Diary Of A Songwriter: Sunny Ozell
By providing a glimpse of her home life over five days, this American singer-songwriter shares some of her creative inspirations
Sunny Ozell creates music that draws from pop, jazz, soul and Americana – which makes perfect sense when you learn that her musical heroes include the likes of Bonnie Raitt, David Byrne, Cassandra Wilson and Aretha Franklin. Her lifelong relationship with music can be traced all the way back to when she was four years old and began taking violin lessons.
Ozell’s 2015 debut Take It With Me was a collection of covers, allowing her to put a spin on songs by Leon Russell, Hank Williams, Randy Newman and more. The follow up to that record, Overnight Lows finds her fully embracing songwriting. The compositions show someone as confident in her lyrical approach as she is with musicality, and gives the listener a sense that she has embraced roots music on both sides of the pond.
In this diary extract, she discusses juggling her life with her husband (the legendary actor Patrick Stewart) with her creative existence…
It’s the Monday before Thanksgiving in LA, and my parents are flying down from my hometown of Reno, Nevada to join us, so I’ve got a busy week before me. Unfortunately, I’m a bit hungover…we had my producer/musical director Pete and his partner Penelope over for dinner last night, and we all had just a wee bit too much fun. I’m a newly-minted Angeleno (still not used to saying so), but Pete and my husband decided last night that we’re going to host a monthly jam session in our new place so now I’m on the hunt for a good upright piano. That’s the thing about LA… there’s room for things like pianos. I’ve been playing shows at The Hotel Café for years, and there’s a really lovely contingent of ex-pat NYC musicians who I play with and hang with who make me feel at home. There are differences about making music here versus making music in NYC that can sometimes be pretty striking. I know it’s rather trite to say so, but it’s true: everyone here in LA is just so fucking chilled out. In New York, everything runs on tight margins of error. Money, time, distance…it’s truly a city where you gotta hustle. And I LOVE the hustle. It forged me and made me hone in on the shit I care about. But when I tracked my record here in LA, I truly had to code shift. With my city girl armour on, it was almost as if it made me invisible instead of protected. It was something of a small revelation… that the New York thing isn’t all there is.
I’m only here in Los Angeles until next week and, as it’s a holiday week in America, I front-loaded the week with appointments because I’m headed to Brooklyn for the first half of December, then back to the UK. On account of being married to a busy actor, my life is particularly vagabond-like, given that music has me on the move as well. But I am very much a homebody, and I really love being home, wherever home is at a given moment. My relationship to my art inevitably has to shift sometimes, in response to keeping all the balls of my life in the air. Songwriting happens for me when I can be quiet, when I can be still. That is not the case right now, and I’ve learned to be ok with fallow periods. Instead, I’m deep in the mode of setting up our LA home life. It’s like the way I cook—I can’t really get down to the business of creating a meal until the kitchen is clean and tidy. So too with songwriting. If all goes according to plan, my 2020 is going to be very busy indeed with touring so now is the window to get my life in order.
I started my day with a phone session with my analyst in New York. I’ve been in analysis for about three years now, and it’s become a vital part of my life as an artist; knowing myself better allows me to express myself more effectively. I’m no stranger to therapy, have zero qualms about openly discussing my mental health, and I am so tremendously fortunate to have access to care. But this is the first time I’ve gone down the proper old-school analysis route, and I find the rigor and discipline of the work truly remarkable. Thanks to investing in myself in this way, I have experienced subtle, yet profound and lasting change in my life, and it’s all there on my most recent record. But I never set out to write a song that is prescriptive or didactic; I don’t believe my agenda is one others need to adopt or adhere to. I do however hope that my songs invite people to be curious about themselves, and the world around them.
I woke up at about three a.m. and could not fall back asleep until after five a.m. I have struggled with sleep all my life, even in childhood. Often, when I wake up like this in the wee hours of the morning, I get these pretty crippling waves of anxiety, and even though I know many of them are irrational, this knowledge doesn’t necessarily lessen their impact. But in the last few years, I have started educating myself on art history…I’ve taken a very, very deep dive into the medieval and early Renaissance periods (and this has totally crept into my songwriting). And at three in the morning when I’m feeling crushed under the weight of worry, I run through lineages of art history in my mind: “Gentile da Fabriano trained Jacopo Bellini, who trained his sons Giovanni and Gentile (named after da Fabriano), who then trained Giorgione, who trained Titian, who (may have) trained El Greco…” I guess you could say it’s my own version of counting sheep. And if I can turn a small light on without waking my husband, I’ll read. My nightstands are littered with art history books, and I find their contents both gratifying and soothing. Disappearing into the past takes the sting out of the present.
I woke late and relished a quiet morning cup of coffee with my mama, as we recounted the night before. Thanksgiving dinner was a triumph…everyone had fun, the food was great, and we played charades until one in the morning. We had a lovely guest-list of musicians and actor/comedians, and the conversation was mighty lively, and also very fucking real. It’s a wonderful thing to be surrounded by fellow creatives who are open and comfortable enough to discuss their own vulnerabilities and struggles. The older I get, the more I come to realize that my understanding of “strength” as walls or boundaries has been complete rubbish; strength is openness, vulnerability, authenticity. And I love that I have fellow musicians I can share these ideas with. Sometimes I think I’ve stayed on this course (music) for as long as I have just so I can continue to hang out with other musicians. And as I get more and more comfortable in my own skin, I’m more and more able to really let my freak flag fly, which absolutely makes me a better musician.