A Collaboration in Music

Fresh off the release of their newest EP, 3, and having completed their North American tour, Sunshine Nights has grown musically. The duo consists of Amy Priya and Stephen Sunshine, whose complementary styles have meshed for seven years, with the duo writing and playing many songs during that time. 3 is the group’s third EP and features their lyrical and congenial musical style.

Sunshine Nights has been excited to explore and play for their fans in the new cities, and both Priya and Sunshine give their views on their music, a new EP and a glimpse of life on the road.

Caroline LaMotta: Tell us how you two joined to make Sunshine Nights?
Stephen Sunshine: We first performed together in Alphabet City at a place called The C Note on Avenue C. That was in the pre-social media and Ipod days. Amy [Priya] sang some songs with me and my backing band at the time. She continued to sing for me at shows and recorded vocals on my second solo album. At some point she picked up the bass casually. Our first show as Sunshine Nights was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2009 at a club called Public Assembly (now closed). We went on the road a few weeks later as a 4 piece band starting in Montréal. It all just felt great so we kept doing it.

How would you describe the music of the duo?
SS: IDK, Urbangrass? It is a mix of American roots styles of music; bluegrass, folk, blues, traditional jazz, etc. The lyrics we write are mostly inspired by our urban surroundings in Brooklyn, NY.

Amy Priya: In general, our songs are optimistic, or at least have a happy ending.

How would you say Sunshine Nights has evolved over the course of its three Eps? And can you describe your sound and style in 3, in relation to your past albums?
SS: Without going into the long form biography, here is a brief look. Throughout Sunshine Nights' 7 years as a band we have both performed live and recorded as a duo and with countless side performers. Our first full-length record, “Down And Up Blues” (2013), was recorded slowly over 4 years at 3 different studios in 2 countries. It featured 3 different drummers, a trumpet player, and even a second guitarist. It was a mix of electric blues and indie-folk; a smorgasbord of ideas from a band finding its sound. Our second full-length record, the self-titled “Sunshine Nights” (2015), was recorded live with our 7 piece Brooklyn horn band. Based off the 7 piece group's live show, it was a really fun but tiring 3 days of recording. After working with the big band for a couple of years we felt like getting back to the basics and started writing and touring as a duo again. It was very refreshing being stripped down and finding the center of our sound. We toured and wrote with an acoustic guitar, lap steel and upright bass. We gave the songs more space. More confident the third time out, we let our words and voices stand out a little more. In September 2015 we enlisted drummer Kain Naylor and went down to Doll House Studios in Savannah, GA to record with Peter Mavrogeorgis (The National, Beth Orton). The tracks “From Behind” and “Down On The G” were laid down on 2” 8 track tape. The third track, “A Thousand Love Songs”, was recorded straight to vinyl at Jack White's Third Man Records’ 1947 Voice-o-Graph booth in Nashville, TN. The EP was mixed at Virtue and Vice in Brooklyn, NY by Anthony Gallo (Norah Jones, Cat Power) and mastered at Salt in Brooklyn, NY by Paul Gold (Animal Collective, LCD Soundsystem.)
AP: Essentially, the music at its core is the two of us creating together from whatever seems to be inspiring us at the moment. The way I see it, the first record's main inspiration is discovery: of our artistic vision and our partnership in general. The second record's main inspiration was the community of musicians that we sparked with for that particular time period. The third record's (EP) main inspiration was streamlining and distilling the purity of our sound.

What bands would you each say were your main inspirations while creating 3?
SS: Our sound is really influenced by people like Alberta Hunter, Dr. John, Big Bill Broonzy, Lil' Green, Willie Dixon and the like. However, we grew up with artists like Lou Reed REM and Nirvana, and that sentiment shines through in our music too.

AP: I was listening to a lot of The Devil Makes Three, The Wood Brothers, and Gillian Welch during that process. But at the forefront of my mind musically were without question the deaths of David Bowie and Prince.

