say about what kind of music I should be doing and I can remember Dana saying “how about this, we’re just going to ask God. God gives us some songs, what ever you give us, that’s what we’re going to do. And we’ve been following that motto. It’s the same vibe.

Dana: Yep, I remember we went through a long period of time, especially on the second record, searching for what we were going to do – on the first record as well. It started off as this inspirational-gospely sound but then we had all these R&B songs, too. So we mixed them all and just made music that we like. If we like it, then we’re just going to do it. It’s interesting because we get so much outside influence and “noise” saying we have to do this and that and radio only plays this and it just doesn’t work within our process. Our process really is just ‘you like it? Does it make you feel good?’ Well, then alright let’s do it.

JET: Was that the initial attraction toward one another’s talent that brought you all together, before the projects came?

Avery: I was his boss [laughs] at his church. I was the Minister of Music at church and he was the bass player and guitar player. I was kind of working on some songs with my writing partner at the time and he heard us and was like ‘ok, ya’ll need some help’ and that, in short is how it happened and probably why I got fired because instead of being in the back working on the next song for service, I was in the back writing music.

JET: “Call My Name” has been a visual hit from 2014 well into the top of 2015, what was the initial attraction of that song and what do you think draws listeners?

Dana: We have a very good friend who works in radio.  We sat down with him and played some of the records for this project and were kind of slyly trying to get his opinion on the records and this is the one he felt strongly about. So we decided to go with this record just based on that. Even so, it’s always like one of the last records you do or one of the ones you do quickly because I would say “Call My Name” is probably one of the quickest records that came together for the album.

Avery: And one that I definitely would not have chosen for the radio – there was just something about it because it came together so quickly – almost an afterthought. The song that you labor over, you feel has to be the one. And it really reminds us who is really the author of all of this. And who would have ever thought that that would be the song that Patti LaBelle sang to me and when I met her for the second time, she said ‘I listen to you on the radio’ and she sang the hook of Call My Name, to me. Honey, I mean …[ trails off]

JET: One of things that resonates through the music and message that you and Dana create is honesty. Collectively, how do you keep it coming even in the midst of your personal and creative trials?

Dana: That’s a great question. I think two things: One, when you talk about the personal trials, you really use that stuff as inspiration – good and bad. Anything that you’re going through, chances are there’s a few billion other people going through, experienced or felt everything that you’re feeling. The other thing is, we don’t know how to do anything else! When we try to force the vibe, we’re just not great at coming up with stuff that’s not authentic. It’s much easier to write and be real about something that you actually feel and experience.

Avery: And if we go too far and too deep into the honesty, we have each other to say, ‘Ok, don’t say that..say it like this’ or ‘You can’t say that ’cause you might get sued, so say this.’ [laughs]. Thankfully, we do have each other so we can be as honest as possible without breaking any rules or hurting anybody’s feelings.

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JET: The SunRoom, the title alone, is such a breath of fresh air. In such a time where sadness and anger envelopes society, what about this album provides a release for you and what do you think provides a soothing for listeners?

Dana: I really think it’s God. At the end of the day, what we really do is a ministry in the sense that I think music and art are here to make people feel something and to inspire and hopefully make people feel good. I think our approach has been, in many cases, just making stuff that feels good and hopefully people will feel the same thing.

Avery: That people will be healed and find a place where you’re not oblivious to everything that is going on but something that will help you manage while you’re dealing and going through, while you’re watching the news or something right in your house that is unfavorable, there is something that will kind of walk with you and help you through that and remind you that while you’re in it, the whole idea of going through something is that you’re coming out. It’s going to be alright, we’re going to deal with it but while we’re dealing with it, here’s some music to let you know it’s going to be alright.

JET: With that message, what was the process in freeing yourself from “coloring outside of the lines” so-to-speak and operating in an identity and way that is completely on your terms?

Avery: Our relationship allows this to work really well, I was the one that was fomenting over “well maybe the song should sound like this and that…” and he’s like ‘No, we’re grown and this is the kind of music that we’re going to make. Stop all that. And even though I knew that, it took me a while to really believe that I did not have to change – to be, look like, sound like. For me that’s been a process. For women there’s so much emphasis on what we should look like – even this unspoken emphasis by the dolls we played with and the images that we saw. And you don’t realize how much a part of that is you until you start creating and then you’re like, I don’t feel free to create and be who I want to be! Why is that – what’s going on? And to have a partner who says, ‘No! You are enough!’ – what we’re doing is something special.

Dana: All of that is right on in addition to the fact that we’ve been independent since starting out. There’s an up and down part to that. The upside is we don’t have anybody giving us money and then saying ok ‘you have to do this like this or you have to look like that.’ And so we weren’t steered by some other entity saying we need you to do this and that. The downside, in some instances, is you don’t have someone giving you money but the beauty in that is if I’m spending my money then I’m going to make what I like! I’m my own A&R. I’m just so thankful that the artistry has been embraced – even from those who said ‘that’s not going to work.’

JET: How are you able to push and challenge one another, artistically? Does that ever cause you two to bump heads?

Avery: [laughs]We had a moment the other day, and I told him I had to go and didn’t want to with him anymore.

Dana: I think we have a good thing, maybe a bad thing in some cases , where we have very similar taste and approaches with some obvious nuances, but we are both totally very passionate about the music. So, I think there’s never an [aggressive] come on you have to do this and that. It’s never that. But it’s definitely a ‘let’s go in this direction and see what happens.’
It is all very natural and organic. We just do it. It’s very easy and not labored.

Experience Avery Sunshine and Big Dane live! Performance schedule can be found HERE.