During her 40th appearance at the Grand Ole Ole Opry last month, Sunny Sweeney performed one of the standout tracks from her just-released album, Provoked. The bouncy “Backhanded Compliment” takes a humorous swipe at those well-meaning — but ultimately boneheaded — things people say to someone that don’t end up being all that flattering. The tune, which Sweeney co-wrote with the prolific Natalie Hemby (“Pontoon,” “Automatic”), includes such gems as “It seems like you have lost a lot of weight,” “Has anyone told you you look like your mom?” and “It’s too bad that you have not had more success.”
Truth be told, the latter “compliment” is one the Texas native has probably heard more than a few times (and is about to read once more). Sweeney’s potent mixture of true-to-life heartache and disarming humor has earned her membership in a very exclusive country-music club these days, where fellow female practitioners of the genre who have achieved the level of stardom they truly deserve include Miranda Lambert and… well, that’s about it. Provoked is the third full-length album from Sweeney, whose first, the twang-tastic Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, was one of the year’s best-reviewed country albums when Big Machine Records (home to Taylor Swift) released it in 2007. That disc was followed by the more polished but no less traditional country of Concrete in 2011, which featured the Top 10 hit “From a Table Away” and helped Sweeney score an Academy of Country Music award nomination for Top New Female Vocalist. All impressive accomplishments but, yes, it is too bad Sweeney has not had more success. Provoked, however, handily delivers on the promise of being a potential game-changer for the singer-songwriter.
How did you decide on Provoked for the album title?
My husband, who also came up with the title for Concrete, saw it when we were looking up words on thesaurus.com that meant “messed with” or “pot-stirrer.” He said, “I can already see the title.” My first record was Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame and I wanted that to be a country record title; I wanted it to be super-duper country. I just love having a one-word title. It gets right to the point, doesn’t leave any question. When it came time to name this one, I wanted to stick with the one-word title and I wanted it to encompass what the songs were about – whether it’s me being provoked or me provoking someone else, or it provoking emotion out of someone when they hear it. It’s one of those words that can mean a bunch of different things.
You mention “messed with” and “pot-stirrer.” Are those words that describe you?
I certainly do not play victim in any song or any facet of my life, but I have been in situations and have been in relationships where I feel like I’m being provoked, where I’m like, “Well, that was kind of shitty, but at least I get a song out of it.” Also, I know that I’m a teeny tiny bit of a shit-starter, so to speak. Not in a mean way, but if something needs to be said, I’ll be the one to say it. It’s not always pretty but sometimes things need to be said! [Laughs]
Your husband came along after your first marriage fell apart, and some of the songs on this record, like “My Bed” [sung with Will Hoge], reference the crumbling of that first marriage. Was writing that song like opening an old wound?
Even being the one who wanted the divorce, I was still so torn up over it. I still did my shows and still wrote a bunch of songs during that time, but it was the most emotionally draining thing I’ve ever been through. Now, my husband comes along and literally swept me off my feet. I want to say he literally saved me, he made me feel that I was worthy of the things that I’ve worked for. He’s just amazing and I truly would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for him.
Are you always writing songs and thinking about song ideas?
Mom says I can talk to a brick wall — and I probably have before. [If you] have a person sitting in the room with you, you’re going to say something to them. It’s the same way with writing, or even if I’m just holding my guitar, practicing or learning a new chord. Sometimes I’ll be totally depressed or totally on top of the world and just accidentally write a song. Sometimes I question the situation. Did I put myself in these [difficult] situations so that I can write good songs? I don’t think so. [Laughs] I think you write the songs you’re supposed to write. I just feel like if you write the songs that you know, they’re real and you can feel them. Those are the songs that people come up afterwards and say, “I’ve been through that. Thank you so much for doing that and saying that.” It’s almost like a friendly therapy, where fans open themselves up to you. They want so badly to tell you what the songs mean to them and to me. That is why I do this.
So, along those lines of opening up, I can’t say I’ve ever been through a “Bad Girl Phase” myself, but I guess the idea of not always being counted on to do the right thing is one reason many people can relate to that song?
My mom, who’s in her 60s, said, “Sunny, I’ve even been through a bad girl phase.” I said, “Yes, when you married Daddy! I know what all y’all did in college.” Everyone goes through that. The funny part is that so many more guys are relating to it than I thought would. My guy friends are saying, “Hey, Sweeney, do you know any of your girlfriends that are going through a bad girl phase that you can hook me up with?”
At the other end of the spectrum, “Front Row Seats” talks about the world going “to hell in a feel-good song.” How did that song come about?
I was watching the news, which I hate because it’s so depressing. But obviously, I’m an adult and I need to be aware. I want a child and I don’t understand how these people put a baby, a living human being, in a dumpster. If you don’t want your kid, put it up for adoption or give it to a church. There are so many options. So this woman put her baby in a dumpster and obviously got in trouble for it. I was watching this and I started crying, saying, “Holy shit, who are these people that think it’s OK to kill anyone, much less a child, an infant who hasn’t even had a day’s worth of fresh air?” I love song ideas where you hear the title and you think you know what that’s about it and it’s not at all about that. So I thought, “Oh, we’re all just sitting there griping about this but I’m not doing anything about it.” I’m not going to the baby’s rescue and trying to adopt it. I’m just bitching about it. I thought, “We all just have front-row seats.”
There’s also a chorus singing “la-de-da,” which goes along with that whole idea of ignoring a crisis while it’s going on all around you.
Brett [Warren, one of the song’s co-writers] said, “It would be cool if you go, ‘Oh well, la-de-da.'” Because you either do something or you don’t. Then I was talking to Luke Wooten, my producer, who said we were going to have a children’s choir on it. Because children, if you think about it, when we’re all dying off… if we’re not fixing it for them, then we’re doing them a disservice. I have stepchildren and I want my own child; kids are super important to me. My stepson was actually in Nashville with me and we got him and some other kids to go in and sing the la-de-da’s on there with me. That’s exactly what I wanted. If nothing else, it gets to be a learning experience for us as adults. We’re not doing anything about this. The world is just going to shit all around us, and we’re not doing anything about it.
Since your husband is a police officer, what’s he thinking when you’re reacting to news stories like that? I imagine he stays pretty level-headed about a lot of things.
He’s really good at tempering the situation, where I’m reactive to everything. He’s like, “Hey, chill for a minute and let’s come back and re-address this.” Which pisses me off! [Laughs] But then I’m like, “Thank you. I was really upset with you because you told me to chill. But thank you for making me chill!” He’ll come home and tell me stuff that happened at work and my blood pressure will just go through the roof. And I’m sure he doesn’t go into massive detail with me because he knows how upset I get!
With so much time since your last album – and with so much happening in your life since then – you must be feeling pretty good now that this one has finally been released?
It’s taken a year to get this from start to finish. It’s a great feeling. It’s like it was a little baby and now I’m sending it off to high school. “Have a good day at high school, honey. Hope you do good and make lots of friends.”