What does Shug Avery from The Color Purple and one of Vera’s “working girls” from Harlem Nights have in common? Her name is Avery Sunshine. She’s a headstrong and vibrant indie-soul singer/songwriter whose latest single “Ugly Part of Me” is rising up the adult R&B charts. YouKnowIGotSoul spoke recently with Ms. Sunshine about her internationally-successful self-titled debut album, balancing being a mom as well as a performer, and how she learned through her divorce to take responsibility for own actions.
Interview by: Akim Bryant
YouKnowIGotSoul: YouKnowIGotSoul.com, Akim Bryant here once again, today I’m joined by the very lovely and talented and also very vibrant, Avery Sunshine. How are you Avery?
Avery Sunshine: I’m fine! How are you?
YouKnowIGotSoul: I’m great, can’t complain. And you’re out shoe shopping right now right? *Laughs*
AS: *Laughs* Yes I’m shoe shopping right now! I’m trying to make sure I’m cute when I run into you, I gotta be looking fabulous!
YouKnowIGotSoul: *Laughs* It takes some “me” time to do what you want to do.
AS: Absolutely, we’ve been on the road for it feels like weeks and home couple of days a week and then gone. I just feel like I needed to spend some time with me.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How did you come up with the name Avery Sunshine? Is it your God given name?
AS: No it’s not. My given name is Denise White. Hilarious right? My partner Dana and I, we worked on a song and he was like “Listen, who do you want to be? You can make up a name if you want”. I didn’t want to do it, but he told me I should do that if I wanted to. I was like “Ok whatever, how about Avery Sunshine”. I just blurted it out and it stuck. I think it comes from my love for two of my favorite characters, Shug Avery from The Color Purple and Sunshine from Harlem Nights. It just stuck. I think it was last year I was trying to change my name and my partners were like “You better not!”
YouKnowIGotSoul: Well did you want to change it back to your original?
AS: No just something else. There was an artist, a real famous person, who told me “Why are you doing that, you should just use your own name!” What’s wrong with using a stage name if I want to? Actually for my kids, I like to keep it kinda separate. Look, Beyonce had to come up with a stage name, she came up with Sasha Fierce, she turns into somebody else. Why not just go ahead and have another name so when people see me out with my boots and my baseball cap, they know that’s Denise!
YouKnowIGotSoul: *Laughs* This is not the artist, this is the person!
AS: This is not the artist, she might say a cus word. You might see her eating some chitlins!
YouKnowIGotSoul: So you dropped your very successful self titled debut album last year. It’s kinda officially blown up since then. What’s the concept behind the album and what message did you want to convey on your fans?
AS: I could say “life”. I was going through my divorce when my partner and I, his name is Dana Johnson, he was working with India Arie and a whole bunch of people. He’s like “You know what, if we can get through this one song, we should just do an album” and I said “No, I don’t want to do that”. Right when he said that I was going through my divorce and before I knew it I had all kinds of material and the album was done. So the album is about life, it’s about healing, it’s about everything that was going on in my head. One of the tunes that we dropped first, “All in my Head”, we could not figure out what we wanted to name the album so we just self titled it when it could have been called “All in my Head”. It could have been so, and we’ve been thinking about re-releasing it and calling it “All in my Head” because that’s really all that it was. Everything that I was dealing with and thinking about, thinking about how God had blessed me and thinking about how crazy I had been acting with my baby daddy. It’s about life, it’s absolutely about life.
YouKnowIGotSoul: That’s big and I think it took a lot of responsibility and a big person to actually mention some of the things that you talk about on the album in terms of kinda seeing the things that you could have done wrong to contribute to a bad situation.
AS: Absolutely. I was surprised when I went to counseling and the counseler was like “Ms. White, you probably have something to do with the demise of the relationship.” I was like “What? Me? I’m perfect, he’s the one that’s all wrong!” The album was an awakening for me and a realization that it takes two to make it right and it takes two to kinda jack it up too. Even if it’s a small thing, it’s not just one person, and even when I’m dealing with my baby daddy, I’m saying “I’m sorry, what did I do?” before pointing the finger. So it was an awakening for me, it was.
YouKnowIGotSoul: In particular, if you wouldn’t mind, I wanted to talk about my favorite track off of the album, “Ugly Part of Me”.
AS: Really? Guess what, we just debuted on the Billboard A/C chart at #37. I just found out a couple of days ago and it’s not out yet so I’m waiting for the chart so I can see it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How did that song come about?
