Sunny Sweeney on Revealing 'Bottle' Song, Soul-Searching New Album

Candid singer-songwriter shares the loss that inspired the personal "Bottle by My Bed" and helped form her brilliant new LP 'Trophy'

Sunny Sweeney released her fourth studio album, 'Trophy,' on March 10th. Credit: Christina Feddersen/All Eyes Media

For the past decade and a half, Texas-born Sunny Sweeney has lived the nomadic existence of a touring musician. Yet even after four well-received albums – including the scintillating new Trophy, released March 10thlife on the road hasn't gotten any more glamorous: It still consists, she says, of "lots of gas-station chips and Cokes." 

For her recent trek, Sweeney left Texas, where she lives with her second husband, Austin police sergeant Jeff Hellmer, and made a quick stop in Nashville before heading to Maryland, where she bunked at a cousin's place overnight. She was back in Music City last week to play a record-release show, then off to Little Rock after a release-day show in Kansas City, Missouri. All that travel has only strengthened Sweeney's gift for subtle humor, fully on display in songs like "Backhanded Compliment," from 2014's Provoked, and Trophy's chugging "Better Bad Idea," as well as its acerbic title track, accentuated by her diamond-hard Texas twang. Touring has also managed to produce a few real-life laughs along the way, such as a 2015 incident involving Sweeney's best friend and bandmate Joanna Janet and an unlikely cocktail of whiskey, shampoo and mouthwash.

After landing in Denver to play a show, Sweeney detected the strong smell of booze while waiting at baggage claim with her band and suspected someone got a head-start on partying on the pre-dawn flight. "I was like, 'Oh my God, somebody is wasted this early in the morning? I can't believe it,'" says Sweeney. "We were just doing a one-off, so everything I was going to wear was in one little bag. It comes out and, lo and behold, somebody's whiskey bottle had exploded underneath the plane. And out of the 150-some bags on the whole airplane, mine was the only one it [leaked] on... When we got to the hotel, we opened the window and tried to dry the bag out for a couple of hours – and it still stunk like shit. All we had was shampoo and mouthwash, so I washed my suitcase in shampoo and mouthwash in the bathtub."

Ah, the road life. While Sweeney never knows what may happen from one tour to the next, her fans have come to expect uniformly excellent and traditional-leaning albums by the singer-songwriter, who has a gift for tempering biting humor with genuine tenderness. On Trophy, Sweeney worked for the first time with producer Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark's 12 Stories) and digs far deeper into her own psyche than ever before, dredging up painful personal details surrounding her long-held desire to have a child and opening up about a miscarriage that few of her closest friends even knew about. The album's stunning "Bottle by My Bed" – intentionally ambiguous in its title – refers to a baby bottle as opposed to one containing an adult beverage.

Sweeney compares the personal lyrics to those addressing a failed romance. "You write a song about a breakup, you record it and then it's out. It's still very much a part of you, but it's a lot easier to talk about and a lot easier to deal with. Am I still affected when I hear that song? Absolutely… But I feel like it's easier than it was the first time I sang it because I thought people were going to think I lost my mind. Why would I write a song and sing a song about wanting a baby? That's absolutely like nothing I've ever done and nobody's going to understand. But that's where I am in my life and it's a very thought-consuming process. It consumes you and it's kind of hard to concentrate on other things. All your friends are having kids and that amplifies it."

Only after hesitatingly adding "Bottle by My Bed" to her live setlist did she began to experience its full impact, as other women, from fans to friends, shared their own stories of struggling to have children. "I went through all that shit by myself," she says. "Not by myself, but with my husband. I went through all of it without telling very many people at all. Maybe three people knew. Then the song started having a little bit of a life and I had friends – very, very close friends that I speak to and hang out with all the time – going, 'Oh my God, let me tell you about my story.'

"Some of the e-mails and Facebook messages that I've gotten are life-changing for me. It's them getting it off their chest, but then it's also me going, 'Well, shit, I'm not by myself,'" she continues. "I'm also thinking, 'Your story is horrendous. I have nothing to complain about. Pull yourself up, woman!' To me, it's given me a more positive outlook on it than anything.

Never one to hover long in a safe zone, Sweeney mixed "Bottle by My Bed" in with rowdy crowd-stirrers and alcohol-fueled tunes, like Trophy's barroom-set "Pass the Pain." Still, she did have to make a few adjustments when it came time to performing "Bottle." "I have to close my eyes when I'm singing that," she explains. "Not because I'm about to start crying, but I just don't necessarily want to look at anybody when I'm talking about it. If other people are affected by it then I won't see them being affected by it. It just allows you to live in your own little world for a couple of minutes."

With Brainard, Sweeney has found her own little world of creativity. She says she's inspired by his recording methods, which have already influenced the way she plans to construct her future projects.

"He makes records backwards, starting with an acoustic track and building everything around it, which I've never done before," says Sweeney. "I've decided I want to make my next record with him and can pretty much assure you that I never want to make another record where I can't build around an acoustic [guitar] track. Because that allows you to make changes all the way up until the bass and drums are there, and that's pretty much what solidifies how the record is going to go, once you get the band on there."

Lori McKenna is another key figure on Trophy. The Grammy-winning songwriter contributed to four of the LP's cuts, including "Bottle by My Bed" and the title track, which Sweeney confesses was partly inspired by her husband's ex, who accused her of being a trophy wife. While "Trophy" is wickedly playful, other tunes spotlight her sweeter side, including "Nothing Wrong With Texas" and the deeply romantic yin-and-yang of "Grow Old With Me."

"When I met Jeff, I just had a whole different outlook on life," Sweeney, 40, says of the man she married in 2011 – reciting vows that included the lyrics to a number of country songs. "I just thought this was the person that I want to grow old with. He's a little bit older than I am and part of our wedding vows were joking about him going gray first. We've always had conversations about that and about finding beauty in when you get older."

Sweeney also addresses another profoundly difficult issue in "Unsaid," the stunning and intense closing track, penned with Caitlyn Smith. It looks at the suicide of a friend and the conflicted emotions that Sweeney felt at the time.

"He had two kids," she recalls. "Why the hell would you do that? I was so angry at him. Generally speaking, it's more of a song [that says], 'Don't not say something to someone' because you really don't know. And what do you have to lose by saying something? The only thing you have to lose is if you say it and they shut you off or whatever. But at least you tried. You've given it your best shot and at least you got it off your chest."

While Trophy is by no means an "issues" record – tracks like the cowbell-heavy "Why People Change" and "Better Bad Idea" are tailor-made for the honky-tonk set – Sweeney makes (and expects) no apologies for honing in on more adult-oriented topics this time around.

"Anybody that knows anything about my music knows I don't necessarily shy away from subjects," she says. "I want to think that this is just an extension of that. It's where I am and what I'm going through and there are other people going through these things as well: Wanting their marriage to be perfect, struggling with this or that. That's what life is. Each record answers a little question for the time in your life where you are."