"The blues is color blind and the world should be, too."
Sunny Crownover: All Right Music
Sunny Crownover (Killoran), a California native, is a critically acclaimed blues and jazz vocalist who grew up as a military daughter. As such, she moved around during her childhood and spent most of her life from high school on in Texas; the last ten years of that time was in Austin, where she honed her vocal chops with many of Austin’s best musicians, including Van Wilks and Dave Sebree, among others. Influenced by both the popular music of her era, such as folk, R&B, and rock 'n roll, to music embraced by her parents (including Torch icon Julie London), she grew up in a music loving family. After being involved in music and theater in school starting in her elementary years, she began singing around the Jacksboro Highway blues circuit in Forth Worth, Texas, at the age of 14 performing in acoustic folk and blues ensembles. After relocating to the Boston area in 2000, Sunny eventually became the featured vocalist with 2120 South Michigan Avenue, a Boston based blues band led by Harvard professor Charlie Sawyer, which led to her fortuitous meeting with Duke Robillard in 2008 during a symposium at the Harvard Extension School in which they were both performers.
That meeting led to an ongoing collaboration of projects between Duke and Sunny beginning with the formation of Sunny and Her Joy Boys, a five-piece acoustic jazz and blues ensemble whose 2009 release on Stony Plain Records titled “Introducing Sunny and Her Joy Boys” was received with critical acclaim from press and critics alike. She was also featured on Duke’s grammy-nominated “Stomp! The Blues Tonight” (Stony Plain, 2009), followed up by “Tales from the Tiki Lounge” (Blue Duchess, 2010). In her solo debut, “Right Here Right Now” (Blue Duchess, 2012), she returned to her contemporary roots in a rocking, bluesy roots based recording that hit the airwaves. In 2013, she appeared as a guest on the lead track “It's All About Love” of Nuno Mindelis II's “Angels and Clowns” (Blue Duchess, 2013). With the two tracks, “Amapola/Moon of Manakoora” (Meadowtime, 2015), Sunny takes you back to the Tiki Lounge with The Duke Robillard Orchestra with two new renditions of songs that will transport you to another place and time.
What do you learn about yourself from the Jazz & Blues music and culture?
Perseverance, above all. Challenging yourself to always grow, keep learning, become better. In the world of music, especially in Jazz and Blues, I have learned that everything I know is owed to someone who came before me. So, it also teaches me respect. I've also learned that if you follow your heart, dreams can come true.
What does the blues mean to you?
Pure emotion. The blues to me is the basis for everything in music. Jazz and Blues, because of their roots in American history, are an integral part of my identity and pride. The blues can be happy or sad, and even funny. But it always makes you feel something. With just a note or two of a song, you immediately get a sense of the emotion that is behind the tune. It's real, and honest.
How do you describe Sunny Crownover sound and songbook?
From a vocal perspective, I think there is a pureness to my tone that is kind of a hallmark. Many people think you have to growl and scream the blues, but that isn't my style. I can belt out a song, but I keep from screaming or growling much. I admire the other women in blues who have that gravelly, gritty sound, but it just isn't mine. As for the collection of material so far, it's fun because I have covered both vintage material from the 20's and 30's as well as totally contemporary songs as you hear on “Right Here, Right Now”. I love a wide variety of music, and working with Duke Robillard (as I am so fortunate to be doing), you find yourself involved with a wide array of projects that aren't identical. It keeps things fresh and that's just how I like it.
That's a good question! In a phrase, I would say that I strive for excellence. Work hard and have fun doing it!
Photo: Sunny & BB King
Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?
In my life, I have been so very fortunate to meet and work with a long list of really great musicians, both in Texas and here in New England. Each person has touched me and taught me something. Of all of the experiences I've had, I would say that above all, meeting B.B. King and spending time with him on his bus (after our and opened for him in Concord, New Hampshire) was the most incredible. We actually opened for him twice, but I didn't get to meet him the first time. I got lucky the second time. He was so magnanimous, funny, and kind. I have a photo of he and I together that I cherish. Having said that, my life completely changed when I met Duke Robillard, so I have to give him credit for a lot, and I am forever grateful to him.
