"This past year has been wrought with love and loss with family members passing away and things of that nature," says band mate and songwriter Whitney Dean on the duo's haunting new record Rise & Fall.
Civil Wars comparisons are inevitable. Rise & Fall is a potent collection of narratives with gut-wrenching textures built on a foundation of powerful harmonies and sharp musicianship. Be By Our Side and Hold Me are quintessential pieces of artwork and emotion, harkening to Civil Wars' Poison & Wine or The One That Got Away. Dean and fellow vocalist and tunesmith Cami Bradley don't get too caught up in the frenzy but take the compliments with a smirk. "It just so happens she’s a girl and I’m a boy, and we have similar tones to them," Dean admits, in an exclusive Popdust interview. In fact, The Sweeplings have more in common with the Civil Wars than simple musicality, however. Dean toured with John Paul White on lead guitar and background vocals for two years; the prolific musician's influence can certainly be felt throughout much of the new album (released in August).
"I don’t know if I would say it influenced the album directly, as much as the experience of getting to play and tour with John (and all the other artists I’ve worked with up to that point)," he says. "It was one of those things were you kind of become a chameleon of sorts with music. You take in all these different colors and ideas, and it becomes your own identity after a while. It was certainly an impactful time being with John and getting to see his process and being so closely knight within that network. Our stuff is a meshing of Cami’s perspective on things and mine."
Elsewhere on Rise & Fall, Dean and Bradley float across vast landscapes of dusty tones (Carry Me Home) and shadowy figures (Under Your Spell, What Have We Become). The duo, who continues making music from opposite sides of the country, deliver their sound with self-awareness and grace, ever slightly moving the needle of Americana and folk music. Our interview, in which we also discuss loss over the past few years and how they continue to challenge themselves, contains insightful projections of what music is really all about.
Dig into an in-depth Q&A session below:
You’ve previously talked about the songwriting and how John pushed you forward. How did you continue to do that with this new album ‘Rise & Fall’?
Previous to John, I had very little experience with co-writing and what song crafting was actually like. I was just a high school, then a college, kid playing guitar and singing until I met him. He showed me the ropes of how he crafted songs. That led me to going to Nashville, where I furthered that and worked with different publishing companies. That helped me formulate my view on songs. Once I met Cami, every door was open. She’s infinitely capable of doing anything. As far as my take as a songwriting on input, I was able to say, ‘hey Cami, what do you think of doing this?’ Then, she does it, and it becomes magical. Cami is an extremely talented songwriter on top of it all. The magic she puts into what we do is completely the reason it becomes special. I can write songs and help craft them, but she is the one that takes them further.
Cami, what was your experience like on America’s Got Talent?
Cami Bradley: That experience, honestly, was really eye-opening. I wouldn’t say that before I was on the show I had any desire to become a performer in a bigger way than just in my hometown. Once I got on the show, I really felt like it opened my eyes to the reality of what music could look like on the road and what songwriting could look like in bigger scale and what being in a band really meant. I had my own preconceived ideas what it all meant and what being in the spotlight looked like. It’s definitely not like what was in my head before. The show, of course, was a crazy experience as far as the pressure and the stress and the stress of it all. Beyond that, it really gave me a fervor to pursue music in a different way and in a way that I never thought I was capable of. I’m thankful I took that experience and was able to put it into what we are doing now.
How soon after the show did you two meet?
Dean: It was probably six or seven months, maybe.
What was it about those first meetings that you knew there was something special there?
Dean: Very early on, I knew there was something special with Cami, obviously, before we even met up to write. I had high hopes for anything that we could do, but as soon as we wrote the very first song (which was ‘Across the Sea’)—we sat down and knocked it out and it sounded awesome—and the second song (‘Drop by Drop’), I was like ‘OK, that wasn’t just a one-song fluke. There seems to be some real musical chemistry here.’ We were meant to meet and do music together.
How do you two continue to challenge each other?
Bradley: We’re very different people and even songwriters. We both have really unique perspectives that we bring to the table every time we write and play. I hope that never ends. We are constantly pushing and pulling each other. There’s a tension between who we are as songwriters and who we are as people. That gets pulled into the music. In specifics, when you sit down and you’re writing with somebody, obviously, there needs to be a common ground as far as your ultimate goal. Beyond the goal, to have that push and pull in the music is really helpful. It’s what makes the songs special.
Dean: In that push and pull, it’s really not a tenuous thing where we argue or anything like that. It’s definitely like a ‘why don’t we try this?’ and it pushes us in a different direction we may not have expected. There’s this strange and interesting compromise that happens.
You’ve previously talked about how you created these songs on the album as if the listener is watching a movie. How did you do that?