AS: Acting crazy with my baby daddy, you know that! *Laughs* Me and my partner Dana were at the house working and I was like “Oh my God, how am I going to fix this, what am I going to do.” He was like “Why don’t you just call him and say you didn’t mean it, it was just the ugly part of you.” I told him “That’s was a great idea for a song, hold that thought sir!” I sat down on the keyboard and that was it!
YouKnowIGotSoul: Did you eventually go back and talk to your ex?? *Laughs*
AS: I broke up with him but still, the fact of the matter is. *Laughs* I realized again, coming out of my marriage, I didn’t mean to do that, I know I was acting crazy, it must have been that time of the month for me. I’m sorry, I acknowledge it. It’s something that was really hard for me to do in my relationships and to go back and say “I acted like a fool yesterday, I’m so sorry baby!” I wanted to talk about that and I’m glad that I did it. I still have to put the song on to remind myself now!
YouKnowIGotSoul: Why did you choose to do this independently?
AS: Because we didn’t know what we were doing. We just kinda started writing and I have to say that without my partner Dana Johnson there really would be no Avery Sunshine! I mean from his experiences in the industry, he said “Listen, what you need to do, let’s not go looking for a label, let’s get an album done.” I didn’t know, I wasn’t even thinking about doing an album, but he said “Let’s get an album done and watch everything fall into place after you get the album done”. We did, once we had the album done, we thought we’d see if a major label bit. Everything else took off in a very unexpected kind of way. So this independent thing turned out to be a great idea. We’ve been hanging in there and it’s been a blessing for us. It’s still tough because you don’t have all of the financial support that you’d like to have, distribution and so forth. It still has been rewarding, absolutely rewarding. We can kinda decide what we’re going to be. If we want to sing a gospel song, so be it, let’s put that on the same album that’s got the one talking crazy about my boss. We don’t have to pick and put ourselves into a category.
YouKnowIGotSoul: There’s definitely a lot more freedom. You’ve definitely been able to tour a lot supporting this project, internationally as well. How’s that been?
AS: That’s been amazing. We are with a small label in the UK called Dome Records. After we finished the album, we got an offer and thought it was absolutely awesome. They’ve been great with us and through the label earlier this year, we opened for B.B. King at Royal Albert Hall. I can’t begin to explain to you what that was like or even having the opportunity. I know I said rewarding, and I don’t want to overuse it, but that’s the word that feels most appropriate.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Who have been some of your major influences?
AS: Roy Ayers, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Doobie Brothers, The Winans, The Clark Sisters, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, you name it! Anybody that was on the airwaves that were really doing the thing. Back in our day, we had MTV where it was nothing but videos back to back so I was a video head. I was watching the Clash and whatever else came on and Stevie Nicks. I’m a product of all of that.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How long have you been performing?
AS: As an artist like this, not long as Avery Sunshine. I guess most of my life. Twenty some years!
YouKnowIGotSoul: When did you get the bug to start performing?
AS: I think it was building in me all of my life and it wasn’t until Dana and I hooked up. Let me say this, it wasn’t until we hooked up and we wrote that first song called “Stalker” and I traveled to Japan as Avery Sunshine for the first time and I sang that song at a festival with thousands of people. I walk out on stage and these people go crazy, they just went bananas. I looked behind me to see who was behind me and there was no one there, they were clapping for me! And they hadn’t even heard my music! So I thought I better sing my face off! I better deliver! They are going in and I haven’t sung a note! I think that was the moment that I realized that apologetically I love that. I wasn’t gonna fight anymore, I was just gonna go and sing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I’ve had the opportunity to see you perform live in New York here. A great experience, very energetic, very lively, nice positive vibe. Why do you think you resonate so well with your fans and music fans who are still finding out who you are?
AS: I wish I could really answer that, I don’t know! I think it would be presumptuous of me to try and answer that. I do know that what has been working for me is to be exactly who I am. I believe that people identify with that. I think that’s what I’m going to continue to do. If I feel like taking my shoes off on stage I’m going to do that. If I feel like calling somebody out during the show I’m going to do that. If I feel like talking, I’m going to talk! If I feel like having a sing along and teaching parts, I’m going to do that! You don’t quite know what you’re going to get at the show.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Yes, very interactive!