What does a typical recording day look like for you?
SS: It was different this time around. The “3” session was just one day at Doll House for “From Behind” and “Down On The G”. We tracked drums, guitar (lap steel for “Down On The G”), upright bass, and both vocals at the same time, in the same huge room with countless mics to get reverbs and various sounds. We spent more time setting up mics than actually performing to capture that perfect sound. Once we found it, we just played together the way we do live. It's like how Impulse did jazz records back in the day. For “Down On The G”, I over-dubbed piano and Amy harmonica at a studio in NYC later that fall. The making of “A Thousand Love Songs”, being recorded in the Voice-o-Graph booth, consisted of the two of us cramming into a phone booth sized box with an acoustic guitar pointing upward. There was a single 2 minute, 20 second take that we recorded straight onto 45 RPM vinyl. We were at Third Man in total for less than an hour.

AP: It is important to mention that absolutely everything we have recorded over the past two years has been completely in an analog format. It's been a slow(er) journey, but completely worth it. The end results are incredibly exciting to us. We are finally hearing how we have been dreaming our music would always sound like on record. Not to mention, the engineers we have worked with are incredibly passionate about art making and sound quality that we have learned so much by being in the studio with them. I personally used to find recording a very frustrating, tedious experience, and these last two years have changed my entire outlook. It's very much been a collaboration on many levels, and quite the labor of love.

What is your writing process? Do you write individually, or together? How often do you write songs? And as you are on tour right now, do you find that you are more focused on the tour than writing at the moment?
SS: We think of ourselves as a songwriting partnership first and a band second. Usually, I write the first sketch and then Amy edits, organizes and changes things to form what everyone knows as a Sunshine Nights song. We are writing pretty much every day. We write maybe 100 songs a year. Writing is the kind of thing that when it manifests we need to get it down ASAP. (The Iphone voice memos app is great for a quick recording of ideas.) We always tour with a journal of drawings and words. We perform in a lot of venues where we play 3 plus hours a night. We don't believe in repeating songs in the same night. At this point, I think we have taken about 45 songs from the sketch level to something we can perform live. The second step in our songwriting is done in rehearsal where the song is organized, arranged, practiced and often remade. This second step is rarely done formally on the road, although there are no absolute rules in art.

AP: That's our process in a nutshell, however I actually disagree with Stephen on his last statement, at least for me. I think especially when you are a touring musician and have to play from the same repertory over and over again, the only way to keep it fresh and interesting is to constantly make subtle changes; performance is a great forum for that. I am constantly changing the way I sing my vocals and play my bass lines just by gathering feedback from friends, other musicians, and folks we meet on the road.

How is this tour shaping up for you compared to your past experience on the road?
SS: We recently came back from the southern part of this North American tour: LA, TN, WV, NC, SC and AL have all been mainstays for each of our tours. The people who come out to these shows are so kind to us. We've made some deeply rooted friendships while traveling. Places like New Orleans and Charleston, SC for example, feel like second homes to us now.
We are heading out this week for the latter half of the “3” EP Tour. For the first time ever we will be playing Portland OR, Seattle WA, and Vancouver BC. We often hear of the immense appreciation these cities have for roots music and this trip really excites us. We hope they welcome us into their cities and give our songs a good listen. You can check out the exact dates in each city on our website, sunshinenights.com.

AP: We'll be dressed warmer at night for our gigs! We didn't pack our own coffee beans for the road! Seriously though, the biggest change for me is that I'm playing my Fender Mustang bass again. (It's a bit hard to fly on an airplane with the upright.) It's been like reuniting with an old dear friend.

Would you like to add anything else about your music?
SS: Give it a try; we hope it makes you feel a little better than you did before listening. If we can do that for you, then it's all worth it.

AP: Making the music makes us feel good too, and we hope that carries over to our listeners. We make the music from a heart-centric place. Whatever rewards come back to us as a result are a welcome, shiny bonus.

by Caroline LaMotta