What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Be yourself. Always. Don't try to look or sound like anyone else. Keep learning.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
Oh boy, there are a lot! Let's see: I got up on stage with Little Feat in Austin, Texas once and got to sing backup on “Dixie Chicken”. Sharing a microphone with Paul Barrerre. Pretty fun! In the studio sessions, I'm kind of known for bringing food. I love to cook, and don't want to each junk, so I feed the band. Studio sessions can run long hours, so you have to eat, right? One of the nicest things recently that happened was at a free concert in Watertown, MA, a couple from Russia made a point to come over and say hello. I love it when my music reaches people in other parts of the world. And when children dance to your music, you know you're doing something right. I had a little girl run up to the stage and reach up and kiss my cheek once after singing a ballad, of all things. So sweet!
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?
The artists we've lost, above all. It's been a hard year losing many great talents. Also, I am sad that the Grammys now only have one category for blues. There are so many different kinds of blues, that it isn't a fair representation, and then only the very top commercial artists have a shot at winning. As a voting member of the Recording Academy, I hope to work to change that.
"Perseverance, above all. Challenging yourself to always grow, keep learning, become better. In the world of music, especially in Jazz and Blues, I have learned that everything I know is owed to someone who came before me. So, it also teaches me respect. I've also learned that if you follow your heart, dreams can come true." (Photo: Sunny Crownover & Duke Robillard)
What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
My hopes for the future involve continuing to work and create new music for my fans. To continue working with Duke Robillard is high on my list, and we have some new work coming out next year. My fears involve the dwindling live music scene for blues musicians, at least here locally. Live music venues are closing around here which means there are fewer places to play, so you have to travel farther for gigs. The economy is now a little better than it was in say 2008, so that's good. And, alternative venues to clubs – such as performing arts centers – are popping up, so that's exciting.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
The digital age has ushered in a very difficult situation for musicians in getting paid fairly for airplay. I'm all for the streaming services; however, I think legislation needs to be enacted so that people get paid. Right now, it's a very murky world trying to figure out the best way to make producing CDs worthwhile, because everyone is streaming music. I understand that MIT is working on building a database of artist names to help make it clearer who is owed money each time a song is played digitally or by a DJ.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jazz & Blues from Texas to Boston area and beyond?
Ah, well, that's got to do with how musicians travel for their livelihood. This goes for Europe, too. Everything started in the South. Louisiana, Mississippi, the Delta. Then, that music began to migrate north as black musicians sought a better life. So, it's all about migration. The sound coming from one part of the country gets mixed up with another, and a hybrid is born. But it's always connected in history. It's also true of my contemporary colleagues. For example, Duke Robillard going to Austin to join the Fabulous Thunderbirds. There's a big connection between Texas and New England where blues is concerned. These guys are all friends and go back a long way and I'm sure that will continue for new artists as well.
"My fears involve the dwindling live music scene for blues musicians, at least here locally. Live music venues are closing around here which means there are fewer places to play, so you have to travel farther for gigs. The economy is now a little better than it was in say 2008, so that's good."
What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?
Balancing work and family was by far the hardest obstacle for a while. I worked full time and was raising a child, and during that time I couldn't have pushed for the kind of success I'm having now. Family comes first. What has truly pushed me to become a better musician is working with the caliber of talent that I'm working with now. Working with world class musicians pushes you to up your game, so to speak. Three years ago I took ten weeks of vocal coaching lessons, and that made a huge difference, too.
What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?
Well, I'd have to say it's pretty great! It's true that it's a struggle, and being a woman you have to fight for recognition perhaps more than men; however, there are so many women in blues that have been influential – right from the start – that I'd say it's really NOT a “Man's World”. Sister Rosetta Tharpe proved that! In my early career, I had to push my way into the blues world, but I was determined. These days, women in blues are numerous and prolific and I think the future looks bright.
What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?
Another great question. It's hugely important. Always has been. It reaches across all political and socio-economic boundaries. Even in the early days in America, and not that long ago when segregation was in play, this music brought people together and they didn't care what color of skin you had. If you could play, they wanted to play with you and make music. People looked out for each other and helped each other in order to make it possible for the music to happen. Isn't that what should be happening now? I think so. The blues is color blind and the world should be, too.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day..?
Oooh! Do I have to pick just one? That's hard! I'd love to travel back in time to see Louis Armstrong perform live in New Orleans. Or over to Europe to hear Django Reinhardt.
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