AS: Yes, I love that. I want people to feel like they’ve gotten something, I want you to feel better when you leave my show! I remember going to different shows and feeling like I was filled up. I also remember going to shows and leaving because I wasn’t getting anything! I don’t want anybody to leave my show, not unless it’s an emergency; even if it’s an emergency tell them to hold on! I want people to feel better, leaving singing a song, leave wanting more, leave knowing that you can be better, leave feeling healed, leave wanting to call your baby daddy and apologize to him, leave wanting to start a new business and feeling like you can do that and not being afraid of it. I love to tell people at my show how old I am. In the industry, I might be a little old to be starting, I’m 36. That’s a good thing about being independent right!
YouKnowIGotSoul: I think that’s also one of the things that sets you apart. When you get on stage you’re going to be nobody but who you are and that’s all you know how to do. I think people are picking up on that and that has helped to expose to you to probably people you wouldn’t be exposed to if you didn’t have that type of approach when it came to life.
AS: Wow, it’s a blessing and you’re right.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
AS: I think the proudest was when we….it’s so many, oh my God. The one I can think of is when we got the CD back from disc makers and we saw it completely done. I think that did it for me. It really did. To complete something like that because it had taken us years, we worked on it for years, keeping day jobs and all of that, we still had our other jobs and other gigs. To see it come together and that we did it was amazing.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Especially to do it independently, I don’t think people truly realize how difficult it is.
AS: Wow, when I tell you. With myself, Dana Johnson and my other partner Ernest Davis who reached out to us, he heard as a matter fact your favorite song “Ugly”. He heard that song and he reached out to us and said “What can I do to help you guys!” He gave us studio space and helped us get this thing done. It was the three of us pushing the thing along and all of the people who graciously helped like Roy Ayers and all of the musicians on the album like Christian McBride. Everybody who helped when we didn’t have a nickel to give them! They just believed in us so much that they helped us, and people still do! We’re so grateful.
YouKnowIGotSoul: I want to ask you something that I hope you’re not offended by, but when did you decide to go bald?
AS: I’m not offended by that, this is the second time I’ve done it. I think when I finished the album or right before we finished I cut it off because I thought I didn’t have the time or the money to do hair! I couldn’t deal with it. My daughter has a head full of hair and I thought I couldn’t do her hair and my hair and travel, so something had to go; so it would be my hair. When I picked her up from school, she was a nervous wreck, “You’re bald! Are you dying?” I was laughing. Now when I want to grow my hair back and Dana is like “No you can’t, nobody will know who you are!” I’m going to keep it for a little longer and do things like put glitter in my hair and spice it up a little bit. I wanted to get a hat but he told me I can’t do it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How are you able to balance being a mom and being an artist with all of the demands and stuff you have with being on the road?
AS: Yea, it’s hard, I have to write myself a lot of notes and a lot of reminders. When I’m working I’m in that world, I’m in that world, so when I’m home I’ve got to write notes like “You’ve got an interview today” or “You’ve gotta send this in”. When I’m on the road, it’s like “You haven’t talked to the kids today, you’ve got to call the kids right before school and after school” or “You’ve got to pay bills today”. Look, I would be finished if something happened to this iPhone! I would be a mess! I make sure I have reminders. My kids help me remember. Initially I was a little weirded out about making sure they have cell phones, they’re too young, but I’m glad that they do because when they’re thinking of me they can send a text or send a picture and I’m able to do the same thing. My kids help me balance it really well, and my phone!
YouKnowIGotSoul: It’s a family effort!
AS: Yes it is! And my parents left Philly and moved to Atlanta to help me take care of the kids.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Are there any plans to start working on the next album?
AS: We are, but we’re taking our time because we don’t want to put something out just to put it out. We’re taking our time, we’re listening to hear God’s voice, and in the meantime we’re working with some great people. I’ve got a duet coming out with Raheem DeVaughn for a great DJ by the name of Kenny Dope, he’s got an album coming out. I’ve got some stuff coming out with Frank McComb. So we’re working.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How can fans keep up to date with you?
AS: The easiest and quickest ways are going to Facebook and also Twitter, @AverySunshine on Twitter, because I always respond. I have a fan page on Facebook. They shut down my friend page! They said I had too many friends. At the end of my show, I do this thing where I tell everybody to go to Facebook and Twitter. One night I don’t even know what city I was in, I told them to go to Facebook and people were going, and somebody said “Hey, you aint on Facebook!” As soon as I got backstage, I saw an e-mail from Facebook saying my account had been shut down! And we were like “What!!!” So now we have a fan page, Avery Sunshine, and for those who remember what I said my name was at the beginning of the interview, you can go to that page and friend me. But @AverySunshine Twitter is the best way, and it might take me a minute, but I will hit you back!