Dean: My take on songwriting, in general, is for me to be able to really get a song across (lyrically and melodically), I have to have a pretty clear picture of what I’m thinking or writing about. In doing that, Cami and I will talk about a concept. Unfortunately, this past year has been rot with love and loss with family members passing away and things of that nature. That’s a recurring theme for us, and we were really able to dive into those concepts because we were experiencing that in real time in real life. We got to share a lot of stories with each other and grew our friendship and our ability to co-write together. We would talk about a lot of what we were going through, and a lot of that was dealing with loss. We’d paint really clear pictures of it all. For example, what if I lost a loved one and could reconnect with them one more time, what would you say? What would you do? How would that feel? We dive into that as deep as possible, and that becomes songs like ‘Hold Me’ and ‘Carry Me Home.’ We talk about the concepts as if they are movies and write it out from there.
Bradley: We really try to paint a picture for each other, so we are telling the same story. It can come in a couple different ways. We can start by painting that picture for each other through telling the specific story. Sometimes, it’s a real story and sometimes it’s fake. But they all come from something real inside of us. As we get into the song and get going, there are times where we get stuck, like every songwriter does. We, then, we go back to the story, back to the painting and start to tell if further and figure out what more we have to say and what can create that sound you can actually see.
Dean: As far as the melody crafting goes, it’s really easy. It’s almost like a second nature thing. Cami is just musical. We’ll be eating lunch on tour, and she’s humming through the day doing things or singing harmonies to every song that comes on the radio without knowing it. We’ll be playing chords and she’ll just starting singing stuff. Personally, I hear things in my head and those come out. It’s just about getting them out onto paper before they disappear.
Would you say this album is a healer for you both, and why is it that music can have that power?
Bradley: Music is not just a healer, but it’s something people turn to throughout their life of difficulty or grief or sorrow. I’m not sure why music can sink into the depths of you or explain a part of you that you didn’t know you were feeling. It reaches inside you and touches you in a way that not many things can. That’s why music can be the common ground between so many different types of people. Everybody listens and feels and uses music as a source of healing.
Dean: Everybody experiences life and has a need for music in their life. There’s an innate human response to music. Being able to have a subject matter and melodies that pull at your heart and talk about life is something that is universally needed. The whole album wasn’t necessarily healing but extremely satisfying and rewarding.
I read that you collaborated on the album through Facetime, email and voicemail.
Bradley: It was a combination of a lot of things. For a lot of the album, it was sending voice memos. We did a couple Skype writes, which don’t work very well, but we tried. [laughs] And we would send things back and forth through email. Basically, the end to piecing that puzzle together was when we were actually face to face in the same place. We were able to finish those songs and ideas and concepts and really make them into what you hear now on the album. Most of the recording (not all of it) was done in the same room. A lot of things were finished or changed or tweaked from separate sides of the states.
Oh, right. Cami, you are living in Washington and Whitney, you are in Alabama. Do you two ever have the notion of moving to Nashville or New York?
Dean: We’ve mentioned it, but at this point, things are going so well with our lives. Being able to commute and doing what we’re doing now, it really doesn’t make sense for us to uproot and move. As long as possible, we both have a very tight family in our respective areas. We’d like to stay in those areas as long as possible and as long as we can be bless enough to be able to afford plane tickets back and forth to see each other once a month or so. It seems like the best blend.
What were your upbringings like? How early did music hit you?
Bradley: We actually both have a similar story. I grew up doing music in my church. My family is very musical, so I don’t really remember a time that music wasn’t a part of my life. I started singing even before I have memories. I started playing piano around seven years old. Music has been engraved in me. I don’t know what it would be like to not have it. I started doing music in my church when I was probably eight or nine. Then, I kept at it all the way through my growing up years. Then, I started writing songs—they were terrible songs, I’m sure—at like 10 or so. I honed that crafted until now. I would say the last, maybe, nine or 10 years is when I started making an effort toward building songwriting and how to really craft it into something someone would want to listen to. I don’t know what my upbringing would look like without music. It has soaked into everything I’ve ever done, felt and thought.
Dean: To echo Cami, that’s similar to me. My mom was a worship director at a church. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday throughout the week, she was a voice and piano teacher. Side note: my mom and I are too much alike for me to ever take lessons from her. So, I never learned anything. [laughs] I did get to sit down and experience all the other kids coming through every day and learning songs and having a love for music. That transferred over to me. I would go in there and listen to people sing and learn how to play songs. That created an interest in me to learn the piano and guitar and try to write songs somebody could eventually sing. At an early age, I’ve always had an inclination to be like ‘I want to write something. I don’t want to sing or play songs. I want to do something that adds value.’
I ended up going to college for Entertainment Industry Management, which is a mouthful for Music Business. I want to school on the Shoals and continued to grow. I got stuck in this I-gotta-do-music-for-a-living world.
If your album ‘Rise & Fall’ could be the soundtrack to any movie. What would it be and why?
Whitney Dean: I think it could fit with a movie like ‘Vanilla Sky’ or some type of Cameron Crowe production. I feel like he would get us. Some kind of of movie like that with a touch of whimsical, but still very visceral and real, would tickle me.
The Sweeplings' Rise & Fall is now available on iTunes.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Marrow/Glass Jar Photography]