Artist Interview: Sugar and the Hi Lows
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez
Trent and Amy! Trent and Amy! SO MUCH FUN!
That was pretty much my internal monologue as I accepted the call from Amy Stroup and Trent Dabbs, the two incredible singer songwriters who make up the super duo Sugar and the Hi Lows. You’ve heard them all over the place and you’ve probably danced to their jams. They have an intentional throwback sound that conjures up the absolute best of the Stax and Motown years in American music history. But they come to it honestly, preferring to just make good music rather than fulfill some kind of charade. Their authenticity dripped from their lips in what was a superbly entertaining interview.
Both Trent and Amy are singers but they are also powerhouse songwriters. And one of the “things you do” if “you” are an artist in Nashville is meet up with others for co-writes. These sound like my best dream and worst nightmare all at once; sweet I get to meet with an incredible songwriter; oh crap, he/she will discover what a fraud I am. I can’t imagine the stress. But this was the genesis of Sugar and the Hi Lows. As the two wrote music over the years, they eventually morphed a sound that was its own thing; these were not Trent Dabbs songs or Amy Stroup songs, they were Sugar songs. So the duo became a band rooted in the same ambition – to record and write good music.
Their music has a retro style as the duo set out to write music that they’re fans of. In fact, matching the tempo and structural elements of that classic sound proved to be a songwriting challenge that turned into a signature sound for Sugar. So what are those influences? Sam Cooke, Mavis Staples, and Leon Bridges are some of the more obvious ones. Then, intriguingly, Amy mentioned Allison Krauss and Robert Plant’s duo music. Nice curveball. But Amy also said of Mavis Staples, “I like how she just says it.” That kind of lyrical frankness comes through on many of the tracks on Sugar and the Hi Lows High Roller album. These influences go beyond base level inspiration – they permeate the definition of the music and that’s a great thing.
I had to ask about the process of how these incredible songs were created. It wasn’t quite as cut and dry as I imagined. Since both members are prolific songwriters, they’re constantly writing down ideas and phrases. These pieces come together as part of a “fluid conversation” that gets both writing partners excited about a particular idea which they “chase for a few hours.” I can’t imagine how much fun that could be and how infuriating it could be if the chase proves elusive. Trent mentioned that sometimes he’ll sit down and “mess around on the acoustic” while Amy sings lines and melodies over what he’s doing. Then comes the test. Once they have something going, they put it in front of some listeners in a stripped down format; if it can hold energy and convey a feeling in front of a crowd, it’s a good song. I asked Trent about writing the sheet music; it was all he could do not to laugh me out of the phone call. Apparently the whole thing is done on feel. When the “players” join for the album session they get the feel and it all comes together. Wow.
One of the perks of being the guy asking the questions is that I was able to ask specifically about my favorite track off of the album, “Morning Joy.” It was the song that drew me to them in the first place. When I asked, they both laughed. They explained that it was a really simple concept and didn’t take very long to write. The lyrics, by their telling, are not particularly deep. It’s a song about appreciating the every day life and being happy. The inspiring story behind it? The film Stand by Me. It’s ultimately about “watching joy flourish in the day to day – simple love.” I’ll take it, honestly.
Right now Sugar and the Hi Lows are touring with Kacey Musgraves. They’re headed to Europe and will be playing Royal Albert Hall and some other iconic locations. Pretty awesome. But they don’t take this as a vacation. Not only will they be performing these high-energy tracks on a regular basis, they will also take time to write as often as they can. It seems like an insatiable life, that of a songwriter.
And this album, High Roller, is changing the world for Trent and Amy. These two already-successful musicians are seeing a new, rapidly-growing following. The album received critical acclaim from HuffPost and others. They’re seeing the music get featured on TV shows and streaming playlists. If there’s ever been an “emerging act” worth spotlighting, they’re it. Give ‘em a listen and tell your friends.
As for a lasting message they wanted our readers to know, Amy says thank you for reading the interview and listening to the music. They are self-described song lovers writing music they love through this “sugar coloring,” a particular nostalgic way of viewing music and understanding the world. She implores you, dear readers, to continue supporting indie artists.” She described Sugar and the Hi Lows as being “truly indie” and as “just us and our friends.” They are not tied to some large recording machine. They’re just talented musicians and songwriters performing at an exceptional level.
If you like to dance, start with “High Roller,” the title track. There’s no way you can stay still listening to it.